Arnon Grunberg
Words Without Borders

The Mail Bag: Arnon Grunberg and Matteo Bianchi

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Dear Arnon, Please forgive me. My email box banned your last email (dated the 10th of July) as "spam," so I just discovered it today. Forgive my computer system for considering you spam, and forgive my absolutely involuntary silence.
Maybe we can finally start our conversation now.
Yours, Matteo

Sunday, August 26

Dear Matteo, Yes, let's restart the conversation.
By the way, where do you live? This is not the restart of our conversation, just a question.
Yrs Arnon

Monday, August 28

I live in Milan. Do you ever pass by? About our conversation, what do you think we should do? Write emails to each other, then publish our conversation? Feel free to start with that famous question: why aren't you a poet? Matteo

Tuesday, August 29

Milan, I'll visit you one day definitely.
The question "Why aren't we poets?" is definitely better than "Who's your favorite poet?"
But if the question is good enough, I have my doubts.
Let's start as simply as possible: do you have a pet? yrs Arnon

Friday, September 1, 2006

Dear Arnon, I don’t have any pets, neither have I ever had one. The only living thing in my apartment is a ficus benjamina plant, and I’m not the one who waters it.
I must admit, I’m not into living things, neither I am a big nature fan.
Andy Warhol once said he loved cities, because if he needed some green he could go to the park. But he hated the countryside, because if he needed something from the city, there was nowhere to go. That’s exactly what I feel.
Nature is okay, but it's not my cup of tea. I mean, watching a sunset is a lovely thing to do, mostly on a beach in the arms of your lover. If only the sun was not so slow.
Anyway, back to animals.
I never had a pet but, oddly enough, my father owned dozens of dogs. Not of the apartment kind. He liked to hunt, so he always had hunting dogs: big, vivacious, restless animals that my mother never allowed inside of our house. My father keep them in a kennel, among the dogs of his hunting friends.
I always felt this was a kind of contradiction. As a family, we actually owned dogs, but they did not live with us. As a child, when my school friends asked me if I had a dog, I didn’t know what to answer.
My only relationship with those animals was to baptize them. My father always asked my advice for names when he bought a puppy. I named one of them Olmo, like Gerard Depardieu’s character in the movie “Novecento” by Bernanrdo Bertolucci, and another one, a female dog, India, like the Asian nation, you may think, but actually no. It's like the character Joanne Woodward played in “Mr. And Mrs. Bridge” by James Ivory. (I’m a movie freak, you see). My father’s friends always found these names odd, compared to Snoopy, Billy and Laika, but he didn’t care about their nasty comments.
On my side, I felt like an illegitimate parent. I gave these dogs their names, and then I almost never saw them again.
There’s one last thing that I can say about the pet issue. A friend of mine told me about these name-generating devices that you can find anywere on the web. That’s one way to find your porn star name. Take the name of the first pet that your family owned--the first one that you can actually remember--then add your mother’s family name. In my case, my porn star name would be Black Vecchi. Which sounds pretty appropriate, like the name of a bad Italo-American actor.
And what about you. Do you have pets? And what would your porn star name be? Yours truly, Matteo BB

Tuesday, September 5

Dear Arnon, Did you get my answer to the pet question? Actually, I read my letter again today and I noticed that I'd written something that could be misunderstood. I said that my father had "dozens of dogs." What I really meant was that he always had a couple of dogs, and when they died, he bought new ones. He had a dozen of dogs over the course of his life, actually. My English is not so good, you see. From the way I put it, it may look like I come from a wealthy familiy, which is not at all my case. My dad was a blue-collar worker and my mum a hairdresser. The idea of dozens of hunting dogs may lead you to think them a royal family.
I definitely need to change that part.
Yours, Matteo

Wednesday, September 13

Matteo, To be honest, I had the feeling that you came from a rather rich family, also the whole hunting-thing made me think that way. And then I thought you named your dog Olmo to upset your father, to show solidarity with the working class, etc., etc.
What do you think of Novecento? I happen to like it a lot, but maybe for an Italian, this movie provokes different emotions and feelings? Speaking about hairdressers and movies, there is a French movie called: Le mari de la coiffeuse. One of my favorite movies. About a man who as a boy already decides to fall in love with his hairdresser.
This is not to suggest that you are in love with your mother, although I know that Italian men in general seem to prefer their mother over other women. At least, that's what I have been told.
We never had a pet. My mother was allergic to all animals. But a long time ago, I decided that my porn star name would be: Yves Boursin.
Yves is my third name, and Boursin, as you probably know, is a French cheese.
Black Vecchi is pretty good. Have you ever thought of publishing under the name of Black Vecchi? Does your mother still work as a hairdresser? Do you think she would like to cut my hair one day? Yours, Arnon

Thursday, September 21

Dear Arnon, I saw Novecento when I was a teenager, so I’m not sure I fully understood it at that time. I probably should see it again now. Anyway, as you can see, some things stuck to my mind, like the name of the characters.
My father was pure working class, so showing solidarity to the working class issues was more a way to flatter than to upset him. I upset him in many other ways, such as refusing to go hunting with him when I was a child, while all the other male children of his friends did. My interests have always been indoors: reading, drawing, watching TV. How could a kid find appealing the idea of waking up early, going into the woods, walking all day in the rain, following a bunch of dogs? That was beyond my imagination.
I saw Le mari de la coiffeuse too and I liked it a lot. I don’t know if my judgment was influenced by having a mother who was a hairdresser, neither if there were subliminal Oedipical connections going on. Anna Galiena, the coiffeuse in the movie, doesn’t resemble my mum in any way, so I doubt it. Also, my mother didn’t work in a shop, but at home. As far as I remember, my house has always been crowded sith women in curlers. More than a French movie, it looked like the set of an Almodovar comedy.
Even though she’s retired, my mum still does haircuts from time to time. She would be delighted to cut your hair, but I won’t tell her that you are a superstar writer. She’d be embarassed. Let’s pretend that you’re just a foreign friend visiting, ok? Speaking of this, are you a superstar writer? I mean, do you get recognized? Do people stop you to ask for an autograph? Also, did you want to be a writer since you were a child, or did you dream of becoming an astronaut like all the other children did? Yrs truly, Matteo BB PS I’m sending out our correspondence so far to Blake at Words Without Borders to see if he wants to start publishing it.

Sunday, October 1

Dear Matteo, It's very good to hear from you again. I decided to come to Milano to see your mother and get a decent hair cut. There's a very nice tea room in the Via Montenapoleone, but maybe it's just appealing to foreigners, because the few times I have been there 25% of the customers were tourists from Asia.
I'll be visiting your mother as an innocent foreigner. You are the only person in the world who thinks that I'm a superstar, so I take it ironically. Well, sometimes, people recognize me in Amsterdam. But travel to the countryside in the Netherlands, and all people know is that I once performed in a commercial for the Dutch phone book. They ask me, "Are you the phone book guy?"
So much for superstars.
You know, I always thought that hunting was something for the upper class. But I should have known better, because I remember that in one of the novels by Bassani, the main character wakes up early and goes hunting, and he is definitely not upper class. At the end of the day, I believe this man kills himself.
My father liked to stay in bed long. It was my mother who woke up early. But here was no hunting in our family, no pets, nothing. Just the children. And the parents. Hunting each other.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be an actor like Chaplin or Buster Keaton. I never wanted to be an astronaut or a pilot.
Are you in love? Yours Arnon




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