“Betting on cultureto get out of the coronavirus crisis? Rhetoric. Who’s it up to? The State? Private citizens? Men of culture?” Every time I talk with Gian Arturo Ferrari, I have the confirmation that, in life, the authors who really count are only two – three at the most. In his case: Aristotle and Darwin. Because this man who for 30 years lived two parallel lives – as a history of scientific thought professor and publisher, before choosing the latter and becoming the deus ex machinaof Italian publishing – interprets the world with the Organonin one pocket and The Origin of Speciesin the other. A harmonious yet merciless view, incompatible with our nation’s absolving indulgence and ragamuffin carelessness. Listening to this “Italian guy”, quoting his novel (Strega award finalist), from the rationalist terrace Giuseppe Terragni designed is an estranging thing. It’s like being with the high school teachers Ferrari still feels indebted to. A test that, behind any kind smile, conceals a fatal ambush: not being good enough, not even by trying to read Homer in ancient Greek at 50, as in my case. “When I was a student Italian culture was provincial, ideologised. The key thing was knowing what side you were on, which comes from our Fascist legacy”.
A summary of Ferrari’s actions – from his early days with Edoardo Macorini at EST Mondadori, then for a decade as Paolo Boringhieri’s close collaborator, later at the head of Rizzoli and then back to Mondadori where from 1997 to 2009 he held strategic and operational roles – was to dismantle that ideological nature for cultural autonomy. “An idea that in the early 1970s was fiercely criticised, as a manifesto of disengagement. I believed that culture had its own dimension – not determined by politics. I didn’t follow Croce, but that’s how I saw it. So I began importing Anglo-Saxon culture, slowly but maybe surely transforming Italian non-fiction”. But the metamorphosis Ferrari introduced was also based an anti- pedagogical and anti-Gramsci idea that we may call architectonic. “Culture must spread from the bottom up – not trickle down – because its evolution was based on the growth of popular genres. Originally, novels were not high-brow, yet they benefitted a lot from 19th-century phenomena like urbanisation, the role of women, public education”. Thus the choice to abandon the “secret gatherings made up of connections” by promoting freer products, aimed at the middle class, like in America, the exact opposite of that so-called reflective but indolent class who for too long was a reference for the left, where Ferrari came from, too.
“I wanted to make books for people who worked all day, had a family and then spent time reading before going to bed. Folks who wanted intelligent but fun things. For me there’s no hierarchy between genres – quality is made by single individuals, single books. Take spy stories, which were born pulp and then became literary masterpieces with Le Carré”: an anthropological transformation that continues.
“Today the paradigm is that of the festival, embraced heartily but it has created widespread book surrogates. A diva-like figure sums up things then signs copies that won’t ever be read. I’m not sure if this model will survive the ban on physical contact”. Other things have taken place, too, in Italy. And once again Ferrari returns to the papyrologist Adelmo Barigazzi and the logician Ettore Casari, who taught him at the Ghislieri school in Pavia, a few years after Franco Tatò.
Italians don’t study. Reading as a form of escapism in Italy is proportional to other countries in Europe. What’s missing here is useful reading, self-teaching, increasing our human, civil and economic value.
“We have an antiquated vision, which divides life into stages: we study, put it into practice, earn money and retire. But today, without training there’s no work, no growth and no success... I read a book, by Luca Ricolfi, that explains the reasons for the decline of Italian society. These include less studying, starting from the elite. It’s one of the most serious reasons. When I graduated, my diploma had a precise meaning and a real equivalent. In 1968 I criticised that model and I really regretted it, because I believe in public education as vital factors in a country where the merit system must be reinstated.”
The sun is setting and his wife Elena calls. “Why did I write a novel? I wanted to. Crafting words is a pleasure. I’ve always viewed it from the side of the receivers, so I thought about doing it from the side of the creators. My biography is just a filter. I wanted to render the mood and sense of those years, from the end of the war to before the so-called economic miracle. A very ferocious time, like sandpaper. Quite unlike what came after, but similar to today, where we need fortitude. We had it back then, and I hope so today”.