An Interview with Anna Maria Sciascia

Anna Maria Sciascia, daughter of the great Sicilian writer, Leonardo Sciascia (1921 – 1989) and Maria Andronico, harbours a great many memories of her father, whom she saw write one after another, summer on summer, books that already form part of the History of Literature, such as The Day of the OwlEqual DangerTodo ModoUna storia sempliceThe Mystery of Majorana…  In Sevilla on a pleasure trip, with her husband, Nino Catalano, the figurehead of the Sciascia Foundation, M’Sur caught up with the writer – at that time the author of a book on Pirandello, Il gioco dei padri – to talk about literary matters and also personal ones concerning the maestro from Racalmuto, about his friends and his love for Spain.  And we invited her to speculate on what Sciascia would think of today’s Italy

Anna Maria Sciascia
Anna Maria Sciascia (copyright A. Luque)

What was Sciascia like?  Not the writer, but the family man…

Sciascia the man wasn’t much different from Sciascia the writer.  He was a very simple person, with a very ordered life.  He said that he lived like an employee of the land registry, and I always say that we were daughters of a land registry employee.  Naturally, the atmosphere was different at home.

Was he a man of daily routines, did he have his hours for reading and for writing?

Normally he had an organised life; he wrote in the mornings until eleven, then he took a walk, he had friends that he met up with at midday…  In each locale, my father had, how can I put it, something like a Racalmuto Circle.  In Caltanissetta he had the Sciascia Bookshop, which he visited often; and in Palermo there was the Sellerio Publishing House and the Borgo, the two places that he went to the most.

A Sciascia Bookshop in Caltanissetta?

In Caltanissetta yes, there was a Sciascia Bookshop, but it didn’t belong to my father, rather to Salvatore Sciascia, a very good friend of his.  Let’s say they took their first steps together.  I always say that he isn’t a family member, but it’s as if he was, he’s like an uncle to me.

In your memory, when do you see Sciascia writing, do you remember him engrossed in any book in particular?

Well the book I remember most, because my father talked about it a lot while he was writing it, is the Recitazione della controversia liparitana dedicata ad A. D.  He spoke about it so much, all summer…  Therefore it’s a book that I’m close to as well, also because I like it; I don’t know if you’re aware of it.

Yes, it’s a book that hasn’t been translated into Spanish (trans. note, or English), but luckily, on Salina, I found the only edition that seems to be available today.  It’s something of an oddity amongst his work…

Yes, it’s a book dedicated to Alexander Dubcek, because my father’s situation always equalled his.  It’s a very spiritual book, in which one sees the religious side of my father.  For me, as I said, it’s a very important book.  But The Day of the Owl is also a book that I’m close to.  Each book is linked to a family situation, to a summer holiday.  Moreover, up until the Recenzione, all the previous books had been written in the old house at Noce, not the actual one; it belonged to my father’s aunts and was smaller but also very poetic.  When we were young we always liked to read what we could of such information which formed, after all, little pieces of our real life.  And here, when I’m in Spain, everything I see reminds me of him, Spain is very evocative…

In all the photos of Sciascia he appears with a cigarette.  Did he always have one to hand when he wrote?

Coffee and a cigarette, always.  He interrupted his work in order to get a coffee, which he always reheated.  Such reheated coffee isn’t very good, but he liked it so much.  He had a great ability for writing, he didn’t correct, it was as if he had the whole book written in his head to start with and then he sat down to write.  He never closed the door when writing; in fact we could all enter and bother him because he said nothing.  My small son, when he was in the countryside, always sat next to him to look at him while he wrote, or they used to quarrel over something and then they would make up, and my father would return to his writing.  He never had a problem with us, not once did he say “be quiet, I have to work”.  It was as if he played with the typewriter.

Sciascia was a teacher when younger.  When did you start to study literature?  Did he guide you in your reading or indicate the way?

My father showed me the way, yes.  However, my father’s spiritual heir is my sister, because she shared many interests with him.  My sister Laura has been a teacher of Medieval History.  He gave some different suggestions to me; I was the daughter who received books of woman’s literature, the likes of Madame Bovary, Gli amori of Federico de Roberto, The Betrothed of Alessandro Manzoni, Les miserable of Victor Hugo, books fundamental to one’s formation.  Those that are classics to everyone, like The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal for example.

Oh, in Argentina they have collected together all Sciascia’s writings on Stendhal in one book, entitled, Adorable Stendhal.

Yes, it’s my mother who prepared everything.  Firstly it was published in Italy by Adelphi and she had set about collecting all the things on Stendhal.  Well my mother has always followed everything referring to my father.

Often the family doesn’t read anything of a writer’s output.  But your family is the exception; in fact they have been the first to read his books.  Was it always like this?

Yes, always.  My mother was his first reader, but all of us have also always followed him.  Our reading wasn’t excessively critical; we felt an adoration towards him.  And well, my mother normally corrected the small errors that he might have in a book.

Was the notion of Spain present in your house?

For my father, Spain was love.

Sciascia is always spoken about as a writer very attached to France, obviously; but apart from the book, Ore di Spagna, little is known of his closeness to Spain.  Do you remember him ever speaking about Spain, any music, any books, any images…?

He didn’t listen to music much but there were some operas he loved, particularly La Traviatta and Carmen.  Often, when he shaved, he would sing arias from these operas.

Leonardo Sciascia
Leonardo Sciascia (Public Domain)

Sciascia recounted that he had tried to speak with people who had lived through the Spanish Civil War, and that it was odd that nobody wanted to talk about it.  Was it different in Italy; in your country was it easy for people to speak of the war?

When we came to Spain, we were young; we arrived in Barcelona.  And my father had wanted to go to the Hotel Colón because André Malraux had described a battle there during the Civil War and he wanted to see what Malraux had seen, from the place he recounted it all.  The war had always been in my father’s thoughts, as he used to say, it was “mythical”.  Come every midday, for a long time, he used to listen to the Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias.  I was a girl in those days and I have to say it was very sad to hear it.  We listened to it on a record, read by an Italian actor.

And what did the Spanish Civil war mean to him?

The moment in which an evident division had existed between Good and Bad, the moment in which the division between Good and Bad had been clear.  He had become aware of many things.  It’s what he said in Le parrocchie.  The young dad that I remember is the dad of Salt in the Wound (Le parrocchie di Regalpetra), when the Spanish Civil War was talked about.  They were true words, heartfelt, and he transmitted them to me as such.

In another conversation, you told me of the story entitled, ‘Antimony’, it was Sciascia’s favourite?

Yes, I remember when I read it; it left a tremendous impression on me.  It seemed as if my father had lived the experience first-hand.  And when I asked my mother, she said to me that, indeed, the story had been told to him by someone who had returned from working in Spain, my godfather from Racalmuto.  I also remember that one of the translators of my father’s books in Slovenia had made his wife read the story while he translated it, and when my father subsequently travelled to the country, the woman was expecting my father to have one hand, like the protagonist… Even I, his daughter, had the impression when I read it that he had lived it.  The story is a nice one.

He also spoke of Don Quixote…  He tried to translate the first chapter with a dictionary, but it wasn’t possible.  In any case, he read the work more than once.  Did he talk to you at home about Cervantes; what did he say about him?

Yes, he always spoke about the book; it was a major work for him.

Did he possibly get to visit La Mancha?

I don’t know.  I know that on one of the occasions he travelled with my mother, they came to Spain.  It was an organized trip, on a coach, back in the fifties.  And they visited many places, but I don’t know specifically if La Mancha was one of them.

Who were Sciascia’s Spanish friends?

Jorge Guillén and also Rafael Alberti, who lived in Rome and features in a precious photo of my father’s, a work by Ferdinando Scianna, I think.  They shared the same ideas.  And he maintained a copious correspondence with Guillén, but I haven’t read any of these letters.  I think they are in the Foundation in Racalmuto, because all of my father’s letters are now there.

And other Spanish friends?

Well a Spanish poet who was a priest, Gonzalo Álvarez García, who, with time, became almost as Italian as us.  At first he and my father exchanged many letters.  I remember when this young Spanish priest arrived in Racalmuto he fascinated me, because in Italy the priests dressed as priests and, on the contrary, he didn’t, but turned up in shirt and trousers and with a cross.  There was a great friendship between them, we loved him a great deal but with time the friendship finished because he wrote a book basically against my father.  A book which was published in Italian (Ho parlato male di Garibaldi: Una critica a Leonardo Sciascia). When the priest left the religious life; my father really helped him to find a job in Italy, and also helped him a lot economically.  And then, well I don’t know, with time the friendship was broken.  Gratitude can end up being such a weight in life…

What did the book say?

The book he wrote was very unpleasant; he converted my father’s generosity into something else.  The argument he defended in the book was that my father didn’t value him as much after he had left the priesthood as he had done before.  Everything turned on this reflection.  It was strange because, according to him, my father had grown up with very religious aunts, and this wasn’t so, given my father’s aunts were totally secular and never even went to church.

When he arrived in Spain on a visit to Semana Santa in Seville, he spoke of the difference between the austere Sicilian festival and the sumptuous one in Spain.  What was his faith like, was it a mystical religiosity, intimate…?

He was secular.

What was God to him?

This is a very difficult question to answer.  He always said, like Georges Bernanos who he always quoted, that one couldn’t always be a believer.  He said, “At that time in that moment I had believed blindly in God”.

And did he give you and your sister a religious education: baptism, communion etc.?

Yes, yes.  First communion, yes.  With all these religious things my father wanted us to be a normal family, and in fact I have also followed this line with my children.  My oldest son, Fabrizio, took first communion in Racalmuto because the priest was a friend of ours and he didn’t prepare such long and weighty celebrations for us.  He took first communion and my father accompanied him when he went to confess.  I remember when Fabrizio was small, my father was surprised that he didn’t know the Lord’s Prayer.

Sciascia is a man who lived through an Italy of hard times, that knew fascism.  I wonder how he managed to have this democratic and open sensibility, coming from an Italy so dark and shady…

Well thanks to reading.  He always sought out books that could light the way.  I don’t know how but in an instinctive way he knew how to choose the appropriate things.  I think he had a natural talent, an intuition.

He had a very critical gaze.  He never accepted anything before questioning himself about it, thinking twice about things.

He was a person who approached and saw the realities of the day in a very clear way.  He was also like it as an adolescent.  My father’s sister remembered that when she went to take the exam known as the concorso magistrale, she asked my father, “Leonardo, what subject do you think they’ll include?” and he predicted the content because he was very aware of the reality around him.  Later, when it was my turn, my father was wrong in his prediction (laughter).

What was his major flaw, what made him human in the face of that almost divine character he possessed for those of us who admire him?

Not seeing the bad in others. And this is definitely something marvellous, but it made him fragile.  My father, until he was shown otherwise, didn’t judge anyone badly.

When he got involved in politics as a member of parliament for the Communist Party, did it change family life?

When he stood for the Communist Party no.  It was an experience that perhaps served him well in seeing things as they were.  He said in an interview: “On arriving in Parliament I realised that the power isn’t there, but elsewhere”.  He wanted to live the experience and when he stood for the second time with the radicals, my sister and I were very upset; in fact we didn’t vote for him.  We didn’t want him to do any more politics, because firstly, when he stood for the communists and left them, all the discussions and criticism had wound him up badly, and later on he was attacked by the communist press.

The days of the Aldo Moro murder must have been hard.  How do you remember them?

I was living with my father, because he was working in Catania, and so my eldest son and I lived with my parents.  It was a very dramatic affair and all the family felt the events closely.  My father, when he wrote The Moro Affair, was very wrapped up in the facts. After the death of Moro, his daughter came to see us, Maria Fida, and told us about her son and the relationship Aldo Moro had with his grandson Luca.  And my father felt very close to the figure of Moro the grandfather, because at that time, as I said, I was living with my parents and my son Fabrizio was also at home.  Although he had no sympathy with the politician Moro, he certainly had sympathy from a human point of view.  We also all closely followed the Moro story in the press.  To me, the days of the Moro assassination were unforgettable.  And when, two or three years ago, a film about Moro and everything that happened was released, we went to see it at the cinema, but I had to leave the auditorium.  I felt really bad.  I had lived it as if it were a family history.

Was The Moro Affair one of the most difficult books to write for Sciascia?

Yes, perhaps it was, because he was very close to the book.  In any case, my father’s books always provoked controversy.  Perhaps the one on Moro even more so, because it was dealing with a person who had died so recently in such dramatic circumstances.

Thinking about some of the Italian friends of Sciascia: Vincenzo Consolo, for example, who was a friend of his and visited his house – what memories do you have of him?

I remember the first time he came to Caltanisetta, I think because my father had voted for him in a literary prize and he had come to get to know him.  We had just got home from Yugoslavia when this young, shy writer appeared at the house.  My father had invited him for lunch and he endeared himself to us through his timidity and defencelessness.  He had to return home and we soon understood what he was like.  Consolo was the type of person who would say “I’ll come back tomorrow” when with us, but never did.  In fact he stayed in Caltanissetta for four or five days and they thought he’d disappeared back at home. (Laughter)

And Lucio Piccolo?

He knew Piccolo thanks to Consolo.  The two were good friends and one day Consolo asked my father if he’d like to get to know Lucio Piccolo, and we went to Capo d’Orlando to see him.  I remember that it was a very dark house, it was very hot, there was a tremendous silence, and he was in this dark room…  All very odd.

Talking of Piccolo…  Some writers have said that Sciascia’s Council of Egypt was the anti-Leopard.  Was Sciascia as opposed to Lampedusa as many have assured?

I believe he thought there was already this book, written before in such a style, The Viceroys by Federico de Roberto, but that it was a pleasant read.  He didn’t hate Lampedusa at all; the truth is my father never hated anyone.

Geraldo Bufalino…

His friendship with Bufalino was stronger because both of them discovered that they had much in common.  They lived in different Sicilian towns, but when young they did the same things and realised they had many things in common.  He often came to the house, seemingly giving classes when he spoke, so much so that my children paid a great deal of attention when he visited us.

Yes, I have seen him in a documentary and he seemed to have something hypnotic about him.

Yes, Bufalino spoke very well.  When my father died, my children were small and it was a trauma for them not to have their grandfather around anymore, not to be able to talk to him anymore.  Then they used to call Bufalino on the phone.  At home we had the habit of often discussing literary matters, because my oldest son, Fabrizio, said that the best writer in the world was Poe and, to the contrary, Vito said it was Stevenson.  And two days before my father’s death, when already in a bad way, Vito kept asking him: “Grandad, who is better Stevenson or Poe?”

Italo Calvino was also a good friend of his?

Yes, but their friendship was more through correspondence, by letters.  When I was young, my father spoke to me more about Pasolini, of his letters, perhaps the friendship was greater with Pasolini.

In one of his pieces of writing, Sciascia said that he went to see the last of Pasolini’s films and that its impression was a tough one.  He said it with sadness, with pain.

He said it with pain.  In effect, he said that he hadn’t been able to watch the film.  And then when Pasolini died he said that after the film he couldn’t have done anything else but die.  The death of Pasolini was very painful for my father, he cried a lot for him.

The death of Bufalino, very different, was also tragic.

Bufalino died when my father was already dead, but it was very hard for the family, because above all my children were very close to him.  When such a beloved person is gone, like my father was to us…  When my father died, I had an enormous sense of loss.  I couldn’t understand it.  I was the least literary or the least interested in literature in the family, my mother and sister were more conversant with the literary world; but for me listening to my father was like becoming aware of all that I didn’t understand.  It was enough to just listen for five minutes to what he was saying…  I could have made critiques of writers I didn’t even know and had never read.  My father gave me a feeling of richness, I would ask him something and immediately he would give me an explanation in just a few words.

For example?

As a young woman, when I turned up to a concorso magistrale, I took a book by an American, but didn’t understand that well a few sections of the book.  The girl I was studying with had a brother who was a philosopher and we discussed it with him, yet when he explained it I understood even less. Afterwards I turned to my father and he clarified it all in two words. This was very important for me, to have him there, and the same happened with my children: I liked the idea of having their grandfather close so he could explain to them succinctly what they didn’t understand, a difficult situation, or literature, philosophy, history.  Everything was at hand with him.

Speaking of cinema, did he like the films they made of his books?

No, he viewed them from a distance, as something different from the books.  He saw them all; he was up to date with all that was made. Perhaps the ones he liked the most were by Francesco Rosi.  But he wasn’t bothered if he realised they were different from the book.  It wasn’t the same with the theatre, however.  I don’t remember what work it was, maybe The Council of Egypt or La controversia, when he saw it he left the theatre upset because it had absolutely nothing to do with the book he had written. And not forgetting as a young man he had taken a turn at being stage manager in the Racalmuto theatre.

What was the relationship like between Sciascia and Renato Guttuso, the great communist painter?  It was a political but also an artistic relationship, wasn’t it?

It was an artistic relationship.  My father loved the art.  He also liked Emilio Greco a lot, the sculptor from Catania.  All the artists were my father’s friends, for example Mino Maccari, Giorgio De Chirico… my father loved art in all its expressions.  When I was small, in Racalmuto, I remember that he commissioned some drawings and bought them.

And how was Guttuso with you all?

He was very affectionate.  Someone who was always open for anything, nice.

I think there was an ideological moment when Guttuso had something of a disagreement with him.

Yes, in the end they had a dispute about a topic from a parliamentary question, it was by Enrico Berlinguer.  And they never got around to making their peace.  It was a big upset.  My father quoted Berlinguer in Parliament in order to clarify matters, and Berlinguer denied it all.  Then my father came to support Guttuso and he declared support for Berlinguer.  What’s more, later on Guttuso made a statement to a television programme in which he said that my father had asked him to pledge his support because he had a mafioso mentality, a terrible thing (laughter).  But my father was very upset at the death of Guttuso, and if anyone spoke badly of Guttuso it bothered him a lot.  Because, regarding friendships, my father was very intense.  A book is about to come out in Italy detailing the correspondence between my father and the Calabrese writer, Mario La Cava, and in it one can manifestly see the way that friendship was somewhat sacred to him.

Once, when I interviewed Consolo, I asked him why they never threatened Sciascia as they have actually done with, for example, the writer Roberto Saviano.  And he told me that in Sciascia’s time the lawyers didn’t read novels and today they do.  Do you think that this answer is right, do you agree with the reasoning?

I think that the literature created by Roberto Saviano is very different to my father’s.  The characters from my father’s works are not easily identifiable; it’s more literature than anything else, in my opinion.  Whereas Saviano’s literature is one of accusation, raw, he indicates who the capo of the mafia is from here or there, so people can hear themselves named in his works.

Sciascia knew that the mafioso, as a literary character, could end up being even stronger than if one mentioned the name of anyone concrete.

Yes, furthermore it was a different time, in those days one could deny the existence of the mafia.  The other day I was looking through the letters he had written to Calvino when The Day of the Owl was about to come out, letters obtained by Paolo Squillacioti who worked on them to now publish three volumes with Adelphi about my father’s work, after which he sent them to me and my sister.  And I see my father, I don’t know with what purpose, talking about the review in L’Unità, he says “my arms drop”… It was another world where one pretended, there was silence.  In 1963 The Day of the Owl was presented for the first time in Catania’s theatre, a moment of great emotion for us all, when the political circle went on stage there was a great silence, people lowered their voices.  The world has changed a lot.

When Sciascia writes L’onorevole and speaks of political corruption, he maintains that Sancho Panza, from Don Quixote, was the perfect political model.  Because he leaves politics taking the same money he arrived with.  I wonder what Sciascia would think of the new politics that arrived in the eighties: Berlusconi, the corruption…

Perhaps shame, but he would have been resigned and would have said: “It’s like that, there’s nothing to be done”.

I believe Sciascia and Jorge Luis Borges only saw each other once, in Rome; however, there’s a very intense piece of Sciascia’s about Borges.  Do you remember anything especially that your father liked about this Argentinian writer?

Yes, I think that he liked all of Borges’ literature.  After that meeting, however, what captured him most was that Borges had seen Waterloo as a victory, whereas for him it was a defeat.  This I think broke him up a little (laughter), because my father had a soft spot for Napoleon.

I think Sciascia found in Borges an ironic, fine, very intelligent humour.  Do you remember what they spoke of when they met in Rome?

No, I don’t remember, but in the magazine L’Espresso there was a published interview, I recommend you look out for it.

Right now, what’s the actual position of Sciascia?  I believe he’s a classic of Italian literature but, what about Italian life; is he present or is he marginalized?

I think that many want to ignore him.  Images of Aldo Moro have been broadcast often and Sciascia’s book is never spoken about.  They still don’t speak about it today.  He was an awkward man to many, dangerous, he wasn’t to be spoken about.  Now he’s to be ignored or maybe they want the things he said to be re-explained.  And that’s not in good taste for my family.  Because a family that wants to correct a great writer’s things, even when he’s a family member, is pathetic.  The family can’t say a great deal.  Who would be able to, it doesn’t, and for me, in light of the period we are living through in Italy, this isn’t understood.  There are no competent voices raised to put things in their place.  Yes, there’s Saviano, but he’s a particular case; he doesn’t, for example, do what my father did when he clarified the national situation in an article.  With everything that’s happening in Italy a strong voice would be needed.  A figure who challenges what happens there.

(Nino Catalano intervenes) Sciascia squared accounts with the Catholic world, with Fascism, with science, with all those grand themes.  In style, he wasn’t so much a chronicler, he spoke about all the scarcities, the disillusions.  Today is different; there is no one who deals with these themes.  He participated in the Moro Commission, he wanted to give his opinion, he was active in politics…

Sciascia Statue
The Sciascia Statue, Racalmuto

The relationship between Sciascia and his island, Sicily, is a relationship of love, but of a very critical, demanding love.  Neither with you, nor without you.  How is this seen on the island?

When my father died, I felt as if the people were involved.  In many papers they even published: “Sicily is left poorer”.  Therefore I think my father is much loved in general, although there were moments when they wanted him to be forgotten.  I have often said  to my husband and children: since a child I have been certain of having had a special Dad and I’m also sure that my father will always have a place.  And the criticisms don’t affect me, they’re like the pin prick of a mosquito, they do nothing.  Certainly, I don’t like it when I read certain things or when I see him isolated from something, but I don’t think badly of the people who write these things; I think “poor souls”, because one can never be kept from him.  There was a professor who had omitted my father from a book on Italian literature, and I sincerely thought that’s a part of this professor’s world, but not my father’s.

Did Camilleri and Sciascia know each other?

Yes they did.  Camilleri made a film of one of my father’s stories for Italian television: ‘Mafia western’, and he made it very well, my father liked it a lot.  They knew each other, they valued each other, but it wasn’t a friendship like he had with Consolo.

Is Sciascia an Italian best seller?

For me yes.  His books are bought; they are always asked for and have been translated into so many languages.  I was always convinced that it would be like this, since I was born.  A fascinating writer but also a fascinating man.  I’m not saying that because I’m his daughter, but all who knew him also say it.  He was the same through 360 degrees.  He wasn’t one way sometimes and another on other occasions; he was always the same.

How would you invite the Spanish readers who still haven’t read him to approach Sciascia?

Those who don’t know Sciascia will be able to find love and a really strong affinity in his books.  I remember in the sixties we went on holiday to Paris to the house of Dominique Fernández, who had left us the keys to his apartment and also the services of his cleaning lady, a Spanish girl.  And my father always wanted the girl to sit with us and tells us all about Spain.  Spain was emotion to my father.

This interview first appeared in M’Sur – to read the original click here:

The interviewer, Alejandro Luque, is the author of a compilation of short stories set in Sicily, The Sicilian Defence.  Diana Donovan in The Midwest Book Review called it ‘a magnificently crafted series of vignettes exposing the underbelly of choice and its consequences’.  Click the cover to view on Amazon.

The Sicilian Defence

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Alejandro Luque
Alejandro Luque
Alejandro is a journalist who writes for the Culture section of the Spanish newspaper, El Correo de Andalucía. He is also part of the team behind the website Mediterraneo Sur. He has had two books with Sicilian themes published: the collection of short stories, La defensa siciliana and his travelogue in the footsteps of Jorge Luis Borges, Viaje a la Sicilia con un guía ciego – The Sicilian Defence is now available in English translation; the Journey is awaiting publication.

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