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Interviews

The City and the Writer: In Rome with Claudia Durastanti

Claudia Durastanti talks with Nathalie Handal about mazes, authenticity, and passion in Rome.
Portrait of author Claudia Durasanti
Photo: Civitella Ranieri Foundation

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Rome as you feel/see it?

I’ve lived in Rome during several intervals in my life. This is my first time by the Tiber, and the river is sucking in all my impressions of the city. Compared to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Rome is the Magic Swamp. Mesozoically green, enchanted, and impossibly low sometimes. I find Rome’s conventional beauty quite choking. It must sound strange to describe it as a green city since Rome is not known for parks and trees, but that’s what I visualize when I take long walks: long green vines growing alongside my steps.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

One night in my early twenties, I walked around the Termini train station for hours with a guitar that I bought as a gift for someone, but we had a massive fight in the streets. My legs were weaker and weaker and I felt feverish among all the creatures of the night that wanted to share stories or yell at me or just spend some time together outside the station. I remember having a conversation about turtles with a beautiful red-haired woman passing by. I fell asleep on a bench on Via Nazionale hugging the guitar, then as the sun rose I took the train and went by the sea in Ostia to give it to the boy I loved. It was a beautiful morning sunrise, that’s how it felt on that trenino. I was heartbroken, young, and melting.  


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

I think a lot of people forget or ignore how easy it is to get lost in this place. Of all the cities I’ve lived in, Rome is the one that keeps changing its streets and corners. It must be an effect of the light, but Rome can be a maze . . . there’s always a way out of it, but you can use multiple strategies, and it’s hard to replicate them. Rome to me is differently eternal. Or only eternal in the most ironic sense.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

I’d recommend Remoria. La città invertita by Valerio Mattioli, a speculative essay on the underside of Rome; Come una storia d’amore by Nadia Terranova, a collection of short stories in which love and Rome are haunting experiences; and L’ultima estate in città by Gianfranco Calligarich, first discovered by Natalia Ginzburg, a feel-good, debauched gem. And a classic: Il contagio by Walter Siti. On the nonfiction side, Stefano Ciavatta writes very interesting chronicles that keep the city meaningful, not just a throwback joke.


Is there a place here you return to often?

I’m quite fond of a street called Via Giovanni Castel Bolognese, not far from where I live. It has a small, old-school grocery store with a sign that reads “latteria,” a quirky (and unreasonably pretty) carabinieri station in front of it, and these beautiful, tall, faded pink and orange buildings that look like a fake postcard or a deserted film set. I like how it captures the essence of what tourists might think of the city in a short range of space—there’s an interplay between artifice and authenticity that makes me feel at ease.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I would say Via Giulia, where Ingeborg Bachmann lived her final days. There’s a beautiful interview called “Cause di morte” [Causes of death] that Grazia Livi held with Bachmann at three different points between 1971 and 1973 that happens there. It’s a remarkable, free-flowing text that does justice to the author in her last home. I think about both of them when I walk by.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Maybe it’s because Rome is not particularly interested in building new spaces (outside of residential real estate) that I found myself attracted by construction sites. I remember that when they started dismantling the Tiburtina station, it looked like a giant whale or spaceship in those intermediate stages of existence. It was a beautiful sight at night. Then it became just a station . . . In general, I love when I get glimpse of American cities in Rome. I passed by a fuel pump near l’Alberone lately, a small, one-man station with a huge red star on a white canvas, a very unusual and laconic symbol. It’s not that I missed Texas: somehow, I was in Texas.


Where does passion live here?

One of my favorite people in Rome is my beautician—we ended up becoming friends. She was born and raised between Testaccio and Trastevere in a middle-class Jewish family, and in a way she was royalty from Roma Sud. And then she decided to get away from home, to explore a different South, between Magliana and Trullo, nearby areas with a reputation for low-intensity crime, sleazy joints, big hearts all around. She felt she belonged there, and I hardly ever hear about people relocating in this city: it was almost like a vision for this girl, this wild kid. I don’t feel passion lives in a specific place in Rome, but I think passion erupts from people like her, who make moves and know how to see the city within the city.


What is the title of one of your works about Rome and what inspired it exactly?

I wrote a book called Cleopatra Goes to Prison that was a broken letter to Rome. (I only write about places when I no longer live there.) I was based in London at that time, and every time I visited friends and family, the city felt more and more tropical, seedy, with this beautiful, sickly light. How could I make sense of this different perception, now that I was a complete stranger? I wanted a flaneuse character, Caterina—who wanted to be a ballet dancer and ended up a makeup artist in a strip club—to take longs walks in Roma Est, and she led me into this transitional environment. Something like: “After the student housing, after the pizza shops, after the bars that aspire to elegance but really can’t make it, after the kindergartens and families in the parallel roads, after the banks and the occasional robberies, after the sparse bus stops, after the blackened brick steps and prefab houses, after all of this there is the prison, and Rome becomes a parenthetical between offices for rent and parking lots, a sweater unraveling until it’s just a ball of incoherent and dirty wool. That’s where I live. And that’s where one day I will disappear.”

 
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Rome does an outside exist?”

Rome exists only on the outside.


Claudia Durastanti
is the author of four critically acclaimed novels. She writes for several literary supplements and is on the board of the Turin Book Fair. She is the Italian translator of Elizabeth Hardwick, Joshua Cohen, and Ocean Vuong. Her novel Strangers I Know was a finalist for the Premio Strega in 2019 and has been translated into twenty-five languages (including into English by Elizabeth Harris). Another novel, Cleopatra Goes to Prison, was translated into English by Christine Donougher. Durastanti currently lives in Rome.


Copyright © 2023 by Claudia Durastanti. All rights reserved.

English

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Rome as you feel/see it?

I’ve lived in Rome during several intervals in my life. This is my first time by the Tiber, and the river is sucking in all my impressions of the city. Compared to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Rome is the Magic Swamp. Mesozoically green, enchanted, and impossibly low sometimes. I find Rome’s conventional beauty quite choking. It must sound strange to describe it as a green city since Rome is not known for parks and trees, but that’s what I visualize when I take long walks: long green vines growing alongside my steps.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

One night in my early twenties, I walked around the Termini train station for hours with a guitar that I bought as a gift for someone, but we had a massive fight in the streets. My legs were weaker and weaker and I felt feverish among all the creatures of the night that wanted to share stories or yell at me or just spend some time together outside the station. I remember having a conversation about turtles with a beautiful red-haired woman passing by. I fell asleep on a bench on Via Nazionale hugging the guitar, then as the sun rose I took the train and went by the sea in Ostia to give it to the boy I loved. It was a beautiful morning sunrise, that’s how it felt on that trenino. I was heartbroken, young, and melting.  


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

I think a lot of people forget or ignore how easy it is to get lost in this place. Of all the cities I’ve lived in, Rome is the one that keeps changing its streets and corners. It must be an effect of the light, but Rome can be a maze . . . there’s always a way out of it, but you can use multiple strategies, and it’s hard to replicate them. Rome to me is differently eternal. Or only eternal in the most ironic sense.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

I’d recommend Remoria. La città invertita by Valerio Mattioli, a speculative essay on the underside of Rome; Come una storia d’amore by Nadia Terranova, a collection of short stories in which love and Rome are haunting experiences; and L’ultima estate in città by Gianfranco Calligarich, first discovered by Natalia Ginzburg, a feel-good, debauched gem. And a classic: Il contagio by Walter Siti. On the nonfiction side, Stefano Ciavatta writes very interesting chronicles that keep the city meaningful, not just a throwback joke.


Is there a place here you return to often?

I’m quite fond of a street called Via Giovanni Castel Bolognese, not far from where I live. It has a small, old-school grocery store with a sign that reads “latteria,” a quirky (and unreasonably pretty) carabinieri station in front of it, and these beautiful, tall, faded pink and orange buildings that look like a fake postcard or a deserted film set. I like how it captures the essence of what tourists might think of the city in a short range of space—there’s an interplay between artifice and authenticity that makes me feel at ease.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I would say Via Giulia, where Ingeborg Bachmann lived her final days. There’s a beautiful interview called “Cause di morte” [Causes of death] that Grazia Livi held with Bachmann at three different points between 1971 and 1973 that happens there. It’s a remarkable, free-flowing text that does justice to the author in her last home. I think about both of them when I walk by.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Maybe it’s because Rome is not particularly interested in building new spaces (outside of residential real estate) that I found myself attracted by construction sites. I remember that when they started dismantling the Tiburtina station, it looked like a giant whale or spaceship in those intermediate stages of existence. It was a beautiful sight at night. Then it became just a station . . . In general, I love when I get glimpse of American cities in Rome. I passed by a fuel pump near l’Alberone lately, a small, one-man station with a huge red star on a white canvas, a very unusual and laconic symbol. It’s not that I missed Texas: somehow, I was in Texas.


Where does passion live here?

One of my favorite people in Rome is my beautician—we ended up becoming friends. She was born and raised between Testaccio and Trastevere in a middle-class Jewish family, and in a way she was royalty from Roma Sud. And then she decided to get away from home, to explore a different South, between Magliana and Trullo, nearby areas with a reputation for low-intensity crime, sleazy joints, big hearts all around. She felt she belonged there, and I hardly ever hear about people relocating in this city: it was almost like a vision for this girl, this wild kid. I don’t feel passion lives in a specific place in Rome, but I think passion erupts from people like her, who make moves and know how to see the city within the city.


What is the title of one of your works about Rome and what inspired it exactly?

I wrote a book called Cleopatra Goes to Prison that was a broken letter to Rome. (I only write about places when I no longer live there.) I was based in London at that time, and every time I visited friends and family, the city felt more and more tropical, seedy, with this beautiful, sickly light. How could I make sense of this different perception, now that I was a complete stranger? I wanted a flaneuse character, Caterina—who wanted to be a ballet dancer and ended up a makeup artist in a strip club—to take longs walks in Roma Est, and she led me into this transitional environment. Something like: “After the student housing, after the pizza shops, after the bars that aspire to elegance but really can’t make it, after the kindergartens and families in the parallel roads, after the banks and the occasional robberies, after the sparse bus stops, after the blackened brick steps and prefab houses, after all of this there is the prison, and Rome becomes a parenthetical between offices for rent and parking lots, a sweater unraveling until it’s just a ball of incoherent and dirty wool. That’s where I live. And that’s where one day I will disappear.”

 
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Rome does an outside exist?”

Rome exists only on the outside.


Claudia Durastanti
is the author of four critically acclaimed novels. She writes for several literary supplements and is on the board of the Turin Book Fair. She is the Italian translator of Elizabeth Hardwick, Joshua Cohen, and Ocean Vuong. Her novel Strangers I Know was a finalist for the Premio Strega in 2019 and has been translated into twenty-five languages (including into English by Elizabeth Harris). Another novel, Cleopatra Goes to Prison, was translated into English by Christine Donougher. Durastanti currently lives in Rome.


Copyright © 2023 by Claudia Durastanti. All rights reserved.

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