The democracy of numbers

Face to face with Chiara Valerio, of the present and the future
by Fabio Marzari

The ‘mathematical’ literature of one of the most brilliant minds on the cultural scene, linked to Venice.

Chiara Valerio heads the Italian fiction department at Marsilio, a Venice-based publisher, as well as an author herself, translator, and radio host, among other ventures. Valerio is a mathematics PhD and likes to explain how “mathematics trained me towards revolution, because they taught me to distrust absolute truths and unquestionable authorities. Democracy and maths, in a way, are similar: like all creative processes, they won’t tolerate to never change.”

A word on the current state of affairs in the public intellectual debate
I believe it all begins and ends with having or not having, cultivating or not cultivating, any curiosity towards what the other has to say. Which is to say, with admitting or not admitting that the other exists in a way that we cannot fully reduce to the idea we ourselves have of them. This applies to the very nature of the human being, certainly, though also to culture, which is more solid than any moral, for better or worse.

Your latest novel, Così per sempre, is a story set in Rome and Venice that sees Count Dracula leave Transylvania in the late 1800s to settle in the west. How did this story originate?
It’s a long story, from back when I was in college. I set on the title early on: Così per sempre (lit. ‘this way forever’). I wanted to write a love story as well as a story of twentieth-century science, which has been extraordinary. I wanted my vampire to say that there is no such thing as ‘pure blood’, and that purity of blood engenders, and has always engendered, horrible things. It is much better to side with the monster and the mixed than to design purity, and of that purity, to die and make others die. Venice, in its architecture and in the people that live and have lived in it, are a praise of syncretism and amalgamation. I had this story in my mind for a long time, all I needed to do was come to Venice, and grow a bit older

On Reading
Read all the classics you can think of, and all debutants you can get your hands on. Read what scientists write, because they are used to deal with catastrophes both inside and outside themselves – much like others – and to measure them. Peruse what artists do, because not everything can be put down in words. There are some things that we can only understand through staging and art.

The role of mathematics
There’s no difference between grammars. I have been asked about maths all my life and given serious thought about it. I once had a professor tell me mathematics aren’t a language, because there is no intention to say anything behind it. I understand what he meant, but I don’t agree with him.

I live Venice as Venetians do. I walk a lot, I stop to talk a lot, and I have the occasional glass of wine. I start my day with a walk, all the way down to Punta della Dogana, then walk on to my office, and I walk more after that. The Gospel speaks of walking on water, in Venice, we do other things, too. I believe this city is a great place to live in, and I readily fell in love with it. Its future is in the cultural industry: exhibitions, publishing, bookshops. Its memories, which is to say its imagination, is all about trade, transit, mediation, amalgamation – all things that are related with the cultural industry.

Paolo Cognetti, Elena Ferrante… cinema as a novelist’s next big thing
I wrote for Nanni Moretti and Gianni Amelio, and worked with other film productions. Lucky Red recently bought adaptation rights for Così per sempre. I would love to be a Billy Wilder. Yet, I think books have something unique about them, which is something deeper than identification, and is probably the possible misunderstanding of identification.

What would Chiara Valerio take with her on a desert island?
Mozart’s Requiem in Sergiu Celibidache’s version, a copy of Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West, and Fantozzi movies. Ask me tomorrow, you’ll probably get a different answer.