Violent intercourse amid clouds of glory: Dina Rabinovitch talks to Roberto Calasso, author of a classically inspired bestseller

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The Independent Culture
ROBERTO CALASSO comes to Britain trailing clouds of glory, which he seems almost conscious of as he sweeps down the deep blue Claridge's steps, arms outstretched, and warmly grasps my hand. This is the man who has just been having a ball in the arms of literary Manhattan, earning a nine-page profile in Tina Brown's New Yorker after his book, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (Jonathan Cape, pounds 19.99), was the surprise Italian bestseller of the season. In the United States, Calasso's book is into its fifth print run after being launched by Joseph Brodsky and Susan Sontag at an all-star evening in March. Over here, the music never stopped as Edna O'Brien drew comparisons at the Hay-on-Wye festival between Calasso's book and Joyce's Ulysses.

No everyday happening, this. Brodsky et al don't trot out the canapes every time Jackie Collins lets rip on lined notepaper. The impression created is irresistible to Americans: leave this book lying around for guaranteed intellectual kudos. But then Calasso's book is not, of course, your standard bestseller replete with sex, shopping, or even Provence.

What it does have is rape. The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is a retelling of the stories of the gods of Greece and their violent intercourse with the humans in their thrall. So perhaps that is what is raising the intelligentsia's frisson? Except that Calasso is not one to make a drama out of a mere ravishing. All 391 pages are related in the same toneless style.

Calasso, also a publisher in his home country, says he doesn't know why Cadmus and Harmony has been so successful. 'In this business one can never be sure what is going to be successful,' he said. 'If you find a publisher who tells you he knows why a certain book has been a success - well, he's probably lying. All I know is that in the States it had many good reviews, and now it is even selling in Canada.

'An important factor with some books is maybe some readers feel in certain books things which concern them. That may be the explanation, because of course this book of mine is not read just by Greek and Latin readers. It was a strange phenomenon - in the first three months after this book was published in Italy, I got hundreds of letters from readers. Very, very nice letters - sometimes from totally obscure parts of Italy that you don't even imagine have a bookshop.'

Calasso describes his book as mythography. 'That means you have a tree of stories in front of you and if you follow certain branches and combine them in a different way, that is mythography. And of course it is metaphysics - because myths fundamentally are a way of knowledge - the knowledge of reality - a way of understanding things you cannot understand by other means.'

To compare Cadmus and Harmony with Ulysses would seem to imply a great deal of original story-telling, or original meaning extracted from the stories, laid over the ancient myths. Critics fell over themselves to say that Cadmus and Harmony was more than just a retelling of Greek mythology. The New Yorker said: 'To call the book a retelling of Greek myth is to fall far short of the mark. It is more a felicitous revival in the most miraculous sense of the word: the re-illumination of traditional material through the inspired power of narration.'

After that, every other review followed suit. My problem with the book, apart from the gruelling style, was that its retelling of myths - dotting all the i's and crossing all the t's so that, for example, when a god acts, Calasso tells us what he might have been thinking - strips the stories of any lingering meaning they might yield.

'Ah, that's exactly what I wanted to mention,' said Calasso. 'Brodsky said one excellent thing in New York when he presented the book. He hit the nail on the head. He said something which was very much in my mind. He said: 'This book is not another way to explain once more the myths, but what has been tried here is for myths to explain reality.'

'The stories explain us,' continued Calasso. 'There is no interpretation of the myths. The fact of thinking, reflecting, stopping a bit on certain points - that's not an invention of mine; that belongs to mythography from the oldest times. My addition was the form - the fact of articulating it in this particular way.'

Which brings us to the style in which the book is written. 'The idea,' said Calasso, 'was to have a single tone going from first to end - the voice not going up or down. Form, you know, is a purpose in itself.'

The 52-year-old Roberto Calasso is a warm man with easy manners. He is well-connected; friends he particularly mentioned included Bruce Chatwin, who was 'a best friend, as soon as we met there was a feeling'; Oliver Sacks and Isaiah Berlin. Oddly, though, for a man of whom Brodsky said 'Calasso is the only man on the Continent with whom conversation is totally rewarding', Calasso did seem a little anxious about what he would have to say to Michael Ignatieff, whose interview was next.

The New Yorker noted his 'overmannered way of smoking Gauloises' - he rolls them around for ages before lighting one. His other sign of preciousness is a pride he takes in writing all the blurbs on the books he publishes - words he labours over on 'an ancient manual typewriter'. He also displayed journalistic nous. On the steps, as he left, he added: 'Your readers may be interested - a little titbit. This week in the Italian parliament, one of the very right-wing accused me of corrupting the children with my book.'

'The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony' will be reviewed next Saturday.

(Photograph omitted)