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

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)

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee