Italy, my love. Interview with Emmanuel Guibert

Emmanuel Guibert, Italia

Rome, Piazza Farnese

by Paolo Mattei

Someone recently recommended a book to Emmanuel Guibert: the famous “My Name is Asher Lev”, by Chaim Potok (1929-2002). The 1972 best-selling novel – by an American author who was also an artist and rabbi, and studied Scripture extensively – tells the difficult story of a young Jewish painter who is ultimately shunned by his New York Hasidic community because of his great talent.

Guibert says he was especially struck by the description of the protagonist’s early artistic career:

“I thought about everything that revolves around a young artist’s experience. A few years ago, I was asked to illustrate a monograph dedicated to me. I joked that it should be titled ‘premature monograph’, because honestly it seemed a little early to write an essay about my work…”

Emmanuel Guibert, born in Paris in 1964, is a globally renowned cartoon illustrator whose style spans from fantastic to realistic (“Sardine in Outer Space”, “The Black Olives”, “The Professor’s Daughter”) to documentary-style graphic novels (“The Photographer”, “Alan’s War”).

His latest book is a collection of drawings he has simply titled “Italy” (Dupuis, Paris 2015): a beautiful series of streets, squares, works of art, monuments and faces, which Guibert captured with pencil and watercolors during his frequent visits to the country. A passionate tribute to a land the French artist has always loved, and to which he feels a special connection since marrying an Italian woman.

We interviewed Guibert to ask him about the inspiration behind this book, but also about his own story. And as “Asher Lev” can attest, the origins of anyone’s story are crucial.

“While reading Potok’s novel, I started thinking about my experience as an illustrator. I analyzed my childhood, going back to the very first years of my life. Beginnings are really important – just think of the wonder that young Asher Lev felt in front of reality.”

You mentioned a monograph that you were asked to illustrate.
That project prompted me to reconnect with my most far-away experiences, and to reopen some of the pads I had drawn on when I was a boy, some of the books I had read at the time, all of which had been providentially kept by my parents. I found my very first compositions, the ones all small children make: spots and lines that mean something only to their authors.

And what did you think about, looking at those early works?
First of all, I thought about my daughter Cecilia, who at two years old had shown me a sheet of paper with a big spot in the middle. She said, ‘Here is your portrait’, and was absolutely convinced she had drawn her father. Through her eyes and experience, I found myself in the particular region of memory that holds our personal ‘prehistory’, which adults usually cannot access anymore. Through my daughter, I had reconnected to the feeling of pure energy I felt when I made similar abstract drawings, which really are an expression of life’s inner pressure.

I assume that feeling changes over time…
Little by little, as years go by, motivations and reasons to make art arise, and bring frustration with them…

What do you mean?
You start looking at other people’s drawings, and compare the different ways in which everyone represents reality. I was still young when I first felt frustrated out of that.

That must have been hard… but you made it past frustration.
Actually, frustration is usually the reason why we stop drawing. Most people say they gave up pencils and brushes when they were around eight or nine years old, because they couldn’t stand to be humiliated any longer by their own inability to express an intuition, an interior image, or spark they had in their head. It’s an unpleasant, often unbearable feeling. When I was young, however, I also found it strangely attractive, and this allowed me to use it to push myself further.

And today you have created this splendid book on Italy, which is really like a token of love.
Yes, it is. Once I discovered Italy, many years ago, I realized that not seeing it again would have been unbearable. I was tied to the country forever. Just hearing someone speak Italian makes my heart race. It is true love.

You once said that coming to Italy for the first time was like “opening a door, South-West of France, and entering a brighter room, where the sky outside the window is more blue”. Is that still how you feel?
Yes, although I now also know the differences between various regions in Italy. At the time, I just saw “one room”, but now I know a whole world, made up of different stories and experiences. The overall impression, however, is still the same: when I come back to Italy, I enter a world of wonderful colors.

In 2010, however, you had declared, ‘I will never endeavor to put Italy in a book”. You have now done just that. Also, you usually tell stories or represent current issues: you’ve said, “I am a biographer, I tell other people’s stories and biographies, and I want to share them.” I can’t find any stories of that kind in this book…
Actually, at the beginning of the project I did wonder whether I should write stories into it or not. I have published other books about places in the world: Paris, Japan, Normandy [“Le Pavé de Paris”, Futuropolis, Paris 2007; “Japonais”, Futuropolis, Paris 2008; “La Campagne à la mer”, Futuropolis, Paris 2007 – editor’s note]. They all had text in them. But in the end I decided to create a “mute” book, thinking that the absence of words would leave more room to readers’ imagination (or perhaps I should say “lookers’ imagination”). I believe these drawings, while loaded with my own personal memories, allow everyone the opportunity to find a place and to dream, even when they’ve never been to the locations I portrayed.

It’s quite a voluminous book…
Yes, that is how I envisioned it. I mentioned the door to Italy that opened for me many years ago: to continue on the same metaphor, I wanted to build at least a little window from which people could peek into the architecture and landscapes I portrayed, leaning out with their heads and shoulders. Perhaps that is why it was a little hard for me to find the right publisher. It was a grand project, and it was not easy to find someone who could invest in it in these times of financial crisis. In fact, the publishing house that accepted the challenge demanded I make an even bigger effort…

In what way?
They asked me to sign by hand each one of the 3,000 copies they printed, to make them easier for them to sell. It took me eight hours and the help of four people, who were all exhausted at the end of the day.

Really?
It’s hard to imagine what a hard job it was. It seemed bearable for the first two hours: pick up a book, open it, sign it. From the third hour on, each book seemed heavier and heavier. At the end of the day, the twenty-somethings helping me looked a hundred years old… But it was an interesting experience nonetheless: I discovered a whole world of workers I didn’t know.

What world?
Early every morning, there are people who go to the Paris banlieue warehouse where I was signing the copies to put stickers on book covers by hand. It’s a people of very generous temps, who often helped us…

How did you get the idea for “Italy”?
I mentioned I had already published other books dedicated to regions, countries and cities in the world. I co-authored all of them with my friend Frédéric Lemercier, whom I’ve known since I was nineteen. Unlike other publications that I like to carry out on my own, for this kind of books I feel a physical need to have Frédéric beside me. I would be lost without his help. He has so many great qualities, and on top of being a wonderfully talented graphic designer I think he has a “perfect eye”: I am always impressed by his comments on drawings, and by the brilliant way he puts them in relation.

How did you work together?
“Italia” is the result of a long selection process on an ocean of drawings, in which we swam for weeks. The process was fun and unpredictable, also thanks to Frédéric’s association genius. Each choice was completely free, unhinged from any commercial strategy or business goal… for example, some “weaker” subjects often made it into the book while more technically “successful” ones were left out. To tackle this kind of job, I always need my friend’s active help: we listen to music and tell each other stories that generally have nothing to do with my work. We are guided by free associations suggested by colors, shapes, and places I represented. It is a fascinating creative moment, from which I always learn a lot.

What is the history of your relationship with Italian culture? When did you come into contact wit it?
I am first and foremost a son of comics and graphic novels, and from that point of view I unknowingly fed on Italian culture since my childhood. In the 1960s, a lot of material translated from Italian circulated in France and in all of Europe. At eight, I started reading Hugo Pratt. So I was taking my first steps towards Italy, even then, without realizing it.

I imagine you also fed on Italian cinema, of course.
I am fifty-two, and belong to the lucky generation who grew up in an era when you could expect to see a masterpiece of Italian cinema every three months. Very early on, I fell in love with De Sica, Rossellini, Fellini, and then Pasolini, Scola… After all, although many Italian people believe the opposite, France is a lot more open to Italy than Italy is to France…

What do you mean?
French people always expect something beautiful from Italy. 

Does that still hold true? Your examples so far are all taken from the past…
Of course it’s still true. In cinema, for example, Nanni Moretti recently gave us a glimpse of the renaissance we had been waiting for. I was relieved to see the first episode of “Dear Diary”, “On My Vespa”, when he goes around Rome on the scooter than later became his “trademark”: Moretti, in this wonderful tour of Rome and throughout the movie – which came out in 1993 – shows us Italy’s beautiful roads, a bit like the great postwar directors did. I was as relieved as if I had come back to a country I loved, after years of thinking it was lost. In the past few years, many directors after Moretti have made French people’s hearts beat. We like to love Italy, and suffer when we cannot.

Do you have any literary favorites?
I feel like I always knew Italian authors because I had to read all the classics in school, from Dante on… I love Pirandello. I am currently reading some of his “Short Stories for a Year” again, and my admiration for his genius is renewed. In particular, the story titled “The Good Luck in Being a Horse” is a masterpiece. I also have a thing for Italo Calvino, who was at the height of his career during my teens, and felt very close to France (he was an eminent member of “OuLiPo”, the “Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle” French language writers’ group founded by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais). Among living authors, I love Erri De Luca, who is very popular in all of France.

You also love the Italian language in general.
Yes, I admire it almost like a child, eternally in awe of people who speak it well. And I include in my definition of “well” also the poorly educated, such as Pasquino II – a clochard who mixes Italian and Roman dialect, whom I met a few years ago for a cartoon interview for “la Repubblica”.

Could you understand him?
The night I met him, we stayed together until dawn and talked a lot. I felt a magical joy, as if under a weird spell: I could understand the meaning of what he said although I didn’t know a lot of the words he used… It was a glorious experience in a beautiful night on the capital, with a man who – in my eyes – brought back to life and mixed the faces and voices of characters played by Alberto Sordi, or described in history books about ancient Rome. I shared with him a true feeling of friendship. Before saying goodbye, he gave me his “Pasquinate” to thank me for listening to him for three hours. But I was just as thankful to him, for the time he’d spent with me.

So, in a way, the pages of your new book are also full of voices…
Yes, they are. A language is like a homeland, and every country lives in its language. Wherever I meet Italian people, their language is what strikes me the most. Identity coincides with spoken words and with everything that allows it to circulate: books, as well as voices. Italy’s voice is absolutely unique to my ear.

What does it sound like?
It’s a voice that has lived, and is slightly raucous – because there is so much yelling, from the early days in every Italian person’s life. Children playing in the streets try to blank out their mothers’ presence – as they call out from a window on the fifth floor – by screaming even louder. Living in Italy makes the voice grow coarse very soon. Sure, some people keep their voice safe and become wonderful singers, but others turn into Paolo Conte… I think Italy has the voice of a charming woman who’s smoked her whole life. Listening to her talk is an incredible poetic experience.

Photos via: ©Dupuis 2015

March 21, 2016