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What the Mountains Remember: An Interview with Paolo Cognetti

By Francesca Pellas
Translated By Jessie Chaffee


WWB contributing writer Francesca Pellas spoke with Italian writer Paolo Cognetti about his novel The Eight Mountains, translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre and published this year by Atria Books. His most recent novel, Senza mai arrivare in cima: Viaggio in Himalaya, was published in Italy this week by Einaudi. An abridged version of this interview appeared in Italian in Finzioni magazine.

 

There is a secret that every person who has grown up in the mountains carries with them—without peaks, no horizon will ever seem to be a horizon. Even those like me, who have left those mountains and gone to the other side of the world, cannot help but think that the new line at which they gaze—whether it lies flat or rises into pinnacles and skyscrapers—is actually only the farthest point their eyes can see and is certainly not the true horizon, which cannot exist without rocky peaks. It took me thirty years to leave and just a few hours to understand this truth: The mountains silently follow you wherever you go.

I know this and so do the characters in The Eight Mountains (Atria Books), for which Milanese writer Paolo Cognetti won the Strega Prize—the most important Italian literary prize—and the Prix Médicis Étranger in France. Before the novel was released in Italy by the prestigious Einaudi publishing house in Turin, it had already been sold in twenty-nine countries, and it is now being translated into forty.

In broadest terms, The Eight Mountains is a story about men and mountains. Many things happen to the characters—including things that occur outside the pages of the book, in the folds of life that we don’t see. There are two parents, a son, and a secret kept by a winter in their past. There is Val d’Aosta, where the small Guasti family goes to look for new mountains in order to escape the old ones, because there are times when the “West” one is seeking is not the edge of a continent but the “West” of oneself, which is the case for this family. And there are the gifts that Val d’Aosta offers—it is there that Pietro finds his mountain, the one that will become his center and that will make all others—even the Himalayas, where he will travel as an adult—seem smaller by comparison. He also finds a connection to his father, who lives in a constant struggle with his life and the world when he’s in Milan and who only calms down in the mountains, where he reveals a different side of himself and offers his son an education as they traverse the ridges and glaciers. And he finds Bruno, a little shepherd with an adult’s sensibility. Bruno will become a friend for life for Pietro—and, in a certain sense, the love of his life—a brother, his reflection, and his foil.

Every mountaineer knows that every valley has two faces. In the case of Bruno and Pietro, in Val d’Aosta, the two sides are known as adret and envers. In my case, in the Valle Stura in Piedmont, the two sides are called adrech and ubach, meaning the “right” side and the “reverse,” or the sunny side and the shady side, both of which are fundamental. Every mountaineer knows that the same is true of human beings: There are adret people and envers people, and each adret has his own envers. And if you are lucky enough to find your own, you would be wise to hold onto them tightly.

This is a story that pulsates with life. It is one that will remain with anyone who has eyes capable of appreciating its luminosity—which is to say, anyone with eyes, I believe.

It is Paolo Cognetti’s first novel and his eighth book, following three short-story collections (A Handbook for Successful Girls, A Little Thing About to Explode, and Sofia Always Dresses in Black), two books about New York (New York Is a Window without Curtains and All My Prayers Look to the West), a mountain journal (The Wild Boy), and a book on the art of writing stories (Fishing in the Deepest Pools). The Eight Mountains is his first book to be published in the United States.

Interviewing a friend is not an easy task. Of all the interviews I’ve done, this was one of the ones I cared about the most and that scared me the most. I hope I succeeded.

—Francesca Pellas

 

Francesca Pellas (FP): Let’s begin with a question that is obvious but necessary: where did the idea for this book come from?

Paolo Cognetti (PC): The initial idea was to tell the story of the mountains as an educational place. That was the case for me and many others, but it seemed to me that the story was missing in our literature. My father, our fathers, took us to the mountains from the city with the idea that that was the best way to educate us about becoming men and to teach us fundamental values. For me this was a very powerful idea from a narrative point of view and, above all, it was my story and one I urgently had to write. 

 

FP: It is also the story of a great friendship. Do you have a friend like that?

PC: Yes, my “mountain friend”—Bruno—is inspired by him. Another thing that is mysteriously missing in great literature is male friendship. (I can think of very few books on the subject.) I mean the friendship between two adult men, not adolescent friends or drinking buddies, but a relationship based on loyalty, understanding, affection, and the feeling that the other person knows you well and is a refuge for you. I believe this is an ancient feeling that has been forgotten in the present, and perhaps that is why my story begins in the mountains—it is a bit like those 6000-foot-tall trees that could not exist anywhere else. 

 

FP: You explained to me that you don’t decide what happens to characters. You observe them and you see where their stories go. What was the most unpredictable path that you followed Pietro and Bruno down?

PC: I didn’t anticipate Pietro’s second life in Nepal. I didn’t think that he would make such radical choices. I understood his choices when I knew him better, and once I understood them, they seemed inevitable.
 

Another thing that is mysteriously missing in great literature is male friendship . . . not adolescent friends or drinking buddies, but a relationship based on loyalty, understanding, affection.


FP: There is a very beautiful scene in which you describe that in Milan, on certain rare windy days, the mountains appear at the ends of avenues. Where do you go in Milan when you miss the mountains?

PC: The view of the mountains is one of the things that make me love North Milan. From the south, the mountains are not visible, and the character of that side of the city is connected to the plains, the canals, the fields, and the farms. In North Milan, the landscape is different, with factories and railways and sometimes mountains in the distance. I can see them from the Ghisolfa Bridge because it is a bit taller than the other buildings, or from Bovisa Station. Not my Monte Rosa, but the Lombard mountains, the Grigna, and the Resegone.

 

FP: You often write about the sky: “hrough the windowpanes we could see a lot of sky”; “beyond it nothing but sky”; and “outside the woods and the river and the sky beckoned.” What do you see from your favorite window? And what is the main difference between the Milan sky, your mountain sky, “the great sky of the Atlantic coast”—as you call the New York sky—and the sky in Nepal?

PC: I see the woods from my favorite window. I like the Milan sky in the evening when the mist turns orange, reflecting the lights; the sky in New York when it’s windy and the clouds drift to the ocean; and the sky of my mountain in winter when the white of the snow makes it incredibly blue. In Nepal, the sky is always clear at dawn and cloudy before noon, and then in the afternoon it might rain. It is a country that inspires you to wake up early and to love the morning.


Image: Paolo Cognetti. Photo by Roberta Roberto.

FP: In certain descriptions of Pietro’s father—especially when he arrives in the mountains at the beginning of the vacation—I sensed an homage to Natalia Ginzburg and recognized some of the unforgettable descriptions of her father, Giuseppe Levi, in Family Lexicon. You have said that when you start thinking about a book, it is important to identify the possible influences. Which great writers and books are hidden within this book?

PC: Natalia Ginzburg—yes, absolutely! Among other things, her father took her walking in Gressoney on paths I know very well. I also openly quote Primo Levi, Ernest Hemingway, Karen Blixen (but I don’t reveal the quotations—I want to see who finds them). The stories I had in mind were Andrea De Carlo’s “Two Out of Two” and Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain.” As you can see, my influences are very different from each other. But for me it is essential to have them in mind, and as I write, I read and reread their books. (I always say that if you're a writer, you should not read many different things, but reread your favorites until you learn them by heart).

 

FP: You told me that you chose the last name Guglielmina for Bruno because it appeared in different forms in the three valleys of your life. Can you speak about that? I'd also like to know how you choose your characters’ names, and how and when you decide to not give a character a name—for example, in this book, the mother has no name.

PC: In stories, I don’t like names that have an obvious meaning, or names in which I see the author’s ego. But I also don’t like to choose them randomly. I want them to be right for the places and times in which a story occurs. In the case of Bruno, the mountain kid, I visited many cemeteries and I discovered that his last name appears in all of the valleys of Monte Rosa. This place exists in a unique linguistic crossroads in the Alps, where Italian, French, and German, along with several dialects, meet. That's why the name varies from one valley to the next: It is Guglielmina in Valsesia, Willermin in Gressoney, and Vuillermin in Val d’Ayas. It was just right for him. For Pietro and his father, I gave them names from my own family, only slightly altered. The mothers do not have names because, although they are also important in the story, this is a story about men.

 

FP: This is not the first time that we meet Pietro. He was the child in an earlier story that seems to me to be the ancestor of The Eight Mountains: “The Rainy Season,” from your second collection, A Little Thing About to Explode. And in your third collection, Sofia Always Dresses in Black, there is the Pietro who Sofia meets in New York. In different moments of your life as a writer, you open different “rooms” of Pietro’s life. What is it like for you to revisit this character?

PC: Yes, “The Rainy Season” is the seed of this novel—good for you for noticing it! (That collection, for reasons I do not understand, is the least read of my books, and yet Sofia Always Dresses in Black and The Eight Mountains are born from it). With Pietro, it happened like this: I realized that every time I write in the first person, I always use the same voice, and I have the same character in mind. So I said to myself, what’s the point of inventing different names and different lives from one story to another? It seems easier and it makes more sense that it is always him—Pietro. He was in the mountains as a child, in Milan as a boy, and, for a time, in New York with Sofia. Then he returned to the mountains. So he followed my life, more or less—that’s what’s called an alter ego.

 

FP: In fact, there is a day that unites you: June 29, the feast day of St. Peter and St. Paul! Is that why you chose the name Peter?

PC: Yes. I grew up in a family and in a world where the lives of the saints were told to children. Peter and Paul are very close, in my mind, and then both of them at some point in life gave up an old name to take a new one, so their names were important for them, too. One was called Simon but was renamed Peter [which means “rock”] because, [as he says,] “on this rock I will build my church.” The other was called Saul, but after his conversion he chose the name Paul, which means “small,” to remind himself to be modest. Even my Pietro changes his name at one point and becomes Berio, or “stone.” I like this act of redefining one’s own identity, of declaring oneself free and rebaptizing oneself; it happens often in my stories. I later discovered that Pietro is also the patron saint of mountain pastures, while Paolo was a great writer of letters and poems. One was crucified upside down, and the other was beheaded. I know a lot of things about them.
 

I did not describe an imaginary lake from the table in my house in Milan: I took a backpack and a stick, I walked an hour and a half and went to look at that lake many times in the last two years, like a painter with a palette and an easel. This is writing from truth.


FP: At a certain point you write, “each of us has a favorite altitude in the mountains, a landscape that resembles us, where we feel best.” This idea reminded me of a beautiful phrase in a story in A Little Thing About to Explode—“All the Things I Don’t Know about Her”—when Aunt Violetta says to herself, “Faces are to rice fields [. . .] what windows are to mirrors: even if it would seem to be the opposite.” In your work, the landscape is as much a character as the people, and it is also a mirror of the inner natures of the characters. What does the landscape tell us about a person?  

PC: It tells us how a person is feeling at that moment. If I ask you now what you see out the window, I am sure that in your story, you will tell me about how you are feeling. Because out the window there may be a man walking, a group of children playing, clouds gathering; there are all of these things at once. But your eyes look for the things that resemble you, that reflect you. So I had to write a story about men who don’t tell each other—who never say—how they are feeling. Not just because they are incapable of it or modest, but out of a sense of dignity that I appreciate. And I thought: Instead of telling the reader how they are feeling, I’ll tell them about the woods, the sky, and the mountains that day, and from that, readers will understand how they are feeling. That is why the landscape is so present; it was one of the ideas behind writing the book. 


FP: Indeed, there are magnificent descriptions of nature. (Though in order to avoid making Bruno angry—he would say that “nature” is the name given by the city people—I’ll put it this way: There are magnificent descriptions of the forests, the streams, the pastures, the lakes, the peaks, and the rocks.) For example: “Down below, the lake looked like black silk rippled by the wind. But actually no, it was the other way around: the wind was like an icy hand smoothing out the movements on its surface.” How long have you studied everything to be able to write about it in that way?

PC: I am very alone in the mountains: I have no problem confessing that I often suffer from loneliness. But I have also discovered that from loneliness is born an intimate relationship between you and the landscape that would not be possible if you were there with someone else, not even with a friend or a partner. There is only you and the mountain for days and days and, in some way, you talk to each other. The descriptions in this book were born from that. I spent four days at the end of August walking alone from mountain cabin to mountain cabin to bring into focus a feeling that is now described in six words on the penultimate page of the book (“the joys of freedom and discovery”). Four days to arrive at only six words? Yes, but they are true. I tried them. This I believe is something a reader senses. I did not describe an imaginary lake from the table in my house in Milan: I took a backpack and a stick, I walked an hour and a half and went to look at that lake many times in the last two years, like a painter with a palette and an easel. This is writing from truth.
 


Image: Paolo Cognetti. Photo by Roberta Roberto.
 

FP: When Pietro is a boy, winter becomes “the season of nostalgia” for him. And he says, “the days spent in Grana seemed so far off as to make me question whether they had actually existed.” This phrase reminded me of something you wrote in All My Prayers Looking West: “It seems impossible that this afternoon existed.” For you, what is the relationship of a writer to nostalgia?

PC: Henry James said that you must be in exile to write about your country well. It enables you to observe it from afar but also to miss it. If we don’t try to experience strong feelings for the things we write about, how can we hope that our readers will? Nostalgia is one of the most powerful feelings and it gives writing the urgency it needs: I write to hold onto the memories that I would otherwise lose, I write to save them from oblivion.

 

FP: Another theme that often comes up in your stories is taking care of someone: adopting, caring, and taking care. It’s a crucial topic in Sofia Always Dresses in Black and in A Little Thing About to Explode, in which Mina is raised by her neighbor, and Pietro wants Tito to be his father. In The Eight Mountains, Pietro’s parents would like to adopt Bruno. And Pietro and Bruno continue to care for each other, even when they have grown up. Have you ever asked yourself where the urge comes from to return to this theme?

PC: That’s right. I always write about prendersi “cura”—“care” in English, “caritas” in Latin. I do not know where it comes from—probably from my mother. To quote a poet who is close to my heart:

If I speak with the tongues
of men and angels
but I have not charity
I am a resounding gong
or a clanging cymbal.
If I have the gift of prophecy
and understand all mysteries and all knowledge
and I have faith that can move mountains
but I have not charity
I am nothing.

 

FP: In all of your work, the father is an important and recurring figure. I’m thinking about Roberto, Sofia’s father, who is the focus of my favorite story in that collection. And I’m thinking of Giovanni, Pietro’s father. You explained that both are inspired by your own father (even if the characters are very different from each other), and that writing about these two fathers enabled you to better understand your own father. You’ve taken something from reality, transformed it, and eventually have not only created an incredibly lifelike person but have also better understood your own life and those who inspired you. 

PC: You’ve said it well: I took my father, I started from my pure and simple memories, and then the character came to life in the novel and became Giovanni, who is a bit like my father and a bit not. But in writing about Giovanni, it seemed to me that if I did not get to know my father better, I at least was able to tell him what it was like for me to be his son, and also to tell him that I love him. Writers are lucky in that they can do these types of things in their work. Other people might not have the chance to do the same in an entire lifetime.

 

FP: Pietro and his father are more alike than they realize—in their love of the mountains, in their favorite altitude, and, above all, in a loss that marks both of their lives. This is a profound moment, when we realize that they experience the same great loss. What does it mean? That the destiny which “resides in the mountains that tower over us” also lives in our histories and our roots? That the things that we flee from continue to exist within us?

PC: Yes, that is what it means. Pietro’s father asks him at the beginning of the book: Can the past happen again? And Pietro takes about thirty years and two hundred pages to think about it, and it is only when he grows up that he discovers the answer: It doesn’t do anything but that: it happens again.

 

FP: There is a sentence in chapter eight that I particularly liked: “My mother liked windows.” Those four words seemed to contain an entire world, or at least another dozen possible stories or other branches within the story. What's behind those four words?

PC: There are people who observe a lot. And people who feel a lot, too. It seems to me that the world is divided into those who understand others and those who do not care because they are caught up in themselves. The people [who fall into the second category] don’t care about windows—they get bored standing there and looking out. Pietro’s mother, on the other hand, is able to stand at the window for hours, trying to understand the world around her. I included Coleridge’s verses at the beginning of the book to better explain this: He prayeth well, who loveth well. But it can also be said that those who have loved well have lived well, or that those who have loved well have written well. That is the meaning of the window.

 

FP: The light of the mountains is a recurring theme in this book. The peaks “shine,” the mountains are “bright,” the snow “illuminates,” the glacier “shines.” You explained to me that one of the potential titles contained the word “luminous.” I’d like to hear more about this beautiful light.

PC: I often take the train from Milan to Turin, and looking out the window, it is very clear that Monte Rosa shines on the plain like a mountain of light. There are no other images to describe it. This is also a simple fact that comes from a lot of observation: The snow illuminates. I think everyone is aware of that, but you understand it viscerally when walking back to your cabin on a winter night. You don’t need a flashlight. The light of a star is enough to see everything. If the moon is out, the mountain is as bright as it is during the day, with the same shadows and reflections that the sun creates. The alternative title of the novel was The Luminous Memory of the Peaks, but I prefer the current title because it is simpler and leaner—it resembles the book.
 

Italian, official Italian, is a language that was born in the plains, and it lacks the words to describe the alpine landscape . . . The most frequent question that I ask my friends from the mountains is what a thing is called . . . as if it were a foreign language.


FP: Tell us about the genesis of the title.

PC: It’s a magic title—when I chose it I didn’t know what it meant. But at that time, the number eight followed me everywhere. I had just begun to write this story and I needed a title and I thought: I’ll call it The Eight Mountains and then maybe I will figure out what it means as I write it. It was the eight that brought me to Nepal, because it is a very important number in Buddhism. Reading the Buddhist texts, I found the figure of the eight mountains and I also understood the meaning of the end of the story. All from a title that dropped from the sky.

 

FP: Your previous works of fiction are all short-story collections. And in Fishing in the Deepest Pools, your book about the art of writing short stories, you say that even as a reader you prefer the short story form. Tell us about your transition to the novel.

PC: It happened because I realized that the story required it—it could not have been written in a few pages. Compared to writing a short story, it was no more difficult. I agree with what others have said—that writing short stories is much more challenging. The nice thing is that when the writing took off, in a short story it would happen for a page or two. Here, it would last for fifty or sixty pages.

 

FP: The language of this book is very different from the language of your other works of fiction. You mentioned that you wanted to use the language of The Wild Boy, your mountain journal, in a novel. And it seems to me the right approach: The Wild Boy was also a book about mountains and men. How did you approach language in this book?

PC: It’s a long story: I grew up in Milan, among friends who were childrn of Sicilians and Pugliese, in a house where we spoke a Venetian dialect. I did not have a real childhood language. I was an avid reader of American literature, so for a long time my written Italian was a neutral Italian, without roots. In the mountains, when I was trying to describe the mountains, this language became inadequate, insufficient. Italian, official Italian, is a language that was born in the plains, and it lacks the words to describe the alpine landscape. (I discovered, for example, when working with my translator for the French version of The Wild Boy, that French has much more variety and precision for describing mountains.) I had to study, read, and memorize the works of Rigoni Stern in order to possess new words. The most frequent question that I ask my friends from the mountains is what a thing is called, why it is called that, what it means, and how it is spelled—as if it were a foreign language.

 

FP: The city exists in the book but it is never spoken about: everything happens in the mountains. But at a certain point, Pietro moves from Milan to Turin. Even if you write almost nothing about Turin, the choice is not arbitrary.

PC: One of my initial ideas in writing this book was the following: Pietro would go many places in his life, but I would only write about when he is in the mountains and leave out the rest. This is a decision that has to do with the boundaries of a story—establishing what is left out—and for me it is a very important decision, which may come from my being a short-story writer. The choice of Turin was not at all random: Turin is the capital of the Western Alps. It is the city where Cai (the Club Alpino Italiano—Italian Alpine Club) was born, a city of mountaineering. And for the first time in my work, in addition to the American writers who influenced me, there are some Italians, such as Ginzburg, Levi, and Rigoni Stern, for all of whom Turin was home, in reality or symbolically. I myself ended up at the home they shared—the Einaudi publishing house. It is an honor to be close to them on the shelves, and I could not have imagined a better publisher for The Eight Mountains.

 

FP: What is your typical day when you are writing? And where do you write?

PC: On a typical day, I read, write, and walk. Nothing else. No, I mean, I’ll go to the bar for a bit (that’s the social part of my day). I have a desk in the cabin but also another desk outside—I recovered it from a ruin—and in the summer, I take it into the woods and I write there.

 

FP: Speaking of daily life, this book took you to Nepal because when you knew that Pietro would go there to experience the far-off mountains, you had to go to learn about them, too. But your first trip to Nepal resulted in a choice that is now a part of your daily life: You have become a vegetarian. How did you arrive at this decision?

PC: When I got my dog Lucky about three years ago, the idea of killing animals and eating them started to bother me a bit. Then I went to Nepal, where people are vegetarian out of necessity and for cultural reasons. I hiked for two weeks around the Himalayas eating only rice, lentils, and curried vegetables. The dish is called dal-bat and the Nepalese in the mountains don’t eat anything else. I felt very good. I was also struck by a sign on the path to Annapurna that said, “You are entering a sacred valley—out of respect for the mountain, do not kill or eat animals.” In that moment I thought, I’ll never do it again. Of course I liked meat, but since returning from Nepal, I no longer eat it. It is an abstinence that I am proud of. As my friend and teacher Goffredo Fofi says: I am a vegetarian because I do not want to inflict any kind of violence, not even on animals.

 

FP: What is the farthest from home that you have ever been?

PC: Nepal or maybe Malaysia. My father lived in Malaysia for a while and I went to visit him once. Now that the book is coming out around the world, I have been invited to faraway places, including Rio de Janeiro and Shanghai.

 

FP: You write, “there’s nothing like the mountains for making you remember.” And then there is a crucial sentence in the book that brings everything together: “the glacier . . . is the memory of past winters which the mountain safeguards for us.” So if today’s water may come “from snow that fell a hundred winters ago,” as Pietro’s father says, I ask you this: among all of the things that Monte Rosa could safeguard for one hundred years and recount to someone who ascends it, what would you like the mountain to say about you?

PC: I was seven years old the first time I set foot on the glacier, filled with pride because my father was proud that I was the youngest in the mountain cabin. I would like Monte Rosa to preserve that day.

 

Final photo by Loïc Séron.


Paolo Cognetti was born in 1978 in Milan. He divides his time between the city and his cabin 6,000 feet up in the Italian Alps. The Eight Mountains has spent more than a year on the Italian bestsellers lists and has been published in thirty-eight countries. The novel won both Italy’s Premio Strega and the French Pri Médicis Étranger.


Published Nov 8, 2018   Copyright 2018 Francesca Pellas

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