The Freedom of the Writer

The Freedom of the Writer

The Freedom of the Writer

Venue: The Emmanuel Centre

Report by Alex Masters

We must cast an ‘unflinching, unswerving’ gaze upon the world and show a ‘fierce intellectual determination […] to define the real truth of our lives and our societies’. So the late playwright Harold Pinter famously said in his Nobel speech in 2005.

At this evening’s English PEN event, in the stunning Emmanuel Centre, we saw the embodiment of these values. A reverent hush descended on the audience and mobile phone cameras were raised as Italian author Roberto Saviano (surrounded by bodyguards) took to the stage with David Hare and interviewer journalist and author Gaby Wood. Saviano has lived under police protection since 2006 and has received death threats following the publication of his book, Gomorrah.

Hare began by reminiscing about Pinter, from his arguments with him about the relationship between politics and art, to how Pinter’s travels to South America affected him deeply. ‘He is a rare example of a British writer who truly reaches out internationally.’ Saviano agreed. ‘Pinter represented how the system works. Studying Pinter enables me to free myself up from self-imposed prudence. I see him as a geologist of power.’

As Saviano spoke, his Italian words echoing around the domed ceiling, the monoglots among us had to wait patiently for his expert translator as people laughed and nodded. Saviano said that he never expected to lose his freedom. ‘What happened ten years ago was a disaster. Had I known, I would have used a different strategy.’

Naïveté 

‘Was it naïve to not expect what happened?’ Wood asked, especially given he knew the protagonists and their reputation. ‘I was naïve,’ Saviano admitted. ‘I decided to tell a true story in a novel way. I took elements that were true in a literary manner. The spotlight went on this. The whole thing blew up. You start to think how to approach a problem you were not aware of.’

‘You cannot avoid the response of the public,’ said Hare. ‘I sit among 500 people and I’m disastrously expert at knowing how they’re feeling!’ The audience laughed. ‘It’s true to say that the performing arts have been the opposition. There’s not been much opposition in the newspapers or the novel.’ He went on to explain that he has a ‘ridiculous twenty-minute squib playing tonight’ on Ayn Rand. ‘The response is disproportionate. The audience want an oppositional play – they don’t care if it’s good or not!’

Saviano agreed. ‘I was particularly honoured that David chose to share the [PEN/Pinter] prize with me. David is using a winning strategy to analyse power. I describe reality but it’s not journalism in that sense. News story events are linear – what counts is the scoop. I try to make things circular: the way I put things together shows how it involves them. What is appreciated in David’s plays and in the TV version of Gomorrah is that they show how things might exactly unfold. Much writing is written in ways so people don’t choke… I want to do the opposite.’

Art is metaphorical

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David Hare: ‘A journalist describes what is there; art is metaphorical.’

Interestingly, Hare has found that people are more likely to divulge to playwrights than journalists. ‘They know it’s off the record and unattributable. Whatever they say is so deeply buried in the work it’s undetectable. For example, in Stuff Happens [written in response to the Iraq War] people talked more freely to me than to journalists… although perhaps they will do more to Chilcot! I would bitterly contest people who describe these plays as journalism – they’re not. There’s something beyond journalism. A journalist describes what is there; art is metaphorical – it’s something larger than the particular subject it describes.’

To illustrate this, he recounted an incident following the production of his play on the Church of England, Racing Demon. Apparently one of the actresses had been discussing the play with her bank manager who said: ‘I’ve seen that play. That’s the best thing on HSBC! The bishop of London was my area manager to a T’. ‘That marks our art,’ Hare concluded. ‘It has a potency. Reporting conflicts is one of the great gifts to mankind.’

Wood noted that, within their writing, ‘there’s a form of idealism in the scepticism – a hope for things to be better’. Saviano concurred: ‘There is hope and the hope resides in the option to understand. I believe in goodness, a universal meaning of goodness, eye to eye, hand to hand and I hope my readers will feel that too.’

Free speech

Hare was keen to talk about free speech. ‘You have to use it to lose it. My mother once said: “Everyone’s free to go to the Ritz but not everyone can go to the Ritz.” In this century we all have free speech but only some of us are allowed and will be heard.

‘If free speech is to mean anything, many voices have to be heard. It means, firstly, diversity: we need to hear from more kinds of people. Secondly, [we need] people who are victims of contemporary practice rather than observing from a lofty high. The number of people’s points of view and experiences seems essential.

‘I hate to use the word “duty” but I’ve always tried to write about subject matter that other people don’t write about, for example, the process leading up to the Iraq War, or the financial crisis or MI5. What seems important of free speech is it should embrace subject matter we wouldn’t otherwise hear about.’

However, Hare doesn’t see it as a responsibility. ‘There’s no obligation. It’s just lucky that my temperament meets curiosity about the world. Books are often the same for commercial reasons. Art tends to look inwards rather than outside in the world.’

Responsibility

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Roberto Saviano: ‘I decided to tell a true story in a novel way. The whole thing blew up.’

‘Do you feel responsibility as a writer?’ Wood asked Saviano. ‘Has this changed since you’ve been under protection?’ Saviano said his sense of responsibility has ‘devastated’ him. ‘It’s similar to guilt. In the TV show Gomorrah I’ve taken away everything good in any character: it’s all vermin. I want evil to be inescapable. I want people to ask: “Am I like this? If not, why?” Some say I’m inspiring evil. The one thing we need is the truth.’ This was received with huge applause from the audience.

Wood wanted to know whether there was a turning point in Saviano’s youth that made him more committed. ‘Yes. As a child I was taken by the disease of writing. I wanted to write in baroque but at 16 I found myself at war. A priest was murdered. I could not look. That was the turning point. I want my words now to make a difference.’

Wood was intrigued by how Hare saw himself as ‘a mere satirist before Thatcher came along’. He confessed that he did ‘write jokes’ and thought that was to be his long-term career. But then he found ‘a seriousness which surprised me… and horrified my agent!’ There was much laughter. ‘My agent said: “David, don’t try this serious stuff. What’s so refreshing is to find a writer who believes in absolutely nothing!”’

Hare has also noticed that some pieces of work ‘become more urgent as life goes by’. He feels that his film on MI5 is now better understood. ‘You often have to wait.’

Corruption

The conversation moved on to the topic of corruption. ‘Here we are at the centre of the world’s greatest criminals. Is this something we should be facing up to?’ Wood asked.

‘I often have that feeling when I’m here,’ Saviano admitted. ‘People think I’m obsessed with transparency and corruption. By corruption I don’t mean the police, or politicians. I mean financial corruption. If the UK leaves the EU it will be devoured by foreign capital. The Brothers’ Circle, the mafia in Russia, are waiting to jump in and do their worst.’

One audience member said that, from his experience, people in Sicily have been dismissive of Saviano’s works, deeming them to be ‘just literature’. ‘Literature has the added value of conjecture,’ Saviano responded. ‘It can go beyond proof. I feel it’s true, this rigour of explaining the mechanism.’

Another asked the brilliant question: ‘Has the internet increased freedom of speech? ‘There’s a Catalan saying: “The first thing that happens with a flood is there’s no drinking water.”’ Saviano said. ‘It’s the same with the internet: you know what to drink and I try to explore with a greater dimension of time and reflect, rather than [seeing things as] cut and dried. If speed is the essence you’re risking an oversimplification. Don’t fear complexity.’

Report by Alex Masters