Jack London, The Beatles, and Italy: An Interview with Davide Sapienza by Jonah Raskin
Jeanne Reesman, Earle Labor, and Davide Sapienza
Davide Sapineza ought to be no stranger to American fans and readers of Jack London’s work. The foremost Italian authority on London – though he’s too modest to describe himself in those terms – he is the author of a very fine introductory essay to Jack London: The Paths Men Take, published in September 2016 by Contrasto. Indeed, no one has done more to bring London’s life and writings to the attention of Italians than Sapienza, who was born in 1963 and who lives and writes in Songavazzo, a small mountain town in northern Italy. A kind of polymath, Sapienza has written fiction and non-fiction, journalism and criticism in Jack London’s vein. Indeed, if any contemporary writer has channeled the energies of the author of The Call of the Wild, The Road and “To Build a Fire,” it’s Davide Sapienza. With the aim of making him better known than he is to American readers, and in the spirit of global literary connections, this interview was conducted by email. For more information about Sapienza and his extensive body of work see https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Davide_Sapienza. – JR
Raskin: It makes sense to me that as a cultural critic you’d move from rock to Jack London. After all, he was a rock star in his own day. Does he seem that way to you?
Sapienza: First let me say that I’m a “geopoet” working to explore and read human and natural landscapes. Rock music is for me a formidable tool to feel the resonances we humans can have in connection with the earth community of which we are part of. Of course, Jack London, was a real rock star, but mostly an amazing human being, very well summed up in Earle Labor’s biography.
I believe that Jack was briefly in Italy in 1902. Or so he claims. Do you know if there is any record of his time there?
There’s not much evidence of this, but of course, I love the idea that he was here, with his keen and inquisitive mind and spirit
Perhaps Jack had more influence on Italians than Italians had an influence on him? Is there any way to gage his impact on Italian culture and literature?
Jack has had a lot of influence here, despite the fact that critics dismissed him right after World War II as a “pulp” writer. Jack London is like The Beatles: you read what he writes and you think it’s an easy achievement, as with the Beatles’ songs. But he turned the fabric of literature into something that anyone could “wear” without shame. Jack was a visionary and a seer. He was someone who lived and didn’t give a f… about theory if theory couldn’t become a part of life and inspire humans. He had faith in people, and that is why he suffered depression: because he was a believer in the greater good, the good of the Earth and the good of mankind.
I believe that some of his books were censored during the era of Mussolini. Is that accurate?
London was translated for the first time during those twenty years with not much censorship, but more attention was paid to his adventurous writings.
In John Barleycorn, he says that his mother raised him to beware of Latin types. Have Jack’s racial views troubled you?
When I was translating John Barleycorn I did not perceive racism. He was just reporting what his mother told him. We all are doubles, to quote the beloved genius Carl Gustav Jung. Our bright side could not be without the dark side. Do we have proof of London ever mistreating people for their race? Maybe in his writing. As for me, I was not offended. At the end of the day, I find it quite interesting that some of the greatest contemporary London scholars are women. Jeanne Campbell Reesman wrote the very interesting Jack London’s Racial Lives.
Jack complained at times that he lacked an imagination; I don’t see him that way, but anyone who wrote that much might feel a paucity of the imagination.
I think he was half joking, and half serious. He did have an imagination and he did invent a new kind of literature. You must have a lot of imagination to write The Strength of the Strong, The Minions of Midas, Goliath, Dream of Debs, The Unparalleled Invasion and so forth. The Red One seems somehow to be a blueprint for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Star Rover remains the greatest proof of what you rightly say. It’s an unmatched masterpiece with which he invented a new genre.
Are there any Italian writers who come to mind who seem similar to London? Who might they be?
Well, I ought not to say this as it might sound self-righteous, but many critics have compared me as a character and in my approach to Jack. In general no, I do not see anyone similar to Jack London, but maybe the closest, in the power of imagery and stories, is Giancarlo Ferron.
I know that the Russians have long read and loved London’s work. Recently, I have heard from Brazilians who are translating him into Portuguese. So there seems to be a revival of interest in London from around the world.
The Russians did love London because he was a convinced Socialist and believed in revolution and freedom, and knew that capitalism is against people. London never went away. He was always a good read for all walks of life, ages and cultures. The reason is simple: all his stories carry the universal seed of the storyteller himself.
Can you tell me what is available now in Italian if one wanted to read Jack London?
In Italian we do have over 30 different titles translated. Over 50% of these editions are for The Call of the Wild and White Fang, but it is enough to search on the web to see how popular he is. The Sea-Wolf (a masterpiece), Martin Eden, The Valley of the Moon (with a preface I wrote), The Iron Heel (one of his Italian best sellers), The Road, The Klondike Short Stories, South Sea Tales and The Cruise of the Snark.
What hopes do you have for your book, Jack London: The Paths Men Take?
The Paths Men Take is devised to stress the links between London as a man, a writer, a restless soul, a seeker, a reporter, and as a great photographer of human life. I do appreciate the way the editor, Alessia Tagliaventi, selected London’s writings in relationship to the photographs. So I expect – I hope – the worldwide reader, will buy this book to discover someone as incredibly unique, true, passionate, as our man Jack.
Have you been to Sonoma and to the Jack London State Historic Park?
Oh yes. I had the privilege to get there exactly nine years ago in late September with the special guidance of Lou Leal. It was really breathtaking. It proved perceptions I had of Jack. Lou took me into the home of the late Milo Shepard where I had the privilege of seeing the original books London gave his sister Eliza. The inscriptions reveal how sweet he really was with those who he loved. He was a restless soul; he could not be other than that. He knew it: and he turned it into the amazing life story that makes of his life and his work an achievement, an inspiration; a light in the dark.
Also, last but not least, if Jack could have joined a rock band which band might it have been?
The Who, The Doors, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Neil Young’s Crazy Horse, the Italian Area, International Pop Group, the Italian, R. E. M., Procol Harum, The Roxy Music, The Eagles, The Clash, The Police, Talking Heads, Television, Other Lives, and all at the same time. Yes, because there was more than one Jack. He did too much to be just one person. He was the Leonardo Da Vinci of literature. Jack London, born January 12, 1876, never died, because life never dies.
Thanks greatly and thanks for your fine book. If Earle Labor hasn’t yet said “welcome to the wolf pack” let me say it for him, if you don’t mind: “welcome to the wolf pack.”
Earle Labor is really an amazing man. I owe him a lot. He is an inspiration as a human being, as a writer, as a scholar. His An American Life is a masterpiece.