My current research looks at early twentieth-century diaries written by modernist writers. I have restricted my corpus to my area of specialisation (European high modernism) and the languages I can read – English, Italian, and French – so at the moment I am grappling with Virginia Woolf, Carlo Emilio Gadda, and André Gide. However, I love this topic because it is much broader than that and has fantastic potential for new connections. Many modernist authors kept a diary at some point in their lives, which I find fascinating. Modernist fiction tries to convey a character’s inner world through a highly controlled literary form, and the diary does the same in the opposite way, allowing one to register life from a first person perspective with as little stylistic control as desired. Also, modernists wrote their diaries ‘for themselves’ (in theory, at least) at a time when psychology and philosophy had started to unpack and challenge the idea of ‘self’: we know that this influenced their literary writing, so did it also affect their personal writing, and how? This is the ground I am starting to tread now. For my PhD project, which was generously supported by the Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation research centre, I studied the motif of epiphany in the short stories of Luigi Pirandello, James Joyce, Federigo Tozzi, and Katherine Mansfield; I am hoping to publish my results soon. Meanwhile, my next publication will come out this Autumn: “From Irony to Metafiction. Pirandello and Paul De Man”, in Pirandello Studies, 43, 2023.
My present and recent research has been comparative in that it has developed an argument by observing texts which were written in different languages in the same timespan. I found this approach extremely fruitful in highlighting generational trends and uncovering contacts or affinities between literary traditions. More generally, however, for me “comparative” indicates a style of research which benefits from putting works in dialogue: I think that this encounter, whether it is within or across languages, genres, media, space, or time, illuminates aspects of the works that would not come out from a monological reading alone. So far I have always attempted to establish this dialogue between literary texts, but I appreciate the potential to branch out into other forms of art – I think part of the richness of this field is precisely that it shows how manifestations of creativity are never so far apart that they have nothing to say to each other.
A colleague writing in this series mentioned the anxiety of measuring one’s work against the depth and thoroughness of research based on a single author – something along the lines of “my work will never be as good as X’s who is a ‘real’ Proustian” (see the interview with Shuangyi Li). Having focused on literary giants with immense bibliographies, I very much feel this, and I would add that our style of research in this sense entails two technical difficulties. One is the sheer workload: we have to become familiar with more than one critical landscape, and make difficult decisions (which are, let’s face it, informed guesses) as to when it is enough. The other is of mindset: no sooner have we begun to feel ‘at home’ in an author’s work that we have to put it aside and start afresh with the next writer, delving into a different intellectual world and trying to find our bearings in it. My advice in this sense is to stay humble, which in an ambitious field like academia is more easily said than done. I am far from being an expert myself at keeping this anxiety at bay, but let us keep in mind that no one (not even a “real” Proustian) will ever be able to read everything that has ever been written on their subject, and no one will thankfully say the final word on anything, as our discipline is much better at opening conversations than at making conclusive discoveries. We are drawn to studying these works because we feel there is something about them that needs to be said for whoever is interested – our task is simply to articulate this ‘something’ and bring it into the world.
Having to pick one colleague among many deserving others is something I thoroughly dislike. There is a style I particularly admire, which pairs great intellectual rigour and depth of research with an ethical dimension. I am particularly inspired by work which, besides being competent and intellectually stimulating, addresses literature’s engagement with existential questions about consciousness, life, meaning and the like. I admire critics who can show how aesthetics and technique contribute throughout time and space to elaborating these issues; scholars who use their erudition and brilliancy to highlight the value literature can bring to anyone’s life. Over the past years I have been lucky enough to encounter supervisors, mentors, examiners, and colleagues who modelled this for me, and I hope I will encounter many more.
Since our field is open to any research combination, I often find that the most useful texts to suggest are in fact works of philosophy or literary theory – something in which others might find transversal tools to frame their specific material. In this sense, these days I have been reading a recent classic I would like to recommend, Paul Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another (Soi-même comme un autre, 1990, Eng. trans. by Kathleen Blamey, 1992). It is not always an easy read, but very fascinating and somewhat comparative in itself (or, maybe more accurately, syncretic), as it brings together insights from linguistics, narratology, continental philosophy, and ethics to tackle a topic – the self in its relation to the subject and to the other – whose interpretation can change the game in the analysis of fiction and non-fiction alike. I trust many of us would find some inspiration there.