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Woman Across the Street: An Introduction to Can You Hear Me by Elena Varvello

Posted on 8th June 2018 by Martha Greengrass

In a deeply personal article, Italian author Elena Varvello looks back at the creation of her novel Can You Hear Me? and considers how imagination provides a doorway into other people's private thoughts and inner lives. In particular, she explores the way in which writing the novel provided her with a way to understand and reflect the life of her father and his private struggles with depression.

Every morning I sit down at my desk in the messy room where I write, I turn on my computer and I stare out of the window for a few minutes, looking at the sky, the pine trees, the house across the street.

Sometimes I see the woman who lives there: she goes out in her garden, feeds her dog, sweeps the pavement, talks on the phone. Sometimes, she does nothing in particular: she just stays still, looking in front of her, holding a cup of coffee or a glass of water, and I wonder what’s on her mind. In those moments, time seems to stand still. It doesn’t last very long: she turns around and goes back inside, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

What was she thinking about? 

I know her name. I know her husband left her many years ago and she’s lived alone with her daughter ever since. I know her job and the colour of her car, but I don’t know – I’ll never know – what she spends her time thinking about, what she remembers of her past, the things she misses, what she really needs.

The only thing I can do is look at her. All I can do is try to imagine her thoughts, her memories, her desires.

I don’t spend all my time thinking about her, of course. I look down and start writing. I forget about her – or, more precisely, I let her go – and she keeps doing whatever she’s doing, thinking whatever she’s thinking. 

But somehow she reminds me of something very important to me, something closely related to my vision of writing.

A few months before his death, my father was sitting in his bedroom, smoking a cigarette. At the time he was severely depressed, feeling extremely sad and tired – he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and his life was a terrible roller coaster, a neverending spiral of depression and manic episodes, a pattern endlessly repeating itself. 

That morning, I walked into his bedroom to see if he needed anything. He looked at me, remained silent for a while and then said: ‘Do you know what the saddest thing is? The saddest thing is that no one will ever tell my story.’

From the outside, he looked like an ordinary man: a father, a husband, a hard worker - like many others. He had always tried to hide his illness; those who knew him thought he was a nice guy, maybe just a little weird. 

He had never done anything particularly memorable in his life. He knew he would be forgotten – or at least he was afraid he would be.

That morning I didn’t know what to say. I just shrugged and walked away.

After his death, those words came back to me.

Suddenly I realised he was talking about his story in a more intimate and profound sense. He wasn’t concerned with the things he had done or failed to do; he was talking about himself as a human being with a unique inner life, a set of memories and fears, desires and thoughts.

That’s when I started writing Can you Hear Me?, the story of a young boy, Elia, and his strange, disturbed, beloved father, Ettore, in the summer of 1978. The story of Ettore’s dangerous behaviour one August night that summer, while his son and his wife Marta are waiting for him at home, worried about him.

I knew I was writing my own father’s story – our story – in the only way I could: through my imagination. With my words, I was trying to bring my father into light, to go deep into his secrets and to grasp, as far as I could, the sense of his own human, private struggle against his demons.

Of course, Ettore is not my father. Can you hear me? is not a memoir: it’s a novel. I am a fiction writer, I’ve always wanted to be. As a fiction writer, I believe we can tell what we wouldn’t otherwise understand. Federico Fellini used to say: ‘We know nothing, but we can imagine everything.’

I don’t have theories on writing: there are too many questions and very few answers. Most of the time, I don’t even know exactly what I’m doing. As Karen Blixen said, ‛I write a little every day, without hope, without despair’ – though I must say, sometimes there is some despair.

The only thing I’m sure of is that I’m writing – deep down, I always did – for the woman who lives across the street, though she’ll never know. I write for her – for someone like her –  and, at the same time, I write because of her. I care about her thoughts, her secrets, her feelings, her inner life. We don’t know each other well enough to talk about it: when we meet, we just say hello and smile. But when I see her in her garden, feeding her dog, talking on the phone or staring in the distance, I remember my father’s words –   ‘No one will ever tell my story’ – and I thank him for telling me something that changed me forever.

So, I ask myself: “What is she thinking about?”.

What are we thinking about, when we are alone in our bedrooms, in our gardens, in our cars, in some waiting room? What kind of secrets do we hide? How do we see the world? What are we searching for? What do we really need?

I can only use my imagination. As a fiction writer – and as a reader, too – I do it everyday. 

I don’t know the answers, but I can tell a story about a woman in her garden. And I can still tell a story about a man desperately sad, sitting on his bed, smoking a cigarette, saying something so important to his daughter before she leaves. Before he leaves.

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