02/03/2011 02:19 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Erri De Luca, Lyrical Prose Master

Erri De Luca is not a household name. At least in the United States. I first met Erri De Luca at a party in Laguna Beach in 2010 which was thrown in his honor. To be honest, I had never heard of Erri De Luca and as a consequence never read any of his work. Apparently, he was quite well known in Europe, especially in Italy, but, for some reason, was somehow an unknown figure in the United States. I thought that, perhaps, it was due to his own choosing, that, for some reason, he wasn't that interested in being known in the United States. Yet his Italian publishers like Einaudi and Mondadori, are not insignificant publishers in Italy so why isn't he very well known in the United States? One can speculate on why that might be, but whatever the reason might be the American reading public is somehow "shortchanged" for the lack of De Luca's exposure.
I'm not exactly sure how we met. I think we were introduced by the hostess of the party, but I had read God's Mountain (a curious title since the original is Montedidio) prior to the party and was taken by the minimalist language and the surreal imagery the combination of which reminded me of Beckett and García Márquez and yet was neither one. But the text was written in English and a translation is obviously not the original so the lyricism of the text was literally lost in translation. I was reminded of the time I was a comparative literature graduate student reading Pushkin's Eugene Onegin in English when one of the Russian professors walked by, noticed I was reading the translation and curtly said in passing, "Don't bother." She was right, but for the wrong reasons.
At any rate, somehow, in the course of our conversation the Kabbalah came up. I'm not sure how that happened, but when two writers start talking about something other than writing just about anything can come up in conversation. The talk of the Kabbalah somehow segway'd to Yiddish at which point he told me he taught it to himself. Being Jewish, I found it rather extraordinary that someone who wasn't Jewish would take the time to learn Yiddish since, for me, the only reason I attempted to learn Yiddish was to find out what my parents were saying in front of me that they didn't want me to hear. So, my attempts at Yiddish were out of a necessity for understanding; for De Luca it was a question of getting in touch with the essence of an individual writer's words whether that be the lyricism behind the words or the style of the text. But what I discovered more than anything else in talking with De Luca was a kind of sophisticated recalcitrance to talk about his work. In that sense, he reminded me of Beckett who would rather have talked about chess than talk about Godot. But De Luca is a very engaging person, an artist to be sure, a political animal without question, a person with a passion for what he writes and a writer who, by virtue of those passions, should not be overlooked. In a pamphlet that he wrote, Attempts at discouragement (when taking up writing), De Luca writes: "Whatever happens with your writing, whether it is appreciated or unknown, use it to defend this right for anyone. And if it will cost you, pay the price gladly, you are a writer and you have a civil responsibility to public expression." Which begs the question: Why isn't Erri de Luca a household name?
De Luca will give a major reading at Chapman University, Orange, California on April 4.