Barbara Burns interviews Elisa Segnini, whose new book Fragments, Genius and Madness: Masks and Mask-Making in the fin-de-siècle Imagination is volume 56 in our Studies In Comparative Literature series.

BB. You’ve come to the UK with a CV rich in international experience. Can you give us a snapshot of the various places you’ve been?

Elisa Segnini unmasked

ES. I grew up in Italy, in Friuli Venezia Giulia, and studied foreign languages and literatures in Bologna. As my main subject at that time was German literature, I spend almost two years of my degree course in Berlin. After graduating, I went for a while to Russia, where I focused on learning the language and taught Italian and German. I also travelled to Luxembourg for a traineeship in translation at the European parliament, but I realized that, as much as I was passionate about translation, I wanted to continue studying literature. In 2006, I accepted an offer for a PhD at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Comparative Literature. After my PhD, I had a series of lecturing positions in Italian and Comparative Literature — I was lucky to be able to experience Canada coast to coast! In 2017, I came back to… well, I wish I could say Europe! Let’s say I arrived in Scotland, where I took up a lectureship at the University of Glasgow.

Universities have masks too: Bologna (note tower), Toronto (note beaver), Glasgow (note fish)

BB. How have you found the transition from Canada to the UK? What are the key differences, especially in terms of teaching literary studies?

ES. The transition was made more difficult by the fact that I now had two small children and my life had changed radically. Both systems have their pluses and minuses. In Toronto and Vancouver, the student cohort was very international, which made teaching particularly stimulating, although I had to assume students had not necessarily been exposed to Italian literature — in some cases to European literature — before. I found a similarly international audience in the Comparative Literature lectures in Glasgow. But on the whole, my audience in Italian culture courses in Glasgow is more regional. I like the informal atmosphere of the small seminar groups, and the fact that not all assignments are graded, which gives students freedom to explore different approaches. Most of all, I really value the year abroad, when students reach a level of language competency sufficient to let them read texts in the original — I do hope we won’t lose this in the future.

BB. How did you get interested in the subject of masks as a focus of research?

ES. I’ve always been fascinated by masks as objects, and I was also interested in decadence and modernism. The more I read literature produced between the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, the more I realized that masks captured the intense relationship that characterizes literature, anthropology, and the visual arts in this period. Most scholars writing about masks refer to Bakhtin’s theory of carnival. But it seemed to me that there was also a darker side to the mask, connected to anthropological views of the time. I became curious, and this book is the result!

A collection of masks: which may look like three-dimensional portraits, but are in fact death masks of real people, held in the collection at Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach

BB. Your book analyses different types of masks — death masks, theatrical props, carnival objects. How did you go about making the selection of texts you would cover?

ES. The organization of the book was one of the most challenging aspects. I realized that masks take on many configurations, but they are all connected through the relation to discourses of decadence and degeneration that were prominent at the time. I wanted to show how widespread the fascination with masks was, and the extent to which artists obsessed with masks spoke to one another. I selected case studies that seemed meaningful to me, but as I point out in the conclusion, there certainly are aspects of this subject which remain to be explored.

BB. What were the highs and lows of preparing the book for publication?

ES. Writing this book was not easy. The project stayed in a drawer for a few years. I then picked it up again and ended up rewriting it completely. It was difficult because in the intervening period I had changed my methodological approach and was juggling other research projects. The best moments for me were seeing how well the chapters worked together in the end, and finally seeing the book as an object. With hindsight and increasing research experience of course now there are aspects I would tackle differently. So there is a certain comfort in seeing that the book is now an unalterable object, and I can move on to other things!

BB. Which aspects of your study do you think might arouse the curiosity of a wider audience?

ES. Masks, I think, are always intriguing. Readers will learn much about the cultural history of the time by following the stories of these objects, and may be surprised by the ways in which they’ve been portrayed in literary texts. I tried, as much as possible, to include images that reproduce the masks these writers refer to — this was a lot of work, as an image is more trouble than many words! But I think the visual aspect really enhances the book.

The cast of the TV show 'The Conners' before and after Covid-19: the patchwork rug which is the family identity turns into a set of masks

BB. Your book is being published at the time of Covid-19, when worldwide attention is focused on the importance of face coverings. Is the context of using masks in a pandemic so different from the cultural focus of your book that this is a frustrating distraction, or does this open up interesting avenues of debate for you?

ES. I address this in the Afterword to the book. When the Covid crisis began, I was at the stage of revising the proofs. I had just selected the cover image, a fragment from James Ensor’s ‘Self-portrait with masks’, and I could not help wondering how the only unmasked face in the painting would look with a surgical mask on. Since then, people have produced plenty of such images! Surgical masks hide, fin-de-siècle masks reveal. But today there is another type of mask that is becoming prominent, the mask that we cultivate as we project images of ourselves online. My book is very much focused on nineteenth-century thought, and the masks I examine belong to this context. Developing a parallel with the masks of the Covid age was beyond my aim. Nevertheless, the book explores the complexity of the mask as a metaphor, which may inform research in this direction.

BB. What do your two little boys, to whom your volume is dedicated, think about the book?

ES. My children, Icaro and Cosimo, are very curious about masks, but of course they hated the book. They fought fiercely whenever I was working at the computer. However, they like the book, now that it is a ‘real’ object, and have tried to cut out the pictures of the masks and add their own chapter...

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