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February 20, 2018

Diary: Alain Elkann

By Spear's

Novelist and cultural ambassador Alain Elkann on travels with his book, his love of Jerusalem, and Christmas T-shirts

The New York public library recently held an event in honour of my new book where the speakers were architect Peter Marino and former Paris Vogue editor Joan Buck, who has just published her memoirs. That evening Katharine Rayner hosted an extremely chic evening for me with beautiful flowers and a dinner with wonderful food and exceptional company. I ate smoked salmon, some wonderful roast beef with gnocchetti, and delicious coffee granite. I drank Brunello di Montalcino all night.

We have done a number of launches and parties since September, the first of which was at the Italian Institute of Culture in New York City, where Diane von Furstenberg and journalist John Micklethwait, both of whom appear in the book, honoured me by speaking. Jacqueline Schnabel then gave a long cocktail party in a townhouse in downtown New York. Next was Paris, at the beautiful Librairie Galignani on Rue Rivoli, the first English language bookstore in continental Europe. They surprised me by displaying the book not just in the window of the shop but also among books on display at the newly refurbished Ritz hotel.

I am very grateful to my publisher Assouline, because they are still old-fashioned and they are artisans. Prosper Assouline personally made the jacket of my book, Alain Elkann Interviews, a collection of 79 interviews with the young, the old and those passed away, from writers like Marguerite Duras and politicians like Shimon Peres, to photographers like Helmut Newton and architects like Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid. The idea was to find a mixture of names representative of my job, which is to be eclectic. Everyone I interview deserves the same respect and attention, and I want to give a voice to people who will be, not just people who have been. For example, there’s a fantastic pianist in the book called Benjamin Clementine, who will probably be someone very significant one day. It’s the first time I’ve written a global book. It’s in English, the global language, and filled with people from different jobs and different countries, and it’s always the same edition, the same jacket, be that in Paris, London, LA, Abu Dhabi or Japan.

The London launch was at Assouline, and the art dealer Marco Voena, who also appears in book, gave a beautiful dinner at Harry’s Bar, where guests included Ron Arad, Anna Rothschild and Julian Fellowes, who made a wonderful speech. In Milan, my son John Elkann (chairman of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) hosted a dinner for me after the launch at the Armani bookstore.

the best interview technique is not to have a technique. I prepare myself on the subject but I do not prepare questions; and when I ask questions, they are small questions. The point is to build a story.

Six years ago I stopped my interview programmes on Italian television, and I became a professor in comparative literature, specialising in Italian Jewish writers of the 20th century. I go to Israel about once every two years to teach at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I am very attached to this incredible city, where on one street you see Christians going to church, Muslims to the mosque, and Jews to the holy wall; where the keys to the church of the Holy Sepulchre are in the hands of a Muslim family. I am attached to my traditions and religion gives you sense of belonging, and each one should be respected. It’s not just a question of tolerance but mutual respect.

I try not to judge politics, but I can’t say I like what any politician is doing today. Brexit is terrible and it makes me sad because I have always had a great admiration for British people, for their sense of independence and their courage. I am ashamed that no one seems to talk about our shared culture and history in Europe. I chose to live in London almost seven years ago because it is the least provincial, most interesting and cosmopolitan city in the entire Western world. I don’t like Brexit because I fear it will weaken it.

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Christmas was in the country near Torino with my children and grandchildren, followed by a trip to Morocco to visit places I love, like Tangiers and Fez. One Christmas ritual I keep to is that I always make red Christmas T-shirts, with the date, the place and the name of each person present. Every time there is a new grandchild there is another T-shirt. Now there are six more T-shirts than when we began.

This article appeared in the Jan/Feb  2018 edition of  Spear’s. For more exclusives, subscribe at

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