Hisham Matar is a Libyan author based in London and New York. He has written two autobiographical novels, In the Country of Men (2006) and Anatomy of a Disappearance (2011). Both are about a boy growing up in Cairo and Tripoli, as did Matar, and the abduction of the boy’s father from Egypt, where he had fled from Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. This is what happened to Matar’s father, the Libyan activist Jaballa Matar, in 1990. He was never seen again. Hisham Matar’s memoir, The Return (2016), which won many prizes including the Pulitzer and the Folio, was about the author’s journey back to Libya 25 years later, after the overthrow of Gaddafi, to try to find out what happened to his father. His new book, A Month in Siena, is a brief memoir set in the time between the completion of The Return and its publication. It describes a lone trip to the city to see its paintings and find a way ahead.
In the book you relate how you became transfixed by the Sienese school of paintings at the National Gallery in London at the age of 19. What is it about the works of Lorenzetti, Di Pietro and Di Paolo that you find so bewitching?
At the time, I’d just lost my father in a way that was very dramatic and overwhelming, but also secret. I couldn’t talk about it. So I think my reaction to the Sienese paintings was connected to that. They attended in some way to my desire for straightforwardness. There’s something wonderfully rudimentary about them and sort of uncluttered; they seemed to come from a different world and to be very open and questioning and not satisfied. That was very appealing to me. It was exactly how I was feeling: I wasn’t feeling open, I wasn’t satisfied.
How important were museums and galleries to you growing up?
If I hadn’t had access to them or to public libraries, my whole life would be different. I had no money so museums were not only a place that provided ideas and pleasure and culture, but also a refuge, a place where I could be warm, where I could spend my lunch hour. As a student I would go to the National Gallery at lunchtime and eat my sandwiches in front of a particular picture every day for one week. Then the next week, I would go on to another picture. I enjoyed the fact that I had a destination, and so the picture I was looking at became like an encounter with someone who told you certain things on that day that they hadn’t on the day before. It is a habit that remains with me. Sometimes I spend a couple of months looking at one picture in a gallery, sometimes a year.
A whole year looking at one picture?
Pretty much. For example, I’m now looking at a picture at the Metropolitan Museum by Velazquez of a man who used to be his slave, Juan de Pareja. De Pareja was Arab, and he was owned by Velazquez but he was a very good painter and Velazquez liked and admired him and gave him his liberty. It’s a complex picture because it’s a picture of two people who are not equal in society, but who are each other’s equal as human beings. With the pictures that sustain my interest, like this one, there’s so much in them, so much that is variable and contingent and complex.
You describe in your memoir how, over the years, Siena began to occupy for you the same sort of “uneasy reverence” the devout might feel towards Mecca, Rome or Jerusalem. How did it feel to arrive in the city after 25 years of yearning for it?
It felt allegorical. By which I mean, the city felt almost like an imaginative space, a metaphor that could lend itself to me. I think these kinds of encounters happen very rarely. Perhaps each one of us is on a certain kind of trajectory, where we encounter certain books, people, places, works of art. At a certain moment, we and they seem to light up and come alive. I’ve come across some wonderful works of art, books and people, too, but at the wrong moment, and nothing happens. And then, under different circumstances, it’s like you see them for the first time, something about them has become available to you. Being in Siena was that sort of magical encounter where I felt enlivened and I also felt that the place was enlivened by my curiosity, that it was responding.
At some point during your visit you realised Siena had become a place to grieve for your father, whom you had been unable to find when you went to Libya. Could you tell me a bit more about that?
One of complications in not knowing for sure what happened to my father is that you don’t know exactly where the boundary is between your hope to find him alive and your need to mourn his death. I felt in Siena that I had arrived at this place. There was suddenly a very strong sense of conviction that he was dead. I was able to accept it and I was also confronted with the very strong probability that I will never be able to find his remains or find out how it happened.
Does writing come easily to you?
Writing is both the easiest thing and the most difficult thing. What makes it the one or the other for me remains uncertain. I know some of the things that increase the chances of it being easier.
What sort of things?
When I’m not making it about myself. This thing I used to do of thinking, I wrote a terrible paragraph and therefore I’m a terrible person, a terrible writer, I’m crushed – it’s very inappropriate and narcissistic. One should go to one’s work with a feeling of being in service, a mixture of humility and gratitude, and not be wanting it to pat you on the back.
What books are on your bedside table?
I don’t have a big pile on my bedside table. Before I sleep I read very little and usually poetry. At the moment it is the collected works of Wallace Stevens because I am very fond of him. I find his work so subtle and miraculous. I’d like to say I am reading a new poet who nobody knows but…
Which novelists and nonfiction writers working today do you most admire?
Novelists: Peter Carey for his great energy and discipline; Javier Marías for intelligence and ideas; Colm Tóibín for his depth of feeling, precision and elegance; Ali Smith for her mind and style; the essays of Adam Phillips for their freedom, Svetlana Alpers on art, and the poetry of Christian Wiman.
What is the last really great book you read?
I am doing a lot of rereading because I am teaching [at Barnard College, part of Columbia University, New York]. At the moment it is WG Sebald, Svetlana Alexievich and Joseph Conrad and that has been just fantastic. I have also been rereading Proust, In Search of Lost Time – all the books in the series. I find Proust amazing.
Does teaching feed into your writing?
I only teach one semester a year but I find it wonderful because you learn a lot and nothing cheers me up more than a roomful of bright young minds who don’t need convincing: they’ve arrived, they want to read, they want to learn. The classroom becomes a place of endless possibility. It’s an antidote to the politicians we have and what’s happening in the world around us.
Is there a classic novel you are ashamed not to have read?
I haven’t read a lot of things. I am a slow reader. But I feel no shame, just excitement at the idea that there are all these gems around us, not just books but paintings and music, that we haven’t yet come to.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
I read a lot of poetry. The first novel I read outside of the obligation to read it for school was when I was 18. I sometimes believed then – and I was wrong – that prose was a lesser form of literature, that if you really wanted to read proper stuff you read poetry.
What book would you give to a young person?
I love those very early short stories of Italo Calvino. They’re about a page or two long and are always about a moment where a principle is turned upside down. They’re so clever and funny. I used to read them to my nephews when they were young.
What’s the best book you ever received as a present?
My wife, the artist Diana Matar, made a single-edition book for me of 100 photographic images she took across Libya. The volume is singular in both senses of the word.
• A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar is published by Penguin (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020-3176 3837. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99