“Bourgeois novelists are great at making asses of themselves,” Francesco Pacifico said at Powerhouse Books in DUMBO on Thursday night to promote the release of the translation of his novel The Story of My Purity, originally published in Italy in 2010. Pacifico is commenting on the state of Italian literature.
Novels are unpopular there, he says, and even less popular when he first began writing. His first novel, Il caso Vittorio, was released in 2003 and remains untranslated; Americans more commonly export literature than import it.
As result of Italy’s distaste for novels, Pacifico says he was “raised” by Jewish American authors. Italians see novels as a bourgeois endeavor, and its not helped that Italian novelists don’t give a shit. Even he didn’t give a shit about finishing his novel, he says. But of course, he finished it.
When his first novel was released, he went on a reading tour in Italy. He was set to read at a bar. No one had shown up to hear him read. He calculated in his head the cost of the plane ticket and accommodations and told his publisher he should have just written a check instead of going through the motions. But then he began reading at the bar and the drunkards all listened to him.
The Story of My Purity follows the dutiful contradictions of a devout Italian Catholic. Pacifico says there are no Catholic Italian novels, or maybe there are some, but they are all serious. His comedic timing drives the conversation, and the tone he expresses, even through translation, is wry observational wit.
Pacifico began the novel as a series of conversations with his Catholic friends. In years after 9/11, he was living in around Paris with a group of very conservative Catholics. They were the sort that took everything the Pope said literally. He too had become more conservative; he ended up giving up sex for more than three years.
The problem with taking the pope seriously, Pacifico explains, is that you end up impotent. You begin to stop looking at women, and then eventually you stop having erections. “Don’t take erections for granted,” he says.
Partly his abstinence and piety stems from the “superstructure” of staying with his mother; he felt guilty going out at night. His only recourse was to become more Catholic than she was. All this ultimately was helpful in crafting his novel, in finishing off the book.
Ultimately Pacifico says he destroyed his novel by falling in love with his character. Characters are what he remembers from reading books and falling in love with his makes him weaker. He grows critical of Saul Bellow for the same thing. He loves Bellow’s books, but never bothers finishing the novels: “he doesn’t care if you finish them,” he explains. The subtext is that Bellow is an American example of a novelist not giving a shit.
The Story of My Purity, translated by Stephen Twilley, is now available in hardcover.