Review: Francesco Pacifico's "The Story of My Purity"

purity
Thumbnail image: Hisaji Hara, A Study of ‘The Salon,’ 2009.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux • 304 pp. • $26.00 • 5 March 2013

Francesco Pacifico’s newly imported The Story of My Purity begins in 2006 with its narrator, a born-again Catholic named Piero Rosini, lost in a Dantean forest of worldliness. When we first meet Rosini, he recalls a recent visit to the home of his “happy rich” father. It is Christmas, and he desperately wants the gift of money so that he may leave Non Possumus, the Catholic publishing house where he edits conspiratorial, often anti-Semitic works of non-fiction (but where he is evidently miserable). When Rosini explains that he would prefer to open his own publishing house, his father refuses to lend him the money, instead mocking his son’s Catholic piousness and obsession with purity:

            According to righteous, hardline Catholics like my genius of a son, there are
            secret, hidden powers in the world who control the newspapers and TV and
            movies and comic strips and they insert cocks everywhere in order to corrupt
            children.

Rosini, who indeed sees cocks everywhere, seethes at his father’s nonchalant rebuke. He tries and fails to recite a silent Hail Mary. He suggests to his audience that his father might secretly be a Mason.

Readers of Italian modernist fiction might recognize that Rosini’s father, a joker who smokes cigarettes and who once saved his father-in-law’s business from ruin, bears an uncanny resemblance to Zeno, the eponymous hero of Italo Svevo’s 1923 modernist classic, Zeno’s Conscience. It is an intriguing opening gambit: the Oedipal rage harbored by Rosini against his father establishes the author’s own Oedipal targeting of his literary forebear. And so the parameters of Mr. Pacifico’s novel are quickly set alongside Svevo’s: It is a confessional work that centers around a neurotic Italian bourgeois plagued by a vague but persistent sense of crisis.

After the opening bit, Rosini is free to hold forth at length on the pre- and post-history of his Catholic conversion. Before his turn to God, Rosini tells us, he was handsome, literary, and free to pursue women. Then, after certain events that take place prior to the novel, Rosini undergoes an apotheosis wherein he becomes a fat, hirsute “Chewbacca” who values purity above all else. In his new life as a religious ideologue, Rosini relocates to an unfashionable neighborhood of Rome, next to a cathedral-like IKEA, where he refuses (or is he unable?) to make love to his angelic wife, Alice, while at the same time lusting after his large-breasted sister-in-law, Ada. Now is probably a good time to mention that Zeno likewise lusts after his sister-in-law, also named Ada.

 

Like Zeno’s Conscience, The Story of My Purity bends around its protagonist’s libidinal contradictions. But whereas Zeno’s crisis of inaction is literally framed by psychoanalysis (the novel purports to be Zeno’s journal, kept at the behest of his analyst), Rosini’s is wrapped in the hair shirt of a paranoid, ultra-casuistic Roman Catholicism. And in an era of quitting popes, a sustained, novelistic critique of Italian Catholicism—which, initially, The Story of My Purity seems to promise—would be a useful project. And yet, Mr. Pacifico charts the progression of Rossini’s religious travails along a coordinate plane that seems strangely ill-suited to accomplishing such ends. That there’s something off—even artificial—about Rosini’s Catholicism is clear in his narratorial voice, an inexplicable and uneasy admixture of prickish cosmospolitan wit (“I fantasized about my sister-in-law blaxploitation-style”) and histrionic amateur theologizing. This Frankenvoice is punctuated, in turn, by a sort of beatific Tourette’s of auto-annunciation: He tells us he’s “just like Jesus,” “a saint.”

More problematic still is the motive Mr. Pacifico offers the reader for Rosini’s initial embrace of Catholicism. What whirlwind brought impotence, rage, and the quest for religious purity to Rosini’s doorstep? The 9/11 attacks, apparently:

            What had put me in a state of mind so receptive to paradox? It’s not clear.
            Certainly,
after 9/11 my world of ideas, of pleasure, of books, had collapsed
            a bit like the towers.
Out of fear of general collapse or a dictatorial turn in
            the West, I had to put my trust
in something solid.

As a prelude to religious conversion, it would be strange enough to hear “9/11” from the mouth of a native New Yorker. Coming from Rosini, a Roman who hails from a rich, secular literary family, this explanation is downright baffling. Equally baffling is the “something solid” into which Rosini places his trust: not God, nor even the Church, but conspiratorial anti-Semitism. And it is the elaboration of this bigotry which occupies his time at Non Possumus, where he takes on the project of editing a book called The Jewish Pope: an outwardly anti-Semitic work that claims Frankist Jews have infiltrated the Church (and all of society), spreading anti-moralist teachings in their wake.

Perhaps if Mr. Pacifico had chosen to cut through this ideological thicket, if he had tied or untied Rosini’s fractious internal state to, well, the state or the Vatican, the novel’s considerable opening promise might have been fulfilled. Instead, “Catholicism” becomes a catch-all for rightist sins, especially anti-Semitism, in this case filtered through the mud of Rosini’s bourgeois personal issues.

These “issues”—a morass of contradictory, stillborn desires that clog the narrative’s arteries—take up the true bulk of the book. Like a government in gridlock, Rosini cannot decide: He does not know whether to have sex with his wife, or his sister-in-law, or Lavinia, or Benedetta, or Ana; he’s unsure about whether he should move to Paris and accept his father’s money, or if, when he arrives, he should befriend a Jew and move into a luxury apartment. He even considers asking for support from his sister, a famous writer.

The rest of The Story of My Purity wraps like a condom around Rosini’s limp penis. He simply cannot decide whether to have sex. After the zealous stewards of Non Possumus fire Rosini for trying to sign a young novelist who wants to “make fun of gay people a bit,” his crisis reaches its climacteric phase. He separates amiably from his wife, moves to Paris, and befriends a group of sexy women, including a young Jew named Clelia. Clelia becomes a kind of focal point for the rest of the novel; she is reduced, like all women in The Story of My Purity, to a (non-)sex object: in her case, she plays the role of Jewish temptress.

Like a car running on cheap gas, the novel putters forward on the fuel of Rosini’s hesitation, which amounts to nothing but his pathological inability to have sex with Clelia, who often sleeps in his apartment. Eventually Rosini befriends Clelia’s Uncle Leo, also Jewish, whose easygoing manner somehow forces Rosini into yet another, more ridiculous state of crisis.

 

That The Story of My Purity implodes like a collapsing star in its final two-thirds should go without saying, but there is something to learn from the gravitational shift it leaves behind. If in the book’s opening salvo he places a bounty on Svevo, it’s no big letdown that he can’t knock him off; rather, what is disappointing—and striking—is that Rosini’s decline and fragmentation at the hands of Mr. Pacifico strikes this reader as wholly familiar, and worse, imported from American fiction. Readers might recognize Rosini—this literary, borderline-personality disordered, male idiot chauvinist—from a certain recent strain of American cosmopolitan novel. It becomes all too obvious that Rosini’s problem is not rampant anti-Semitic Catholicism, but indecision. He simply cannot decide what to do with his life, his women, his job, his money. The book’s structure shares an uncanny likeness with Benjamin Kunkel’s novel Indecision, where the literate, purposefully annoying and ideologically-twisted Dwight, also subsidized by his parents, flies off to South America in order to figure it all out.

More similarities abound when you compare The Story of My Purity with another novel from an n+1 editor, Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men. The academic pieties of Mr. Gessen’s characters—who just cannot figure out whether or not to stay in grad school—ring familiar alongside Rosini’s amateur theological ramblings and his prevaricating about whether to leave a publishing house. Set these men against a coterie of easily brilliant but flimsy younger women who may or may not want to fuck, and you’re almost there.

These two books belong to a more general breed of American novel that came to prominence a decade ago—which, speaking broadly, one might call the novel of bourgeois indecision. During the aughts, after the 9/11 attacks and prior to the financial collapse, novels like Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland were considered intellectual tours de force, at least by cosmopolitan critics, for their surveys of noncommittal bourgeois who have little else required of them aside from chattering and cricket matches. At the time, a critic could throw a rock and hit an overeducated protagonist fraught with insecurities about his financial, sexual, and cultural authenticity.

It took a murmur in the heart of capitalism before readers turned their attention away from bourgeois indecision. The genre’s characters, who worry about things that do not matter, became gadflies during years of economic instability. More recent cosmopolitan novels, like Teju Cole’s Open City and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, bypassed the indecisive bourgeois altogether in favor of the flâneur, his more thoughtful twin.

For the moment, it seemed that if ambitious authors could not rid the cosmopolitan novel of the indecisive bourgeois, at least they could encourage him to take a nap. But if Mr. Pacifico’s new novel is any indication, the indecisive bourgeois has awakened in Rome. The cardinal tell is the pathogenesis of Rosini’s religious faith—the strangeness of which is resolved once we learn to read it not as a moment in an Italian novel of Catholicism, but as a return of the repressed New York novelist circa the mid-2000s. The 9/11 conversion experience is the hallmark of the cosmopolitan novel of indecision; in each case, the September attacks propel a character paralyzed by a wealth of options to choose something, to become a decider. Hans, the financier from Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, is set spiritually adrift after his wife leaves him following the 9/11 attacks. In Mr.  Kunkel’s Indecision, the protagonist, Dwight, has group sex and takes ecstasy in the early hours of September 11th, only to undergo his own conversion experience as he watches the Twin Towers collapse:

            A huge gout of smoke was pouring from a lateral tear in one of the towers,
            five blocks away; and suddenly, beneath the massive buildings, under the
            tall sheer sky, I felt obscene and small.

Or take Claire Messud’s Bootie from The Emperor’s Children who, after paying witness to the events of September 11th, pulls a Biblical Simon/Peter and changes his name to Ulrich:

            He would cast no shadow, in this new incarnation; but that was fine, just
            fine. He
would be his own idol, the one that he had never yet found. He
            would be all right.

The startling similarities between these novels should give the reader pause, but not because Mr. Pacifico has ripped anyone off. It’s more about whether American fiction is exporting a strange set of values—bourgeois indecision and the vicissitudes of the well-educated liberal humanitarian—to other historical and national contexts where they are transmuted to bad effect. In this case, it seems that the mundane 9/11 “conversion” experience specific to the cosmopolitan bourgeois has been exported/imported to a like-minded Italian author living in austerity-ridden Italy.

Mr. Pacifico, who has translated authors like Dave Eggers and writes for a blog of cultural criticism called Minima Moralia, has shown interest in recent American cosmopolitan fiction, especially of the gently subversive variety made popular by the aforementioned n+1 magazine editors Mr. Gessen and Mr. Kunkel. And during the process of being smuggled through The Paris Review/FSG wormhole and into New York bookstores, Mr. Pacifico wasted no time in asking editor Lorin Stein about the cultural significance of n+1. In a more recent interview with Adam Thirlwell in The Paris Review, Mr. Pacifico gives name to the entire problem of importing/exporting literature. He laments that in Italy, if a novelist is seen as exportable, he is immediately discredited:

            It’s our problem. Italian literati don’t like to think that “exporting” writers
            means they’re good. In Italian literature being provinciale means literary
            quality. And we don’t trust successful writers. So I don’t know. I guess you
            should edit an anthology of great twentieth-century Italians and make them
            look sexy.

Mr. Pacifico may dislike the tendency of the Italian litterateur to privilege provincial novels, but The Story of My Purity goes awry precisely at the moment when it veers away from Italo Svevo and Italian literature toward the greener (read: more moneyed) pastures of Paris (in plot) and New York (in style). Cosmopolitan indecision was a problem before it was exported. Now it’s just insulting, no matter where it comes from.