Underwear Life: An Interview with Francesco Pacifico
March 12, 2013 | by Adam Thirlwell
Francesco Pacifico’s novel The Story of My Purity is narrated by Piero Rosini. This Piero seems like most other modern schlubs—thirty, overweight, bourgeois, in a sexless marriage, you know it—but the thing that makes him unusual is his deep belief in Christ. This is the most Catholic narrator in contemporary literature. He is also the funniest Catholic narrator in contemporary literature. And what happens to Piero is some kind of picaresque adventure that takes him from Rome to Paris and beyond, into all the problems of his innocence. What else do you need to know about Piero’s creator? Francesco Pacifico is also a translator from English into Italian, and translation is something we talk about a lot. In fact, he has almost definitely read more fiction in English than you have. And if an inglese italianato is the devil incarnate, then what does that make an italiano americano? I just mean that Francesco Pacifico is one of the least innocent novelists I know.
There’s a moment where Piero says “nobody’s Roman,” and this setting of Rome is crucial to the book’s opening. So my first question is, are you Roman?
I am, and I’m not. I was born in Rome and have lived there all my life. But I don’t know how to cook trippa and pajata, I know nothing of Rome’s cuisine pauvre, my family’s half-assed culinary traditions are half abbruzzese and half everything. My father’s side comes from L’Aquila, Abbruzzio, where my granddad’s family was big during the Fascist era, or so I’m told. My mother’s side is from everywhere, the hills of Sabina, and remotely Spain and France, and they travelled the country as my granddad was an engineer for the electric company—Milan, Genoa, Terni. I don’t feel Roman. You can spot a real Roman from miles. Savvy, gritty, ironic. I’m not.
And now—to keep with first things first—could you talk a little about this theme of purity? It seems such a gorgeously perverse subject for a contemporary novel. What’s the beauty of purity?
I experimented with not having sex for years. And I am a renowned lover of women. There was a time in my midtwenties where I thought of my life as an ongoing piece of performance art, and I realized the big thing I should try was to stop having sex. I had this romantic view of my love for my girlfriend being exalted and enhanced by abstinence. I became impotent.
When we first met you gave me a book about Victorian love and St. Valentine, but as I think you know already, I never read it, because it was in Italian. But my question is, is there a relationship between that book and this novel?
Yeah, I studied a lot of Christian mores throughout history to write that book. It convinced me that Catholic sex was a great theme and that my underwear struggles were based on history—they were contemporary history. What I mean, novelwise, is that one has a weird peer-pressured moral obligation to describe your avatar’s sex life and lifestyle. I know you shouldn’t, but that’s what we do. We try to convince people that our characters know what living is. That they listen to the right records, and they have the right perversions. They can be successful in bed, they can be the opposite, but they have to show they know what they’re talking about. I think this is a very conformist bias we have as writers today. I mean, our generation. We have to show off, in a way. Which makes us—me—forget that sex is also a very deep way to show the intersection between what you are as a part of a social class and what you are as someone who was deeply screwed up by his mothers.
So, I was studying the way Catholics had developed their take on the institution of marriage. It used to be something almost meaningless, at first. Like eating. People would for example get married, have children, then become celibate again after that, after having obliged their passionate nature. In the Middle Ages, people got married in two steps, so they could withdraw from the pact after the first step and moving in together and realizing they couldn’t have empathy or intimacy with each other. Then the sanctification of family in the modern age cancelled all savvy and practical wisdom and imposed this idea of people not having sex before marriage, and then people starting living together with no interest whatsoever in subtleness of inclination and character. This parade of versions of marriage made me see myself as the umpteenth mistake in a history of mishandling an extremely delicate thing. So now it wasn’t about just talking about sex in general, in a magazine-ready way. It was about seeing the way history had taken its toll on my underwear life.
Is it possible to have a sex life and also still be pure?
Omnia munda mundis, I guess. But I think that focusing on purity is a way to avoid the problem of being engaged by life, of letting it challenge you. Focusing on keeping yourself intact is a perennial detour.
It was about halfway through reading your novel narrated by Piero Rosini that I thought, I wonder what the relation is between Catholic confession and the so-called confessional style. Is there a relation? I am talking as your priest here.
Padre, my take on first-person confessional style, was this—I’ve always been criticized for not being able to sound confessional in real life. And here I’m totally ignoring the aspect of Catholic confession, an institution I really don’t like, as it transforms your natural inclination to admit you’re wrong into a complicated transaction with a man who lives with other men and dresses funny. My best friend used to say that I lacked the “Radiohead-style confessional sound” when I talked to people about my issues and struggles. Then I robotically developed a confessional voice—in real life—but one that I find contrived. I’m an android. I wasn’t raised on empathy. I was raised on chocolate by a complicated mom. So in this book I wanted to try the confessional tone I never use with priests. A confessional tone by a narrator who might or might not be in purgatory while he’s going over his sins to figure out his life. But I was really not into confessional. My main note for the overall sound of the book was, has to sound like Ratzinger singing “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”
I remember once being interested in this small eighteenth-century debate about conversions and novels, the idea basically being that a conversion wasn’t a good subject because it couldn’t really be shown. And you are describing a kind of upside-down conversion, so I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the technique.
I’d love to talk about this for hours. You know what the real problem of conversion and narration is? Believers take conversion too seriously. I hate Bernanos from the bottom of my heart. Flannery O’Connor too—if you’re Catholic, I mean, you have to hate this unending guilt-trip you get while reading her. We’re supposed to take these instances of “grace” so seriously. Whereas in the scriptures, we have very nice and unassuming depictions of conversions. People are struck by lightning and then they act funny. There’s room for irony, distance, curiosity. But Catholic writers want the reader to believe that the characters really found grace. I don’t care at all. I think a conversion makes a person look funny. That’s it. I pray all day. It’s a strange thing to do. I pray when I drive my scooter. Today I was praying to Mary in traffic, I was mentioning my list of dead people I pray for every day. Then some moron on a car cut me, it was raining, I yelled at him using an awful expression that involves Mary and it’s not flattering for Her. It’s all garbled. Yelling, praying. Believing, not believing. Not a big deal. So I hate Christian writers who want to portray it like it were this huge thing. It’s like eating or having sex—a very serious account of a dinner sounds lame; same for sex, even though writers occasionally take sex too seriously, like Christians do believing.
Well, now that you’ve mentioned sex ... I meant to say—I love the way you write about sex in this novel, where sex is almost an absence because one of the participants is trying not to be a participant. It’s brilliant how fleeting some of the sex is—just a glimpse of a possibility, rather than ever becoming anything as major as a scene. I’m sorry. I seem to have found no question here. Just—talk more about sex writing, maestro.
My Italian editor told me he was surprised that he got so excited reading about sex with unattractive women in my book. I don’t know what to say. I like women a lot. I like thinking they are forming some image of sex in their head, and I’m forming mine, and we have to inhabit each other’s fantasy to actually have sex. If you think this way, even the most fleeting, rarefied form of sex can be fully inhabited. I think of sexual fantasies as if they were rooms. They can be very minimalistic, but if your minimalistic fantasy is tied together—mmm, tied—I’m happy to step inside it and live there. So if the girl has bought green stockings because the boy mentioned Irma La Douce, where Irma, a hooker, wears green stockings, any contact with said stockings, even if it doesn’t lead to intercourse, will be unbearably charged. The very idea of a woman entering a store to buy a particular type of stockings with you in mind. And you’re not even going to have sex with her!
And also, I think everyone is a teenager about sex all their lives. If you think that a woman gets all worked up and wobbly about it, it’s really fun to write about it. Male writers seem to think it’s cool to show awkward men in front of well-adjusted women. It’s mostly wrong, and unreal. Women are not in control, and this makes it so much more interesting and endearing. We aren’t either, even when we have fantasies of control. Which is, in turn, just as endearing.
What I mean is, there’s so much to be written about it. If you write of food, you don’t always describe a gargantuan meal. There’s nibbling, too.
Also, I like getting aroused when I write. I sigh and get all sentimental.
Have you been or are you still a Catholic? You can tell me.
Padre, I believe. In this respect, I’m a bit like Cheever in his journals. But I don’t feel guilty for sex, like he does, I only feel guilty for my shortcomings in general and for my lack of empathy, though I’ve recently come to see it as some sort of PTSD after a war I must have fought when very young.
In Italy people always tell me that Benedict is gay. Is this true?
You know what? I think he likes men more than he likes women. When you and I talk I feel kind of gay, but then I hang out with women and they win. If I lived in the Vatican—a place full of interesting dapper men who study philosophy—I’d like men way more.
We once talked about this novel as being an object. Can you talk a bit more about what you mean by a novel as an object?
The novel is a speech that someone cast a spell on and turned into stone. When in stone, the quality of freewheeling vagueness is slightly transformed. It’s like a statue—you see muscles, they seem alive, but it’s stone, so they’ll always be there. So you capture what has life and give it the power to stay there, hardened, nonreal. I find it beautiful. You create a humanlike creature who’s bound to only have done the number of things you made him do. But the creature’s alive. When a radio sings to you with the voice of Dylan, the radio is this square object, with angles, that gives out this gift, this elegant live thing. This paradox makes it more beautiful than the actual voice of an actual person in front of your eyes, I think. Organic and inorganic. So the novel must be considered an object that gives out life, like a bondaged woman.
I know you love writers like Chris Ware and Alison Bechdel. Describe two formal innovations of graphic novels that text novels need to deal with.
My former answer has a lot to do with graphic novels. The pages are there, with people stuck in amber. Especially with Building Stories, by Ware, you have an extreme instance of what I’m saying. Characters on the stairs of a building printed on cardboard. Eerie. And also, these authors are masters of the ellipsis. The larger-than-life novel we all aspire to write has the problem of wanting to cancel all ellipsis and say everything. Ware, Bechdel, Chester Brown, Clowes, they master the art of telling in between frames.
You often talk to me about Italian writers who don’t exist in English and I have to go off and buy them in French, like Arbasino and Mari and Pontiggia. What is to be done about this situation?
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.
Amigo, that task can be yours. After all, you speak a gorgeous English. And I’m curious—did you work with the translator, or did you ban yourself?
My English is the result of Anglo-Saxon imperialism. English is everywhere. I worked a lot with Stephen Twilley, my translator, and then revised the book extensively for two weeks with my editor Mitzi Angel. I loved changing things in the translation. I don’t like the unnatural effort of conveying everything in translation. Choices have to be made.