The Hipster Pyramid: An Interview with Francesco Pacifico

Francesco Pacifico. Photo: Riccardo Musacchio and Flavio Ianniello

The last time I interviewed Francesco Pacifico for The Paris Review Daily was back in 2013, when he published The Story of My Purity. That novel, whose slacker narrator was unusually both Catholic and celibate, was an examination of a certain hipster atmosphere—and in his new novel, Class, Pacifico continues his malicious analysis of that global condition. Class tells the story of an Italian couple in New York, Lorenzo and Ludovica, and the fresco they inhabit: filmmakers, literary scouts, total wastrels …

The more I thought about this novel and its dark concerns, I began to realize how Pacifico’s look so beautifully matches his writing’s contradictions. The first time you meet him, with his beard and his smile, you have this sense of a charming bohemian happiness, a man never far from recreational drugs. But as I have come to know him, I’ve learned that his beard is a disguise: it might look like the absolute genial hipster accoutrement, but really it’s the beard of a savage second-century prophet. And in his novels, too, the apparently comical surface will suddenly rupture, revealing its ethical precision, its melancholy soul.

INTERVIEWER

We finished our last conversation talking about translation. You said, “I loved changing things in the translation … I don’t like the unnatural effort of conveying everything in translation. Choices have to be made.” And now here we have you seemingly translating this new novel on your own. How did you go about it?

PACIFICO

My editor Mark Krotov and I used the method you and I used when we rewrote an Emilio Gadda story in English for Multiples, the translations issue you guest-edited for McSweeney’s. I would turn up a version where I would convey everything I’d thought of the registers, the way people talked in my novel. It was of course much simpler than Gadda’s. While translating it, I really rewrote it—for two reasons. One is that Class is a book about the way Italian bourgeois are influenced by American culture and language. So I had to turn every conceptual joke on its head. There’s a lot of English in the Italian version, plus an assorted slang of Angloitalian. And there’s a lot of Italian in this English version. The other reason was, I’d gained enough distance from Class to realize the Italian version hadn’t been properly edited—there were a lot of moral asperities that I had to tone down because it was a crazily bleak book. Now my Italian editor and I think we should publish the new version as a paperback. 

INTERVIEWER

You’re going to translate this version back into Italian?

PACIFICO

Yeah.

INTERVIEWER

I love this, it’s like Beckett! But then, would you describe what you were doing here as self-translating or self-editing in a different language?

PACIFICO

I feel that a book isn’t properly edited until it’s translated into a different language, because you get past all the fascination you have for your own language. You’re left with the very structure, the wires of the book, and you gain a deeper understanding of your limits, your inspiration. Also, a different language helps you see different moral approaches. The language in Italian novels is not a very spiritual language, whereas the American novel is a novel that’s often very concerned with the dignity and humanity of the characters. So having that American sound in my head—hearing the book with American sounds—staked it in morality.

INTERVIEWER

Now, this idea of the moral sense of the American novel is something you talk about in one of your invented epigraphs, the one by “Florence Mathieu”—“The purpose of the literary American novel seems to have become the ‘increment in humanity’ of a ‘human being.’ In my opinion, what is perceived as an educated reader is in fact a bourgeois, not a Mensch … ” And in the novel itself, a character attacks the bourgeois idea that personal fulfillment should be one’s ultimate goal. There seems to be a link between these two concerns, as if this novel was a critique of a certain kind of American novel.

PACIFICO

In the novel, there’s this character, James Murphy, a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist of the generation of the Saunderses, the Franzens, the Wallaces. They have been a great influence for my generation of Italian authors, and for me personally. The problem with American books is that there must always be something moral and sympathetic happening between characters. That’s not my experience of life, and that is not my experience of literature. In Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet, you can’t even tell if its moral compass is really there—everything that Balzac says about the aspiration, the morals, the alliance of the characters is a play on what society wants, what society thinks of itself, what the bourgeoisie aspires to be. It’s never simply moral. It’s something more complex. A biopsy. Humanity is involved, but not only that.

INTERVIEWER

I guess one way you could criticize the American novel is to say that the characters are rarely aware of their class. They’re much more conscious of their internal spiritual journey. It occurred to me that in this novel you wanted these characters to never forget their class situation.

PACIFICO

I’m reading an essay by Franco Moretti, the brother of Nanni Moretti, the director. He teaches in the U.S. and he wrote this great book, The Bourgeois. Moretti says that Robinson Crusoe was a bourgeois story, and he analyzes the register that Robinson uses in defining his life on the island. He’s living like a bourgeois. Making order out of nature, setting objectives. A story that we perceive as romantic is bourgeois. Moretti goes on to define the word adventure in two ways. It’s the sentimental endeavor of finding yourself in a strange predicament, wanting to find some new meaning to your life. At the same time, it retains its original meaning—a sum of money that can be invested with some risk.

INTERVIEWER

This novel of yours, it centers on a group of rich—very rich?—certainly bourgeois Italians in New York.

PACIFICO

They’re about as rich as the characters in your novel Lurid & Cute. Mine are Italians that are in New York—so in a way they’re not in a place in particular. It’s an imaginary place. They aren’t rooted there. Your characters are on the outskirts of a city that they don’t feel like they really belong to. And they’re not super rich, but they’re rich. It’s that kind of people.

INTERVIEWER

Talking of imaginary places—there’s a phrase in the book where you describe “the fast, hybrid, English-Italian that defines this future breed of hyper accomplished Italian émigrés.” And that’s clearly the language this novel, and this translation, is written in. There was one moment that struck me, where this character was trying to look cool, so they used Milanese dialect rather than Roman dialect. I want you to talk more about the varieties of language in this book.

PACIFICO

On one hand, I get exhilarated just playing with languages and registers. On the other hand, the book’s hipster scene is a place where you live as if you were in a Zola or Balzac novel, and that made me want to find the right combination of languages—just as Russian aristocrats show off their French in Tolstoy’s novels. One thing that’s fascinated me about hipster culture in the past decade is that it was willing to be very Versailles about itself. The hipsters that I’ve met and that I’ve grown to love have the same friends in Tokyo and in Berlin and in Milan and in New York and LA. I love the way they try to establish where they are in the hipster pyramid. I had to do a Balzacian thing with that. Milanese slang is just a part of it. Sometimes in Italy, you need to use Milanese to be cool or superior if you’re a certain kind of person. And the way one character can judge whether the other is more advanced in his or her English—that’s a French novel thing. Measuring where you are in your social class.

INTERVIEWER

Something I love in your novels is how your characters are so distended with appetite. And there’s a really interesting moment where toward the end of the novel a character says to Murphy, your imaginary novelist, “How can you believe you’re speaking to human beings with your books, to real people, if the European who reads them has to put aside everything he knows about pleasure in order to adhere to the abstract ethics of your cosmos?” I want you to speak more about that—partly because I think it’s interesting about what it might mean for a novel to be read in translation, but also because it seems so directly linked to your more private novelistic project.

PACIFICO

When I started to visit New York often, I realized that the success of American cinema hid the reality of Americans being way different than Italians. Americans have a lot of structure. James Murphy, the novelist character, writes sex scenes that always have high stakes. I’ve personally always tried to describe the fleeting moment where sex makes you feel tingly and mentally engaged—so, not the sex that is meant to be consumed but an atmosphere, the cour amoureuse, a place where sex is both discussed and experienced. Generally fiction is very conservative about sex—only complete intercourse or those shabby, furious coiti.

INTERVIEWER

Ah, the tyranny of the sex scene … ! And it’s true, I love how fleeting sex can be in your novels, how unremarked and woozy. But I don’t want to talk about sex, or not directly. I want to finish by talking about form. You’ve often done interesting things with narrators. Here, in Class, there’s a roving, ghostly narrator. And it was while I was thinking about this ghostly narrator, who’s both part and not part of the fictional world, that I realized that the word membrane was a mini obsession of this novel, in different contexts, from the sexual to the metaphysical. And it seemed related to the narrative structure. What’s the real importance of this idea of the—this substance that allows stuff to pass through it but is still a border?

PACIFICO

When I used to get stoned every night, one of my recurring visions was that I could enter a very lonely point in somebody else’s body—witness the bleakness in the body of somebody else. Not meeting his soul, just meeting his flesh. His bones. A lonely, weeping empathy. It’s not a concept, it’s a vision I kept having. The membrane developed very naturally while I was writing the book. I didn’t pay much attention to it. There’s this dead narrator who finds herself in a strange proximity to stuff that has happened to other people. Plus, everything is happening in Italian, but we’re in an English-speaking country—so there’s a membrane between the two clouds of meaning, and sometimes you pick the right word and you can touch the other cloud and transmit some meaning. It’s magical.

And then there’s a third membrane, the perineum, which divides the anus and vagina. This crazy Catholic character, Gustavo Tullio, has always had this dream to stick a finger in the anus and one in the vagina of the person he’s with. He wishes the membrane weren’t there, and that he could just have a ring around the woman that he wants to subdue. It’s a violent form of longing trapped in an unhealthy desire to overpower women. So it’s three different longings, all constrained by membranes—the afterlife, the language, the perineum. Of course everybody felt very awkward about the perineum thing. They wanted to mention it but they didn’t want to talk about it.

Adam Thirlwell is The Paris Review’s London editor. His most recent book is Lurid & Cute.

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