In late 2001, an attacked America prepares once again to defend a free world, mainland Europe mires in decadence and, in Alessandro Piperno’s debut novel, “The Worst Intentions”(Europa Editions), Daniel Sonnino makes a youthful attempt to reconcile the peoples of his past: Jewish, Catholic, Italian. Born of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, Sonnino grows up in neurotic, Ameriphilic luxury, surrounded by the newest in sports cars, motorboats and villas, his days rife with furtive onanism and intelligent angst.
In those masturbatory habits a Continental cousin of Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy, in his intellectual tastes a Saul Bellow caricature were Chicago’s laureate to relocate his beachfront bailiwick to the Tiber from Lake Michigan, Piperno’s Daniel Sonnino is a wonderfully ambivalent Jewish creation, and “The Worst Intentions,” ably translated by Ann Goldstein, establishes its author as one the most promising, and already fulfilling, young novelists of Italy.
I recently exchanged e-mails with the outspokenly funny Piperno, asking after his many causes célèbres: the press scandal caused by a book about Italian Jews that doesn’t deal with the Holocaust, his wildly debated take on the contemporary cream of Roman Jewry in all its wealth and identity trauma, and the deeper feelings occasioned by the theft of a woman’s stockings — let’s just say, “for personal use.”
— Joshua Cohen
Joshua Cohen: First, are you Daniel Sonnino? Or, is Daniel partially you? “The Worst Intentions” is written with such authority that the familial relationships “seem real.” How much is this book autobiographical?
Alessandro Piperno: I like to describe this book as shamelessly autobiographic, though, according to the rules governing bon ton, I ought to affirm the contrary: I should guarantee it isn’t. I know it would be more refined to shelter behind the ritual, cautious, commonplaces, like “Everything one writes is the spurious product of mystification.” But I can’t. I prefer to think that this novel is wholly autobiographic, though it is full of lies, inaccuracies — beautifications. On the other hand, my life is just that, too. So are the answers I’m giving you in this interview.
J.C: Your Daniel is not, technically, talmudically, Jewish. Was your own family secular, or religious? After writing a book about Marcel Proust’s Jewishness (“Proust, Anti-Jew”), and now this novel, do you consider yourself “a Jewish writer”? Does the Italian public consider you “a Jewish writer”?
A.P: As you can tell from my previous answer, there are all too many affinities between Daniel and me (though I’m not quite as ugly as he is!) — between his background and my own. We both come from mixed families — a Catholic mother and a Jewish father. I might say that my family is a hymn to assimilation, to secularism. My parents never gave me any religion. Although I attended a Catholic school, and was brainwashed from childhood by my father as to the presumed intellectual superiority of Jews, I still managed to keep a fairly layman’s outlook with regard to the whole business… with a special place set aside for Jewishness. Minority cultures always hold the greater charm. For several decades now, Jewishness has been rather fashionable. And then again, I have often come across slight antisemitic prejudices, which naturally prompted me to study the Holocaust, and to fall contentiously in love with Israel. At the same time, in a Jewish environment, I have occasionally felt unaccepted. This led me to write a novel with Catholic and Jewish themes living side by side. They are two religions in conflict with one another. Living inside oneself, this conflict between civilizations is exhausting. One is born from the ashes of the other. In Italy, my book has been received as emblematically Jewish, though in the strictest sense, it isn’t, and it has been categorized as uniting the tradition of [Italo] Svevo’s works to [Primo] Levi’s, [Natalia] Ginzburg’s, [Giorgio] Bassani’s and to those of many other writers far better than myself. I think that the theme of both my book on Proust and my novel is not Jewishness, but rather the pros and cons of having one foot inside and one outside Hebraism. Mine is the mongrel’s lament.
J.C.: Is wealthy Roman Jewry as wildly excessive as you depict it to be? And why implicate yourself, or your family (“the real estate Pipernos”), in your own book, in a roll call of its famous families?
A.P.: The Roman bourgeoisie is petty. Horribly cynical. There is nothing similar anywhere else in the world. This dreadful bourgeoisie has found a great embankment here, in the oldest Jewish community in the world, one of the most ignorant and philistine. Why involve myself and my family? For several reasons: First of all, as a form of masochistic exhibitionism. Then, the desire to expiate, followed by my idea of literature as an existential experience. And finally, the awareness that you can only write about what you know. Put all these things together, and you’ll get a convincing answer.
J.C.: Apparently, this book caused great controversy in Italy. What was the nature of this controversy? As the book, to an American audience, seems self-explanatory, in its influences and antecedents, in its emotions and rages — can you explain any specifically Italian cause for such response?
A.P.: I think the book caused such a scandal in the Italian Jewish community due to the way it was presented by the press. Emphasis was laid on the sneering attitude toward the Jewish background of the main character, and the dissolute habits of the Sonnino family. And, above all, the fact that this family did all it could to rid themselves of the memory of genocide. I believe that whoever has been subjected to such violence has the right to forget. I believe that the right to oblivion, in some circumstances, ought to be guaranteed by a liberal constitution. This opinion, expressed in the events experienced by the family living in the book, has been taken by many to be a breaking away from the traditional Italian Jewish novel. After an endless series of books written in the footsteps of Primo Levi, here we find ourselves with a half-Jew who tells the story of a Jewish family who, to exorcise the memory of extermination, chooses hedonism, wealth, sex-mania. Evidently, in Italy, this is intolerable.
J.C.: “The Worst Intentions” seems the most American Jewish book to have come out of Europe of late. Previously, American Jewish writers took much instruction from European writers of Jewish experience (from Kafka to Bruno Schulz and Isaac Babel, and, of course, the writers of Yiddish), but this book’s condition seems a reversal. Though you have elements of Proust (in the long sentences, the memory obsessions), your book has much more of Philip Roth, or Saul Bellow. How important is Jewish American writing to you? What does it mean to you as a tradition?
A.P.: Henry James once said that American writers would always maintain a superstitious relationship with Europe. Evidently, old man Henry aimed at extending his own particular problem to posterity. He was one of those Americans who were ashamed of not being European. But he wasn’t a good prophet, I’m afraid. The European/American strength ratio has definitely changed. Nowadays, Americans couldn’t care less about European literature and, usually, they are right, because for some time now, nothing particularly good has been produced over here. And so no one should be surprised if a young Italian writer allows himself to be influenced by the great American Jewish novelists. I feel an idolatrous passion for Bellow (who vies with Nabokov for the position of the greatest postwar writer in the English language); a great love for both the Roths (Henry and Philip); a fair amount of admiration for Malamud, for Mailer, for Doctorow; sincere respect for Englander, Chabon, Safran Foer, Krauss and many others belonging to their generation.
Having said that, however, I wouldn’t be happy if my book failed to exude a certain European fragrance, very Italian, very Roman. And I would be destroyed if no one perceived the particular accent I tried to impress on my prose. I believe that we Europeans, in this particular historic period, should concentrate above all on our decadence. This is what I tried to do in my novel. This is what I would like to achieve in the next, on a magnificent scale.
J.C: Daniel Sonnino is a hyper-sexualized, foot-fetishistic youth. Bepy Sonnino, Daniel’s grandfather, is a voracious womanizer. Why is erotic obsession such a modern Jewish theme?
A.P: I don’t think that unbridled and slightly neurotic passion for sex is an eminently Jewish trait. I think it is “problem number one” for the whole human race. It is what, together with money, gives rise to the greatest frustration, and to the greatest joy. This type of pan-sexualism stems from the ideas of the hyper-Jewish Sigmund Freud, but I don’t believe that Freud, when conceiving them, had only Jews in mind. I should add that when comparing the many proscriptions imposed by Judaism with Catholic prohibitions, sex does not occupy a particularly relevant place. Jews are not traditionally anti-sex, like Catholics. I’ve got the impression that Daniel mixes a certain lack of sexual prejudice, characteristically Jewish, with a sense of guilt that is typically Catholic.
J.C.: Taking a page, and so a peccadillo, from your Daniel Sonnino, have you yourself ever stolen a woman’s stockings? And, if so, was there anything particularly Jewish about the theft?
A.P: No comment… Oh, come on now. Better give an honest answer: Yes, I think I have. But I haven’t done it for a long time. And I regret it.