On the bookshelf
The women I love
By Francesco Pacifico
Translated by Elizabeth Harris
FSG: 240 pages, $ 27
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The protagonist of “Francesco Pacifico”The women I love“ writes a novel, and he says this about his literary project: “I remember this period of my life to see if I am able to describe the women that I love or that I have loved without turning them into caricatures. , as saviors or sirens, as wives, mothers or whores. I’m sick of the clumsy man comedy who always goes the wrong way. Later he asks himself: “What is left for a man to write when he writes about women?”
The narrator, Marcello (a clear nod to the journalist of “La Dolce Vita” by Fellini), works in publishing and has produced a few collections of poetry. His father is wealthy, so although his career is not particularly lucrative, he leads a comfortable, almost lavish life.
The book is divided into five sections, each named after one of the women in his life. The first focuses on a young publisher with whom he has a brief affair. Then his girlfriend and eventual wife, Barbara. Third, her aspiring novelist sister-in-law. Fourth, his distant sister, Irene. Finally, of course, his mother.
The plot follows Marcello for a few years of his life. He changes jobs, moves from Rome to Milan, breaks up with Barbara, then reconciles with Barbara, reunites with his sister, fights again with Barbara, becomes jealous of a successful writer with whom he is convinced that Barbara is sleeping and drinks a lot of alcohol. Since he’s an editor, he sometimes interrupts the narrative with bracketed comments about the novel he’s writing – which is the novel we read. For example, after the scene in which he meets and flirts with Barbara, he intervenes: “[I don’t like long, drawn out stretches of dialogue (as an editor, it just feels like a cheap way to add on pages), but I have to make an exception when it comes to the card game of seduction.]”
Although Pacifico’s language, translated fluently and effectively by Elizabeth Harris, is charming and his sense of dramatic momentum is strong, Marcello is not a compelling character. “The women I love” aims to satire “the neurotic, obsessive and childish point of view of the typical male narrator”. We know this by his tone and also because these are the words of Marcello; he guides us through his own traps even though he insists he avoids them.
And that is exactly the problem. The novel duplicates the voice which it quips with, functioning as if the self-conscious meta-commentary is making up for its lack of depth or new insights. These introspective monologues about men writing about women work like winks on the stage, trapping Marcello between being a well-drawn character and portraying a certain type Character. Marcello is Rothian through and through, a committed artist more interested in contemplating “a man’s recklessness towards women” than in actually caring about them.
Fictional characters don’t need to be moral paragons; in fact, such numbers would bore us. But what to do with those we just don’t like? It’s easy to argue that Marcello is supposed to be rude, that that’s the point. He characterizes masculinity in the contemporary moment and his behavior therefore reflects it. That’s right, but the formal justifications don’t take into account the relationship with a character, especially a narrator.
After a bitter argument with Barbara (precipitated by her totally unjustified jealousy), Marcello goes drunk to the apartment of the young editor Eleonora and sexually assaults her. It’s a dark, scary scene, in which he describes “Ten thrusts in her, deeper, deeper, about ten times, and she says, not violently, not asking, not loud, just saying, ‘Come on. , that’s enough, get out of me. ‘”Afterwards, she curls up in her bed and refuses to speak. He then thinks: “I was suddenly terrified that I had forced her. The scene ends with Marcello noting that “Eleonora never spoke to me again” and that when he saw her he “took on a formal expression, like an ambassador”. At this point, she disappears completely from the novel.
It’s true that this stuff really does happen, that men often act and think like Marcello. The characterization of Pacifico is precise and even bracing. But after that happened, I couldn’t take Marcello’s lofty dilemmas about life, love, and art seriously. There is a brief paragraph from the editor in brackets after the assault in which Marcello writes that although “Eleonora did not expose me to the judgment of public opinion”, he wants “History” (his capitalization) know: “I did it. I won’t destroy the evidence. How brave.
A good satire engages and mocks the conventions and tropes of its target. A big one invents something new in the process. “The women I love” sets his sights on all the sad young men of letters, but for all the precision of his reach, he only aims and never shoots.
Clark is the author of “An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom” and the upcoming “Skateboard”.