Making Space for Mistakes and Experiments, in Marriage and Writing
Francesco Pacifico on Writing (and Revising) Female Characters
In the spring of 2015 I got married for the second time. We went to Japan on our honeymoon at the tail end of the sakura and I fell in love with 20th-century Japanese novels—the works of Natsume Sōseki, Yasunari Kawabata, and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki in particular. Those novels came as a sort of cleanse after a prolonged youth of postmodernism and irony. The sadness and earnestness and formality and rigor of Beauty and Sadness, Snow Country, The Gate, even an essay like “In Praise of Shadows”—its advocating for opaqueness and the layers of experience against the blinding intellectual searchlight that is the western philosophical weltanschauung—spoke to the part of me that had recently, finally, felt at home with a person.
My wife and I share fears and nightmares and inspiration and elan. We found common ground on the fact that we disliked relationships intensely and wished we could create a home of freedom and warmth and no duty except for basic mutual assistance. Those sentimental Japanese books seemed to capture the sense of unbearable beauty that our relationship inspired in me.
Soon after, I got an idea for a novel and asked my wife if I could stop working for a year to write it. This new book would be about marriage. I wanted to write something melancholic and sensual about two people living together. I didn’t have a plan. I was just throwing things at the wall. I was looking for atmosphere for the first time in my writing life.
We had found comfort and camaraderie, and now this sense of wholeness filled us up with a sort of struggimento, a longing, a sense of sensual dread. Like life had no meaning because we had found shelter. If we had found shelter it must mean it was all a game. We were awestruck, quiet, exhilarated.
As I investigated this feeling, I was also dependent on my wife’s money, which accentuated the abandonment, to the sense of fleetingness, to the mono no aware. I wrote for two months, delving into unfamiliar territory of intimacy and poetry.
Then I gave my wife my first 50 pages and she hated them. She told me that I wasn’t writing about love, I was writing about loneliness—the male protagonist was the loneliest person ever. And the female character was absent, so my wife felt diminished and misunderstood. What a start to our married life: dedicating a novel to a woman and getting the whole thing wrong. This ruined our summer vacation in an unfun part of Sardinia where the mistral kept shooting sand in my eyes and my wife kept panning my efforts.
I kept asking her, “But is there a novel there?” I needed to know if I should give up, throw it away. I grew obsessive, and she became fed up. She said that she had no idea if there was a novel there. I thought of throwing the novel away and starting a new one, changing course, but at the same time I was fascinated by the ugly note my marriage was starting on. It must mean something. I was writing about love, and the person who had chosen to share her life and home with me thought I was full of shit.
When I started writing at 16, I kept beginning novels and then abandoning them after a few dozen pages. My thing was shaky identities, characters who couldn’t see themselves clearly. The narrator of my first novel, which I published at 26, wasn’t allowed inside the protagonist’s head. I was only made aware of this when I started seeing a shrink at 34. The therapist told me I had had a “false self” all my life, I had unwittingly fabricated a fake personality during childhood to please my mother, so now I had no idea what my desires were. I didn’t know myself. My therapist showed me why I had always written about identity, and why my first published avatar was hidden under a series of veils.
Faced with this identity crisis, I couldn’t bear the thought of abandoning my manuscript, which seemed to pose such a crisp riddle. My real wife and I seemed content, but in the book the wife character wasn’t there. I began mulling it over and came to the conclusion that all the female characters in the story eluded me.
I decided the book must revolve around my narrator, Marcello’s, hazy perception of the people in his life. I had been building this structure, but now I had to disassemble it, to see what was wrong. The interesting part seemed to be the disassembling. To slowly examine the smallest parts and reconsider how they fit together.
I visited the deconstructed worlds of J.L. Borges, Clarice Lispector, Alan Pauls, Alejandro Zambra, writers who highjack formality with a meta-literary playfulness.
The book was a trial. I wanted to figure out who these women were—the wife, lover, sister-in-law, sister, and mother—and yet I kept stumbling over the question of what a woman can or can’t do inside a man’s novel. All the stumbling became a sort of dance, and I still had my wife’s criticism to guide me in real time. She was like a producer in the mixing booth, switching on the intercom to insult the artist. Her voice insinuated itself into the novel through these bracketed passages, commenting on the writing and editing in real time. Editing was the real writing. Resisting my writerly instincts let me make something new. I was lost in a fun house of identity riddles.
Was it possible to justify Marcello’s behavior and perception?
Miranda Popkey’s thoughtful review of the novel quotes an important line of his: “I won’t destroy the evidence.” He’s giving an account of something awful he’s done, but the sentiment applies to everything that he chronicles in the book.
For a scene in my previous novel, Class, I drew from an episode of my life with a woman that I had been in love with. I must have been scared of where she could have taken me ten odd years ago, so not only did I refrain from pursuing her in real life, I also couched her fictional counterpart in unflattering details. There was nothing bad to say about this person—in fact I was really fond of her. And yet I had defiled her in that scene, killing the memory of what was and what could have been. This is one of the ugliest things I’ve ever done with writing. Fiction affords us so much room to be awful, or to confirm we are. She read the book and saw herself in that distorted characterization and told me that it had hurt her.I was writing about love, and the person who had chosen to share her life and home with me thought I was full of shit.
When I reread the passage to make sense of it, my cruelty was so blatant that it almost detached itself from the novel and just floated in the air. Soon after, I had the chance to publish the paperback of the book in Italy, and I excised all the stuff that I had put in the scene just as a form of exorcism against love, or passion, or lust. The facts remained, but the ill will had gone.
I think I wrote The Women I Love—I mean, its second take, after the Sardinian debacle—to make a space where I could reflect on all this. But whenever I talk about that book, I tend to add more material. Writing you this story about this scene in Class is another way of revising it.
Some readers see this constant revision as capitulation to the feminists in my life. Other people tell me that I am rotten and I have not changed and I am the problem.
I was watching a panel with some experts in geopolitical matters today and one said that the strategist—in the ancient sense—is somebody who can accommodate two conflicting truths and devise a solution. The book begins with an ode to Marcello’s love, an editor. When it published in Italy, my wife laughed and said, “That’s fascinating, people are really going to think that you have a lover in the publishing world,” since the book sounded like a memoir, and it was in fact sort of playing with the renaissance of that genre.
In that moment in time, she and I were left there, in front of our work world, our families, our friends, giving the idea of a couple in a complicated relationship with its own representation. Of a couple where the man is ostensibly doing many things wrong while the woman, and everyone else, watch. It was an interesting standoff. What was going on? How could they be complicit, letting that book look the way it looked? Were they like the couple in the novel—whispering fantasies about their romantic rivals during sex? Why were the two real people who knew what was fact and what was fiction about the story—she and I—so ambiguous about it?
It would seem that the only solution to all relationship problems at the moment is to affect complete virtue (either in the mainstream way or following the strict rules of any alternative lifestyle). But if you’re both full of virtue and make no mistakes, desire will diminish. Of course, you can’t go around telling people that you like what you see in your spouse’s mistakes and experiments, that you can relate and that it makes them endlessly compelling to you. That sounds too crazy, too wrong. And yet, mistakes and experiments are vital in life, so why wouldn’t they be vital in a couple’s life, too?
Maybe couples have to be two-headed strategists these days if they want to stay together. We’re making this ambiguous, ambivalent performance art of sorts—showing without telling, exhibiting all the signs of wrong behavior without ever excusing or punishing it. We have each other’s back.
Francesco Pacifico’s The Women I Love (tr. Elizabeth Harris) is available now via Farrar, Straus and Giroux.