The Erotic Novel of Consumer Goods We Need Right Now: Class
Mark Krotov in Conversation with Francesco Pacifico
Francesco Pacifico’s novel Class was published by Melville House last month. As its acquiring editor and quasi-sort of-co-translator (more on that in a moment), I can’t claim to be objective about the novel’s virtues, so I’ll just quote the New York Times’s Dwight Garner, who wrote last week that “I hated Class before I loved it and then hated it again, yet suspect I might pull it off the shelf again soon. It’s about young, amoral Italian hipsters in Manhattan and Brooklyn circa 2010, and it’s plainly the work of a forceful and ambitious writer.” Hate, love, hate, seduction: the cycle of life.
In this interview, I thought Pacifico and I might get a chance to talk about the strange process of translation and re-translation Class underwent during its voyage from Italy to the US. When I acquired the novel in 2015, Pacifico and I engineered a weird and fraught experiment: he would translate the book into English, and then I’d translate it again into . . . English-er (or American-er) English. (I don’t speak Italian.) This worked, I think. But as a result—superficially at least—the book is more unlike its source material than most translations, which often tend toward loyalty at the expense of reason and other virtues. I thought all of this would be fun to talk about, but we didn’t really end up talking about it. We did, however, talk about consumer goods.
Mark Krotov: Before we began working on Class, I read all the Italian reviews I could find, via Google Translate. My understanding, based on what Google’s robots told me, was that Italian critics found the book rather brutal. But then when I first read your translation, the overarching sense was one of sadness: Class doesn’t seem like an especially harsh novel to me so much as a mournful one. Were you conscious of this shift in register—in emphasis—as you were translating the novel?
Francesco Pacifico: Comparative literature studies are labyrinthine enough without authors changing their novels as they translate them themselves. After the book came out in Italy, I realized that there was a certain satisfaction among critics and commentators as they read through the narrator’s (and, presumably, the author’s) many scolding descriptions of the characters. How do you write about rich people with nowhere to go? You scold them.
As I was rewriting Class in English, the Sisyphean effort (we shared) made me more aware of my responsibility to these characters. I actually loved them, even though they’re dimwits. They really do have nowhere to go. They went to high school, they went to college, but then they could find nothing “useful” to do as adults because the whole idea of a “use” no longer makes any sense. I got the sense that Italian critics almost expected these characters to do the right thing and become—what, financial advisors?
It’s impossible to write a bildungsroman anymore. That story is long gone. But critics still expect to find a good coming-of-age story, to find a narrator who’s willing to scold and whip any character who won’t “grow up already.” That’s how I ended up tweaking the book. I suddenly felt emotional about these characters. Their desperate dead-end actions made me feel something I hadn’t felt the first time around. So I tinkered with the book, and it emerged more sad than cruel.
MK: Does this strange process of self-retranslation complicate your relationship with these characters?
FP: In the new version, the characters appeared already formed, whereas the first time I was making them up as I went along. And they felt deserving. No, scratch that—not deserving. They looked like they were begging for sympathy. The process didn’t complicate the relationship—it actually rendered it more smooth. Like with those friends with whom you used to have more frantic interactions, and then as time passed you ended up mellower and basically fine with being with them, just because.
But I don’t know. A novel is such a huge amount of sentences that I don’t want to sound like I really know what these characters are like. I feel I’ve gathered together real features of real-like people in making them. But I can’t say I control the process too much. I think I mostly see detail.
MK: Let’s talk about details, then. As others have noted, one of the things that’s so striking about this novel is its specificity: brand names, musicians, buildings, burgers. You could have called this novel More Songs About Buildings and Food. All these proper nouns feel radical . . . though they shouldn’t. Are there particular writers whose approach to the concreteness of time and place inspired you? Or did you have a clearer sense of the kind of novel you didn’t want to write: hermetic, abstract, placeless?
FP: I’m definitely not in the Bret Easton Ellis lineage, so my brands are not his. I have to say: the way I mention the names of status symbols has a lot to do with the kind of reader of the classics that I am. To my mind, what’s really enticing about books that have stood the test of time is the fact that, in them, you can discover so many things you yourself haven’t experienced. So you have relics from the past inside forms and structures and thoughts that remain relevant to this day. I don’t read in order to get to know everything. I read for the thrill of understanding while not understanding.
As I was writing the book I wanted to hold on to the experience and sensation of holding an iPhone in 2011 (that’s when I began writing Class), considering that tech companies were already telling us, at that point, that within ten years we’d be expected to outgrow the mobile phone era entirely and move on to alternate realities and pimped up retinas. I saw the references age as I was editing the book. I love this about writing. The process is so excruciatingly slow that you eventually feel the matter of your novel getting old. When you set out to write it, though, you think of it as the newest thing. I only write about the present day, and enjoy seeing it age.
Our choices as novelists shouldn’t be inspired by ideology. Our sense of time passing should be the only real rule, and experimenting with the form should only come from the weirdness of being in time—and not from some newsworthy need to have hot takes on stuff.
MK: What does holding an iPhone feel like to you? (I’m a Samsung user—enlighten me.)
FP: I don’t remember. I should go back and read the book. That was the time of iPhone 3s, and now we’re into the 7 era—almost at 7S stage. The phones feel completely different from each other. In the first draft, I wrote a bunch of things that I had to take out because I realized that the book seemed set in the ’90s. In that earlier version, the narrator had no idea what attitude each character had toward his and her phone. So I started writing again, and this time I made sure each of them had their own particular relationship. Sergio tweets through (and over) his discomfort, while driving. Nico Berengo gets distracted by text when a woman opens up about her life in his presence. Not everyone is as obsessed, but each has their own thing. I’m not fetishizing anything. The phone is a crutch and is a prop in a novel. It’s a vessel for the mystery of time.
MK: There’s a very good scene in Class that takes place at FAO Schwarz—another thing lost to time. It’s quoting at length, I think:
Gustavo Tullio always leaves for New York with a travel bag and an empty suitcase. For his children, the empty suitcase exists as a private myth, a story they tell one another throughout the year. Before every trip, each child inspects the suitcase to confirm that it’s actually empty, that it can accommodate as many presents as possible. America is the family myth: Tullio always envied the trips you took with your family after the two of you got back from scout camps . . . The myth endures, though these days you can find all of these toys—these luxurious New York toys—in Italy. Which means that Tullio can never quite reproduce the glamour of the presents Berengo would bring back for him in the nineties: the marshmallows, the Cherry Cokes, the special Transformers sets.
This is one of the more emotional paragraphs in the book, and one that I related to acutely, though I’m a few years younger than you and grew up in the US, where I could and did eat marshmallows whenever I wanted. The shadow of the ’90s looms over this very 2010s book. I got the sense that these characters (and their creator) have a particular hunger for American culture and consumer goods because they’re the last generation to know what life was like before the onslaught. Is that right? Or to put it another way: let’s talk about the ’90s.
FP: I guess you’re right. For my family, the trip to America—and the American road trip—functioned as a kind of myth. Yellowstone, LA, New York, Disney World. The splendor and array of artificial food in supermarkets. It was the end of history—or the end of history had just taken place. I saw the demise of the USSR from a TV set in a motel in, I think, Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I remember seeing a blimp whose balloon was just Gorbachev’s head—the blimp was pierced and exploded, or maybe just fell from the sky. I saw this on a TV set in an American motel. That was officially the end of history, before we were told in 2001 that it had restarted. Blissful ’90s angst! So abstract!
I remember feeling pissed because it felt like we were a generation to which nothing had happened. We had all the commodities, all the goods, all the merce—and no history. And our heart seemed to be in the right place. So then you get things like the Simpsons, and the misguided idea that David Letterman is the counterculture. My passion for the sleek perfection of Seinfeld is a passion for the end of history: a smart artifact that lasted nearly as long as the end of history itself: 1989–98, I just checked. Seinfeld is the end of history, it is Francis Fukuyama.
In Class, Nico Berengo—who’s really me in terms of thinking about what consumer goods really are and wondering why it is that they’re so beautiful—wishes he could consume all the goods on sale so that he could bring about the end of the world. Is this a joke? Is it a metaphor? Personally, I’m in love with wallets, backpacks, sneakers, carabiners, cables, sweets, mats, bags of dry food. The sheer amount of goods. The way we impress thought on matter and create goods. It’s scary. That’s what we’ll leave when we’re gone. Let me pull a quote from the book. I’m finding myself getting back into that spirit as I write this. This is Berengo talking:
Ideas are so important for man, yet they occupy no space. Man turns ideas into things that will occupy space. Man wants every idea, every thought, to be realized, to be made into things, until the world is crammed and saturated. Recycling makes no sense. Every idea has to be transformed into matter, so that the world is filled with ideas, so that the weight of human ideas on the universe will be such that any idea, in a given region of the universe, will beat matter. What do I mean by ‘ideas’? Bands’ posters; Roberto Saviano, Lady Gaga, cardboard cutouts of Obama; the confusing paper containers yogurt cups are sold in now; the packaging on remote-controlled cars; the milky-white of little Apple boxes. Ideas suffer until the minute they become matter; until that moment they’re unfulfilled. To witness the continuous incarnation of ideas is a pleasure and a mission. Man gets no credit for saving his little corner of the universe.
If the spirit can be resurrected, then the body can also be resurrected, because here I am missing Daria, who is in another continent, and my body perceives the ocean between Rome and New York much more than my mind does. Which must mean the body retains important memories and also deserves to be resurrected.
And the fact that I am here in this room, which contains these books, which are important to me, and especially this black Lack bookshelf in three units, which means so much to me because I bought it with my parents at the Ikea in Red Hook. We went by bus one day in winter, and we ordered home delivery, and we were there waiting for them when they came, and we assembled them together sitting on the wooden floor in an apartment on the eighth floor of a building so far from our dear ones, so far from our Rome, our Milan, finding ourselves, our aging bodies the core of a family destined not to breed. What did we see when we looked at each other? We were so far away now from the places that had turned us into a family for the first time, thirty-six years ago. The scene was captured in a photo taken by a relative in the clinic where I was born. And the fact that I am here, in this room, with this three-unit bookshelf that means so much to me makes it really hard to believe that there isn’t a resurrection of things, too.
MK: It had never occurred to me that you’d written an erotic novel about consumer goods. That should have been the subtitle. A variation on the theme: let’s talk about architecture and real estate. The difference between a carabiner and an apartment is that you can inhabit the latter. The relationship and the potential for fetishization is deeper. Do you see architecture as another kind of luxury—another set of associations to consume? Or is it a different kind of relationship? This is a trick question because as you know I think architecture is the most important thing in the world.
FP: I do, too. But I can’t fetishize a place that saves me from darkness. I’m writing in the dark now, in my underwear. It’s the night after the hottest day of the year, I’m at my in-laws’, the window is open, my wife is restless. What happens in real estate is mostly a real thing for me. My laptop is scorching my thighs and my belly and hovering over my underpants. This is what happens inside buildings. I think I cannot bring myself to be cynical when writing about architecture. But it’s a naive thought, as I know you’re thinking of all the new high-rise buildings going up in Queens, off the 7 train. One should be cynical about all that, but I guess it’s just a matter of personal inclinations. If we watch a YouTube walkthrough of a postmodern hotel in Atlanta, I might get stoned and laugh, but if you ask me a question about architecture as I lay in bed, it’s different. My wife just woke up and complained about the mosquitoes and has switched on the lights. Everything has changed now.
MK: Before I cut this interview off to watch YouTube videos of hotel lobbies—and before our readers conclude definitively (and incorrectly) that Class is as slick and sleek as Samsung Galaxy packaging (as I said, I’m an Android user)—I want to ask you about my very favorite chapter in the book, which is set in a residually Fascist scout camp in the 80s. It’s about adolescence and pain, so it isn’t slick at all—it’s painful and raw and dirty in every sense. I’m guessing that you yourself spent some formative months at a camp like the one you describe in the novel. My question is just: what books did you bring with you? And did you get to read them? Or did girls and bullies get in the way?
FP: You mean this:
The totem ceremony was an orgy of trials—some of them violent, some of them sleazy, some of them truly disgusting—at the end of which the third-years would get their own animal names, their own special nicknames, and membership in the Black Feet Tribe. Some of the trials involved stripping and cold showers; in others, campers had to face their fears (spiders, hours alone in the woods) or cover themselves in mud or garbage.
The Black Feet, who supervised the trials, were an informal organization whose hierarchy paralleled that of the counselors and who ranged in age from fifteen-year-old fourth-years to teachers in their twenties. The faux- or quasi-torture that defined the totem nights had little to do with the educational principles espoused by Catholic scautismo—they were in fact opposite tendencies, impossible to reconcile—so the outcome was an authentically Fascist education, an echo of the old days of castor oil and public humiliation. But the counselors who ruled the camp were Black Feet members, too, which meant that none of this was an aberration. It was almost an official event . . . it would have been, but for the camp priest, who stayed in his tent so as not to give the proceedings his blessing. He tried his best to sleep as the children’s screams echoed through the forest.
Now, this is all true. Nothing is made up. And to answer the question: I never brought books with me. The boy scouts in Italy are a very thorough experience. When you’re in it you’re completely taken in by it. I love it that I had a sincere, fun experience of what Fascism must have been for the gente qualunque, the piccoli borghesi, the middle class who just wanted values, some inherent violence, some religion, some paganism and real estate. I got that in my scouts group. Great adventures, great nature, great making-out sessions. Occasionally great people. A lot of fascisti antipatici. I can build stuff and I know how to tie knots. I know Fascism. It’s an invaluable asset in contemporary society: know your enemy.
I don’t make stuff up, I usually write about milieus I know deeply. I think the eeriness in my writing comes from how closely I’ve watched. I get very absorbed trying to remember how things went down. I have Stockholm Syndrome along with Stendhal Syndrome. The results can be unpleasant, but I trust the process. I hope that what I write is real.
Feature image: detail from Prada I by Andreas Gursky (1996).