She was a natural: she knew right away what a novel needed before going to press. As soon as an author emailed her a final manuscript, Eleonora would print out a copy, silence her phone, turn off her computer, remove her shoes, tuck her feet beneath herself on her swivel chair, and start reading, crossing out lines, marking up the pages with an orange pen. Weekends, she’d work in bed, lying on two orthopedic pillows and scratching her flaky scalp. With those wide-eyed looks of hers, the sighing, the laughing, the “No way!”s that kept her company while she read, she’d hunt down the story’s weak points and make her notes in the margins. When the main character was just on the verge of changing, but the writer was holding back, avoiding conflict or a major scene, Eleonora knew how to say, gently, over the phone or in person, in a honeyed voice (her written notes were also tactful): “After reading all these years, I’ve come to realize that I want to see the big emotions. Do the work. Show us who your characters are… I buy a book for moments like this: the son selling the house of his dead father. I don’t buy a book for the metaphors. You’re a great writer—you don’t need me to tell you that—but I get the feeling you’re afraid of something, you just don’t want to write this part, you’re practically begging me to ask for it, but you’re not taking me there…” The authors, now convinced, would accept the idea of spending months longer on a text they’d thought was ready. I’ve been doing the same job as Eleonora maybe ten years longer, and I find myself imitating her methods.
She had an incredible ability to stay focused. Hours and hours on end, with stacks of printed pages, unearthing every typo, every awkward phrase, the fourth read-through no different from the first. We editors at the big publishing houses don’t devote enough time to the text: we read agents’ proposals, put offers together, hold meetings, concern ourselves with prizes—and neglect the book itself, that mass of sentences, paragraphs, each new start, each new page, what the reader’s mind turns to a coherent whole. Eleonora practically stunted her career by prioritizing the prose over the book’s public life. To her, a novel had to be prepared like a dessert. “The reader, discovering the book in a bookstore, has to feel like he’s in a nice pastry shop: the cream, rich, the pastry, perfectly baked, each taste distinctive, perfect harmony overall.” The rules she’d learned in editing classes at college—even now, when she was past thirty—she still treated like dogma: the proper number of letters per line to keep it from seeming too tight or loose, or the problem of orphans or widows, those lines at the start or the end of a paragraph that dangle onto a separate page.
She’d grown up with the young experimentalists who idolized the postmodernists, their stylistic bravura, yet she denounced every annoying metaphor she encountered both to the author and to me, her supervisor back then. Sometimes, on a late winter afternoon in the office together, or evenings at her place, she’d interrupt my work to read me a tortured phrase, and ask: “But do you know what this means?” It didn’t matter if the author was a well-respected stalwart or some young hipster, already known for his grammatical acrobatics. Eleonora would take the offending page and start reading some long-winded digression about a certain kind of light that was compared, through four complicated relative clauses, to a laser beam and then to mercury; she’d look up at me, laughing, and say: “I’ll tell you what—it doesn’t mean a fucking thing!” And then she’d make a note. She was never aggressive—all she did was scrawl a question mark (a delicately shaped question mark) beside the passage, so that in the end, the author would find himself saying—as if it were his idea—that the metaphor in question had to go.
But no matter how much she enjoyed making fun of authors behind their backs, she never let them discover how unimpressed she was with their vague, unnecessary flourishes. She wasn’t just polite on the phone: she was enthusiastic, genuinely so. She really seemed happy whenever an author called, even a nagging author—only after hanging up would she look at the ceiling and swear. What relationship was there between her warmth on the phone with the author and the weariness that seeped through her immediately afterward? It didn’t seem like hypocrisy, more like a profound dialectic, evincing some general truth about all human relations.
After reading until midnight and feeling—like so many of us who’ve chosen to work in publishing—overwhelmed by contemporary books, which didn’t always meet her rigorous standards, she’d put off sleeping and end her day with a great classic novel.
But she didn’t boast about this, that would be pretentious—and she considered pretension a widespread crime in the literary world. I only knew she did this because I was fortunate enough to spend a few nights a month with her, in her room, in her bed, where we worked, after hours, for the same publishing house, and, also, made love. Since I needed at least eight hours of sleep per night, I’d accept the humiliation of wearing a sleep mask so I wouldn’t be disturbed by her pleasure reading.
Yeah, she was great, truly inspired: I’ve never said this before, and it’s liberating to set it down. [ This attempt to clarify my thoughts and feelings for the women in my life began with the next chapter. I didn’t have the courage at first to write about Eleonora, how much I like her, how impressive I find her. Now that I’ve gotten up the nerve, I’d rather just start here.
Perhaps I couldn’t begin here initially because it’s easy to forget how much you respect someone, how much you appreciate someone’s sensitivity and intelligence, when you can only glimpse those virtues at a distance. A person’s mind and what reveals it—laughter, syntax, running commentary—these are mainly what keep you company. When the people who’ve kept me company with their minds are no longer nearby, I force myself to forget what being near them felt like. I go out of my way not to preserve their memory and just turn them into bland copies instead.]
Eleonora started working when the publishing industry was mid-crisis, but she never allowed herself to be infected by its pervasive cynicism. At the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, salaries were dropping rather than rising, counter to the expectations instilled by her middle-class upbringing. Eleonora didn’t let the recession downsize the joy she felt in becoming one of the people able to choose which writers—whose manuscripts were piled up around the office and her apartment, gathering dust and making her sneeze—got to be called authors.
I’m using the past tense here, even though as I write, she’s still an editor. The books she’s worked on for a new publishing house continue to arrive at my door (packaged and stamped by a publicity department that has no idea that she and I were, until recently, whatever it was we were for each other for almost three years), but Eleonora and I are no longer on speaking terms.
She compromises less on her new books than when she worked with me. She continues to hone that ideal of hers, the vision she first had one morning in 2003 when an important writer, head shaved, wearing a fishing jacket, speaking to Eleonora’s Italian class, revealed not only that he was friends with their teacher (their teacher, who wore pantsuits to school and left her hair gray), but that every time he had “around fifty pages ready to go”—what a marvelous image, a real, if unpublished, book—he’d print them out and bring them to their teacher, his friend, so she could “pick them apart.” “With what color pen—red or blue?” one of Eleonora’s classmates asked. It was winter, the overhead fluorescent lights were on and out the window, the cold cotton of fog was enveloping the trees one by one. And their teacher pulled a college textbook off a shelf, an anthology of contemporary Italian literature that included a piece by this author. Encountering that college textbook at her godforsaken high school unsettled Eleonora so completely that she quit writing her own work and began to “correct” the writing of others. The following year, in college in Milan, she attended a meeting for a graduate-student literary blog and volunteered to be their “proof-reader,” a term learned, like others, that fateful day in high school. Meanwhile, she’d bought the Serianni grammar text and read from it daily. She commuted from a small town just outside Milan; her father was running for city council, and her brother was a policeman. The grad students had contacts who were real published authors; they interviewed them, and even went out with them at night. Eleonora began dating one of the youngest contributors, who hadn’t yet graduated, and she moved to Milan after that first year so she wouldn’t have to run home at dinnertime while the group was headed to someone’s place or to a reading at a bookstore. But this decision made her mother stop speaking to her for six months, and as a result, Eleonora lost ten pounds. Her boyfriend began to look after her, and she lived in his room and off his parents’ money; as a gift, he enrolled her in a short, introductory class on editing.
She almost never talked to me about those years: they were too hard, and every day, or almost every day, she wondered: When will I get to do real books, books that get excerpted in college textbooks? She detested how others found literature to be a nice way to pass the time with people they thought were better than average. She found it impossible to feel superior to others, to those who might be considered “average,” and she hadn’t rebelled from her “average” family, her politically involved father, her Catholic mother, her older, policeman brother—three people she considered honest and humane in spite of their ideological differences from her, along with their enormous prejudices. While she worked, she felt more like Montaigne than a modernist hipster like Fernanda Pivano, because only the logos, a force even older and more established than the grand narratives her family had suffocated her with, could allow her to choose her path with freedom.
As a result, she was ambivalent about the counterculture, with all its arrogant blowhards competing with her boyfriend, hitting on her to the beat of their musings on enormous tomes by Italian and American authors, all of them male—earnest, pretentious, and male—but deep down, she also knew she was lucky to have found a rich boy from Milan, a raft on the endless river flowing toward intellectual perfection. Around 2010, the couple moved to Rome because he was swimming in money and the blind faith of his professor parents, and so he enrolled in a creative writing workshop to make connections in the young, indie literary scene in Rome.
As Eleonora approached her goal of editing actual books, she added up how much time had passed: it was six or seven years since that writer in his fishing jacket had come to her school. For the first time, she felt like an adult—she’d never wanted anything for so long. In college, she found her high school teacher on Facebook, wrote to her, and learned that the teacher and the famous writer had only worked together on two novels, then lost touch, and that she no longer had any connection to the literary scene in Milan. From the teacher’s nostalgic tone, Eleonora gathered that the two of them had been involved, and this explained, more than anything else, their collaboration. Eleonora hadn’t been raised a feminist and didn’t run in feminist circles, but she read this exchange with her teacher as a warning: she had to be careful about relying too heavily on sexual or romantic relationships to get ahead, because these relationships wouldn’t last, and would only serve to trick her into believing she was making progress in the literary world, given that male intellectuals—including her own boyfriend—tended to imagine they had intellectual chemistry with the women they desired.
Eleonora couldn’t help sparking men’s imaginations— because of her looks, yes, and also because she knew how to talk to them. One Saturday, she went to her boyfriend’s writing workshop and, after silently observing and listening for six hours (including at the lunch break at the small tables outside a bar in the historic center), when five o’clock rolled around, she approached the two teachers, both men and both published authors, and asked to be their assistant: “I promise I’ll stay in a corner and be quiet the whole time,” she said in a strawberry voice. “I’ll keep all the student manuscripts and stories in order, I’ll do your emailing, anything you want.” And those two male teachers, both of them around forty, immediately said yes before they even consulted the school’s director.
That’s where I met her: a beloved girl with a gleam in her eye; there was a puppy’s meekness to her, a beauty like a faded leaf. Her legs were slender, athletic, and her outfits were neat and perfect, bomber jackets and fancy sneakers. We talked about these sneakers, and modernist novels, in one of our first conversations: I was teaching a class as a guest editor, and like her, was involved with someone. She was bright, and one day I passed her a story by a young female writer who interested me. “Why don’t you see if it needs any work?” I was curious to find out if she was any good, or if I’d only been charmed by her mannerisms, her clothes, her hair, and her voice. (It’s always bothered me that intellectual desire and physical desire are so similar that they incite misunderstandings: like anxiety and allergy, united by hydrocortisone.)
After Eleonora revised it, the story was accepted in one of Italy’s most important literary journals, and the day it came out, she invited me to have tea with her as a thank-you. She spoke in a different tone than usual—serious, stressed-out but not neurotic, and while she talked, I found myself thinking of the contrast Ibsen was going for in A Doll’s House between the Nora who tries to coax her husband and the Nora who signs loan notes behind his back to save her family. “I risked losing my mother for books,” Eleonora said to me, “and that period seemed endless. I didn’t have my mother, and I didn’t even really have literature. Since 2003”—and she emphasized the year like she must have done in a hundred grueling conversations—“I’ve been trying to become a part of literature.”
I told her that I found her devotion moving, and then she added: “I have to do it—I can’t give up now.”
Those were great days in Rome. The new independent music scene, romantic and electronic, its flashes of lyricism in sync with the young people of Rome and their struggles—those living as artists and those who dreamed of doing so, undeterred by the constant remarks about how the city was dying from ignorance and corruption. Eleonora and her boyfriend hung out with the producers of that music, the singer-songwriters, and also with young comedians, writers . . . but she was frustrated that her boyfriend hadn’t finished his first novel, which she couldn’t wait to edit: he seemed too satisfied with his lifestyle to dedicate himself to art. She found a little freelance work, some copyediting under the table, five hundred euros a month. As the months passed, her anonymous work started showing up in the bookstores she’d visit, and she was thrilled. So what if these novels weren’t so great—just a bunch of genre fiction—it was fun seeing the paper fruits of her intelligence budding in the greenhouses of culture.
Another girl from the (now finished) workshop wrote me and sent me her first novel. I sent it on to Eleonora, like I had the story and again, I was pleased with the result, and this time forwarded it to my publisher, and they bought it.
I gave Eleonora the news over the phone; she burst out crying, apologized, and hung up. A half hour later she called back to ask if the colophon could include her name as editor. I told her the author could put her into the acknowledgments.
The publisher I worked for, one of the big houses, is located in Milan. I divided my time between Milan and Rome, where I’m from, because it was my job to work with our Roman writers. When I returned to Rome that day, I met Eleonora in a tearoom downtown: she seemed unhappy. She’d entered the literary world by truly, irrefutably helping a young, talented writer, and this had unnerved her: “I can’t take it. It’s over, just like that, there’s nothing stable, no place to stand. Stefano’s perfectly happy as he is, hanging out with singers, this endless Tartar Steppe is fine by him . . . this dream he’ll never obtain. Marcello, I can’t take it.” And then she made this leap in logic that I still remember, maybe because I was so struck by hearing my name spoken in such an intimate way: “Do you think I used him? For his money? I want to start eating again, Marcello. I hate feeling so bad.”
The next day, I recommended Eleonora for an internship at my publishing house, and when I told her the editor in chief had approved, she started crying again and gave me a big hug, because this time I’d told her in person, at a bar, and she glued herself to me. That night she stayed over at the young female writer’s after breaking up with her boyfriend.
She’d finally gotten into publishing: she went back home to live with her family in the same small town near Milan; from there, she’d commute to the office for her internship, two points in orbit around Milan that held her exclusive attention until she was hired on as an editor. Her mother was happy to devote herself to packing a metal schiscetta with Eleonora’s lunch and getting her healthy again. Early on in her internship, Eleonora regained the weight she’d lost, regained her figure, her red hair and freckles became bright again. She started seeing a young accountant in her town.
And that’s when she and I began our secret affair.
Excerpted from THE WOMEN I LOVE by Francesco Pacifico. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2018 by Francesco Pacifico. Translation copyright © 2021 by Elizabeth Harris. All rights reserved.