Can a Smart Novel Transcend Its Awful, Anti-Semitic Narrator?

Reading between the lines.
March 1 2013 12:08 PM

The Story of My Solipsism

It’s hard to like the book when you despise the narrator.

(Continued from Page 1)

Among the group is Clelia, an art gallery assistant and a Jew. Clelia connects “Chewb” with Uncle Leo (also Jewish), who rents various apartments in Paris and offers one to the enormous, hirsute Cinderella. With his internship almost up, he accepts. Leo begins calling our narrator “Rosenzweil.” We’re up to at least two alter egos.

Francesco Pacifico, writer and translator in Rome.
Francesco Pacifico

Photo courtesy of Grazia Ippolito

With his new persona, he seduces Clelia, who hardly needs seducing. Unbeknownst to Leo, Clelia spends most of her nights at Rosenzweil’s place. It’s not what you think though—unless you think that a celibate married man devoted to Jesus would live with another woman and never touch her sexually unless she is asleep. Because that’s what he does. But in this book it’s fine to cheat and molest if you’re a split personality. When Clelia returns Rosenzweil’s touch, he calls it a “Jewish caress”; he refers to her as “the Jewish girl,” “the Jewess at home,” “this Jewish mouse.”

Sinister, untrustworthy, egomaniacal, it’s hard to like the narrator who talks like this, who says things like, “Of my Roman weekend there’s not much to report,” like we care. How can we care? As a Jewish girl, I broke a pen while stabbing the book so many times with it. (It’s certainly been an interactive reading experience.) At these moments, I feel robbed of the pleasure I take in reading, of connecting with the characters and entering into a meaningful conversation with another (neurotic) mind. 

“[T]his was not the story of my redemption, but neither was it merely a story of my depravity,” Rosini or Chewbacca or Rosenzweil says.  “I wasn’t someone who had repented of having thought ill of Jews and now that he knew them didn’t find them so bad.” So what is the story about? At one point Rosini describes Clelia as someone who “didn’t speak from the heart; instead she spoke ironically.” This is a fitting description of our narrator, whose unceasing ironic detachment kept me from any intimacy with him and from any Great Truth about his story. “Irony has only emergency use,” wrote Lewis Hyde in Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking. In his essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” David Foster Wallace expounds:

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“This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing…singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.”

Yes. Emotional generosity, sincerity, and clarity are the virtues of literature. What is Rosini’s true voice, his earnest opinion? Without knowing, he hasn’t said much that is significant. He blames novels for filling his brain with bullshit, but he’s mistaking the cure for the disease.

Spoiler: Things don’t end well for Rosini/Chewbacca/Rosenzweil. When The Jewish Pope is published, Leo discovers Rosini’s anti-Semitism and ends their friendship. Everything unravels from here. Rosenzweil begins to multiply, the narrative splinters and offers a picture of the mind in flux, at the limits of sanity. There’s Rosenzweil Two, Three, and Four. It’s a lot like the movie Multiplicity.

Rosenzweil thinks he might have avoided his downfall by having sex. “Too late: I didn’t fuck [Clelia] before the book came out and now the damage was done,”; this is followed by pages and pages of italicized “ifs,” Rosenzweil tracking thoughts to their improbable end, imagined journeys to nowhere, including one where he takes MDMA. “I have never been so absolutely happy in my life,” he says, and it’s a relief. But it turns out to be just another fantasy.

“But what’s the point of these internal struggles?” wonders Leo in the last chapter. I have the same question. Perhaps the point is there is no point (how post-modern), that we all have novels and fictions inside us—even the most vile and superficial of us—very possibly mediocre novels where not much progresses and there is no great awakening, where characters come and go without explanation and most don’t like you, where amid the noise and disappointment of the modern world, we go inside our heads and stay there, preferring our life to be a collection of stories we tell ourselves. “[T]he life of Piero Rosini had always been rhetorical,” Rosini concludes.

The Story of My Purity is a collection of anti-Semitic rants, sexist remarks, and societal denouncements; but it’s also an angsty rumination on the difficulties of being an adult—finding a desirable partner, a meaningful job, a place in the world—and an in-depth narrative on the precariousness of faith and fidelity, the price of pleasure and distraction, the prison of self-consciousness, the limits of fantasy and happiness, the scope of loneliness, and the power of the life of the mind—in short, this book is our story. The narrator is a lot like us, and I hate him.

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The Story of My Purity by Francesco Pacifico. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Elissa Bassist edits the Funny Women column at the Rumpus. Follow her on Twitter, and visit
elissabassist.com for more literary, feminist, and personal criticism.

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