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Flowering young girls and dirty washing

Italy can't stop talking about an ambitious new novel. By Franz Haas

For well over a month now, Italy has been embroiled in a "literary affair", the debut novel of a cocky young man. The controversy is so great you would think a new Umberto Eco book had just come out. Five years ago, writer Alessandro Piperno made an early attempt to break into the world of academia with his study "Proust Antiebreo" (The anti-Jewish Proust). Now, at 33 he is stirring up a huge furore in the feuilletons with his novel "Con le peggiori intenzioni" (with the worst intentions). The book is a Jewish family saga which reeks of Proust and is full of other little evils, but it undoubtedly deserves the attention it is getting. Few literary debuts of recent years have been so ambitious, either in style or subject matter. It is an effervescent and acrimonious portrait of an era.

Piperno's book has also sat atop the Italian best-seller list for the last two weeks, a position normally reserved for trash or mediocrity. Then again this is hardly surprising, with the barrage of critical drumfire which has been sounding unanimously from all political camps. The author has received hymns of praise in respectable cultural columns and interviews in glossy magazines. He appeared on a popular talkshow together with the critic who most passionately propagandises his work. Rare voices of dissent are whispering about a "Jewish lobby" or grumbling that the book was published by Mondadori, one of Berlosconi's publishers.

The right-wing is rejoicing over the alleged "political incorrectness" of the novel. The Berlusconi-funded Il Foglio newspaper is jumping for joy at its supposed taboo breaking – throwaway remarks about Jewish sex-crazed old goats, Catholic bigots and good-for-nothing gays – although they have confused the author's voice with that of one of his characters. The other camp is equally thrilled, if for other reasons. The left-wing weekly Diario kneels before this "brilliant" work as if it were a miracle. More guarded tones comes from the weighty Italian feuilletons. La Stampa calls Piperno "a sort of imitation Alberto Moravia", and Il Sole 24 Ore cautions critics who "cry masterpiece" at a book "which describes a lot and says little". These reservations are justified to some extent, nevertheless "Con le peggiori intenzioni" is a remarkable book.

Alessandro Piperno, born in 1972 in Rome, is the roughly same age as his hero Daniel Sonnino. He also comes from a bourgeois Jewish family so absorbed in making money that it has no time to spare a thought for the Holocaust and murdered relatives. Daniel Sonnino's affluent family has been trying in vain for three generations to be accepted into the fantastically wealthy circles of a Catholic friend of Sonnino's grandfather. At 15, Daniel falls impossibly in love with the granddaughter of this Croesus, and remains infatuated by her for the rest of his life. The book opens with a description of the Jewish patriarch and a calculated sensation: just a page into the book the grandfather is caught red handed in an explicitly bizarre act of sex with a minor. Of course this sells well, and it is not the only instance where the author is as unrestrained with his calculation as this Jewish satyr during copulation.

Daniel (like the author) is a literary scholar who has written a maniacal book: "All Jewish anti-Semites. From Otto Weininger to Philip Roth". He leads a melancholy life, constantly quoting Proust either directly or indirectly. His madeleine experience is the remembrance of the smell of his older brother's finger after his first petting session. Daniel will never get that far. His Albertine is Gaia, the filthy-rich Catholic heiress of his grandfather's friend. She is unbelievably beautiful, he is averagely ugly. For five years she tolerates him like a page boy at her side, until her agonising aversion to him explodes on her 18th birthday. In the summer of 1989, as Rome's beautiful rich young men and flowering young girls are enjoying themselves in the gardens of the girl's villa, Daniel is caught sniffing his beloved's unwashed stockings and panties. He will never overcome the ignominy.

But there's plenty more dirty washing in this novel. The socially aspiring Jewish clan into which the narrator's Catholic mother eventually marries is described by the youngest family member with fervent self-hatred. The Italian critics are beside themselves at so much bad blood (and foreign publishers will tear each other apart to get at it). The leftist Repubblica praises the author's "ingenious mania", the rightist Giornale is delighted by Piperno, who stands out from the "usual minimalist wimps". The book has received most coverage in the weekend supplement of the august Corriere della Sera, where it was discussed in unusually animated terms.

The explicit references to sexual perversions are not the best thing about the book, although they don't really do it much harm. More detrimental is its ample use of fashionable slang, full of expressions like 'upgrade', and the nasty habit adopted from the Italian press of constantly addressing the reader in chummy asides ("you will understand"). The family history is told in great detail, sometimes with a Buddenbrooks-ishness, sometimes in overly loquacious reflections. The most original part of the novel is the last third, which focuses solely on the suffering of the young Daniel at the loss of his capricious Lolita. Here the despondency of the awkward young Humbert Humbert from Rome's upper classes is told with almost Nabokovian intensity.

Alessandro Piperno: "Con le peggiori intenzioni". Mondadori, Milan 2005. 304 p., euro 17.-.


The article was orginally published in German in the Neue Zürchner Zeitung on March 16, 2005.

Franz Haas was born in 1955 in Diesendorf, in Austria. He lives in Rome and teaches at the University of Milan, and has published on Austrian and Italian literature.

Translation: lp. - let's talk european