La Sposina

The pursuit of the good life—in both its moral and aesthetic guises—takes work. But you had Lorenzo. He was handsome and healthy, his shoulders made for polo shirts, his eyes designed to shine emerald green whenever he took off his aviators. His aunt and uncle were influential philosophy professors, and he was a post-doc, also in philosophy. They helped him score grants, and he, meanwhile, could be found at parties, where he’d say, “I’m a filmmaker,” in English, to anyone who’d listen.

What good was life on one’s own in the face of European decline and the increasing global irrelevance of your social class?

Photograph by Genial 23.

The following is an excerpt from Francesco Pacifico’s new novel Class, out today from Melville House. Buy Class directly from n+1 and get 25% off with the discount code CLASSCONFLICT. Pacifico will be in conversation with Marco Roth and Nikil Saval on June 8 in Philadelphia, and with Emily Witt on June 9 in New York.

The personal fulfillment of the bourgeois isn’t worth the carbon footprint required to sustain it.

You needed your own space, Ludovica. So your parents freed up an apartment they were subletting to a friend and gave it to you—the no-nonsense 21-year-old who looked forward to movie nights at home, made sure the vase on the windowsill always had a fresh flower in it, wore overalls on Sunday mornings. Who was always enmeshed in one or two or three jobs at once, each one more noble and demanding than the next: bartending, dog sitting, tutoring the ungrateful at a private high school (afternoons), assisting the grim, hopeless woman at the university library’s circulation desk (weeknights), leading workshops on digital marketing for aging members of endangered industries (weekends).

The family friend who’d been staying at the apartment was divorced and had three daughters: 5, 7, and 11. Your parents gave him three months’ notice. You never asked where he ended up. Now you were on your own, had bills you paid yourself, and you were proud. But though you tried to be frugal—you never took baths, you switched the laptop off at night—it was still one more hot water heater, one more refrigerator, one more washing machine, one more TV set, all of them weighing on the earth.

Your apartment was in Nuovo Salario, far from the center. Your parents paid the rent directly to the local council, which owned the building. (Only €300, rent controlled.) You paid your parents late, but you insisted on paying, because you weren’t your brother. He was studying management theory then—a good, boring Roman who lived with his parents and had never even tried to get a part-time job to earn himself some pocket money. But maybe he’d been right. What were part-time jobs really good for? What good was life on one’s own, really, in the face of European decline and the increasing global irrelevance of your social class?

Still, you could have stayed put in Nuovo Salario, out there beyond the Villa Ada, on the outskirts of the city toward the highway, near Via Salaria, where the underage hookers huddle near the bus stops. You could have embraced the pain of taking the endless Delle Valli Bridge to cross the railroad tracks, the shortest of the long routes to the center. You could have stayed among them, the others: the mechanics repairing cars on the sidewalks; the old women pushing their carts through the supermarkets; the loud children, whose voices echoed through the preschool playground every morning and afternoon.

You’d grown up among the sycamores and palms and lemons of the Quartiere Trieste. The luscious foliage suffocating the gates, the confident garages that faced the street—these were your childhood. You knew you’d leave behind that bourgeois torpor, and Nuovo Salario was an improvement; it was more truthful. But you had to move closer to the center. You could have stayed put in Nuovo Salario, but it was always going to be a stopgap.

And so the time soon came for you to try to convince your parents that Pigneto was a pretty good investment, no? It was closer to the center and much more lively. You didn’t say—you barely thought!—that it was a more fitting place for someone like you.

They sold their share of your grandparents’ house near St. Peter’s to your uncle and used the €350,000 cash on a villino in Mandrione, a borgata near Pigneto only a five-minute ride from San Giovanni and Piazza Vittorio. Two stories that overlooked a backyard, a winding street (“so Roma,” you could hear everyone say), and the ancient Roman aqueduct—right there, ten meters from your window.

They’d taken a guess about market trends, your parents, and they’d been proven right. “You might use it for a while . . .” they said. That for a while—the ellipsis embedded in every syllable— was so tactful, so charming. (And borgata, too, was delightful. Mandrione was a perfect neighborhood, unworthy of nuance or diminution, so the word was a lie, a sexy Pasolinian cover-up.)

You remodeled the house with your parents’ money. You dealt with the workers yourself—the Romanians, the Albanians, the Senegalese, the Ciociari—though you got a little help from Lilla, your architect friend, who was a trainee in her uncle’s practice.

And yet . . . what was all this good for? It was gentrification, waste, a redirection of resources within a closed system. Europe was dying.

The pursuit of the good life—in both its moral and aesthetic guises—takes work. But you had Lorenzo. He was handsome and healthy, his shoulders made for polo shirts, his eyes designed to shine emerald green whenever he took off his aviators. His aunt and uncle were influential philosophy professors, and he was a post-doc, also in philosophy. They helped him score grants, and he, meanwhile, could be found at parties, where he’d say, “I’m a filmmaker,” in English, to anyone who’d listen.

You moved into the shiny new house before it was ready, in 2009. There were still wires to bury, walls to paint. Lorenzo, meanwhile, had stumbled onto another change in scenery: a year at Columbia, paid for by Rome’s Sapienza University. He filled out the grant application, and you thought about New York.

You flew to the States in the fall of 2010. Your parents transferred money into your account for the airfare and a year’s worth of rent. You’d been thinking out loud about wanting to be a mother, and before you got pregnant, you said, you wanted to satisfy this whim. You were being mature.

But you weren’t clueless. You had gumption. You’d always made more than Lorenzo, and though you loved him, you knew that not sharing the money your parents had sent was a choice. Your parents could justify the transfers to themselves (“The kids need our help; they grew up when public debt was so high, and that was all our generation’s fault! They really didn’t get much of a chance, when you think about it”), but could you justify your own withholding? You felt so beautiful with him.

You rented a large room in a rickety apartment whose mottled hardwood floors slanted gracefully, north to south—no New York apartment had perfectly straight floors, you’d heard. There were large windows that let in pale, Nordic light and a rotten front door with three locks. You had two flatmates, from Rome and Turin, who were in the city shooting documentaries about infrastructure.

As soon as Lorenzo had gotten the grant, you knew there was only one neighborhood where you wanted to be, and here you were. This was Williamsburg—“Willy”—where you could live among the hip and the young and the wealthy. (The non-wealthy were here, too, of course. They came by bus, like in Midnight Cowboy, and their disguises could hold for a while, but soon their money would run out, and they’d disappear.) In Williamsburg you could pull off the life you’d dreamed of but couldn’t enact in Nuovo Salario. There weren’t any record stores in Nuovo Salario. No cheese shops, no bike shops, no sleek taquerias with beautiful, tattooed waiters. You’d finally begun to get a glimpse of this life in Pigneto, but in Willy you were getting the full version. Here were the pool halls lit like Robert Frank photos; the shaved ice carts in the park, pushed by Salvadoran grandmothers; the ironic bowling parties; and Duane Reade’s “cold room,” with its special section for retro brands. There was the sense that here you were among future icons, that if you stared hard enough, new trends would emerge. You could sit and read Virginia Woolf and look out onto Manhattan, you could walk around and see real stenciled posters and fake stenciled posters, you could watch as street artists spray-painted a Jack Daniels ad onto the brick wall of a bar, because there were no billboards in Williamsburg—billboards were passé.

Your husband shot that short film we hated. Your character’s name was La Sposina (the pretty little bride) according to the closing credits.

The film was titled G. “‘G,’ for gangster,” Lorenzo would tell his Italian audiences. He boasted that he’d sold his car to finance the production—but it was barely a car and not even his: a tiny little thing, a Fiat 600 that belonged to his mother, and he’d never paid for the insurance. And anyway, he wouldn’t and didn’t miss it; by then Ludovica had coopted her mother’s Yaris; the woman had decided to give up driving.

Everyone in Lorenzo Proietti’s generation got a digital camera for graduation. This was the height of the DIY fad, when Clerks and Il Caricatore had captured the imagination of the untalented. Lorenzo lived with his parents, his allowance 100 euros a week. A cousin at RAI got him an internship at Porta a Porta, which turned into a production assistant gig there and at Buona Domenica. These were bullshit shows for the bullshit public. Lorenzo lent a hand on the set of Boris, the comedy series/indie sensation. (He was 26.) This was when you first heard the “I’m a filmmaker” line, and his version of the English word was impossible to replicate—it was affected, exaggerated, nonsensical somehow; he managed to pronounce it without an r at the end. G. won a prize from the Comune di Roma, which belatedly convinced Lorenzo, at 34, to apply to the New York Film Academy. New York was brimming with the children of the Italian elite—left-wing politicians, journalists, entrepreneurs—and they were all eager to become cineastes. They were at NYU, they were all over Brooklyn and Manhattan. The two of you left for New York, determined to test the waters. Lorenzo’s philosophy grant was your excuse, but if connections were made and the vibe was right, Lorenzo would enroll at the Academy.

G. seemed to aspire to complete derivativeness—a work of total imitation. It nodded to Pulp Fiction (the gangster’s black outfit, dusty and tight), Lost in Translation (a woman staring at the city from the window of a villa in Gianicolo, holding her knees to her breasts with her arms), La Dolce Vita (conversations from one room to the other via baby monitor). It referenced The Usual Suspects, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Matrix, The Big Lebowski, Breathless. It had a complicated self-kidnapping plot (Fargo)—a long list of derivative shit. The jury, even dumber than Lorenzo, called it “ambitious, a bachelor machine of nods and winks.”

My opinion back in 2011 was that the vilest, most inauthentic, most revealing part of this vile, inauthentic quasi-narrative were the actors’ accents. The accents reeked of a social class—the borghesia romana—that was pathologically un-self-aware and didn’t have an ear for how they sounded on film. Their Italian was slow and languid—the sound of summer, of cigarettes flicked off windowsills with inherited casualness, of sitting on park benches and leaning over to friends and suggesting a short walk to “go get a Gelatiiino, or a Cremolaaato?” In Lorenzo’s movie, this clueless accent emerged with an awe-inspiring inconsistency: small-time crooks, nasty hoods in shiny blazers, drugged-out waitresses, corrupt priests, aristocratic looking bartenders—all of them stripped of the virtues and vices of their classes, perfected into abstraction thanks to their creator’s profound cluelessness. The only way to tell the Albanese mobster apart from the rich lawyer was through one cheesy linguistic flourish or another—fake-ass slang that aped Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, a stupid movie many Roman cinephiles my age adored. The maid was played by woman with a PhD who grew up near Via del Corso. The kidnapper— supposedly nasty and ominous—was handsome and tall and lithe and thirty, with salt and pepper sideburns and dark, sexy circles around his eyes. The only thing he exuded was real estate; your husband saw him as the Peter Falk to his Cassavetes.

And you. I laughed so hard when I read your name in the credits. In Kill Bill, Uma Thurman is a martial arts expert known as The Bride—La Sposa—so in G., Lorenzo cast you as La Sposina, the kidnapper’s wife: less a remake than full literalism. In my favorite scene, you call your husband to complain that he’s late for dinner. You use a beautiful, vintage-looking telephone that sits on the counter next to a beautiful, vintage-looking, baby blue Smeg fridge, as if such a blatant upper-middle-class signifier could ever appear in the home of a mobster. In place of Thurman’s tracksuit, you wear yellow pajamas in every scene, and instead of her Onitsuka Tigers, you have yellow sock-slippers. At one point, late in the film, you slice onions with a huge knife, which lets the audience know that somewhere, deep inside, you’re a blade expert, and in case the point isn’t sufficiently clear, Lorenzo gives us a close-up on the brilliantly sharpened weapon. Still, in most scenes, you’re just waiting for your husband to come home, sitting next to the long glass windows and rinsing your face over the yellow and white pebbles in the bathroom sink. You are a generically good, generically young wife, the kind of figure who exists only in nostalgic TV ads produced by your Roman friends on behalf of aspirational coffee-machine brands.

That’s the reason you came to America—for your husband’s personal fulfillment. But the 21st-century bourgeoisie tends toward individualism, creating too many conflicts among its members. And so your own individual quest came into conflict with Lorenzo’s: this was why he spent hours on the subway traveling back and forth between Brooklyn and Columbia, because you refused to live somewhere convenient, like Harlem or Morningside Heights. It’s Willy or bust, you told him.

He had acceded, but the conflicts hadn’t ended. He spent too much time networking with other Roman cinephiles, hanging out with his fellow gregarious Italians in the Village. Lorenzo wore shorts in the summer and stone-washed jeans in the winter, and his polo shirts seemed to magnify the tuft of hair above his chest. His hairline was receding, which on him was classy. If he enrolled at the Film Academy, you’d be staying in New York against your father’s wishes. (Your father was mad that you’d left the family bookstore—he didn’t answer the phone, didn’t reply to your emails.) This trip was making our young couple grow apart, and it was—it felt like it was—Lorenzo’s fault.

You come from a good family: your parents used to vote for the Communist Party; they taught you to make time for the soup kitchen on Sunday mornings, to spend late winter afternoons at nursing homes, at senior citizens’ dancing groups. But your progressivism was unanchored from theory, estranged from the Marxism you never even knew you had outgrown. What was once open-mindedness became pure exoticism: culture was for collecting. You’re only good for hailing cabs and booking flights that expand your carbon footprint. You refresh ryanair.com while—far from your eyes and farther from your heart—exhausted old ladies crouch on their knees in an industrial Chinese suburb, pulling obsolete cell phones from heaps of waste, from the sewage of techno-capitalism. You watched the Edward Burtynsky documentary that night at the Kino club, the one with the uranium mines and the nickel residue piercing the dark Ontario earth like lava, and those old Chinese ladies, hunched over piles of electric circuits . . .

Francesco Pacifico’s Class is out now.

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