A few years ago, before his first novel made him a literary phenomenon in his native Italy, Alessandro Piperno was a young professor of French literature and the author of Proust, Anti-Jew, a scholarly study of Proust’s depiction of Jews in Remembrance of Things Past. “For an academic book, it was scandalously autobiographical,” Piperno said in a recent conversation. Piperno’s father hails from one of Rome’s oldest Jewish families and his mother is Catholic. “In Proust, I saw all the ambiguities of someone who has one foot in Judaism and the other out.”
For his second book, The Worst Intentions, Piperno brought those ambiguities—and that autobiography—to the fore with a vengeance. The tragicomic saga of a Roman Jewish family undergoing rapid, multigenerational decline, the novel became an instant sensation in Italy when it appeared in 2005. With vivid characters like Bepy Sonnino, the philandering paterfamilias and victim of Mussolini’s racial laws; Luca, his debonair albino son; and Daniel, Bepy’s sexually dysfunctional grandson, the novel was hailed as an Italian Portnoy’s Complaint, a postmodern Buddenbrooks.
In many ways, the book’s smash success—the “Piperno case,” as the Italian press called it—is more interesting than the novel itself. In a country whose official Jewish community is small (numbering 35,000) and somewhat lacking in confidence, writing a novel depicting Jews as avaricious and perverted was a particularly daring act, one that seemed to play into every possible negative stereotype about Jews. That it was written by a Jew (albeit a half-Jew who doesn’t consider himself Jewish), only upped the ante, allowing readers—especially European readers—to indulge guilt-free. Yet the Piperno case isn’t so simple. As The Worst Intentions unfolds, it becomes more complicated and self-aware, much like its author.
On a recent visit to New York, Piperno discussed his case and his book, which has just appeared here in a deft English translation by Ann Goldstein. Goateed, with glasses that make his eyes seem much larger than their normal size, the 34-year-old author is very much the Continental dandy. Like the fictional Sonninos, the actual Pipernos are in the high-end fabric business, and sartorial flair runs in the family. The day we met, he sported a natty handkerchief in the breast pocket of his blue blazer and carried a professorial pipe and a well-read Italian translation of Fitzgerald’s The Jazz Age. When fame came calling, Piperno was clearly dressed for the part.
Good thing he was prepared. The Worst Intentions sold an astonishing 120,000 copies in its first two months in stores—almost unheard of for authors who aren’t Dan Brown. Prominent commentators lauded The Worst Intentions on Italian national television, creating an Oprah effect. The Sunday magazine of Corriere della Sera, the country’s leading daily, published a glowing feature, complete with a map of the posh Roman locations where the novel was set. In a rather staid literary culture where in recent years novelists have tended toward the abstract or the grotesque, here was a comedy of manners—often bad manners—that reveled in its hedonism. The critics went wild, and the novel went on to acclaim in translations across Europe.
But beyond the media hype, something else propelled the book’s success. “I wrote a post-Primo Levi novel,” Piperno said. While many of the great moral authorities of the Italian 20th century were Jewish—Primo Levi, Carlo Levi, Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, Natalia Ginzburg, Giorgio Bassani—Piperno turned away from the literature of testimony and pathos. In The Worst Intentions, Bepy Sonnino and his wife, Ada, come from a generation stripped of its economic and political power by Mussolini’s 1938 racial laws, and witnessed some of their family deported. But after the war, Bepy “wants to forget,” Piperno said. “He wants to have fun.” Reading his novel, apparently European readers did, too.
But whether depicting the Sonninos as all too human is a healthy move toward post-Holocaust normality or a sign that Europe is all too eager to laugh at Jews is a matter of some debate. The novel’s unflattering portrait didn’t go over so well in the Italian Jewish community, which tends to be defensive even in the best of times. “People said that I made money off the Jews, that I was a traitor,” said Piperno. Unlike in America, with its dizzying varieties of Jewish observance, in Italy all synagogues are Orthodox—period—even if most Jews’ practice is far more lax and often nonexistent. With a Catholic mother, “I’m not Jewish,” Piperno said decisively. He was raised secular, and though he has “a strong cultural affiliation,” he admits to having “a problem with Judaism. A form of rejection.”
Like Piperno, the discontented narrator Daniel is the product of a mixed marriage. In a telling scene, a teenaged Daniel wants to say Kaddish at Bepy’s funeral, but isn’t allowed. “Why can’t I, Papa?” he asks his ultra-assimilated father, Luca. “’What do you mean, why? You’re not Jewish.’ ‘O.K.,’ I say, annoyed. ‘Granted: I’m not Jewish. But you have to admit that I’m the closest thing to a Jew you’ve ever known.’” At this, Luca bursts out in hearty laughter, at his own father’s graveside. For Piperno, Daniel is “a disaster of assimilation…. He’s the future: an unhappy bastard.” Eventually he becomes a professor and starts work on a book called All the Anti-Semitic Jews, from Otto Weininger to Philip Roth. At one point, he thinks to himself: “Why write that book?” Why include “yourself implicitly in that rich list, when everyone knows that you are neither Jewish nor anti-Semitic but would like to be both?”
Piperno is particularly interested in Weininger, an Austrian philosopher, Jewish convert to Christianity, and eventual suicide, whose 1903 treatise Sex and Character argued that all individuals possessed male qualities, which he defined as rationality, productivity, and consciousness, and female ones, which he associated with passivity, amorality, and illogicality. Weininger’s notion of Jews as essentially feminine and Judaism as “the extreme of cowardliness” later influenced the Nazis. Sex and Character is “violently anti-Semitic, violently anti-Jewish,” Piperno said, but also “more complicated,” in that it was written by a Jew clearly aware of his inner contradictions.
Such contradictions clearly animate Piperno. At a wedding in Bavaria a few years ago, he found himself sitting next to the grandson of Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi foreign minister, an encounter that seemed to excite the novelist as much as it repelled him. But in spite of his ambivalence—and perhaps his own worst intentions—Piperno isn’t an anti-Semitic Jew. Among other things, his opinions on Israel skew to the right in Italy, where, paradoxically, the former communists are more pro-Palestinian and the former fascists more pro-Israel. In our conversation, Piperno vociferously denounced the recent British boycott of Israeli academics. In general, he said, “Europe has a scandalous attitude toward Israel.”
The Piperni are an old Roman Sephardic line who trace their family tree back to the 14th century. The novelist’s family made its money in the textile business in the early 20th century and has lived comfortably ever since. Piperno grew up in Monteverde Vecchio, a quiet, upper-middle-class neighborhood on Rome’s Janiculum hill. Unlike the Jewish communities of the North, with their intelligentsia—Italo Svevo and Umberto Saba from Trieste, Bassani from Ferrara, Levi from Turin—the Roman Jewish community is “very working class, very crass,” Piperno said. But within the community “there’s a small enclave of Byzantines—that’s my family.” They’re “cosmopolitan, neurotic, hedonists,” he said. “Staunch assimilationists, but also full of Jewish pride.”
So are his fictional Sonninos. The Worst Intentions opens in Rome in the 1970s, when the Italian post-war economic and cultural boom “were flickering their last flames,” he said, and ends after 9/11. The plot is a steady decline. Bepy, who, as the novel opens, is caught by his wife while his mistress urinates on his face, loads the family’s textile business with debt and cheats on his Catholic business partner, Nanni, who becomes fabulously rich off the sale of a Caravaggio. Bepy’s son Luca idolizes Nanni and revitalizes the family business, while his other son, Teo, horrifies his social-climbing parents by moving to Israel in 1967, swept up in a Zionist fervor. Meanwhile, Daniel develops a crush on Nanni’s granddaughter, Gaia—and a stocking fetish. Aroused only when sniffing women’s purloined pantyhose, he first reaches orgasm smelling his aunt’s feet on a visit to Tel Aviv. In a denouement more comic than tragic, Nanni catches Daniel searching through Gaia’s dirty laundry at her 18th birthday party.
“Through a story of three generations, I wanted to write a degeneration of the species, using sex as the means of expression,” Piperno said. Bepy, the novel’s most complex and endearing character, “is heterosexual, he likes to screw,” he said. His self-destructive impulses are also life affirming. “He has the frivolity of those who know they’re going to die.” To Piperno, the novel isn’t just about the Sonninos. “It’s also a metaphor for our country. It’s in decline, self-destructive. It doesn’t reflect on its past or future.” In spite of its author’s intentions, however, the novel doesn’t exactly read like a subtle treatise on the future of Europe. Its climax is more reminiscent of a John Hughes-style movie of teen angst than of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, on which Piperno said it was modeled.
But even if it lacks a certain gravitas, The Worst Intentions is a rich and biting portrait of Italian bourgeois society and its obsession with appearances, propriety, and saving face—a chronicle of a decadent culture uncomfortable with its irrelevance. Piperno addressed this in an interview with Corriere della Sera in 2005. His Parioli, Rome’s equivalent to the Upper East Side, is just a provincial backwater, “a shitty little neighborhood,” compared to “the rich and golden America of Fitzgerald,” he said then. “An Italian writer is at a real disadvantage compared to a Russian, an American, an Israeli, a South African one. It’s easier to write in a country where history moves forward.”
Piperno, who still teaches French literature at Rome’s Tor Vergata university, is now at work on a novel about the future of Europe. “We’re a continent sleeping on an atomic bomb, but we act as if we aren’t,” he said. Knowing Piperno, the book is likely to have autobiographical elements. Though his family is growing more accustomed to seeing themselves in fiction, it wasn’t always so. When The Worst Intentions came out, “My mother didn’t want to read it,” Piperno said. “There were so many things she couldn’t take: a son’s unhappiness, his sexuality, his wickedness, his hatred of his family. Some of my relatives didn’t talk to me for months. The only person who loved it was my father, who in his secularism and gracious narcissism just thought it was a lot of fun.” And then he became a case. “The novel’s success made it easier for everyone to forgive me,” Piperno said. “Success has that effect: it makes people nicer to you.”
Rachel Donadio is a Paris-based journalist, a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a former Rome Bureau Chief and European Culture Correspondent of The New York Times.