That week in late September when Massimo first appeared, she was laboring with more than the usual pain on a few pages where her central character–an American woman who was also working on something called The Italian Novel–sees she is no longer interested in the man she lives with. They have very different ways of thinking about things, the contrast has lost whatever charm it once had, and she has come to feel they are a poor erotic match. The difficulty Whitney the actual writer was having with the material was that it all seemed so conventional. In trying to convey something about the main character’s desire, for example, she had actually written, She wanted a man who would take her. Still worse, having drawn on her own experience to give form to this character, there was a difficult moment when she had to wonder whether she herself was also in some way poorly imagined.
Category: The Italian Novel
In fact, for Whitney the two things were rather desperately tangled up with one another— the problem of her book, the problem of desire. Her working title spoke well enough about all of it. She had hundreds of manuscript pages, but it still seemed more like an idea for a story rather than a story in the making, and so the placeholder title, The Italian Novel. And how was she to write the kind of story she imagined in outline while living a life so empty and gray? She had watched herself struggle to catch hold again the pulse of desire. Over the last few months, for instance, she had begun to conjure up for herself one after another imaginary lover, like the young man in the dream, like a couple others in the waking world. There was cheerful Nicolo the butcher’s son, so handsome in his blood stained apron. There was the very good looking older gentleman sitting across from her on the train from Bologna. Not a word passed between them, but their eyes met once just after they left the Centrale, and Whitney at least felt herself at the edge of abandon. When she got back to the apartment, she lay down on the sofa, closed her eyes, and imagined the stranger fucking her.
She had become more conscious of her cycle during her time with Paolo; his powers of observation were rigorous. After only a few months together, they had it all plotted out: there was the quiet time from day one to ten, then the days of the egg, and finally, as the estrogen ebbed and her progesterone surged, what Paolo called the danger, a designation Whitney didn’t much like, for it was associated with many bruising collisions, and there was no way she was owning all of it.
It’s our dynamic, she always countered.
Yes, day twelve, the time of the egg, and on her bothersome way to work—across the piazza, south to the lungarno, then a couple of blocks downstream, where on Tuesday and Thursday at the museo she assisted Signorina di Nero, assistant directoress of public information, as unwelcome a mission as she could conceive for day twelve, when she was not just irritated and distractible, but also beginning to vibrate with acute sexual arousal. What she needed today was a man on top of her, a good thrashing, lunch with vino and a nap.
She once read something about the psychology of beauty. What, if anything, can be said about what we find attractive in others? She couldn’t any longer remember all of what she’d gleaned but a few things still came to mind: There was in the first place rather surprising consistency across cultures regarding good looks. This was so even when it came to groups that were very isolated. Men almost everywhere preferred women with high foreheads, larger eyes, fine noses and cheekbones, full lips, and curvy forms. All such qualities are linked to estrogen levels and greater fertility. No surprise, they are also concentrated among women in their early sexual maturity.
Whitney, for better or worse, possessed most of these characteristics, but one. The principle of the average. It’s also the average that is preferred–average large eyes, for example, average full lips, etc. Women are found less attractive in direct proportion to any augmentation over the average. And Whitney was a little too curvy. She had her father’s shoulders and grandmother’s heavy bottom. To be sure the general impression she projected was still that of a good-looking woman, but she was conscious of being distinctly flawed.
After a moment an arm was raised up front, the director handed the person a microphone, and it was asked whether the professoressa could put such images of hell in a more general context. . . .
Next Paolo himself put up his hand.
Grazie. Uno discorso meraviglioso, he began. My question is about the idea of sin in all of this. It is a long time ago, so I remember only one of Dante’s damned, the adulteress.
Francesca, the professoressa named her.
I’m sure that’s right. Her torment is to be forever blown in a terrible tempest.
Si. Francesca da Rimini.
There was something disturbing about her fate, Paolo went on. It seemed she felt deeply for her lover. But there she is in hell suffering eternal punishment.
Yes, she answered. I understand. But for Dante, whose idea of sin is something like Aquinas’, the sin lies not in love per se, nor even the illicit love of the adulterer, but in the excess, just as the sin of gluttony consists of an excess of an otherwise natural human drive, namely to eat. It is always some excess that damns Dante’s sinners.
Paolo called it her cosmic microwave background, and it seemed not so off the mark. It was the end of her first year at Dartmouth; she got pregnant. After a few weeks of heart-wrenching decision-thinking, she terminated it, an act as irreconcilable with her Christian upbringing as having had pre-marital sex in the first place.
The cosmic microwave background, as best she understood, was what the universe looked like just after the Big Bang–looked and still looks like, because of course one can even now look up and across billions of light years to that time. Light travels fast but not fast enough. So if you look far enough you can see it still, the shape of things just after the Big Bang, this and the pattern of everything following that first universe of superheated plasma–the dense sectors, the diffuse ones.
As it was in the Beginning: getting knocked up freshman year was her Big Bang.
Had he not been an astronomer, he might have come that day to believe that the stars really do shape our fate, that there are critical oppositions, baleful conjunctions, heavenly things align and one thief is saved. Yes, whatever stars govern secrets–secrets and their unravelling–they had come into that once-in-an-eon syzygy to disclose to him not just one but two unknowns, one rather more personal than the other, but both the kind of revelation that changes everything.
There was also a kind of stuck in her writing itself, a condition not entirely attributable after so many years to having had so little time for it. Her one interest was memoir, the story of her own life—her formation as the daughter of small town fundamentalists, her intellectual awakening as a student, her first marriage to a soldier—but she had now been working on the thing for almost twenty years, writing and rewriting, casting and recasting, dozens of sketches snipped from life, evocative, she thought, each compelling in its own way, but despite her best efforts never finally adding up to anything more than a laundry basket of disparate scenes, affective color, and social rumination.
She had begun to have the impression as she approached the museo that it was a prison. At first it was just that the boxy palazzo resembled one, but as the weeks wore on her time there came to feel like deathly servitude, hours, days shut away from life, emptied of everything but meaningless time-killing make-work—answering email from the assistant directress, who sat at a table not more than two meters from her own; small meetings with people from other museo offices for the coordination of everyone’s time-killing make-work; and worst of all, the great emptiness at the center of it all, the planning of the Galileo anniversary for a small tribe of wealthy patrons and museo leadership in order to reproduce an institution that contributed almost nothing to the public understanding of its eponymous hero.