Book Simple: The Best Kind of Wedding, THE WORST INTENTIONS
I attended a wedding this weekend. It was the best kind of wedding, blissfully happy, held in a sunlit field in western Massachusetts, full of good friends from childhood who have grown up even better. The wedding bore no resemblance to anything that happens in The Worst Intentions, by Alessandro Piperno, which I picked up immediately upon returning to my apartment.
It was the comment of one of these friends, though, that made me think of it; an actor flown in from LA, he mentioned that the groom and his brother had formed his sense of humor, that trying to make them laugh had been his first experience with comedy. Piperno’s novel is an immersive study in the ways that other people’s needs and actions shape our development.
Owing (and acknowledging) a great deal to Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, Piperno’s narrator, Daniel Sonnino describes the many generations of his Roman Jewish family, the formerly wealthy Sonninos. His grandparents, survivors of the Holocaust, squandered their riches in a life of wild, amoral voluptuousness and a cascade of swindles. “Frivolity, sarcasm, impudence; a penchant for sophistry, deceit, and false pretence; imprudence, incapacity to evaluate a single act, prodigality, sex mania, lack of interest in anyone else’s point of view, reluctance to recognize one’s own failings, feigned strength of character that is only weakness, and above all a peculiar variety of optimism spilling over into irresponsibility: that is only a tiny fraction of the mixture with which they habitually take you in…the germ with which they poison your body, but also the cocaine with which they intoxicate it.”
The language of the book has an addictive rhythm; it is a triumph of translation by Ann Goldstein from The New Yorker.
Bepy, Daniel’s grandfather, flees the victims of his schemes to America, leaving Luca, Daniel’s father, and his brother Teo with the repercussions. “Only now do we realize that the dazzling wealth of recent years was supported by a perverse latticework of bank loans and a dizzying whirl of postdated and bounced checks: the grand illusionist finale of that tightrope-walking Mandrake.” Luca must tear the furs bought on credit that is no longer good from his mother Ada’s hands.
Their parents preferred lies, so their children search for authenticity in elaborate ways. Luca reacts against his father’s schemes by becoming a successful, honest businessman with a wife who treats him like a Pasha; his brother Teo reacts by embracing his Judaism and moving to Israel, becoming a right-wing newspaper editor only to discover that after he “embraced with such warmth the most orthodox Jewish tradition [he] ends up with this Labourite queer for a son.”
The web of the novel extends out through the generations, each shaping themselves against the hardened forms that came before. Daniel learns to lie to his father. He explains: “I give him what he needs. I serve him his preferred cocktail: security, success, the sensation that everything has a meaning and that that meaning is vaguely kind to him. … Anyone who has the least experience of life knows that to make our neighbor happy there is no better recipe than the lie.”
Party conversations do sometimes tend in that direction. We realize that people like to hear about certain bits of our lives, the happy bits and the successes, and we report those back editing out the miseries and failures that might most often preoccupy the mind. But The Worst Intentions demonstrates how much opposition to the expectations and desires of friends and families permits those expectations to control us. Daniel’s people certainly made me grateful to have had such a kinder crop myself to grow up among.