Anna McNamee: Now time for an Italian novel, which can only be described as a sort of modern cautionary tale, with human monsters to rival anything you’ll ever find in Greek myth. EVERYBODY’S RIGHT is the debut novel of Paolo Sorrentino, best known for writing and directing award-winning films like IL DIVO, which have earned him a reputation as a modern Neapolitan successor to the great Frederico Fellini, with whom he shares an interest in politics, and the seedier side of Italian society.
At the heart of his novel is Tony Pagoda, a singer of the crooning, nightclub type, all shiny shoes, sharp suits, and diamond rings. A sort of wannabe Frank Sinatra-meets-TV mobster Tony Soprano, whose world is about to implode. The book’s been a huge bestseller in Italy, and was described in its La Repubblica review as, “encapsulating Italy’s unstoppable descent into today’s dazed, corrupted, and tragically foolish reality.” And now it’s been translated in all its glory into English.
John Domini, himself a writer and teacher at Iowa State University, told me down a line from Des Moines why it struck such a chord.
John Domini: Well there’s a number of encounters with the Camorra, the famous Neapolitan mafia—famous and quite ruthless Neapolitan mafia—and, I should say, he’s like Tony Soprano perhaps in his attitude towards women, but he’s no mobster. He’s always proven to be the weakling and the loser in the encounters with the mafia, who basically survives by his singing.
And yes, he has a gift for singing, and he speaks warmly of having worked on this gift, that, if there’s something in the book that’s not treated cynically, it’s the fact that he had to work for his success, that he got up there. Then, once he is a success, he’s quite cynical about that. Sinatra is one of his idols, and the point is just to give the people what they want, usually.
Everything is very extreme for Tony. One reason he hates is wife is she’s a terrible cook, and he now has a rule—if I can read just a little bit—he has a rule about the kitchen. He says, ‘Now only I am allowed to set foot there, in the kitchen, and I bring to life these seafood carnivals: fried anchovies, joyous, pan-sautéed octopus, sea bass in triumph, and choruses of calamari singing Hosanna in the highest.’ [Laughs] You know, that’s pretty intense about food. That’s certainly Neapolitan. Everything he mentions is important, especially the octopus, in Naples.
AM: It is bizarre, though, because I mean, frankly, in some respects I kept thinking, is he just a really stereotypical kind of Italian character? Because he’s just so over the top, and so, well, ridiculous, and so self-indulgent and narcissistic and un-self-knowing that, you know, he’s a parody of himself. Or, is he real? Then I got worried, I thought well actually maybe there’s more reality in this character than I’d like to think.
JD: Well, I see the book as a “cartoon-intense”—you know, intense colors, intense actions, there’s practically big pop-up signs saying WHAM! and BLOOEY!—a kind of cartoon version of the decline of Italy’s culture and refinement through Sorrentino’s lifetime, through the boom years that followed the war, and then the more recent boom, and finally Berlusconi. Tony Pagoda is an excessive character in all the ways you describe, and yet he’s revealed at a number of junctures to be not as excessive as some.
When Pagoda is told at the end, ‘It’s all a gigantic rape out there,’ he reacts against it violently, he’s sorry about it, he doesn’t like that. If the book works for you, he has a kind of horrified conscience at that moment, and at a couple of other moments. He demonstrates a certain conscience. He’s terrible, but there’s worse in his country.
AM: So what, though…is Sorrentino trying to do? Is this some sort of political book, then? Is it a book about, for instance, why Italians kept voting for Berlusconi, even in the face of ‘bunga bunga’ parties and all the other kind of scandals, and all the other sort of allegations about connections to crime? I mean, how much of this is a reflection of what’s wrong, so to speak, with Italy today?
JD: If you think of a book having a spine…many of the vertebrae of this spine are there as depictions of what’s wrong with Italy. Sure, there is a political argument here, that the refinement, the quality of life that Italy used to prize has disappeared in favor of rampant, destructive capitalism.
But it’s not really a political novel in the sense of somebody like John Steinbeck. It’s much funnier than that, it’s much more outrageous than that. Sorrentino is trying to fascinate you and entertain you, rather than make you engage with somebody who’s serious enough and compassionate enough to hold your attention. It’s not the Tolstoyan notion, where you connect with somebody like Anna Karenina even though she’s doing something bad.
AM: So is that why this book has been so popular in Italy? Because it has been a sensation, hasn’t it? Has he touched the Zeitgeist?
JD: In Italy yeah, I think so. I think it is a valuable book in Italy because it treats this decline of Italian culture with an excessive cartoon comedy that is not usually the approach. Usually, when people reveal how crucial traditions and other wonderful old elements of Italian culture are falling away, they’re much more conservative, it’s a very depressive and quiet presentation. Sorrentino brings in the clowns. It’s a lot like Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA, which was excessive, and extraordinary, and certainly, you know, made a great deal out of Anita Ekberg’s breasts, and yet was a quite serious depiction of how the boom of the fifties and sixties was destroying Italian culture.
AM: John Domini, talking about the Italian bestseller, EVERYBODY’S RIGHT, written by Paolo Sorrentino and now translated into English by Howard Curtis.
- “The Strand” from BBC Radio, with Anna McNamee.