In Jenny McPhee’s third novel, “A Man of No Moon” (September, 2007, Counterpoint Books) threads of her own life — family, nationality, writing, translating — come together in the story of Dante Sabato, a famous Italian poet, novelist, and translator whose relationship with two American sisters changes his life — or doesn’t.
Despite the clear distinctions between McPhee and her character — she is not a man, not a womanizer, not an Italian, has no war experience, and is not Italy’s greatest living poet — both share the defining experience of being an artist. “His angst about what it means to be a writer often crosses mine,” she says in a phone interview from London, where she lives. “He has this outside and inside persona, that tension of a man who is only in his work and a man who has to exist in the outside world and can’t quite make it work for himself.”
McPhee will speak about her new book as part of Princeton Public Library’s “Writers Talking” series on Wednesday, December 5.
While she is the daughter of nonfiction writer John McPhee and Princeton-based photographer Pryde Brown, she is first of all a sister par excellence, third in a line of five sisters. “I’m very interested in the sister relationship,” says McPhee. “I’m fascinated by where one sister stops and the other begins.” She and her sisters are so close that, despite their different personalities, there is sometimes a certain merging among their experiences. “Sometimes our memory is confused,” she says, and they ask each other, “Did you do that or did I do that?”
McPhee’s sisters are Martha, author of “Bright Angel Time,” “L’America,” and “Gorgeous Lies,” and a professor of English at Hofstra Unvierstiy in New York; Laura, a photographer who teaches at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston and author of “No Ordinary Land,” a book of landscape photography; and Sarah, an asssociate professor or art history at Emory University in Atlanta and author of “Bernini and the Bell Towers: Architecture and Politics at the Vatican.” She also has a half-sister, Joan Sullivan, the author of “An American Voter: My Love Affair with Presidential Politics,” and the principal and a founder of the Bronx Academy of Letters.
McPhee, who graduated from Princeton High School in 1980 (her father is also a PHS graduate), has fond memories of both the school and the public library. “My favorite place to give a reading is the Princeton Public Library,” she writes in an E-mail, “because it truly feels like home. I spent so many hours of my life there after school, disappearing into the stacks, drifting among all the titles that each suggested a universe, and getting entirely lost in one of them. A large part of my first novel, ‘The Center of Things,’ takes place in a library in New York City but the library I was remembering was the Princeton Public Library of my childhood imagination. From within the saftey and comfort of those walls, I really did feel that I could go anywhere, do anything, explore every nook and cranny of the world of the mind.
“And then there are the teachers from Princeton High School. Mr. Lucker made history vital and alluring. My Latin teacher, Fred Carmen, made the study of language seem a dashing cocktail party on a lazy afternoon. And above all my English teacher, Mary Hartman, who had us memorize many soliloquies from Shakespeare’s plays, something I value over everything else I have ever learned since. She always took me dead seriously as a fiction writer. While writing ‘Ordinary Girls and Their Extraordinary Pursuits’ with my sisters (Martha and Laura), one thing became exquisitely clear to us: if just one person — a teacher, a brother, a friend — believes you can do it, it is very likely that you will.”
McPhee has wanted to be a writer as long as she can remember, and at age five was writing long, elaborate stories. She continued to write short stories as she grew older, but she kept them under wraps. “It was a private thing,” she says. “I used a pseudonym when I sent my stories out.” She chose not to participate in the creative writing program at Williams College — where she majored in English and minored in philosophy, graduating in 1984 — and her only concession was to do a couple of courses during Williams’ short January session.
The source of McPhee’s reticence to come out as a writer is due in part to her father’s influence. She tells of a recent conversation with her next youngest sister, Martha. They were wondering whether their older sisters were perhaps wiser not to follow in their father’s footsteps. “Having him as your father is, on the one hand, wonderful — he reads everything I write and is helpful and supportive. But no matter what we do, he can always do better.”
A prolific writer, with 30 books under his belt so far, John McPhee “is the god of nonfiction writing,” Jenny says, and this sets the bar very high for his progeny. “That’s always there, even though I wanted to deny it for years. Even if you can say it doesn’t matter, which we do, it’s still always there.”
Yet her father was also keenly aware of the challenges of a writing career, and he tried to protect his daughters. “He was always saying, ‘Never be a writer if you can avoid it. If you can, do something else. It’s a lonely life, if you ever make a dime.’”
As she has advanced in her own career, McPhee has come to understand that fatherly advice, which she had earlier resented. She comments in particular on the angst inherent in the writing of fiction: “You’re so exposed. You’re putting your imagination and what strikes you as interesting and the stories that come into your head out there for people to criticize, comment on, and know about.”
Yet even as she heard her father’s warnings of the perils of a writing career, what she observed of her father contradicted what he told her. In the wake of his diatribes, she remembers thinking, “Dad, you’re full of it; I see how much you enjoy being a writer.”
Despite her love of writing, McPhee also strongly considered continuing with the semiotics and post-modernism she studied in college. After college she studied comparative literature for a year at the University of Edinburgh on a St. Andrew’s Society Fellowship and then did two years of graduate study at the University of Paris. She studied with Julia Kristeva, whom she calls the “queen of semiotics,” in a program called Le Science du Texte. “I would have loved to have gone the academic route,” she says, “but the little girl who wanted to tell stories just wouldn’t shut up.”
Right after college, McPhee met her husband, Luca Passaleva, an engineer, through friends in Florence, where she had spent her junior year abroad. “I fell in love when he showed me a big picture of a turbine engine,” she says.
The two pursued a long-distance romance, meeting up every few months until finally she moved to Milan to be closer to him. He lived in Florence but job opportunities for her were more likely in Milan, where she found a job with an art book publisher, Idea Books, curating their English texts, from 1987 to 1989.
In 1989 the couple moved to New York City, where she worked in the editorial department of Alfred A. Knopf until 1993, when the Italian company where Passaleva worked was bought by General Electric, and she told him, “I’m going to marry you and get your health insurance so I can quit my job at Knopf.”
They married, but she actually continued to work at Knopf for two more years part-time. She worked at home until her first son was born in 1996.
McPhee wrote her first novel, “No Ordinary Matter,” at home while she was pregnant with her first son, thriving under the pressure of finishing before his birth. When it came time to publish the book, she finally had to confront, head on, the issue of her own identity as a writer. Her previous use of a pseudonym had both kept her writing private and sheltered her from any special consideration due to her family connections. “I wanted to be different,” she says, “and not have that McPhee thing hanging over me.”
With the birth of her son, she understood that her name and identity were inseparable. “I had an identity crisis,” she says, but she came to a decision: “This is my identity, who I am, and I shouldn’t hide from it. I wanted to pass it on to my children.” She even decided to give her son her last name.
In addition to writing McPhee gave translation seminars at Columbia. Her second novel, “The Center of Things,” came out in 2001, just before her second son was born.
McPhee’s recently released novel, “A Man of No Moon,” plays on her Italian connection. It is loosely based on a true story about an Italian writer, Cesare Pavese, who had a very public affair with an American starlet who was in Italy with her sister after the war. McPhee learned about Constance Dowling after having noticed the American name of Dowling in the credits of the postwar Italian film “Bitter Rice.”
The couple had been together for two years when Pavese committed suicide. “He was with this American beauty and still he did it,” says McPhee. “He had hope in this love but it wasn’t going to ultimately save him.”
The obsession that the novel’s hero, Dante, has with suicide grew both from this fragment of history as well as from McPhee’s fascination with suicide. “It is part and parcel of the human condition. We can think about it and do it, and other species don’t do it. ‘To be or not to be’ is a pretty compelling idea to me.”
What really drives the novel is McPhee’s curiosity about Italy and about the differences between European and American culture. As her relationship with Italy has developed, she has become curious about Italian history, especially the experience of living under Fascism — “that incredible tension between growing up in a Fascist state and not necessarily being in agreement with your government, yet still feeling your nationality.” The result is a bit of a schizoid perspective. “Having lived for a long time under governments that you don’t agree with, you begin to doubt a lot about who you are,” she says. “How can I live in this country when so many things I profoundly disagree with happen?”
She explored, in particular, the culture, writing, and film that developed in the wake of a the Italian experience during World War II, immersing herself in Fascist histories and novels written during and after the war, and watching the films screened in post-war Italy. In the novel she captures some of the power struggles and perversity of that time in the sadomasochistic sexual relationship between Dante and Gladys, one of the two sisters.
McPhee has in the last four years personally experienced the disjuncture between American and European culture treated in the novel. After her six-year post-college stint abroad, she came home feeling she never wanted to live anywhere else again. But, as fate would have it, her husband was transferred four years ago to London, where they now live with their boys, who are 7 and 11.
Europe is very much a conformist society, and McPhee says she misses aspects of America’s “rugged individualism.” “To be American is to be so many different things,” she says. “You are not looking at long, entrenched bloodlines, property that has been in a family for years and years.”
For Europeans whose villas have been in the family for 800 years, she says, they feel compelled to uphold the legacy. “You’re not going to up and sell it that easily.”
She contrasts Europe’s entrapment by the past to her own country’s more free-flowing understandings. “In the United States, if you reinvent yourself five times during your lifetime, that’s great,” she says.
McPhee admits that Europe has its good points — her husband is happy to be back in Europe after 12 years in the United States, and her children get to see their Italian family more — but she is frustrated by some of the everyday challenges. The schools, for example, reflect the more traditional British culture, and she is considering opting for something that reflects her own sense of identity and possibility. “I find the school system here appalling,” says. “It’s so rigid — creative is a bad word; and imagination, don’t encourage that! It’s all about testing, and I may end up sending them to an American school so they can think a little bit out of the box.”
A way that McPhee’s own experience is reflected in the novel is in her portrayal of Dante as a translator. She has translated from the Italian Paolo Maurensig’s “Canone Inverso,” “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” by Pope John Paul II, and Primo Levi’s “Storie Naturali.”
A friend in London told McPhee, “I think you have a double personality. You are so different in your work from the personality you present. You’re a wise, proper, waspy, blond woman, and in your work the most incredible things come out.”
McPhee considered the comment a big compliment. “That’s why I’m a writer,” she says, “so I can live all these different lives, so I can imagine and go all these different places.”
Jenny McPhee, Wednesday, December 5, 7:30 p.m. Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. The author speaks about “A Man of No Moon,” her latest novel, set in post-war Italy. 609-924-8822.