(This is a work of fiction; or is it?)
The first fan letter I ever received came shortly after the publication of my third novel, “The Spanish prisoner.” It was an email sent straight to my not-so-secret personal address, one that anyone who bothers to spend two minutes googling for can easily find. It was signed by some Andrea Palucci, firstname.lastname@example.org. It was fantastic.
After four years as a professional writer, I had really given up on the idea that some day one really excited and knowledgeable fan would pop out of the blue and send huge, carefully constructed praise my way. And yet, here it was. Better than money, better than fame, better than recreational drugs. Long, well-justified, meaningful praise, with no typos, with no drawbacks. I had found a seriously engaged reader who completely understood what I meant to transmit, who was in exactly the right wavelength, the correct frame of mind and reference. Miss or Mister Palucci (I wasn’t sure, at that moment, whether Andrea stood for a man, as is common in America, or a woman, as in common in Italy, the ancestral home of the Paluccis the world over) was my perfect fan. He or she wrote:
“What I find in your novel is an attempt to break through the boundaries commonly accepted for genre literature and make it transcend, so that the difference between ‘literary’ and ‘niche’ or ‘genre’ literature becomes meaningless, as that between a statue meant to occupy a given corner in the house of a millionaire or a well-to-do lawyer, and that of a statue meant to be ‘art,’ whatever that means. What I’m delighted to find, however, is that you actually succeed. Maybe, I want to be careful here because I don’t want to sound as an absolutely deranged fan, maybe you succeed in this manner like nobody else did before, maybe like not even John Le Carré or Patrick O’Brian did. Maybe your work can be said to transcend even those exemplary models.”
I love any praise, never mind where it comes from. Praise I always find great, in the morning, at night, before or after coffee. But this was properly written praise. And it was praise that compared me, favorably, with two of the writers I admire the most, two models any genre writer should ever aspire to compare himself with. I had to read that email several times to make sure I wasn’t taking it wrong, that the message was that, indeed, Andrea thought I was better than Le Carré and O’Brian. That was just uncalled for. That went beyond my wildest expectations; or at least it met them squarely.
The email was 800 words long. Almost like a mini-essay full on wonderful appreciation and serious, interesting insights on my work. Not just “The Spanish prisoner,” which Andrea had recently devoured, but also my previous two novels, the first two in the series, “Geli Hitler” and “Long night of knives.” That’s why I never seriously entertained the possibility that all that praise was fake, part of some elaborate joke: nobody goes to those lengths just to laugh at you in the end. This was honest, serious praise. From the heart to the keyboard to the little dots on the screen, up to some satellite and down to the Microsoft server holding my email account data.
I, of course, responded immediately and properly. I managed to contain my excitement, and strike a professional, semi-detached tone. Thankful, but not too desperate: above all, it was important that Andrea wouldn’t notice I had just read my first fan mail ever. I wanted to convey the impression that, while not a really successful writer, I was familiar with fan communications and the obligations brought forward by my admittedly moderate, even tiny, fame. I agonized over the exact length of the note, and one point I thought a friendly single line or two would be coolest, the best way to acknowledge the sentiments of the email without overdoing it. In the end, I couldn’t contain myself and went all the way to 400 words. I stopped myself there, thinking that a response half the size of the original would do. I hit send.
My second fan email arrived the next day. Andrea had gone for 1,700 words this time, over twice the length of the first. The praise was even stronger this time. This fan of mine had loved my response, and out of the excitement came forth a stream of ideas and interpretations of my work. It became obvious that Andrea had no only read my books more closely that I thought anyone would, but had an extremely unique, deep understanding of them. As an example, here’s the exact description provided of Bernd Meyer, the protagonist of all three books, a German policeman who becomes unwillingly close to Adolf Hitler after he clears the future Fuhrer of the murder of his niece, Geli Raubal, which took place just a year and a half before Hitler took power:
“It’s obvious that you’re using Meyer to write about yourself, to some extent. The way Meyer behaves, while extremely correct from a period-piece point of view, betrays in my view an underlying modern vision: that most people look at life as a computer game in which the important scoreboard to keep track of is that showing how much money you have, much as in Grand Theft Auto; while others set their own, personal scoreboards that they glance at incessantly. One wonders how many needed that in the recently-gone era when religion dictated morality. Meyer’s scoreboard is one of his own devising, a moral calculation that could be described as showing ‘niceness and decency’ points instead of money or power. The obvious suspicion is that the author knows all about this way of keeping score, and its drawbacks.”
This second time, it was harder to respond. Andrea kept making excellent points about my novels, much pithier than those made by the (scant) number of professional reviewers who had bothered with my second and third novel (no professional review ever came out of the first), much more elaborate, complex and exact than those made by amateur commentators in the likes of Goodreads.com, all of which I had read.
Andrea’s understanding of the constraints imposed on the characters and the action by the particular setting, that of Germany between 1932, when Geli the niece died, and 1937, when most of the action of The Spanish Prisoner takes place, was uncanny: significantly more accurate than that of the small amount of Nazi-era aficionados and wackos who had commented about my books in their swastika-filled blog pieces (I also had read all of these, having time to track them down using Google and even, God forbid, Bing.com just in case Google filtered out some of the craziest, most Hitler loving cases). Much more articulate than that of my few Twitter followers who had ventured into open-air comment of specific points of plot or historical background.
Andrea was a lover of literature, a smart, well-grounded person who happened to love my books. It was all overwhelming. I didn’t respond for a day, pondering possibilities. For a moment, I suspected my wife: maybe she was tired of my complaining about the little reaction caused by my powerful talent, the few ripples in the space-time continuum left by my ground-breaking work, so she had set up a dummy account to send me emails and cheer me up. Then again, I realized that didn’t make a lot of sense: my wife, for all her virtues, had never expressed more than fleeting interest in my literary work. I don’t think she ever finished reading one of the 1,000-word pieces I wrote about economics and politics when I was a correspondent holed up in a tiny Brooklyn apartment. Of course, my novels were way too long and complex to excite her interest, which in any case had never been focused on Nazi Germany or historical thrillers. She knew about some characters and plot lines; she knew what I had told her only, which wasn’t a lot; unless she read my stuff in secret, which was very unlikely. At that time, she had resumed her career as a lawyer after the birth of our two daughters, and was busy enough to not play that kind of silly game.
When I did send Andrea a response, it was briefer than the first one, more tense. It was all about acknowledging, again, but I was worried to sound too enthusiastic about Andrea’s enthusiasm, so I made it cooler and shorter: only 200 words.
Two days later, and Andrea sent another long email, 2,000 words. This one focused strongly on “Long Night of Knives,” in which Bernd Meyer is used by Hitler, whom he secretly despises and fears, to investigate allegations against Hitler’s old comrades-in-arms in the SA, a predecessor of the SS, soon to be mowed down as part of an internal Nazi purge. I will only say that, with minor editing, this email could have been published as an essay in the New York Review of Books, and I would have died a happy man right there and then.
Things went on like this for a while. Andrea would send a long, well-crafted email, and I would take a few days to respond. I did because, as Andrea knew, I keep close track of my niceness and decency score, but my responses kept getting shorter even as the emails stood around the 2,000 word mark. Eventually, the day came when I tired, and I didn’t respond to a particularly smart, but long-winded, email about how engaging and precise my description of Juncker bombers used in the Spanish Civil War was. Two more emails from Andrea arrived that month. Then, silence.
I felt bad for some time. I knew my niceness score had taken a beat. But one can’t obsess that much over mere numbers. Yes, Andrea was my best, possibly most brilliant and engaged fan. But Andrea was just a fan: I couldn’t live off one, and I couldn’t sustained a one-sided correspondence with one, especially when I started writing my fourth novel, in which Bernd Meyer gets entangled in central European diplomacy à la Alan Furst (only with fewer femme fatales.) I simply had no time to indulge in an activity that would lead to no real improvement to my very small income stream.
I settled into my novel-writing routine: I took the kids to school and then exercised, did some reading in one of the cafés in my little trendy town in Connecticut (my wife’s salary mostly takes care of the mortgage) and then settled to work in the late afternoon. Then, pick up the kids again, perhaps do some cooking if so inclined, evening entertainments, night, next day.
It was in one of those cafés that Andrea approached me. I was happily reading some magazine, when a young woman sat down to my table, right in front of me, and smiled wanly. She had her own coffee; she said:
“I’m so sorry to be so blunt, David. I’m Andrea Palucci.”
It took me a while to react, but I eventually did. She just wanted to apologize for being too intrusive with her emails, and said that she just hoped that I wouldn’t be upset with her. She promised to buy my next novel, made a face, shoving a loose strand of her blonde hair off her large blue eyes, and stood up to leave. I wouldn’t let her.
We spoke for about a hour. When she did stand up, I noticed she was petite, slim, dressed in stylish clothes than bespoke some measure of wealth and a social position. A geeky, literature-loving attractive thirty-something blonde who thought I was the greatest writer on the planet.
I had hours before it would be time to pick up the kids, and my writing was going smoothly. Anyway, I like to take pauses on my daily writing routine here and there, to rethink specific points of the plot, and let ideas mature in my head, unforced. So I took her for a walk around town. She said she also had a few hours before her flight would depart from Newark to her home at Lincoln, Nebraska. We ended up in my house, in my marital bed, furiously making love. Then, a similar event in the dining room; and another at the bathroom.
Instead of working, I wrote Andrea an intense, 3,000-word email the next day. I was desperate to see her again. But she didn’t respond. I agonized for days, and sent a slightly-more-sane 2,500-word email. Again, no response. Weeks passed, on which I looked up for all Andrea Paluccis in America’s social media. Half were men, and none lived in Lincoln, or matched her physical description.
I went back to work, half amazed and half dispirited, and Andrea eventually reappeared. Her email was only 800 words long, more intimate than any before as it included coded references to the hours we spent together. But it still had literature discussions and points in it, which I seized upon for a response: a 3,500-word explanation of my life, works and theories that, I hoped, included both a measure of my work and an indication of my extreme interest for Andrea the person.
Our correspondence, including discussion of work, life and love, continued for two more months. O made frequent comments to the effect that I wanted, needed, was desperate to see her again. She always found a way to deflect these. One day of September, right after I returned from a holiday with my in-laws that kept me away from the keyboard, Andrea knocked on my door when she knew I was alone.
Having so carefully read my novels, Andrea knew that Bernd Meyer, as depicted in them, is not just about good-guy niceness and decency. He has an elevated opinion of himself, as one character of “Geli Hitler” puts it, so he always looks to make bad things right, even when he can’t really make them good. Andrea didn’t really need much recourse to metaphors: in that novel, a key character is Bernd’s secret lover, who wrecks his marriage to a decent woman who happens to be Jewish in Germany, 1932. Meyer knows he’s in the wrong, but strives to make as much as he can right; having smashed a chair, he would put it in the right place all the same, even if nobody can sit on it. That would win him some decency points, or so he would think.
Andrea wasn’t as great a talker as she was an email writer. She didn’t enjoy discussing literature in person as much, and preferred being behind the computer screen. Still, one day, after a particularly long session of love-making, she asked me about the twisting, hopefully-shocking ending to “Geli Hitler”: she didn’t understand why Meyer had to do what he did.
“You see, he knew that any of the courses of action before him would have made him lose points, in his mind; he was in a lose-lose situation: he simply chose what he thought was the less damaging path for all,” I told her.
She frowned and kept insisting on that particular point. It really bothered her, that Meyer had ended up doing what he did. I responded days later in full, in the longest email I ever wrote, a 4,000-word piece which boiled down to an elaborate exposition of two points that amounted, perhaps, to spilling some professional secrets: you see, love, I told her, the idea for this book came to me reading Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine genius, who once wrote that the supreme piece of detective writing would be one where the writer lets something slip at the very end, so that the reader understands that the detective was wrong all along and didn’t really solve the mystery, which will push the reader himself to re-read the book as a detective, looking for carefully-set hidden clues showing the real solution; also, Meyer had to act this way because otherwise there would have been no way for me to write a sequel and get those much-needed paychecks.
This email led to weeks of no sex and much discussion of literary theory; we exhausted my own themes, and Andrea read my long, convoluted opinions on a range of writers from Clarice Lispector (overrated because of her own physical beauty) and Ernest Hemingway (one trick-pony whose only trick, A Moveable Feast, wasn’t even published in his lifetime) to Patricia Highsmith (possibly the underrated queen of genre writing, and overall among the top five writers of the 20th century). In between all of this, there was little that I gathered, hint by hint, about Andrea’s personal life: that in reality she did live someplace in Nebraska; that there was a man that she cared about and lived with, somehow, and who stood on the way; that she was passionate about literature but had dropped out of high school and had worked as a waitress before getting hired for some mysterious business consultancies that kept her on the move sometimes.
I pushed. I wanted her. I physically wanted her. The emails were fine, I could live with long discussions about literature that deflected me off my work, but only as long as I could have her physically as well. I made this plain. She kept saying that she was very busy and that things were complicated. One day, she stopped answering my emails.
I fired off seven emails, in different shades of desperation, over two months, before I set up to find her. One day, she had got really angry when I took a picture of her resting on my bed, but I had kept the file. I hired a private investigator in Lincoln, and sent it to him. He got back to me two weeks later: the person in the picture was a local resident named Suzanna Palucci, deceased a month before, in a car accident. She had been driving alone, when a truck with a drunk behind the wheel essentially run her over at an intersection. At thirty-two years of age, she had no kids, but had left a widower: local businessman named Andrea Palucci, aged 42, same as myself. Did I need the address? There was no extra cost.
Many things happened before the day when I went to visit Mr. Palucci. My marriage survived it all, which is the important thing, and it all was very convoluted and common-place; I won’t get into that. So here’s me about a year after Suzanna Palucci was stupidly killed by a drunk for no reason, walking to Mr. Palucci’s front door: I wear a writerly attire: a shabby, well-worn suit with a non-business shirt and, of course, no collar.
I don’t take pride in my looks, but they have improved since I was a terribly ugly teenage geeky abomination, so that I sometimes get stares from the lower end of the female spectrum when I sign books or attend the occasional bookish conference. I still look like a movie star compared with poor Palucci, whose ugliness I had noticed in his Facebook page when I first looked up for America’s Andreas. He’s gone bald badly, has a large mustache and a thick flabby neck. When he opens the door to his large house in the best part of Lincoln, surrounded by several acres of well-tended grass and trees, I first notice a large paunch and short, thick legs.
He doesn’t look shocked when I tell him I had met his late wife. He invites me inside, and gives a coffee. Sitting on a vast armchair, his back to a massive book-case spanning two walls, probably containing well over a thousand of well-worn paperbacks and hard covers, he sobs as tells me how much he misses her, etc. Like all ugly people (I know), he looks awful when he cries, so I wonder how he ended up with what one could fairly describe as a minor-league beauty like Suzanna. Yes, he has money, but she was a total catch, cultured, smart, articulate as well as good looking.
In a picture on a table, blonde Suzanna beams forever young next to Palucci, who looks like he paid a lot of money just to get into that frame, to get within the radius of her love. We chat for a while: turns out that Palucci knows very well who I am, and my work, almost as well as his late wife. He takes hard copies of my three novels from a place of pride in the book-case and shows them to me; these are the first I ever saw that were not mine or a gift I gave to somebody else. He tells me he admires my work greatly. He quotes an exchange in Long Night of Knives that I had forgotten about: having killed Ernst Rohm and several dissident Nazis in a two-day orgy of violence and extrajudicial murder in 1934, Hitler turns to his secretary and tells her, in Palucci’s perfect intonation:
“I’ve had a bath and I feel as clean as a newborn baby.”
“You know, that came from David Irving,” I respond. “I actually didn’t read his Hitler biography, but I heard him tell the story in a YouTube clip.”
“I know,” Palucci says, calmly.
It takes me a few seconds to understand. It was the name of David Irving, a man that thankfully I don’t think about every day, that made me remember: I had told Andrea/Suzanna about the Irving story and the YouTube clip in an email months ago.
I ask Palucci for a glass of water while I gather myself. My mind is racing with the implications: if Palucci knew about our correspondence, he had read all of the sexual references and innuendo and desperate appeals to have her body, as well as the scholarly material about 1930s politics. I want to ask whether he knew I was sleeping with his wife while she was alive, or he only came to know later. I want to make sure he won’t just pull a knife and stick it in my heart.
Palucci, still calm, gives me my water and takes a seat.
“I knew about your affair,” he says, neutrally enough. “I wrote the first few emails, and then she got interested in you. She came to love your books after I told her about them. She became obsessive, very distressed when you stopped responding. So she went after you in person. She loved you, in her way. I couldn’t stand on the way of that.”
I drink water. Palucci starts sobbing again. He breaks down, then regains his composure and stands up.
“I’m sorry, I just need a moment,” he says.
I’m left alone in that dining room. It’s large and there’s a table at one end, with a folded desktop in it. I wonder whether it would be Suzanna’s, but I don’t walk up there and just look at it. I’m not a police detective like Bernd Meyer, just a stunned writer in a very unusual situation, and so I stare at the book-case and the spines with all the novels in O’Brian’s Master and Commander series as well as English translations of the Danish liar Sven Hassel, who wrote about his fake World War II experience, and I think of literary devices: Palucci says he wrote the first few emails, but didn’t say anything about the rest; he doesn’t need to: it’s obvious that it was the same person who did it, the same cultivated literary mind behind them all: Palucci’s. Maybe he left the scant sexual references to Suzanna, maybe he didn’t, but it doesn’t really matter: he wrote so that I would stay hooked and Suzanna could have me. That’s why, in person, she wasn’t that engaged or that witty about literary matters. Palucci took care of all that, like Cyrano writing letters so that his friend/rival could share the bed with the woman he loved.
My mind keeps racing, and stops at the last day I spent with Suzanna, so long ago. We had that conversation about Meyer, finding himself at the fork and choosing the least-damaging path for all. The look on her face. I had thought she didn’t understand, but the look on her face wasn’t one of incomprehension; maybe she wasn’t a great literary mind, but she wasn’t stupid, and she had clearly read my novels. The look on her face was one of distaste. I wonder: distaste for Meyer, distaste for herself, for her betrayal of Palucci? I check her picture with Palucci again: her face is very close to him, almost touching it; she’s happy to be with her ugly, gentle husband. The one who thought so much of her happiness that he kept a writer entertained for months so he would deign to sleep with her.
Palucci returns. He washed his face, and is somewhat composed as he takes a seat.
“When was that picture taken?” I ask.
“It was the last picture that we – “
He stops himself, and swallows.
“That’s exactly how she wore her hair the last time I saw her,” I say. “The hairstyle is a bit different than when I met her, you see.”
“It was months before – “
“It was just a short time before she died, right? She was very much in love with you when she died. One can tell by that picture.”
“It’s just a picture.”
“Also, also – I never said she stopped loving me. She just wanted to be with you, that’s all.”
“Why did she stop seeing me? I begged her to come back to me for months.”
“I don’t know. She was tired, confused. She thought she was hurting me.”
“She was, wasn’t she?”
“I’m a man. Just as you are.”
“The first time we slept together – After that, she didn’t respond to – you didn’t respond to my emails for months.”
Palucci looks down at the expensive carpet. I stand up. I excuse myself: I tell him I didn’t want to intrude, I didn’t want to hurt him any further. He protests feebly, but lets me go. I sit down on my car, thinking of the look on her face the last time I saw her: One of distaste not for me or for Meyer, but for me. After all, if one thinks about it, Palucci didn’t really need to keep up the charade. After I had met her, there was no need for me to keep up the intellectual exchanges: all I wanted was her body; the rest was ancillary, a nice complement that wasn’t really needed. Or so I believed.
If one looks like at it closely, there’s this scenario that Borges would approve of. One in which a loving woman sees her husband distressed when the writer he admires the most just stops answering his letters because he has no time to entertain his love of literature. So she reads the books, and then meets the writer, whom he easily tricks into thinking that she’s the one who actually loves his books.
After the writer resumes the correspondence with sexual references sprinkled all over, there’s no way to hide the fact from her husband. He’s destroyed by the betrayal, but eventually comes to understand she did it for him. He begs her to cut off the relationship, but she knows only a physical attachment will sustain the writer’s interest in her husband’s literary theories. So she allows one, for a time, at short tolerable stretches.
The husband protests, but there’s little this mild-mannered man can do to stand on the way of his wife’s desire to humor his literary passion. That involves some occasional sex with a man she doesn’t really care about, that she may even start to dislike, now that I recall some scenes, some moments, other glances in other situations when I wanted to keep going and she wanted to stop.
A man she comes to detest when she understands he’s happy to cheat on his wife only up to the point when everyone is moderately unhappy and nobody will be truly miserable.
A man worried about messing up the decency scorecard he keeps in his mind, and yet more concerned about meeting the demands of a long-dead Argentine writer than about those of his family.
A man who can’t really compare with Palucci, his loyal admirer, decent husband through and through, smart, cultivated, merciful to the point that he will concoct a story about his wife being desperate to sleep with me, rather than admit she did it all for him.
I drive away from there, as fast as I can.