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La Superba

La Superba

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By Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer
Translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison

A master of language, Pfeijffer's autobiographical novel about migration, illegal and legal, in Genoa tells the story of Europe today.

Publication Date: April 5, 2016

Paperback: 9781941920220
eBook: 9781941920237


"If Italo Calvino decided to make one of his invisible cities visible, the result might look something like Pfeijffer's Genoa." —Benjamin Moser

An absolute joy to read, La Superba, winner of the most prestigious Dutch literary prize, is a Rabelaisian, stylistic tour-de-force about a writer who becomes trapped in his walk on the wild side in mysterious and exotic Genoa, centering on the stories of migration and immigration, legal and illegal, telling the story of modern Europe. Part migrant story, part perverse travel guide, La Superba is a wholly postmodern ode to the imagination that lovingly describes the labyrinthine and magical city that Pfeijffer calls home: Genoa, Italy, the city known as La Superba for its beauty and rich history.

Biographical Note

Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer (b. 1968), a classicist by training, made his literary debut with a poetry collection in 1999 that was an homage to the experimental poetry of his great models, Pindar and Lucebert. In the years that followed, in addition to poetry, he has written stage plays, essays, columns, travel accounts, stories, political satires, and four novels written in the spirit of Rabelais. In his other novels, including his debut, he has toyed with the idea of world literature and divided the critics between those proclaiming him a genius and those who think him an antiquated stylist. He’s a bit of both. La Superba, published in Dutch in 2013, is Pfeijffer's masterpiece of a novel and was greeted with unanimous praise upon publication, including winning the Libris Literatuurprijs, the Netherlands’ most prestigious literary award, and the Tzum Prize, awarded for “the most beautiful sentence of the year,” which he has now won twice. His most recent poetry collection, Idyllen, published in 2015, became the first single work of poetry to ever win in the grand slam of the three major Dutch poetry awards: the VSB, Jan Campert, and Awater.

Michele Hutchison (1972) lives in Amsterdam and translates from Dutch and French. She has translated Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, Joris Luyendijk, Simone van der Vlugt, Esther Gerritsen and Pierre Bayard, alongside a number of children's books, graphic novels and poems. She also works as an editor and blogger.


“Pfeijffer’s prose shocks and disturbs, and the reader both rejects what he says and yearns to hear more. . . . While the plot itself wanders, three predominant themes emerge: sexual identity, storytelling, and immigration, each a catalyst for transformation. . . . The book asks readers to reconsider the fragility of their own lives and identities and how easily they can be tested by mere relocation. It’s a sympathetic approach to the hidden struggles that immigrants of all backgrounds in Europe face, and a call to be more open and receptive to those on the outskirts of society — after all, it could easily be you.” —Alina Cohen, Los Angeles Review of Books

“If Italo Calvino decided to make one of his invisible cities visible, the result might look something like Pfeijffer’s Genoa: rooted in the real world of Europe in the age of mass migration, but abstract and mythic enough that the legendary Genoese travelers — Columbus, the Ostrogoths — could still find their way through its labyrinthine streets.” —Benjamin Moser, author of Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector

La Superba offers an exotic form of chaos and tragedy, and an extremely truthful image of old Italian life in a postmodern city.” —Anna Alden, Three Percent

“Anti-Europeans will see this extraordinary book as a knowing critique of a spoiled, corrupt, and quarrelsome lot of countries; pro-Europeans will admire its wit and its love of place and history. Inevitably, some will dislike its cruel mockery of intellectual and moral ambitions and its bizarre take on sex and growing old, all of which forms part of a whole, abundantly rich in provocative thought.” —Anna Paterson, World Literature Today

“The stories related throughout La Superba are attention-grabbing and entertaining, sometimes surreal, and at times downright grotesque. But while flirting with the obscene, the novel’s rawness also manages to strike a sympathetic chord.” —Michele Hutchison, Asymptote Journal

“Tragedy and comedy, life and death, sex and love–these are just a few of the themes explored by Pfeijffer in his wise, brave, gripping novel.” —Willard Manus, Lively Arts

“Part travelogue and part migrant novel, this story about down-on-their-luck fortune-seekers and a quest to find ‘the most beautiful girl in Genoa’ is larger-than-life–but, as the author points out, exaggeration doesn’t mean that it’s untrue.” —Susie Rodarme, Book Riot ("7 Small Press Books to Read in April")

“Deranged and hilarious…With a raucous style and barbed wit.” —Peter Simek, D Magazine

“I love La Superba! No wonder the Dutch author and narrator have both relocated south to Genoa, the city called La Superba. This book tells the amazing, hilarious, sad and pathetic story of modern Europe. Immigration, great beauty, worse ugliness, history, culture, life all figure here. Thank you, Deep Vellum, for bringing this masterpiece to readers here in ‘La Merica.'” —Lynn, Valley Bookseller (Stillwater, MN)

“An enjoyable—and sometimes very funny—ride. Pfeijffer’s style is easy-going, but the poet in him remains attentive to language throughout: for all the casual feel of the novel, it’s also a carefully, even precisely written one. Good fun.” —Michael Orthofer, The Complete Review

“Pfeijffer’s self-deprecating humor and moments of lyricism make La Superba a gem.” —Rachel Cordasco, Bookishly Witty

“It’s witty throughout, it’s well written and it’s an ode to the imagination.” NRC Handelsblad

“You read his salutary, pleasure-seeking prose to feast upon language. Bravissimo.” Vrij Nederland

“Wonderful.” Het Financieele Dagblad

La Superba is finely tuned. The plot is a compelling mix of rich and thought provoking, uncomfortable and beautiful. Pfeijffer’s prose is layered and captivating, the perfectly graceful dance partner to the plot’s unpredictable Voltas. This unique novel is exceedingly relevant, confronting the many sides of the issues—migration, sexuality, space, identity, crime, prejudice, traditionalism—facing Europe today.” EuropeNow Journal Editor’s Pick

"Thoroughly compelling and lyrical...The stories related throughout La Superba are attention-grabbing and entertaining, sometimes surreal, and at times downright grotesque. But while flirting with the obscene, the novel’s rawness also manages to strike a sympathetic chord." Lindsay Semel, Asymptote

"A pocket edition of Dante’s Inferno." Dutch Foundation for Literature

"An important novel with universal appeal." Libris Literature Prize jury report

"Pfeijffer's enthusiasm about the wonders of the imagination is infectious and boundless." De Volkskrant

"Pfeijffer’s prose is funny, nasty, sharp, and at once self-conscious and absolutely light on its feet." – Jeremy Davies, Farrar, Straus and Giroux


The most beautiful girl in Genoa works in the bar with the mirrors. She wears the same smart uniform as the other girls who work there. She also has a boyfriend who drops in on her from time to time at work. He uses hair gel and wears a sleeveless t-shirt with SOHO on it. He’s a moron. Sometimes I watch them in the mirrors, kissing secretly in the cubby hole where she prepares the small dishes that come with the aperitif.

This morning I saw someone on the Via della Maddelena who’d been robbed. ‘Al ladro!’ he shouted. ‘Al ladro!’ Then a boy came running around the corner. The man chased after him. He was wearing a white vest and he had a fat face and a fat belly. He looked like an honest man who’d learned to labour for a paltry wage from an early age. The boy ran uphill, to the Via Garibaldi, past the sundial and then carried on climbing, up the stairs of the Salita San Francesco. The fat man who’d been robbed didn’t stand a chance.

Later I sat out drinking on the Piazza delle Erbe. It’s such a singular place, evening comes around there without me having to organize anything. The orange tables belong to the Bar Berto, the oldest pub on the square, famous for its aperitif. The white tables belong to the trattoria without a name where it’s impossible to eat without a reservation. The red and yellow tables are from various cafes and behind them there’s another terrace, a bit lower down. I could look up the names if you’re interested. I was sitting at a blue table, on the upper part of the square, looking out onto Bar Berto’s terrace. The blue tables belong to Threegaio, once founded by three homosexuals who, after brainstorming for nights on end, still couldn’t come up with a better name than that. I was drinking Vermentino from the Golfo di Tigullio. Leaning against the building on a bar stool was an impressive butch wearing dark black sunglasses. That reassured me, she was always sitting there. Street musicians. Rose-sellers. And then she spoke to me. ‘There’s something feminine about you.’ She ran her fingers through my hair like a man claiming something as his own. ‘What’s your name?’ Her voice was like a docker’s. ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got it. I’ll call you Giulia.’