Thursday, March 9, 2017

Ties--a powerful novel by Domenico Starnone (AKA Elena Ferrante) now in English translation


As someone in the grip of Ferrante fever, I was eager to read Ties by Domenico Starnone, widely thought to be a co-author of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. Until Claudio Gatti’s recent revelations about Ferrante’s identity, I assumed that Ferrante was a woman who shared the impoverished Neapolitan background of her primary characters Elena and Lila—a claim Ferrante had made in many interviews and letters collected in her recent volume, Frantumaglia:A Writer’s Journey Like many of Ferrante’s women readers, I dismissed the rumors about Starnone’s possible authorship or co-authorship with his wife Anita Raja. I thought it was impossible that the books could have been written by a man. There were just too many intimate details of life in a female body.

Then came Gatti’s well-documented claimthat Ferrante was Anita Raja, who, unlike Ferrante, did not grow up in an impoverished Neapolitan neighborhood but rather left Naples at the age of three and lived in middle class comfort in Rome. Presumably, Raja had ready access to the educational opportunities that Ferrante’s characters struggled to obtain.

Most of Ferrante’s readers appeared not to be disturbed by this deception and tended to view the falsely claimed Neapolitan background of Ferrante/Raja as a literary device. Just about everyone who has weighed in on the exposure of Ferrante’s identity has supported her decision to remain anonymous and attacked Gatti’s “unmasking,” frequently describing it in terms of sexual violation. However, I was troubled by Raja’s dishonesty and not convinced by her defenders who saw nothing problematic in Raja’s attempt to create the impression that her background was similar to that of her characters.

Many Ferrante fans expressed relief that at least Gatti identified a woman as the author; however, Gatti also left open the possibility of Raja’s collaboration with her husband Domenico Starnone. Interestingly, most of Ferrante’s readers have ignored this suggestion. However, Gatti provides support for the oft-made claim that Starnone was involved in writing the Neapolitan novels. The powerfully rendered portrait of growing up in deep poverty in 1950’s Naples feels like it was written from first hand experience. Raja did not have this direct experience but Starnone, like the fictional Ferrante, was the son of a seamstress and did grow up in Naples. Also, Gatti reported that after analyzing Ferrante’s books with text analysis software, a group of physicists and mathematicians at La Sapienza University in Rome concluded that there was a “high probability” that Starnone was the principal author. I could no longer so easily dismiss the possibility that Starnone had a hand in the Neapolitan Quartet.

For some time, I have tried to suppress the impulse to extract a biographical core from Ferrante’s novels, but the desire persists. Ferrante’s insistence on a shield of anonymity probably had the perverse effect of making at least some of her readers all the more curious about the author behind the books they love. Now, after Gatti’s revelations suggesting that Domenico Starnone has had a hand in Ferrante’s work, I find my self re-reading the novels with an eye to what parts may have been written by Raja, what parts by Starnone. I’m reluctant to confess to reading the novels this way, but must admit that it actually adds to the enjoyment.

Although there are certainly many Ferrante fans who would be deeply disappointed to learn that the books were not solely the work of a woman, there are others (and I include myself here) intrigued by the collaboration of a man and woman on books that so powerfully explore issues of gender. The whole experience has challenged some of my assumptions about literature—principally that there is such a thing as an authentic female voice which can be recognized as such. Ferrante herself has said in her collection of interviews and letters, Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey: “A good writer, male or female can imitate the two sexes with equal effectiveness.”

When I read The Execution, Starnone’s first novel to be translated into English, I saw many stylistic similarities to Ferrante—sentences with clauses piled upon clauses, building to a dramatic climax; long stretches of dialogue without any of the usual markers to indicate the speaker, a dramatic opening and a conclusion which leaves much unresolved. Unlike the Neapolitan Quartet, The Execution is often called an experimental novel or metafiction. Starnone breaks the illusion of a fictional world and enters the narrative to discuss his authorial choices when developing his principal character and structuring the plot. The novel ends with a presentation of five possible endings. Ties is closer to conventional narrative structure than The Execution; there is no attempt to call attention to the text as fiction.

There are striking similarities between Ties and Ferrante’s novella The Days of Abandonment, which begins with a man abandoning his wife and children for a much younger woman, leaving his wife distraught, angry and unwilling to accept what has happened. However, The Days of Abandonment, set in the 1990’s, takes a different turn from Ties, set primarily in the 1970s. In The Days of Abandonment, the abandoned wife, Olga, develops a life and identity of her own. In Ties, Vanda focuses on getting her husband to return.

The first part of Ties consists of Vanda’s letters to her husband Aldo, demanding an explanation, letters very reminiscent of Olga’s insisting that her husband explain himself. The second part gives the reader Aldo’s, perspective—an outlook very similar to that of Olga’s husband, Mario, who believes he is entitled to pursue happiness with a younger woman. Unlike Mario, Aldo, ridden with guilt about his children, eventually returns to his wife. He must endure Vanda’s anger at his betrayal--an open wound after many years. The third part of the novella is narrated by their daughter Anna who describes the impact of her parents’ conflict ridden relationship on their children, a legacy of pain which leads Anna and her brother to take shocking revenge on their parents. Ties is a cautionary tale for those who believe the parents in an unhappy marriage should stay together for the sake of the children.

Ties has the intense, almost claustrophobic quality of Ferrante’s novellas. Neither Ferrante’s novellas nor the two Starnone books in English translation prepare the reader for the broad canvas, wide range of characters, the tapestry of interrelated themes of the Neapolitan Quartet. However, the political preoccupations of The Execution and its exploration of the ethical implications of political violence are among the many thematic stands in the Neapolitan Quartet. The central character of The Execution is a former teacher, a man of the left, who agonizes over whether his teaching has led one of his former students to engage in political violence.

Starnone is a powerful writer, and I hope that more of his novels will be translated, and not just because I enjoying looking for traces of Ferrante in his work. I also hope that Raja and Starnone will admit to what I believe is likely their joint authorship of the Neapolitan Quartet. The story of their collaboration would surely be fascinating.

But in the last analysis does authorship of the Neapolitan Quartet matter? The books have not changed. But will we read them differently knowing that the author is not a woman whose perspective has been shaped by her own experience of extreme poverty, of class and gender discrimination? Will we read the books differently if we learn that Starnone is Raja’s collaborator or if he turns out to be the principal author? In my recent re-reading of the Neapolitan Quartet, I forgot all about Raja, Starnone and Gatti and became once gain totally immersed in the world of Lila and Elena.

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