Monday, May 7, 2018

Domenico Starnone's Trick

Domenico Starnone has joined the list of writers whose books I pre-order and read as soon as they are available. His latest, Trick, translated by and with an introduction by Jhumpa Lahiri did not speak to me as powerfully as its predecessor, Ties, also translated and with an introduction by Lahiri. But I expect more of its power will emerge upon re-reading—that was certainly the case with Ties and with First Execution, the first of Starnone’s books translated into English.

Only three of Starnone’s 14 novels have been translated into English. If his role in the books attributed to Elena Ferrante is ever acknowledged, we might have the opportunity to read more of his work in translation. Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, a fictional character created to camouflage the identity of its probable co-authors, Starnone and his wife, Anita Raja. (To date, four teams of experts using text analysis software have identified Starnone as the principal author of the Neapolitan novels.)

Although the plot of Trick is very different from that of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, there are thematic similarities. The central relationship in the Neapolitan novels is the complicated friendship between two young girls growing up in a Neapolitan working class neighborhood in the 1950s. One escapes Naples; the other doesn’t. In Trick, like the Neapolitan novels, Naples itself becomes a character, although unlike the Neapolitan novels which depict both the beauty and the misery of Naples, Trick focuses on the misery. The central relationship in Trick is between Daniele Mallarico, an elderly artist struggling with the frailties of old age and disappointments of a declining career, and his precocious four year old grandson.Like Lila and Elena of the Neapolitan novels, Mallarico, generally referred to as Grandpa, grew up in 1950s working class Naples.

Like Elena, Mallarico longed to escape Naples and his difficult family; like Elena, through education and talent he managed to do so. Several of the details of working class life recalled by Mallarico in Trick are reminiscent of descriptions of Elena’s family dealing with the difficulties of a large family living in a relatively small space: Elena describes the daily ritual of dismantling the dining room furniture, making up the beds at night and unmaking them in the morning, so the dining room could double as a bedroom. Similarly, Mallarico describes himself and his brother making their “beds in the evenings, in the living room, putting an end to my mother’s elegant aspirations."

Elena at times speculates on what she might have become if she hadn’t had the strength to leave Naples, and what the far more talented Lila might have become if her family, like Elena’s, had allowed her to continue her education. Similarly, the elderly artist in Trick becomes obsessed with the roads not taken.

Starnone’s novels are characterized by narrative complexity and intertextual drama; in Trick there are running allusions to the Henry James novella The Jolly Corner, which Mallarico has been called upon to illustrate. In the James story, the protagonist Brydon Spencer, who has been living for years in Europe, returns to the New York City house in which he has grown up. Like Starnone’s aging artist who has also returned to his childhood home, Brydon is obsessed with the road not taken and searches for the ghosts of possible alternative selves.

Lahiri thinks that a knowledge of James’ story enriches the experience of reading Trick and on her recommendation I re-read The Jolly Corner. James is every bit as wordy and repetitious as I recalled and I have no desire to read James again, but The Jolly Corner does add a dimension to Trick, suggesting the universality of the experience of mulling over never to be realized possibilities as one moves into one’s later years.

Faced with physical frailty and declining career prospects, Mallarico is unnerved by the talent and physical vitality of his grandson Mario. Their relationship becomes a dangerous contest of wills, culminating in Mario’s telling his grandfather he intends to play a “trick” on him. He locks the door to the balcony and exposes his grandfather to the wind and the rain—echoes of King Lear, intentional or not.

Starnone’s novels, with their literary allusions and avoidance of straightforward narration, are often described as metafiction. I’ve wondered if Starnone decided to write or co-write the Neapolitan novels in order to try his hand at the old-fashioned straightforward narration he has generally avoided. However, on rereading, the Neapolitan novels reveal themselves as far more complicated than the old-fashioned Bildungsroman they are generally thought to be.

Trick concludes with an appendix complete with sketches. I haven’t quite figured out the purpose of the appendix beyond shifting the perspective from “grandpa” (Daniele chafes at the name grandpa) to the artist Daniele Mallarico. However, upon re-reading, the relationship between the main text and the ”appendix” might become clearer. Starnone (like Ferrante) is one of those novelists you have to re-read.


  1. Unable to set aside enough time from work to introduce myself to Starnone, I’ve downloaded instead for free The Jolly Corner, since James is a welcome familiar read. Eventually I’ll tackle Ferrante (so grim, so soaked in misery) and then your book about her will be in the queue. Festina lente!

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