Friday, February 18, 2022

Trust by Domenico Starnone (aka Elena Ferrante)

Domenico Starnone’s Trust (2021)is part of a group of thematically interrelated novels beginning with Ties (2017) and followed by Trick (2018). All three works are narrated by an elderly man ruminating about the paths he has taken or failed to take in a long life. In all three books the narrators are often unaware of their blind spots but provide the reader with the necessary information to see what the narrators cannot.

I became intensely interested in Starnone when it became clear he was the principal writer of what I consider among the greatest novels of the early 21st century, the Neapolitan Novels (sometimes referred to as the My Brilliant Friend series). It is generally believed that Starnone and his wife Anita Raja are the writers behind the pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante. In response to the widespread curiosity about the authorship of Ferrante’s works, at least four teams of linguists using different text analysis programs independently concluded that Starnone was likely the principal author of the novels attributed to Ferrante.

In addition to linguistic evidence there are internal cues in Starnone’s work pointing to his role in the authorship of Ferrante’s novels. There are striking similarities between Ties and Ferrante’s novella The Days of Abandonment; both begin with a man abandoning his wife and children for a much younger woman, leaving his wife distraught, angry, and unwilling to accept the end of her marriage. However, The Days of Abandonment, set in the 1990s, takes a different turn from Ties, set primarily in the 1970s. In The Days of Abandonment, the abandoned wife, Olga, eventually looks to the future and develops a life and identity of her own. In Ties, Vanda focuses on getting her husband to return with the hope of restoring the life they once shared.

The first part of Ties consists of Vanda’s letters to her husband Aldo, demanding an explanation for his desertion, letters very reminiscent of Olga’s in The Days of Abandonment, similarly 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.

As in Ties, there are echoes of Ferrante in Trick. 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, and 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 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 often speculates on what she might have become if she hadn’t had the strength to leave Naples, and what her far more talented friend Lila might have become if her family had allowed her to continue her education. Similarly, the elderly artist in Trick becomes obsessed with the roads not taken.

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.

Like the elderly male protagonists in Ties and Trick, former high school teacher Pietro Vella in Trust is haunted by the past--in his case a passionate love affair with Teresa, a brilliant former student. Teresa proposes that they tell each other a terrible secret, something that would destroy them if it became known. The shared secrets will bind them to each other forever. Soon after making this pact, they break up. Pietro marries Nadia, a soft-spoken woman very different from the brash Teresa who moves to the United States and becomes a successful scientist.

Career ambition and the extent to which developing and realizing such aspirations is gendered is a recurring theme throughout the work of Ferrante/Starnone. Pietro, who described himself as not particularly ambitious, finds to his surprise that an article he had written about the Italian education system is highly regarded, resulting in a book deal. Pietro’s ambitions developed almost accidentally; his wife Nadia’s were carefully planned and nurtured. However, traumatized by an encounter with a sexually predatory elderly mathematics professor, Nadia abandoned her dream of becoming a mathematics professor.

Pietro Vella’s indifference to Nadia’s disappointments recalls Elena’s husband Pietro Airota in the Neapolitan novels. Nadia is in some ways like Elena, the good girl, the diligent student; but unlike Elena, Nadia abandons her career goals and devotes her energies to her family. Teresa, “the bad girl who sparkled” is reminiscent of Lina. Despite their living on different continents the bond between Pietro and Teresa does not attenuate. They continue to correspond, and their weekly exchanges make him “feel more married to Teresa than to Nadia…In fact, the more time passed, the more I seemed to have a deep bond with that woman who lived far away, one I hadn’t even seen for years.”

In addition to similar themes, Starnone’s works contain many allusions to the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante. The most striking textual reference to Ferrante occurs in Starnone’s Autobiografia Erotica di Aristide Gambía published the same year that My Brilliant Friend appeared in Italian. Rachel Donadio in the Atlantic describes it as a “dizzying meditation on whether men can convincingly write about women and women about men." “Elena Ferrante” actually appears as a character in Autobiografia Erotica and the narrator Aristide Gambía decides he no longer wants to write about aging men: instead, he will explore women’s lives, and “the battle … to become a new woman.”

Along with frequent allusions to images, scenes, themes recurring throughout the body of work attributed to Starnone/ Ferrante—what translator Jhumpa Lahiri characterizes as intratextuality, there is also what she notes as “great deal of intertextuality with other authors,” such as the allusions to Henry James’ The Jolly Corner in Trick. 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. The allusion to 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.

The intricate web of allusions is part of the pleasure of reading Starnone’s novellas. However, there are drawbacks to the brevity of the form. Through fast-forwarding in Ties and Trust and flashbacks in Trick, Starnone gives us the sweep of time we associate with longer works, but the brevity of these three novels means that we don’t have the experience of getting to know a character deeply. I don’t think I will ever forget Elena and Lina of the Neapolitan Quartet; I spent so much time with them, as I read and re-read the Quartet.

The last long novel attributed to Ferrante, The Lying Life of Adults, was a disappointment. It explores familiar Ferrante themes; however, while in the Neapolitan Quartet the narrative complexity and dazzling prose kept it from falling into melodrama, The Lying Life of Adults too often descends into soap opera. In The Lying Life of Adults, we have Ferrante’s themes without Ferrante’s astonishing talent. How do we account for this? Judith Thurman in her New Yorker review has suggested that the “ crude hinting and telegraphing[in The Lying Life of Adults] suggest an author who distrusts her reader’s discernment, and they made me wonder if Ferrante hadn’t drafted the story as a much younger writer, still honing her craft.” There will no doubt be linguistic analyses of The Lying Life of Adults; my guess is that Starnone will not be identified as the principal author, and this may account for the relative weakness of Ferrante’s latest novel.

I am hoping for another novel of the caliber of the Neapolitan Quartet. Starnone is in his late 70s and time is running out. Starnone has apparently published eleven works of fiction not translated into English and which I would very much like to read. If Starnone were publicly identified as the co-author of the Neapolitan Quartet, I expect some of these books would be translated and made available to the English-speaking reader. The decision to publish under the pseudonym of Elena Ferrante was made over two decades ago, before Ferrante became an international sensation. Could Starnone at this point in his life want recognition for his contribution towards the creation of the fictional character Elena Ferrante and her powerful novels?

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