While today’s post looks at a (fairly) recent Italian novel, I’m not going to lie to you – I’ll be doing a little more than just reviewing the book. So, if you’re one of those readers who would rather know nothing about the identity of a certain popular contemporary writer, be warned that today’s post is one you might want to skip as I’ll be discussing connections between today’s choice and one of their novels (not that I have any real insights). And speaking of connections…
Domenico Starnone’s Ties (translated, and with an introduction, by Jhumpa Lahiri, review copy courtesy of Europa Editions) is a short novel in three parts, each telling the story of a relationship from a different angle. In the first, a young wife, Vanda, writes letters to her husband, Aldo, who has run off with a nineteen-year-old student, leaving his wife and two kids to fend for themselves. Over the course of Vanda’s pleas for her husband to return, we learn of the hardships she faces, both emotional and practical, after being deserted, before she eventually gives up and settles down to life without him.
All of which makes the second part, set four decades later, rather surprising, as we are now in the hands of an elderly Aldo, who is preparing for a week’s holiday by the sea – with Vanda. As it turns out, he was unable to keep his distance and eventually the couple got back together, albeit very much on her terms. However, on their return, disaster awaits, and forced to re-engage with his past, Aldo wonders whether it might have been better for everyone if he’d just stayed away…
While fairly short, Ties is a cleverly constructed, entertaining read. The reader is treated to both sides of the couple’s history before encountering a third section, a sort of coda, that sheds further light on certain aspects of the story. Starnone is a successful writer in his home country, having won the prestigious Strega Prize for an earlier work, and this novel was the winner of another award, The Bridge Prize, in 2015. However, he’s not the only big name involved here as there’s a fair chance (unusually) that you’ll have heard of the translator too. This is Lahiri’s first attempt at translating a novel from the Italian (I looked at her initial adventures in the language last year), and overall it made for a smooth read, with each of the three sections having its own distinct style.
The short first section acts as a set up for the novel as Vanda, abandoned by her husband in the course of a single sentence, attempts to work out her feelings in her letters, seeking to comprehend Aldo’s (weak) justifications:
You explained that just as your father had damaged all of you, so you – since the ghost of that unhappy man who made you all unhappy still torments you – were afraid of damaging Sandro, Anna and, most of all, me. See how I didn’t miss a word of it?
p.25 (Europa Editions, 2017)
Between the lines, we learn of Aldo’s half-hearted efforts to stay in touch with the kids, especially sporadic once he moves to Rome. He drifts in and out of the family’s lives until Vanda finally loses patience and draws a line under a painful period of her life.
The majority of the novel then focuses on Aldo’s rediscovery of the letters when cleaning the house after a suspected break-in. There are (at least) two sides to every story, and it’s here that we get to hear his account of the decision to break free and start anew. What emerges is a portrait of a weak man influenced by the era he was living in, infected with a belief that marriage was outdated and restrictive, and as a young professor at a university, he was only too happy to have his head turned by young women. Of course, his accounts of Vanda’s behaviour at the time of their separation are rather different to hers, showing a picture of a hysterical, crazed woman.
Yet the more he looks back, reading the letters, coming across old photos, the more he realises that he never really engaged with his wife. Decades on, he’s shocked by the youth and beauty of the woman he sees in the pictures:
Yes, she used to be like this. I thought of the person who now slept in the bedroom, the person who had been my wife for fifty years. It wasn’t clear to me that she’d really been the way she appeared in those photos. Why? Had I barely looked at her from the very start? How much of her had I relegated to the corner of my eye without noticing? (p.71)
Sitting in the middle of the ruins of his home (an apt metaphor for his crumbling life…), Aldo is forced to reconsider the actions he took back in the seventies, wondering if he really was acting for the best.
What comes across most strongly in the novel is the importance of the sliding-doors moment when Aldo decides to come back. Why did he do it? What would have happened if he hadn’t? The couple have managed to make it through fifty years of marriage, but are they happy? Having shattered the family once with his decision to go, was he really thinking of them when he chose to return? By the end of the novel, there’s a distinct feeling that it might have been better for all concerned if he’d been man enough to just stick to his guns and stay away…
Now, keen readers may have realised that this novel, especially the first part, sounds rather familiar, and it’s very hard for those who have read the book not to associate Vanda with Olga from Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, another novel in which a wife goes crazy after her husband runs off with a young woman. Both books feature a woman left behind with two kids and a heap of financial worries; both women (natives of Naples) are prone to hysterical outbursts and bouts of nocturnal letter writing to their lecturer husband; both stories are set in the summer, with all the neighbours (except one…) gone, leaving them friendless and helpless. I reread the Ferrante book before my second run-through of Ties, and the parallels between the works are unmistakable – even the titles, deliberate opposites, seem to be playing off each other.
There’s an overwhelming feeling that these parallels are deliberate. The Days of Abandonment finishes months after the husband’s betrayal, and Ties appears to be a reaction, a response, to that novel, in which the husband has his say (it could also be seen as a continuation, showing what *really* happened next). If it’s a work which aims to make us sympathise with the man, though, it’s certainly not a success as the justifications he presents ring rather false for the most part.
But why should Starnone pay homage to (or poke fun at) Ferrante’s novel? Well, that’s where the speculation comes in. You see, one of the prime candidates for the real name behind the shadowy pseudonym is Starnone himself, which would means that Ties is a clever piece of meta-fiction in which one of the writer’s personas is playing off the other. However, the most recent Ferrante suggestion, and one that many people now believe to be the truth, is academic and translator Anita Raja, who just happens to be married to… Domenico Starnone! Raja was allegedly ‘outed’ by a rather nasty investigation using financial records, and in fact an article published in The Australian newspaper a couple of months back claims that Ferrante’s works are actually the result of a joint effort between the couple.
Whatever the truth, it’s hard to ignore the, well, ‘ties’ between Starnone’s novel and Ferrante’s work, with a definite sense that he’s (they’re?) playing with us, perhaps laughing at us (coincidentally, Starnone’s most recent novel in Italian, set in Naples, is called Scherzetto – which translates to something like ‘little joke’…). Even in the pages of this work, Aldo’s words on his lover take on a whole new meaning when you consider the speculation surrounding Starnone and Raja:
She got married thirty years ago to a fairly well-known writer, the kind who enjoys a certain renown all his life and then, as soon as he dies, is never read again. It’s a successful marriage. (p.109)
Self-deprecating humour or an admission that Starnone’s work will be overshadowed by the Ferrante canon? I suppose that depends on how much faith you place in the media claims 😉
I first read Ties a few months back, just before the Man Booker International Prize longlist was revealed. I wasn’t overly impressed at the time and didn’t get the time to review it before I had to dive into a new round of reading. However, I’m actually glad now that I waited before posting on it. On its own, Starnone’s novel is a short, interesting read, notable just as much for Lahiri’s involvement as for the content. When read in conjunction with The Days of Abandonment (and the latest gossip), though, it becomes a far more intriguing endeavour. So, should you treat it as just another book, or approach it through the lens of the Ferrante rumour mill?
I’ll leave that for you to decide…