‘Trick’ by Domenico Starnone / ‘The Jolly Corner’ by Henry James (Review)

Given certain rumours over the past couple of years, it’s probably no coincidence that Europa Editions have brought out a couple of books by Italian writer Domenico Starnone, but being championed by author (and now translator) Jhumpa Lahiri hasn’t hindered his reputation in English either.  I enjoyed his previous work, Ties, even if it felt a little derivative in places, but the latest book to make it into English impressed me far more.  Today’s choice is another short, claustrophobic novel, this time featuring an old man and his sweet grandson.  However, don’t be fooled by his angelic exterior – there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface than you might suspect…

*****
Trick (translated by Lahiri, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a novel that takes place over a few days in an old apartment in Naples.  Daniele, an illustrator in his seventies with several health issues, reluctantly travels to Naples from his Milan home to babysit for his grandson, Mario, allowing his daughter and son-in-law to go off to a conference.  He decides to make the most of this short excursion, hoping to use the time to work on his latest project, a set of illustrations to accompany the translation of a Henry James short story.

The reality, however, is somewhat different.  Left alone with the four-year-old, he discovers that the boy has an iron will and a need to be acknowledged.  When you also throw in some ‘discussions’ with the neighbours (and his struggles with modern technology), the old man finds it hard to carve out time for himself and his work.  All that would be bad enough, yet the visit to the old apartment brings additional problems.  Having returned to his childhood home, it isn’t long before the ghosts of his past start to appear and play on Daniele’s fears.

Trick is a cleverly worked and compelling story from an experienced writer. On one level, it’s a battle of wills between a cross old man and a stubborn, independent young boy.  Mario has grown up in a household with parents at each other’s throats, and he has become used to doing his own thing and getting his own way, something Daniele is amazed by:

...even as an adult I’d never known how to participate actively in the practical side of life.  The only thing I really knew how to do was draw and paint, combining all kinds of colored materials.  Beyond this realm I had little intelligence, little memory.  I cherished few desires and paid little heed to the responsibilities of civilian life.  I always trusted others, Ada above all.  This child, on the other hand, though barely four years old, displayed an attention to the world as keen as the Indians who learned complex techniques from goldsmiths who’d arrived with the Conquistadors, simply by observing them.
p.40 (Europa Editions, 2018)

He slowly realises that there can only be one person in control in this relationship – there’s no certainty that it’ll be the grandfather, though.

Starnone slowly builds up the pressure, with Daniele overwhelmed by events.  Despite his best intentions to lay down the law and get on with his work, he is gradually ground down by the noise, the arguments, the problems with his publisher and, above all, by the tyrannical child:

So we moved on to playing horse.  Moaning and groaning, I had to get on all fours.  He climbed up and straddled me and, holding me by the sweater, proceeded to command with authority: giddy up, trot, gallop.  If I was too slow in obeying, he dealt me blows to the ribs with his heels, shouting: I said gallop, are you deaf? I was deaf, indeed, and tired, and in a bad shape, to a degree he couldn’t possibly imagine. (p.83)

After a couple of days of torment, Daniele manages to calm the boy down by getting him interested in his drawings, believing himself to have weathered the worst of the storm.  Then, just when he thinks things can’t get any worse… well, how wrong can you be.

Trick is a taut psychological work, and with much of the novel confined to the apartment, it’s almost a chamber piece.  As is the case with Ties, there are several similarities with the work of Elena Ferrante.  Through Daniele’s eyes, the reader is shown the shock of returning to the south after many decades away, and it only takes a few days in his home town for him to realise that the veneer of education and civilisation quickly melt away when you have to face up to your past.

The return to his old city also brings new inspiration, with Daniele forced to reconsider his work after seeing it through Mario’s eyes.  He wonders whether his art really is as good as he thought it was all these years, a slightly sobering thought.  Yet this realisation actually brings new life to his efforts, with the boy acting as a muse, and while the trip takes its toll on the old man, by the end of his stay there’s a sense that he’s also gained something valuable.  Truly, out of the mouths of babes…

*****
There’s a second important element to the story, though, and the appendix – notes from Daniele’s diary – and Lahiri’s excellent introduction reveal the ties (if you’ll excuse the term) Trick has to the story Starnone’s creation is said to be illustrating.  James’ ‘The Jolly Corner’ (here’s a link to the Project Gutenberg page) is a piece dating from 1908 in which a man called Spencer Brydon visits New York after thirty-three years in Europe.  The reason for his return after spending more than half his life overseas is ostensibly to oversee renovation to one of his two properties, and he slips into the role of property developer fairly naturally.

However, it’s actually the other property he’s really interested in, a building on a ‘jolly corner’ where he spent his early years.  The elegant home is empty, with Brydon preferring to keep it without tenants as this allows him to roam the house at night, thinking of the man he might have become had he stayed in New York.  The crux of the story, of course, is that the imagination is apt to run wild in the early hours of the morning.  Initially, Brydon imagines himself to be hunting down the ghosts of his past, but what if the man he never became is there in the old house – and what if this other self resents the intrusion?

The idea of ghosts in ‘The Jolly Corner’ ties in nicely with Daniele’s own experience in his childhood home.  At several points, the old man sees shadowy figures out of the corner of his eye, faces of the past slowly emerging from the walls:

But I’d done it, I’d managed, always gasping for breath, to plug up the cracks, one by one.  And I’d become flesh, the rest were ghosts.  But now here they were, they were parked in the living room of the apartment in which I’d grown up, the apartment transformed today into Betta’s home, and Saverio’s and Mario’s.  They’d gathered there with their dialect, with their uncouth desires and ways, their nastiness always ready to explode over the tiniest conflicts. (p.89)

These are memories he thought he’d left behind long ago, his move to the north having erased all that came before.  In truth, they’re all just hidden deep within, and are now reemerging, forcing him to reexamine his life.

As Lahiri says, Trick can be enjoyed just for the story of the old man and the child, but the meta-fictional elements add to the enjoyment.  She recommends reading both, and that’s definitely a good idea as the knowledge of the events of ‘The Jolly Corner’ add to the enjoyment of Trick.  I certainly appreciated Starnone’s novel, a book that proves he’s a writer whose work can stand up for itself…

…even without the ghost of a certain other writer hovering in the background 😉

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