There is a scene midway through Domenico Starnone’s Via Gemito that holds together and motivates the rest of the novel – “The Boy Who Pours Water.” It depicts the son, Mimì, who is also the author as a child, posing for his father, the painter Federico – Federì or Fdrì, and forcing himself to sit still, in a most uncomfortable position, for as long as the father wishes and for a stretch of time that seems (to him, to us) interminable. Mimì’s knee is squashed against the ground, his right leg has gone numb, but what really causes him suffering and anxiety is the ambitious work in progress – the painting I Bevitori, The Drinkers. Mimì is afraid that it might have some defect in its proportions and dash his father’s expectations. If that were to happen, the eyes of the man who now watches him with pride – “You’ve been so good” – would turn furious and his father would become Federì – a conflagration set off by sparks of ego, imagination, and frustration whose flames creep up to his children and slowly consume his wife, Rusinè.
The result of Mimì’s pose – a detail from The Drinkers – now can be seen for the first time on the cover of Einaudi’s recently published new edition of Via Gemito. This hypertextual element might be exciting to those who have already read the novel. For everyone else, it’ll be easy to take off the dust jacket and consult it while reading: on the right there is Mimì pouring water; and the bare-chested man is Luigi, the greengrocer, whose severed finger is back to its original state, healed by the wondrous power of art. But first and foremost, the artist’s full name can be read inside the book cover – Federico Starnone; and in this book-art object that lends itself to a dynamic dialogue between visual art and literature, the father’s portrait of Mimì opens on to Mimì’s portrait of Federì. For what is Via Gemito if not the simultaneous realization and reversal of the onerous pose in that scene – the son who manages to portray the father who never sits still?
When Via Gemito burst on the literary scene in 2000 – the cover of the Feltrinelli edition featuring a painting by Albrecht Dürer which accompanied the book on its triumphal journey to the 2001 Strega Prize – it astonished readers who had classified Starnone, a teacher and a published author since the late 1980s, as the literary guru of stories about the schools. Why this semi-autobiographical novel about his father, the painter-railway worker, especially after works such as Out of Register (Fuori registro, 1991), Only if Questioned (Solo se interrogato, 1995), and Under the Table (Sottobanco, 1992), and after the film adaptations of these books for which he wrote the scripts himself? Yes – and why not – there is more to his novels. From behind the blackboard, Signs of Gold (Segni d’oro, 1990), Excessive Zeal (Eccesso di zelo, 1993), and Teeth (Denti, 1994) already anticipated the themes, voices, techniques, and images that have come to define him – the Starnone who works wonders with threesomes, with marital spitefulness, and with composure turned into culpability – clearly visible in Trust (Confidenza, 2019) and even more so in his earlier and acclaimed novel Ties (Lacci, 2014).
Via Gemito is a bridge. A bridge between two careers, two narrative approaches, two ways of delving into marriage and intolerance, into the defects of love and disappointed expectations. But it happens often, doesn’t it, that a bridge is more beautiful, more important than the two shores it connects; that a book used by an author to define his identity becomes the book of his lifetime? In terms of both its language and the acrobatics of its fragmentary narrative structure, Via Gemito offers Starnone at his very best. Firstly, because the narrator’s voice accommodates the voice of the father, the grandfather, and all the men in postwar Naples. Secondly, because the novel does with the reader precisely what Federì does with Mimì – that is, it jumbles dates and withholds any temporal foothold to show that a character, when reality and fiction coincide, can contain both the space and the time of the narrative action. From this viewpoint, Starnone is the only Italian writer who really resembles Philip Roth – and the only one who cannot care less about it, busy as he is to set himself free from Elena Ferrante.
But what does “the book of a lifetime” mean, after all? Certainly neither “the most famous” nor “the most profitable.” Not at all. The book of a lifetime, for an author, is that book in which the difference between what one intended to write and what one ended up writing is indiscernible to the reader: the sort of artistic creation that an author could ideally point out to his own characters, making the same remarks that Federì suddenly addresses to one of his models: “I didn’t create you exactly the same […], I created you better. In my creation you will no longer die.” Like The Drinkers, Via Gemito, too, offers a passport to meliorative immortality: it carries such a fury, and such a balance between technique and restlessness, irony and (tales of) pathos, that it is the surface of the page to appear bad-tempered, rather than the man described in it. The book inflicts a wound and what does the protagonist do? He hides inside the wound and sutures it from within.
This is the miracle Starnone performs. Because to dare to narrate Federì’s contradictions – “Today a thing seemed true, tomorrow false” – means to challenge the undisturbed life of the good novel with its continuity, orderly structure, and cause-and-effect sequences rendered with gratifying clarity. Via Gemito, on the other hand, as a story about competing versions (the several versions of the father and the uncompromising one of the son) narrates complexity making use of chaos, claiming that even one’s upbringing affords only a partial truth, a first encounter with the fiction of our past, the sacred text from which we distance ourselves as adults, or which we embrace fully, passionately, tragically.
That’s all. To learn to say “No” and then “Yes” again. The father often gets killed, sometimes avenged, certainly explored, but above all, and especially if absent, obeyed. Hamlet does it, obeying his father’s ghost. Christ does it and ends up on the cross. Literature seems to have been invented for the sake of the mission underpinning Via Gemito – that is, for the son to ask the father: “What should I do if I find it impossible to believe you and inevitable to love you?” And for the sake of the response: “Tell my story. Tell how difficult it is. Everyone would understand, for, as I told you, I am everyone.”
Nicola H. Cosentino holds a Ph.D. in Politics, Culture, and Development and works on literary narratives, futures, and the relationship between reality and representation. He is a contributor at Corriere della Sera, Esquire Italy, and the cultural blog minima&moralia. He is the author of two novels, the second of which, Vita e morte delle aragoste (Life and Death of the Lobsters, 2017), won the Brancati Giovani Prize in 2018.
This essay originally appeared as “Riecco Via Gemito in prosa, opere e (adesso) pittura” in Corriere della Sera on February 7, 2021. Translated and published by permission.
This essay is part of the special issue Reading Domenico Starnone (October 2021), edited by Enrica Maria Ferrara and Stiliana Milkova.