“Literature is the Sudden Disintegration of the Verbal Fabric of Everyday Life”: Domenico Starnone in Conversation with Enrica Maria Ferrara and Stiliana Milkova

Translated from Italian by Enrica Maria Ferrara and Stiliana Milkova

Domenico Starnone

Enrica Ferrara & Stiliana Milkova: Your literary career took off in 1987 with Ex Cattedra (From The Teacher’s Desk). Could you tell us how you began to write? What was the foundational moment of your writing, if there was one? 

Domenico Starnone: I wrote a lot between the ages of 18 and 24, entertaining exorbitant ambitions. I held literature in high esteem and, while I was writing, I also held myself in high esteem. Ultimately, though, I would always realize with pain that I wasn’t quite up to par. Or, to put it differently, what I had written did not compare in any way to the books I loved. And so, at a certain point I decided to become a teacher instead of a writer, and my writing found an outlet in my journalistic work. I was 42 when, entirely by chance, I began a weekly column for Il Manifesto on the topic of the schools titled Ex cattedra. Its narrative pace, structure, and style were so successful that two years later, in 1987, this project which had originated as a newspaper column became both a book and my literary debut praised by critics and readers alike. But I was no longer the young man of twenty years earlier, I had gained perspective. If back then I had wanted to transform my Italian-Neapolitan experience into a book of major import to world literature, now I was simply happy to tell stories. Only the material which I wanted to work had remained unchanged: the family, marital unhappiness, frustrations that make us bad. 

EF & SM: More than thirty years have passed between your literary debut and the publication of Trust (Confidenza) in 2019. If you were to think of your literary career as a multi-stop itinerary, what would be the various stopovers or stages in your poetics and what might have occasioned any changes along the way? 

DS: The itinerary began sixty years ago when I tried to tell the story of a nocturnal fight between my parents, my mother crying, my father yelling, an outpouring of dialect broken only by a single and indecipherable Italian word, repeated a thousand times: vanesia, vain woman. I wished to do great things with that word. The pleasure-pain of writing stems from there, from that word’s mysterious role in an otherwise entirely dialectal speech. Vanesia seemed to me the cornerstone of the grand literary edifice that fate had allotted me to construct. Later, I told stories about the school, politics, love, but my idea of literature hasn’t changed to a great extent. I still think of literature as the sudden disintegration of the verbal fabric of everyday life. 

EF & SM:  Your novel Via Gemito (2000) won the 2001 Strega Prize, Italy’s most prestigious award for literature. In this masterful narrative, after his father’s death, an adult man grapples hand-to-hand with his memories and his writing. Mimì (which is the diminutive of Domenico) seeks to contain the shifting identity of his lying, narcissistic father who was obsessed by his art but frustrated in his ambitions and who unburdened the weight of his failures onto his family, beating his wife, terrorizing his children. What did it mean to you to write Via Gemito, a novel in part about your father, the painter Federico Starnone? 

DS: Via Gemito is a novel, that is, it’s neither an autobiography nor a biography. I brought it to life by taking a pinch of reality (real names, real places, and events that really happened) and then using my imagination to dig deep, exactly like I have done with my other books. To make it clear, in general I work with sources – data from memory or anecdotes – which on their own, scrutinized with a historian’s rigor, would not take even half a page. But when an obsession animates them and the imagination augments them, they become a long uninterrupted story. It is like the prospect of a skyscraper springing up from a pile of bricks in the corner. I don’t feel the need for any trivial label such as autofiction to define my narratives. It’s just how literature works – it’s a particular use of writing to invent a meaning and a style to hold together scattered bits and pieces. The obsession that animated Via Gemito was the urge to articulate an experience I thought I knew in depth: the suffering caused by the individual claim to exceptionality that has become a prerogative of the masses over the past seventy years. What I have in mind is this: everyone feels extraordinary, whether timidly or brazenly, and seeks constant validation from others. So they end up torturing themselves, and those who fail to recognize their talent, to such an extent that they live an unhappy life and make unhappy those who care about them.  

EF & SM: Your novel Trick (Scherzetto, 2016), translated by Jhumpa Lahiri and published by Europa Editions in 2017, revisits some of the themes in Via Gemito. This time we see an artist who is a grandfather and who spends, against his wishes, a few days in close quarters with his grandson Mario. Daniele Mallarico is at a difficult stage of his career. His agent deplores the lack of a certain “vividness” in Daniele’s works. Little Mario seems to echo this view when he scolds his grandfather for his dark colors. In a way, Daniele, like Federico in Via Gemito, must confront his sense of inadequacy, his fear of remaining in the shadows. Mario, on the other hand, is like Mimì who has found his voice and is not afraid of telling the artist what he thinks. Could you expound on the connection between these two novels? 

DS: Chronologically, Trick takes place later than Via Gemito. Federico grew up during Fascism. He has talent but he is disadvantaged by his social class. Already at the age of 18 his destiny has been sealed – he is an electrician and a self-taught artist. Daniele belongs to the generation that followed, he is a product of the Italian Republic, a newly acculturated man who has extricated himself from the worst of Naples, staking everything on his supposed artistic genius. He has succeeded, but he is unhappy. Why? Because there is nothing, not even success, that can truly satisfy the claim to exceptionality, especially when asserted by “newly made” individuals not habituated to talent that runs in the family. What interested me in Daniele is his discomfort, his fear when he discovers, watching his grandchild, that he is only the mere initiator of a tradition and that it will actually be Mario to see it realized successfully. 

EF & SM: What is the role of drawing, painting, and the visual arts in general in your creative process? 

DS: When I feel depressed, I draw, and drawing awakens me. A painting, a film, a video or an art installation can activate my imagination as much as a book. I grew up with the smell of oil paints and turpentine, my father had an easel propped up in the room where we kids slept. But I don’t have artistic talent or in any case I’ve stifled it. If I think back on the important choices in my life, well, there is one that makes me particularly proud: my categorical decision not to follow in my father’s footsteps. 

EF & SM: Let’s talk about the female characters in Starnone’s narrative poetics. The remarkable Rusinè in Via Gemito, Vanda in Ties, Nadia in Trust are the victims of narcissistic and egocentric men whose violence – explicit or implicit – seems bolstered by a framework of immoral acts embedded deeply in the social context. For example, let’s take the professor who in Trust harasses Nadia, Pietro Vella’s wife. At first Pietro condemns the professor but eventually recognizes himself as that professor. Do you consider yourself a writer who exposes and denounces the patriarchy or, more daringly, a feminist writer? 

DS: I was affected by my mother’s suffering, yes, and I believe that my representations of women are fed by my sense of guilt toward my mother and other women. That said, I have always hated the model that I thought my father stood for – and so I have never tolerated this model, in any of its incarnations, whether crude or sophisticated. The rest is good upbringing, progressive political-cultural tendencies – so of course I am neither for the patriarchy, nor against women’s great battles. But when I write, I am only looking for the right form that captures  what I have seen and I see, what I have learned and believe I know. 

EF & SM: Often in your novels you make reference to an idea of human identity that seems profoundly interconnected to the notion of animality, to organic and inorganic matter. In Trust, after citing the poet Andrea Zanzotto, Pietro Vella argues that “there’s nothing human that can’t be traced back to a growl, an argh, an ugh, an ooh ooh ooh” (85). How do you approach the boundaries between the human and the non-human?

DS: As a young boy I was hypnotized at times by certain physical features: the ears, for example, the eyes, the nose cavities, the mouth with its cloister of teeth and, above all, the tongue, this mobile piece of flesh we have in our mouths. I don’t remember feeling any disgust or appreciation. I would simply look at people the same way I looked at horses on the street or  dogs, flies, and birds. Once I was reprimanded for emphasizing such similarities in a school essay, and I took it badly. I never felt any difference between the human and the animal body and now, in my old days – I must admit it – I don’t see the human body as particularly far apart from those animals chained to the ground that we call plants. We are all made of the same stuff which we then also use to feed ourselves. I don’t like the term “human” when it bursts with anthropocentric conceit, and my reading of Leopardi’s poetry encourages me to do so. The human being is a frail artefact, riddled with cracks. This is why I am not convinced either by the trendy formula: the human animal.  We are animals, period, prone to manifold metamorphoses, sharing the same terrible destiny of transience, sickness, death. So then, why not, I say this here as a bit of a provocation, there isn’t an awful lot of difference between an animal’s call and a poet’s calling! 

EF & SM: What is it that your last three novels, Ties, Trick, and Trust, have in common? Could we define them as a trilogy?

DS: They came one after the other but without a plan, so I don’t consider them a trilogy. Perhaps they share some affinities in their themes – the intimate hell of families, the unstable border between good and bad feelings – and in their structure: they are long novellas with some experimental traits. But, in many ways, I feel that Trust is closer to First Execution than Trick or Ties. And Trick is closer to Pole Vault and Fear. And Ties is closer to The Erotic Autobiography of Aristide Gambia and Teeth. Ultimately, books are related to one another in the mind of their writers in ways that don’t necessarily match those identified by readers. But it doesn’t matter, it’s readers that count!

EF & SM: In your latest novel you go back to the subject matter of your first texts: the school. Could you tell us what changed in your approach to narrating the school? Also, what is your idea of the relationship between teachers and students? Is it true, as Pietro Vella maintains, that the real problem we have as teachers is “the risk of being dazzled by those in our likeness, and not appreciating people who are bright in ways other than our own”? (47).

DS: Those lines convey a suspicion rather than a firm belief. In our everyday lives we struggle to throw bridges across to other people, and we only manage to do so with those whose behaviours, attitudes, interests are similar to ours. We should be curious about those who are different from us; instead, we lazily spend our lives inside narrow groups of individuals that require a minimum effort to relate to. Why wouldn’t the same happen at school? Teaching is a difficult job, badly paid; and if mental laziness has the upper hand in several intellectual professions, it is easy for it to catch on at school or in university. Luckily there is no shortage of teachers who adopt another one of Pietro Vella’s imperatives: be careful not to do to your pupils what your teachers did to you. Inconsistency is essential. Nowadays, for example, if I decided to write new stories about the school I wouldn’t use irony. Instead I would portray the school as one of the big tragedies of our times.

EF & SM: In Trick, Henry James’s presence is very prominent given that the protagonist, Daniele Mallarico, is drawing the illustrations for James’s short-story The Jolly Corner. On the other hand, Washington Square in New York appears briefly in Trick (Teresa lives nearby) and this reminded us of James’s novels, Washington Square and Confidence. What role did the American writer have in your development as a writer? Were you inspired by Henry James’s work and by the topography of New York whilst writing your new novel?

DS: As a boy, I worshipped Henry James. I even tried a couple of times, despite my broken English, to translate The Turn of the Screw in Italian. But I am particularly fond of The Jolly Corner. When writing Via Gemito (2000), I was already planning on using that story somehow. I love the idea that the city we have left behind enshrines the ghost of the person we could have become, for better or worse, had we stayed there. And I am very fond of the idea that the ghost, which we consider part of us and therefore a friend, may turn out to be frightening or hostile. As regards the lines dedicated to Washington Square, I hesitated for a long time. Those who visit a city for a few days and end up setting a novel in it with the help of Google maps seem superficial to me. But since I lived in Washington Square for four months, I dared dedicating a few words to that Jamesian square of New York.

EF & SM: Often your characters are similar to flâneurs: as they roam the streets, they seem to own the places they inhabit and, in turn, to be owned by them. Naples, in particular, with its topography and toponymy, plays a crucial role in your writing as a generator of stories and language. Even when your characters don’t speak dialect, their identity is often defined in contrast with those who use it. How important is the clash between the Italian and Neapolitan languages in the construction of your characters? And how important are the sounds and voices of Naples in the creation of the narrative space?

DS: I left Naples, more or less on a permanent basis, when I was twenty-four years old. When I organize the space of  the city in one of my stories, it is the Naples of my first twenty years of life that matters, it is the streets I travelled almost always on foot and the way people’s voices sounded back then that come to my mind. Even when I talk about the city today, I do it to come to terms with the city as it was then. I have had a complicated relationship with Naples, and above all with its dialect. The school demonized it in the 1950s; as a result, I considered it an obstacle to attain and master a good Italian. Nevertheless, it was my language, the language of the city that defined me and which I know best. Now, in my old age, I have finally chosen to give voice to that original clash between the Neapolitan and Italian languages, telling the story of how I dealt with it and how my characters deal with it. The book is titled Vita mortale e immortale della bambina di Milano (The Mortal and Immortal Life of a Girl from Milan) and will be published by Einaudi this autumn.

EF & SM: Four of your novels have been translated into English and published by Europa Editions: First Execution (2009; Prima esecuzione, 2007) translated by Antony Shugaar and your last three novels, Ties (2017, Lacci, 2014), Trick (2018; Scherzetto, 2016) and Trust (2020; Confidenza, 2021) translated by Jhumpa Lahiri. Could you tell us about your relationship with your translators? When you worked with Antony Shugaar and Jhumpa Lahiri, did you read and comment on their drafts?

DS: Our exchanges are usually limited to the little time needed to resolve an occasional query. That’s how it was with Shugaar and others. Jhumpa’s case is different. We have been friends for many years, she knows most of my books and I know hers. Her love for the Italian language and literary tradition totally absorbs her. She reflects upon and writes about translation. Ours is a bit of an anomaly in which the act of translating – perfectly autonomous as it should be – falls within the context of a wider and more intense relationship. An interesting reflection on my language is in the forewords she wrote for the three novels translated by her.

EF & SM: Thank you! Grazie!

This interview is part of the special issue Reading Domenico Starnone (October 2021), edited by Enrica Maria Ferrara and Stiliana Milkova.

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