On the Language and Style of Domenico Starnone’s Novels

By Chiara De Caprio

Translated from Italian by Rebecca Falkoff

Considering the novels and short stories1Citations are taken from the following novels: Denti, Milano, Feltrinelli 1994 [v ed. 2013]; Via Gemito, Milano, Feltrinelli, 2000; Labilità, Milano, Feltrinelli, 2005 [2007]; Spavento, Einaudi, 2009 [2020]; Autobiografia erotica di Aristide Gambia, Torino, Einaudi, 2011; Lacci, Milano, Feltrinelli, 2014; Scherzetto, Torino, Einaudi, 2016; Confidenza, Torino, Einaudi, 2019. of Domenico Starnone from a linguistic perspective means to bring out the double-edged quality and the internal stratification of their linguistic composition. A reasonable pace and feverish emotional sequences intersect in his works. His style alternates between solitary self-reflection, expressive modes of  dialogue, and interpersonal conflict. The Italian language of books, of engagement, of cultural and political meetings finds a space in his writing, but at the same time,  the workings of memory force the conversational and standard Italian to give way to a language charged with  regional meaning, and to the Neapolitan dialect. The  latter is sometimes “staged,” sometimes only alluded to, but in any case, it is openly mediated by the  filter of the narrating voice. This confirms that what counts above all is the memory trigger that dialect represents for the character-narrator, and the ghostly presences that return to speak through dialect. In effect, the image of Neapolitan that the novels construct is tied to its use in childhood and adolescence. It is the language of meals and food, of childhood games and fights, a way of approaching desire and sex through its syntax and semantics. It is both the language of secrets among women, and the language of men, of their attempts to take over the world. One example is that of Federì, the legendary artist and father figure in Via Gemito (2000): the echo of his dialect confers on the syntactical-textual score of the novel the rhythm of a long, draining self-narration that proceeds by wavering between recrimination and vexations, jealousy and a sudden surge of willpower , outbursts of anger and a desire for redemption.2A critical reading of the novel is in C. Falotico Vitelli, Starnone: la vita e il “piacere guasto” della letteratura, “Forum Italicum”, II (2005), pp. 649-658; see also the essay by Enrica Ferrara in this issue; for an overview of the function of Neapolitan in contemporary narrative set in Naples, see C. De Caprio, Spazi, suoni e lingue nel “romanzo di Napoli”, in Lo stato della città. Napoli e la sua area metropolitana, a cura di L. Rossomando, Napoli, Monitor, 2016: 503-10, also available online in a revised version.

Most of all, linguistic solutions open both to standard and conversational language3I use this term with reference to the architecture of Italian modelled by Gaetano Berruto and Francesco Sabatini in the late 1980s and of the linguistic space of the so-called neo-standard Italian (see G. Berruto, Sociolinguistica dell’italiano contemporaneo, Roma, Carocci, 1987, nuova edizione 2012). find ample space in Starnone’s novels, not only to communicate a range of ordinary, sometimes minimal, everyday situations, but also to move, gradually, toward buried but not forgotten layers of the narrator’s linguistic repertoire. First and foremost, we see laid out on the page stereotyped, hasty formulas through which the confrontation with a wife, collaborator, or friend is avoided – perhaps on the phone,  when traveling for work or pleasure. We also see, however, expressions – beginning with a gesture or a way of walking or of fixing one’s hair – that allow us to enter the terrain of intimacy and physical contact, of sexual discovery and a frenzy to possess. In fact, the vocabulary of reflection and emotional measure coexists with words signifying rage, verbal aggression, and injunction. The latter can sometimes only be confessed to oneself, and formulated mentally, as happens with the protagonist of Starnone’s 2005 novel Labilità (Lability) who progressively, once he is alone, slips into the angry dialect of his father:

Le parole di Torraca […] si mutarono in un ritornello vaporoso del sangue che mi pulsava nella testa […]. Coglione. Mette bocca su quello che so e che non so fare. Stusfaccimmemmèrd, stufigliezòccola. Mi accorsi che non riuscivo più a governare il linguaggio, stava prevalendo lo strato più antico, tornava la lingua di mio padre, dei miei antenati, e con essa la voglia di attraversare la città, andare a casa di Torraca, scummarlesàng. (Labilità, 47)

Torraca’s words […] mutated into a hazy refrain of blood pulsating in my head… Asshole. Interfering with what I can and can’t do. Shithead, sonofabitch. I realized I was no longer capable of governing my language, an older layer was returning, the language of my father, of my ancestors, and with that the desire to cross the city, to go home to Torraca and smash his face in.

But there are also cases in which form and content clash with each other, manifesting the precarious equilibrium between the civility owed to the colleague of one’s partner and the protection of a couple’s space. This is what happens, for example, with the protagonist of his 1994 novel Denti (Teeth) who, goaded by sniggers and glares during a party, opts for a calm response in the imperative mode, a discursive formation that represents a “compromise” between worldly urbanity and erotic rivalry among men:

Scossi la testa […]. Gli dissi pacatamente, separando dalle parole eventuali toni minacciosi: lasciala perdere, non rivolgerle la parola, non sfiorarla nemmeno, non respirarla mai più; pensi che non sappia come si balla il tango? (Denti, 160-161).

I shook my head. […] I told him calmly, separating any possible threatening tone from my words, “Let it go, don’t say a word to her, don’t so much as brush against her, don’t breathe her in; you think that I don’t know how to dance the tango? 

In the same way, turns of phrase that lend order to reality and stave off the fear of loss can progressively loosen their grip on things: that is, words can bring to the surface the precarity and  lability of the system of relations that the character-narrator has constructed; a system that is ultimately confused and crooked, poised between danger and escape, and between the construction of a better social subject and its unmasking. Take, for example, Pietro Vella, the protagonist of his 2019 novel Confidenza (Trust) and his first girlfriend, Teresa Quadraro, who maintain a lifelong epistolary relationship and are bound by the shared keeping of a secret. The character of Teresa, blunt and imperious (even linguistically) incarnates for Pietro the indissoluble combination of a looming threat of ruin and salvation, perhaps illusory, never certain, but always possible (“the dam will hold, dummy, there’s no danger,” Teresa will write to Pietro at one point – a curt and not at all reassuring statement).

On closer inspection, what persists in the long, thirty-year arc of Starnone’s career (1987-2019) is the way in which narration is restored on the formal plane as a movement between barriers and breaks, between limpid, clean and quick distinctions, on the one hand, and areas of congestion and coagulation on the other.  

Contributing to the first effect – that of clarity and stylistic measure, is a syntactical-textual score that develops through the form of a story-memoir in the first person, (as is the case in Starnone’s novels from his 1994 Denti to his 2016 Trick and again, in part, in his 2019 Trust) and favors parataxis and juxtaposition: short, staccato sentences, little if any variation in the order of phrasal elements, and sparing use of adjectives. The use of dislocations, hanging topics, and cleft sentences is not characteristic of his prose. The alternation between semicolon and full stop is a play of binds and breakages. In short, rapidity and limpidity, precision and measure are anchoring virtues of Starnone’s  formal choices, or at least a part of them.

Additionally, in the elaboration of his project, the distinctive features and essential  articulations of Starnone’s prose at times correspond to the interior motions through which some of the character-narrators choose, confuse, and order the flux of reality. In fact, even within narrative devices that interpose elements of variation and discontinuity between formal and thematic constants, it is possible to recognize a galaxy of characters who share common traits. They train themselves to control their reactions. These characters aim to use words to make sense of the reality that surrounds them. They strive to keep at bay the ghosts that visit them, even when interrogating them. Accordingly, in the narrator-characters’ storytelling, we can progressively reconstruct the physiognomy of their interlocutors through verbs describing everyday actions. Adjectives, rarely listed in a series, serve to isolate fundamental and defining qualities of objects, places, and people. In effect, even descriptive sequences do not escape the narrators’ restraint; descriptions do not slow down the rhythm of the prose and cut through the indistinct flow of objects, places, characters, and states of mind through a few, incisive strokes. The following passage from Labilità demonstrates this use of verbs and adjectives. In the narrative sequence quoted below, a succession of verbs describing insignificant gestures (going to bed, getting up) and a brief description of Clara’s body, immobile but agitated, reveals a subtle contest between husband and wife, and brings to the surface a mixture of the husband’s emotions and thoughts – control of her, fear of her – and the shared distress and desperation to avoid an unruly conflict:

Tornammo a casa senza dirci più una parola, andammo a letto desolati. Facemmo finta entrambi di dormire, ostili l’uno all’altro e tuttavia dolenti, perché non eravamo abituati ai litigi. Il suo corpo di solito rassicurante emanò per tutta la notte, pur nell’assoluta immobilità, un’irritata inquietudine. Quanto a me, lasciai scorrere le ore come se fossi chiuso in una teca sigillata, coi vetri appannati dal mio stesso respiro.

Avevo voglia di alzarmi, ma ci rinunciai per timore che lei si alzasse a sua volta e la notte diventasse un confronto sregolato. Mi abbandonai invece alla prospettiva della sua partenza un ingranaggio ormai inarrestabile, bastava pazientare. (Labilità, 77)

We went home without saying another word to each other, and we went to bed upset. We both pretended to sleep, annoyed with each other, and above all, sorrowful, as we weren’t used to fighting. Her usually comforting body emanated, for the whole night, even in its absolute stillness, an irritated restlessness. As for me, I let the hours pass by as though I were closed in a sealed case, my breath fogging up the glass.

I wanted to get up, but I resisted out of fear that she in turn would get up, and that the night would become an uncontrollable face-off. I abandoned myself instead to the idea that her departure was  at hand, and that I just had  to be patient. 

But as is already evident in this example, at the stylistic level, things are more complex. Because of the linear syntactical-textual structure, the stripped-down dialogue, and the temperate use of adjectives, what is essential in the passage can become a stylistic vector not of the inner clarity of the character-(narrator) but of his deafness to his own pain and desire and those of others. The exercise of self-control becomes a series of punishing lashes, the maintenance of boundaries becomes a prison. That is the outcome of the unrelenting self-discipline of the protagonists of Spavento (Fear, 2009), Lacci (Ties, 2014), Scherzetto (Trick, 2016) and Confidenza (Trust, 2019). They anesthetize themselves to the excesses and emotional appeals of others. They monitor their own desire, nourishing a sense of guilt. They fear not having known how to fully realize their artistic and intellectual vocation amid the ever-more pervasive sense of their own disintegration before sickness and death.

The use of dialogue, often constructed through an alternation between direct quotations and free indirect discourse, is symptomatic. Conversations are reduced to what is essential. Dialogues are increasingly deprived of introductory verbs, and in any case, deploy sparingly verbs denoting the act of speaking. Sequences of reported speech often function to present communication that is more superficial than profound, and to signify the need of the narrator to avoid questions posed by others. Consider the following exchange in Spavento (Fear, 2009), which sets Ornella’s distress and cold efficiency against the dry monosyllabic and ultimately conclusive responses of her husband, Pietro Tasca:

– Tutto bene?

– Sì.

– Non puoi aprire?

– No.

– Hai dormito?

– Poco.

– Hai mal di testa?

– Sì.

– Hai fatto quel che devi fare?

– Sì.

-Vai subito al laboratorio?

– Sì.

Tacque. (Spavento, 48-49)


– Is everything alright?

– Yes.

– Can you not open the door?

– No.

– Did you sleep?

– Barely.

– Do you have a headache?

– Yes.

– Did you do what you have to do?

– Yes.

– Are you going to the lab right away?

– Yes.

She fell silent. 

However, as mentioned earlier, Starnone’s language is also able to modulate its tones and rhythms of evocation and fabulation; it captures the back-and-forth flow of thought, the reformulations and modifications that represent willful self-sabotage as well as displacements dictated by the pressures of the unconscious and the need to translate private images and ideas that could not otherwise cross the threshold between what can be spoken and what can not.

It can therefore be observed that, in some novels, the dogged pace of syntax and the sharp edges of  words are the stylistic equivalent of blisters of emotions that Starnone’s characters don’t know, at first, whether to fear, or instead desire (and to hope that, bursting, they modify the order imposed on reality and on themselves).

In sum, Starnone’s narrative production offers a different relation between surface and depth, closed in and opened up with regards to the protagonists of Lacci and Confidenza. Ever since Denti, we also see narrator-characters endowed with different systems of openings and counterweights with respect to the material of memories and visions, to dreams and hallucinations. This does not shelter them from defeat and failures, to be sure (“Now I smile better but I don’t know at whom” [“Ora sorrido meglio ma non so a chi,” Denti, 175] is the sentence with which the protagonist of Denti closes his narrative).4A close reading of the protagonist of Denti, in which his defeat is emphasized, can be found in M. Spinelli, Incapace di mordere la vita. L’inetto di Domenico Starnone, in “Poetiche,” I (2014), pp. 163-177. But their story becomes more openly a traversing of those coagulations and those recurring images that prohibit them from accessing that which, insofar as both desired and feared, has been repressed. One might even suggest that for these characters the place of hiding and the place of possible unveiling end up overlapping and coinciding. This is what happens in the scene of the child’s fleeing to the wardrobe in Denti. The child hides, escaping his quarreling family by climbing on top of the wardrobe in the bedroom, and from there glimpses a cousin who, in getting undressed, shows him an alternative image of that femininity otherwise tied to the maternal body, to the need of protecting and being protected, and to the haze of desire and fear that it excites. This also happens in the dialogue-vision between the writer-protagonist of Labilità and the ghost of his mother: “Jocasta speaking in dialect,” at once capable of dexterously handling the sharp blade of a razor and of speaking words that allow the son to “leave the dream without forgetting it, keeping it in his memory forever” (Labilità, 219).

Starnone’s narrative, and even more the memoir-narrative, can become then a crossing of diverse layers of language, of syntax and lexicon. The recomposition of spaces that language inhabits is exhibited via a gesture that opens up those spaces and rummages through them. Or, to recuperate the metaphorical system of Labilità, we could say that the narrator completes a gesture similar to the one made when using a blade to engrave a surface; he engraves the surface of language with his burin, to make words come out whole again.

In fact, on a formal level, the interplay between the various temporal planes of the “I” who has lived and the “I” who tells the story corresponds to a progressive breaking of the barriers and confines between the distinct linguistic uses and layers. On the one hand, this movement of the narrating “I” between past and present brings into focus the value of some linguistic devices, which acquire the strength of a possible interpretative key allowing us to understand the relationship between the real order of things and imagination, between lies and incontrovertible facts, between truth and fiction. This is the case in a long reflection that the protagonist of Labilità develops around the idea of “let’s pretend that I am…” of his childhood games, or rather, of the so-called modal contrafactual uses of the imperfect.

On the other hand, from Via Gemito (2000) to Erotic Autobiography of Aristide Gambia (2011) and Labilità (2014), the relationship between the world given over to Italian and the one lived in dialect becomes more porous and fluid. The narrator positions himself as one who listens to the voices embedded within him; he makes contact with the corporeal dimension of words uttered and heard in childhood: so that, as the protagonist of Denti notes, “our body is inhabited….” and our experience doesn’t end up “in the brain,” but is miniaturized “somewhere in the body” (Denti, 103). For the narrating voice, this means finding the sounds of body and everyday life hanging in the balance between onomatopoeia and dialect (in Denti, for example, the ze-è-ze-è of shirts put out to dry, or the trock trock of the mother’s scissors cutting garments). But it also means, as happens in Labilità, analyzing the nuclei and semantic clusters of words from the past, recovering from them meaning that can throw light on the emotional postures of the present. Because it remains essentially true for the narrator-characters (for example, in Denti and Labilità) that “dangerous and desperate situations work miracles with words. […] Those that seem lost or that were never learned break through who knows what tombstone and return among the lasting and living things that concern us” [“le situazioni di pericolo e disperazione fanno miracoli con le parole. […] Quelle che paiono perdute o mai imparate spezzano chissà quale lapide e tornano tra le cose durevoli e vive che ci riguardano” (Denti, 125)].

In Erotic Autobiography of Aristide Gambia the analysis of words and the memoir-narration of erotic-sentimental life go hand-in-hand as well. But here, this narrative device adds a further level of complexity: at the end of the novel we discover, in fact, that the long story of Aristide’s life that occupies the first part of the novel was written by the writer Mariella Ruiz, a woman Aristide met as a young man, and then saw years later in Rome for a few days and in a few encounters characterized by intimacy and mutual self-narration. The narrative solution that allows Mariella’s voice to fall into Aristide’s seems, above all, to warn the reader that the literary machine should not be confused with life: telling is playing with fiction and building a voice that knows how to “take back unpleasant truths that […] literature deals with”. 5 G. Simonetti, La letteratura circostante. Narrativa e poesia nell’Italia contemporanea, Bologna, il Mulino, 2018, p. 322.

Chiara De Caprio is Associate Professor of Italian Language and Linguistics at the University of Naples Federico II. She has directed a number of research projects, among which Disaster Texts. Literacy, Cultural Identity, Coping Strategies in Southern Italy Between the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period. As a senior member of the ERC project DisComPose, she coordinates research on narrative strategies of 17th-century printed texts and studies different discursive genres of the Early Modern age. She has also published on 20th-century Italian prose and on contemporary Italian narrative and poetry.

Rebecca Falkoff is an affiliated scholar of Italian Studies at Brown University. She is the author of Possessed. A Cultural History of Hoarding (Cornell University Press, 2021) and of essays on illegibility, vitalism, Primo Levi, Giorgio Manganelli, and Elena Ferrante. She has translated from Italian works by Anita Raja, Elsa Morante, and others. She holds a Ph.D. in Italian Studies from University of California, Berkeley.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: