Text and Photos By Silvio Perrella
One day, a few years ago, Domenico Starnone himself came to my house for a visit. He brought his Via Gemito to my Via Luigia Sanfelice, so to say.
“My mother loved this street and used to take me here for a stroll,” he said, as he let the ascending sight of Mount Echia run over him.
The previous day we had had a conversation in public about his book Spavento, Fear. It had been a dialogue between two friends who share similar passions.
When he learnt where I lived, his desire to visit me took shape.
He walked his way upwards and then downwards, mirroring my steps.
It is always this way in Naples; the ups and downs are mandatory.
Domenico stood watching in silence behind the glass; I don’t know if he opened the French window to smell the air.
He was content enough, I believe, behind the shelter of that see-through wall, admiring the city from which he had escaped.
Almost a decade had passed since Via Gemito, he had published another three or four books by then.
I observed him as he kept watching.
He stood there in silence, with a well-groomed beard like the one in Dürer’s portrait on Via Gemito’s first cover, his raincoat still on, the ever-present Clarks on his feet.
That day we shared a particular gaze.
We directed it towards the mothers.
Fathers often yank us, theirs is a cumbersome presence; they tell us unreliable stories about themselves.
Mothers are mysterious, their beauty flashes suddenly. They appear submissive until you try to reach them in their dark hideouts.
Mimì is small, he holds Rusiné’s hand. Down there, the bay of Naples draws an arch that resembles the round shape of a letter J.
As I exit Starnone’s building in Via Gemito, leaving the courtyard behind, four red letters on a grey background, marking each of the four staircases, remain stubbornly silent.
I wonder If they’d rather keep playing. 1 In Silvio Perrella’s photo essay, the house in Via Gemito emerges as a material-discursive construct whose basic components Perrella identifies: staircases (but also fountain, canvas, etc.) and letters of the alphabet. In his novel, Starnone combines these components to create an in-between space, a place of lability poised between truth and fiction.
The letter A appears, red on a grey background.
Turquoise and white piping with a bat-shaped piece of tape dangling from it.
This chaotic tangle allows the viewer’s gaze to dwell on the stony frieze guarding the first staircase like a sentinel.
Via Gemito is a few steps away from my house; a brief stroll, uphill first, and then down a gentle slope.
It is late afternoon, and I look for visual cues.
In Piazza Quattro Giornate (yes, nothing stays still! These days, Via Gemito lies in close proximity to a square which reminds us of civil unrest in Naples) young people meet outside the Collana stadium, sit on the benches at the green, chatting away right in front of the entrance of the Palazzo dei Ferrovieri, the Palace of the Railway Workers.
I sneak inside, with the camera hidden in my pocket.
I wait to be alone before I start taking pictures.
In the middle of the ample courtyard there is a fountain; it features a young nude woman (a cloth slung across her pubic area and barely covering it) pouring water from a jug, graceful like a ballerina.
I left my copy of Via Gemito at home.
It is the first edition published by Feltrinelli: on its cover a portrait of Dürer, with his inquisitive sky-blue eyes, salt-and-pepper beard, pronounced nose, handsome rosy-orange complexion.
Between its pages I find a letter by Inge Feltrinelli exhorting me to vote for the book on the occasion of the Strega literary prize, which was awarded to it in 2001.
Federì is defined as “a tyrannical, contradictory father, always prone to excesses.”
People are coming and going in the courtyard. A man comes in from the right corner; a girl exits towards the left.
The front door, made of solid iron, is large, with two small gates on each side.
The concierge’s lodge is closed. Beside it, a football fan of Napoli has glued badges and blue posters all over the window that looks out to the lobby.
What am I looking for?
I don’t know for sure.
A few years ago, I published a book titled Doppio Scatto, Double Snapshot.
In that book, visual and verbal snapshots – photographs and short essays – are juxtaposed to complement or contrast each other.
“Why don’t you apply the double-snapshot method to Domenico Starnone’s work?” asked the editors of Reading in Translation.
Recklessly, I said yes.
So here I am this afternoon. I came to celebrate an impossible rite: to resuscitate the house in Via Gemito 64, lift it from its unintentional hibernation and restore it back to the way it was at the time it became a novel.
I looked up and down and all around until four letters of the alphabet leapt over to me. Each of them is placed at the entrance of a staircase.
A, B, C, D: Via Gemito’s shortened alphabet.
Perhaps it will help me spell out the memories of a reader. It will help me tell you how Domenico Starnone is the product of a lenticular self-construction which made him become a “humanist” writer, someone who needs sources.
There you are: A as in Aqua.
A small white box lies above the letter B, framed by a tubular object. Beside it, on the wall, an eyehole opens up.
A cable hangs loose behind the frieze.
Federì – that “tyrannical, contradictory father, always prone to excesses” – was not entirely happy with his job as a railman. But, without that job, he would have never made it to Via Gemito, sùnapoli – upNaples – as I call the upper part of the city.
He loved painting. Whenever he managed to sell one of his canvases, he would be beside himself with joy, fluttering about the cash he earned, particularly in front of his wife Rusinè, as well as his children, mainly Mimì: a.k.a Domenico.
The money was tangible but something was missing to make its value real.
When your father is a polyphony of conflicting stories, when lies and truth are plagued by “lability,” you get riddled with contradictions.
Never mind if you are a writer for whom veracity is a daily practice.
You pull a thread, hold it tight between your fingers and soon you have one of those tangles that the engineer in a blue suit, writer Carlo Emilio Gadda, would call a gnommero in Roman dialect.
Via Gemito comprises three long movements of the imagination.
I am reading it again, looking for the sections I underlined, for my handwritten notes. I combine it with Lability, I contrast it with Fear and Erotic Autobiography of Aristide Gambia.
Comparing the personal inscriptions on the title page of each novel, I notice a variation in the letter D of Domenico: sometimes it is closed, often open like a bay-shaped J.
The letters guarding the entrance of the staircases seem to be oblivious to it.
This afternoon, Naples is somewhat withered. Perhaps it is the sweltering heat that makes her take shelter in the corners.
Starnone’s Naples, instead, is a sensual, lewd, meaty, feverish and disgruntled city.
You are hunted by your city, wrote the poet Kavafis, in Guido Ceronetti’s translation.
Naples has hunted down so many of us, Starnone included.
Though, he was the object of a double quest: not only the city but also his father chased him.
Actually, father and city had become one.
The lenticular construction had lingered for a long while in denial.
Go away and live elsewhere, never pronounce a word in dialect, do not hang out with any fellow citizens; keep your writing demon at bay, be a good teacher instead.
How long could that last?
Especially when the urge to write had resurfaced almost by chance reclaiming the space of Domenico’s mind and that of his body.
If I don’t face up this ironbound repression – Domenico-Mimì-Mimmo must have said to himself – I will never become a true writer.
The years that preceded Via Gemito should be investigated using psychoanalytical tools.
It is precisely in those years, between the end of the 1980s and the 1990s, that Starnone must have found a way to set himself free and drink copiously from the paternal source, from the city he abhorred.
There you go: B as in Bevitori – Drinkers.
C has a white box to the left of its head. Above the letter an eyehole peeks from behind two long curtains of lashes. The staircases exchange looks.
The Drinkers is a painting by Federico Starnone that sets the rhythm of the second movement of Domenico Starnone’s novel Via Gemito, “The Boy Who Pours Water.”
To “splatter that canvas with paint,” Federì made his family’s life miserable.
When years later he talks about it with his son, Federì envisions it as a time of grace. He sold it to the city hall of Positano for a hundred thousand lire.
“Bang! There he goes boasting again,” thinks the son.
He vaguely remembers the painting, but he could never forget its dogged, frenzied gestation.
When he calls the Positano city hall to ascertain the veracity of his father’s claim, all he hears on the other end is flatus vocis, meaningless words. Yes, the painting should be here in theory, but at present we are unable to specify its exact location.
But look, in Einaudi’s new edition of Via Gemito, The Drinkers has replaced Dürer’s portrait and taken up the entire cover.
A true revelation.
A boy in green kneels forward and pours water from a demijohn into the glass of a young man seated on the ground who is about to eat a few tomatoes, some bread, and a bunch of grapes. Two men, also crouching, one with his arm over the other’s shoulders, the other holding an apple in his hand, are watching the scene unfold.
The white, almost milky, stream of water flows perfectly into the center of the glass.
But if you look closely, you see that the extended arm of the man with the glass is too long. Unlike the well-proportioned arm of the naked woman pouring water into the fountain occupying the center of the courtyard with the four letters-staircases.
Even if it stands in the street named after him, the fountain was certainly not the work of Vincenzo Gemito, a genius sculptor and an abandoned soul, so viscerally similar to Federì.
At first glance a purely ornamental object, the fountain has been transformed into a rhyme of sources.
Water turned sculpture, painting, story.
It took time to pour the water that unleashed the narrative flow.
The humanist writer has returned to his sources, he has unleashed their flow all over again, he has questioned them and delved into their very heart.
It took courage to do it, to put fear and shame aside and turn around to confront his pursuers, to accept the water of the drinkers.
So there it is, C as in Courage.
D has an s-shaped rubber cable touching its face.
The staircase slides through zones of light and darkness and uncoils itself, pausing to catch its breath on every floor.
Occasionally, a resident crosses the courtyard with the fountain.
I raise my eyes and see the rows of windows. On the last floor, a lopsided and somewhat quirky curtain converses with the wind.
I came over at a brisk pace, to collect details. And discovered an alphabet whose letters you can count on four fingers, while the fifth is left free to move.
Was this perhaps the staircase that the Starnone family climbed up and down before they descended to Via Arnaldo Lucci, giùnapoli, as I call the lower parts of Naples?
It’s not easy to wake up the Palace of the Railway Workers. I hear the murmur of its daydreaming.
The eyeholes of staircases B and C turn into slits, they are playing a game of lability.
We sleep while we stand vigil. We stand vigil while we sleep.
If Starnone were to appear at this very moment, with the D in his name wagging its tail after the S, we wouldn’t even notice.
Domenico-Mimì-Mimmo loves to lead his commentators astray. He does it with a kind but peremptory tone, his smile painted on his teeth.
His signature, especially his D, is never the same. It opens and closes, his pen riding on a roller coaster.
It makes me think of something Italo Calvino wrote.
One evening I found myself at a night club in Las Vegas, one of those places where the girls coerce you to drink because they get a percentage of what you spend. I was getting short on money and had to resort to my traveller’s checks. But the bartender was not satisfied with my signature alone – all of a sudden he grabbed my right thumb, pressed it onto a red ink pad and then onto the check, stamping my fingerprint on it.
Since I had to leave Las Vegas, I needed to buy a ticket for the bus to Arizona and so I had to change another traveller’s check. I try to change a fifty-dollar check and what happens? When signing your name you may stumble upon a number of unpredictable variants – it happened to me that time. At Greyhound they refused my check when they saw that my signature was different and they wouldn’t accept another from my checkbook because by then they suspected me of being a thief and a counterfeiter.
The Greyhound bus was about to leave. I run to the nearest gambling house to change a check, but nervous as I am, my signature turns out even more different and they won’t accept it. And so I set about running around Las Vegas, from one gambling house to another, but I couldn’t sign my name anymore, I kept wasting my $50 traveller’s checks with my unacceptable signature…It was as if my arms had multiplied: a new one sprang forward every time I had to sign. Had I turned into an octopus?
Is this the true or the false Calvino, or Calvino poised between the two, as in Starnone’s Pole Vault, Il salto con le aste?
So there it is, D as in Domenico.
Silvio Perrella is an Italian writer and literary critic from Palermo who lives in Naples. His latest book, Petraio, is about to be published by La Nave di Teseo.
This photo essay is part of the special issue Reading Domenico Starnone (October 2021), edited by Enrica Maria Ferrara and Stiliana Milkova.