The Three Lives of Domenico Starnone

By Michael Reynolds

Let me begin with Domenico Starnone’s Teeth. In Italian, Denti. Published in 1994, it belongs to a late phase of Domenico Starnone’s first incarnation—Starnone was fifty-one when it was published. Seen from the vantage point of today—Starnone’s twenty-third book will soon be published in Italy—Denti can at best be considered a minor work, yet it contains many of the themes that have preoccupied the author over the course of his career. There are the more obvious ones: family, fatherhood, children, love, liberation, jealousy, secrecy, ambition, validation, sex. But the book also contains more idiosyncratic concerns. For example: the body, its betrayals and rivalries; identity and mutability; emotional, intellectual, and existential lability (Labilità, not coincidentally, is the title of a 2005 novel by Starnone); what we might call now “toxic masculinity”; the perniciousness of ordinary household objects, which are used and abused at such pivotal moments in Starnone’s novels.

Denti tells the story of a man whose existential unravelling is viewed and filtered through his complex relationship with his own teeth. Starnone’s stylistic quirks and innovations, the tics and curlicues that make his voice so immediately recognizable, and the remarkable proximity of the language he deploys to the vision it expresses are all on display in Denti. His style is not fully formed, although the elements are all there and he already seems to have ingested each of the five “memos” (“proposte” in Italian) formulated by Italo Calvino for his never-delivered Charles Eliot Norton lectures: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity. Quickness and Lightness, especially, characterize Starnone’s style, then as now, but if not taken together with the other three, Quickness and Lightness are apt to infer a laissez-faire approach to narration, a slapdash style of telling a story. Starnone’s novels possess, on the contrary, narrative architectures that are exact and precise. There is buoyancy and fleetness to Starnone’s storytelling, but there is little that is casual or accidental.

Except when there is. Because however carefully Starnone chooses each word, each grammatical construction, I always sense that as an author he is open to accident, incident, serendipity. The buoyancy of his prose, the dynamism of his characters, and the electric current that enlivens his tales of domestic strife and fills them with such ballooning suspense all flow partly from this openness.

His openness to accident looses Starnone’s tales from their often grim subject matter—which is frequently ignorance, hubris, strife—allowing them to sing. Perhaps this is why his books can also be so funny, at times laugh-aloud funny. 

Denti occupies a liminal position in Starnone’s bibliography. Between its publication and that of  his masterpiece, the Strega Prize-winning novel Via Gemito, six years pass during which time he writes and publishes two other books. But one is a collection of experimental short stories, and the other a collection of vignettes  on the state of Italian schools. Denti, therefore, is the novel that directly precedes Via Gemito and the sudden transformation of Starnone’s reputation. Following Via Gemito’s Strega Prize victory and its success with critics and readers, Starnone is no longer the congenial newspaper columnist, the author of commercially bankable satirical books about the classroom, schooling, and the educational system. He is now a literary heavyweight, an Author with a capital A. Thus begins the second incarnation of Domenico Starnone.

But let me return to Starnone’s Teeth, his Denti, for just a moment…

When I moved to Rome in 2000, without a word of Italian, I gathered my earliest language lessons from a tabloid newspaper freely distributed in the metro. The editorial standards and sensibility were abominable, the Italian in which the articles were written no doubt monstrous. But that news sheet was my constant companion and thanks to it I quickly managed to improve my Italian sufficiently to read something better. The first book I read entirely in Italian was Le città invisibili by Italo Calvino, but Calvino’s language was challenging for me, and I remember the experience being dispiriting, despite occasional passages that stirred me and alerted me to new linguistic possibilities just over the horizon. The second book I read in Italian, the first I was able to enjoy, was Denti, by Domenico Starnone.

I didn’t know his name at the time. I discovered the book spine out on a short bookshelf in the house where I spent that first Italian summer. It was slim, I recognized every word on the first page, the description was intriguing, and I had noticed that a movie adaptation was coming that summer to the small cinema a few miles down the coast from where I was staying. These were reasons enough to give Denti a go, so I did.

When I am asked to write about publishing, or the work of editors and publishers, or a particular book or author whose journey I have aided, I usually decline. I worry that writing about my work or the work of my colleagues will involve revealing something to strangers that should remain hidden. Not because there is anything especially untoward about publishing’s inner workings, even less because there is something esoteric about it that begs secrecy, but simply because, despite occasional inclinations to the contrary, we publishers and editors have no business appearing out in front, or even to the side, of the works we bring to market. This kind of protagonism is something analogous in my mind to breaking a fifth (or a sixth?) wall in the theater. If grips and stagehands were to stroll onto the stage every night—not for dramatic effect but just because they were bored backstage—not only the play itself but also the pact between the play’s creators and its audience would be broken. No, better to keep mum, in my opinion, to stay in the wings, within or behind our handiwork, sharpening our red pencils and re-organizing our spreadsheets, letting the books and their authors speak for themselves.

What rot, you may object. Because here I am waxing lyrical about an author we publish at Europa Editions. But I write, I swear, not only, and not primarily, as Domenico Starnone’s American publisher, rather as a long-time and ardent admirer of his work. My admiration began that summer with Denti.

I don’t care to calculate precisely how much I didn’t understand of the book when I first read it with my questionable Italian. What I remember is how vivid and palpable were the places, people, and emotional states described therein. I remember its bright contemporaneity infused with something dark, atavistic, classical. I remember the book’s questioning, gyrating hero, and his nightmarish journey from one dentist to another, that is, from one putative healer to another on a path winding through past sins and traumas. What I cannot forget is the sensation of Starnone’s driving sentences, one after another, and the surprise and the pleasure contained in each of them. 

Denti may not be a great novel, and it is certainly not Starnone’s best. But if it is true, as E.M. Forster writes, that the final test of a novel shall be our affection for it, then Denti passes every test in my book.

Nine years after my first encounter with Starnone’s work, after Via Gemito, after the Strega Prize, when Starnone was squarely in his second incarnation and his reputation with critics was soaring, Europa Editions became his American publisher. In 2009, we brought out First Execution (Prima Esecuzione) in Anthony Shugaar’s translation. A clever work of metafiction about guilt, responsibility, the dangers of getting involved, and the even greater dangers of not getting involved, First Execution seemed very much a novel of its time and of its author’s milieu. Somewhat oddly, it was reviewed as a thriller or metaphysical noir novel by many in the US. It was reviewed well; Starnone was invited to a couple of North American festivals; he garnered a few fans among readers and booksellers.  We had taken one step toward introducing Starnone and his work to an American readership. But it was too small a step.

Prima Esecuzione failed to find a significant readership in America. Perhaps it was too free, too loose for the broad American audience we were attempting to reach. The best novels from this period in Starnone’s career—in addition to Prima Esecuzione,Labilità,  Spavento, Autobiografia Erotica di Aristide Gambia—are among the author’s most formally experimental and daring novels. He seems at this time to have discovered a range of movement and a freedom that is not present in the earlier novels, and that develops into something different in the novels to follow. And perhaps these books were destined to not “travel well,” as editors will say about books whose concerns or style strike them as too local and parochial. (Naturally, American books with local concerns and regional styles are assumed to always travel well.)

Whatever the reasons, by any measure, the publication of Prima Esecuzione in America, was not successful.  It was decided that we would wait before publishing another of his books, wait and see if we could learn a little more about American readers’ tastes and their tolerance level for having those tastes tested; wait and see how Starnone’s work itself would evolve.

While we were waiting, two important things happened: Starnone’s work did indeed take a new direction; and, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri moved to Rome to improve her Italian.

Ties, Trick, and TrustLacci, Scherzetto, Confidenza—are the novels of Starnone’s third incarnation and each has been translated into English by Jhumpa Lahiri, who, not long after arriving in Rome, met Domenico Starnone, fell in love with his work, and decided she would like to try her hand at translating something of his. Trust will be published this month in America.

While the novels of Starnone’s second incarnation evince perhaps the greatest narrative freedom of all his books, Ties, Trick and Trust display freedom of a different order, the freedom to be found in form, the freedom of limits. In the same way that a poet exercises a tensile freedom within the form of a sonnet, Starnone in these three books finds a narrative shape, a formal constraint that prompts a new and exhilarating experiment in style. Lahiri, in her introduction to the first of these novels, writes: “Ties is a novel full of containers, both literal and symbolic.” She is right. Containment, freedom, tension—these are, on one hand, the preoccupations animating the books of this period and, on the other, the elements that give them their narrative structure and their explosive force.

The imposition of a more defined narrative structure also lends them a more “traditional” story arc—the sharp rise in dramatic action a little past the halfway point, the snapping of the tense narrative thread or resolution, then, the sharp, intense coda that impacts the story told thus far in subtle if significant ways. This story arc proved to be more familiar and thus palatable to an international audience, and with the publication of Ties, Starnone’s reputation outside of Italy, first among English-language readers and critics, took flight. Starnone, in this his third incarnation, becomes an internationally acclaimed, widely translated, best-selling A-list author who is invited to festivals from Shanghai to New York, whose readers span continents, and whose books garner awards and accolades from Iceland to Australia.

Indubitably, Jhumpa Lahiri’s name brought prestige and media interest to the books. It also turns out, perhaps to nobody’s surprise, that she is a talented, exacting, and sensitive translator who has produced three pitch-perfect translations. These two things alone would have been important contributions to the growth of Starnone’s audience. But, most importantly, the meeting of Starnone in this phase of his career and Lahiri in this stage of hers, has given energy and luster to the publication of these three novels. Starnone and Lahiri are live wires—prodigiously inventive in this phase, constantly questioning, experimenting, throwing off expectations. Their coming into contact has given life to a singular creative collaboration, to some extraordinary live interactions between the two,  and it has consolidated Starnone’s international reputation, in his third life as a writer, as one of Italy’s greatest living authors.

Three incarnations. Three bodies of work, distinct though with obvious through-lines, each alone enough to satisfy a less prodigious and less ambitious author. But not Starnone, the thrice-born novelist. How mercurial he has been over the course of his long career, how indefatigable. He somehow heralds this long journey of invention and reinvention, not only of stories but of himself as author, in his first book, Ex Cathedra (1989), a collection of prose sketches set in the Italian public school.

“[Il lettore deve tenere] presente che oggetti, prassi, rituali, frasi fatte, tic, disfunzioni e piccoli crimini della scuola che vi viene descritta sono assolutamente reali. Immaginari sono invece i personaggi. E l’autore che li ha inventati.”

“[The reader should] remember that the school’s objects, routines, rituals, commonplaces, tics, dysfunctions, and small criminal acts described herein are utterly real. Imaginary, on the other hand, are the characters. And the author who invented them.”

(Italics and translation mine)

To have known Domenico Starnone, to have had both the privilege of bringing his books to readers in English and the pleasure of counting him as a friend, are among the happiest outcomes of my life in publishing. I confess to being seduced by Starnone, by his intelligence, his eloquence, his dialectical ingenuity and drive, his warmth, his concern, and his laughter. Perhaps seduced is not the right word; perhaps it is simply deep admiration, esteem, reverence. How odd and out of fashion such sentiments seem today. How rare, how welcome it is to feel them so purely.

Domenico invited my family and me to dinner this summer. Truth be told, it has become something of an annual tradition, this summer dinner invitation. I have watched the pleasure of Domenico’s company and conversation blossom in my children over the years and I would not trade those dinners for anything. Before we left for dinner this year, I rummaged among the books on the short shelf in the house where I was staying—yes, twenty years later, I am still summering in that same little house with the short shelf—to see if Denti was there, hoping I could take it with me and ask him to sign it. I can picture him: he would have laughed, asked why on earth…, said something disparaging about himself, his age, his reputation, feigned embarrassment and surprise, but been chuffed all the same.

Denti was nowhere to be found. We left for dinner late, empty-handed, and with no Teeth. But there’s always next year. And next year I’ll look harder.

Michael Reynolds is the Editor in Chief of Europa Editions.

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

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