‘The Drinkers,’ by Federico Starnone (Europa Editions)

The Italian novelist Domenico Starnone has long been rumored to be the writer behind the works of the best-selling, pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante. In 2005, the Italian literary critic Luigi Galella noted in La Stampa that there were marked thematic and lexical similarities between Starnone’s Strega Prize–winning novel Via Gemito (2000) and Ferrante’s debut novel L’amore molesto (1992), published in English as Troubling Love in 2006. Subsequent studies by Italian scholars have claimed to show through stylometric analysis that Starnone’s style and Ferrante’s style are often indistinguishable, down to the authors’ word choices. But in 2016, the Italian journalist Claudio Gatti claimed to show through financial records that the author (or beneficiary) of Ferrante’s books was in fact not Starnone, but Starnone’s wife, the Italian translator Anita Raja.

Despite widespread condemnation of Gatti for his perceived violation of Raja’s privacy, there was also, as Italian comparative literature scholar Elisa Sotgiu wrote in 2021, a palpable sense of “relief” that the journalist claimed Ferrante was a woman, and not a man. Commentators in Italy and abroad had long bemoaned the alleged sexism of suggesting that a man had written Ferrante’s books. (Others countered that it was sexist to suggest that a man couldn’t be capable of their perceptive analysis of female friendship and motherhood.) Sotgiu, for her part, concluded that with the available intertextual evidence it was “almost beyond doubt” that “Starnone, either alone or in partnership with his wife, sat down and typed the novels that were published under the name of Elena Ferrante.” Whatever the case may be, it is now almost impossible to discuss Starnone without discussing the author of My Brilliant Friend.

The novel that first prompted the Starnone–Ferrante connection has after two decades finally been translated and released in English as The House on Via Gemito. While the novel was compared to Ferrante’s debut back in 2005, it in fact anticipates her later four-part masterwork, the Neapolitan Novels, published between 2011 and 2014, as well as her latest novel, released in English as The Lying Life of Adults in 2020. Like those two works, Via Gemito is a coming-of-age story set in Naples during the previous century, and like the Neapolitan Novels, its narrator is a writer who shares its author’s Christian name. But while the Neapolitan Novels were perhaps erroneously grouped with the autofiction boom of the 2010s (given what we have since learned about Ferrante’s likely identity), there is greater reason to believe that Via Gemito is based on its author’s personal experiences.

The subject of Via Gemito is less the house or apartment that the narrator Domenico, or Mimí, grew up in than the father who ruled over the home, Federico, or Federí, a railroad worker whose true ambition was to be a world-renowned painter. While not world-renowned, the author’s real-world father, Federico Starnone, was during his life a locally celebrated artist, and his painting The Drinkers (1953) is reproduced on the cover of Via Gemito. In the novel, first published two years after the painter’s death, Federí is portrayed by his son as a self-aggrandizing and frustrated artist who took his thwarted ambition out on his family, particularly his wife Rosa, or Rusinè, whom Federí both physically and verbally abuses in the book. Rosa is modeled and named after the author’s real-world mother, to whom Via Gemito is dedicated.

Whatever the case may be, it is now almost impossible to discuss Starnone without discussing the author of My Brilliant Friend.

The novel is divided into three parts, which together form a triptych illustrating three pivotal periods from the narrator’s life. In Part I, the adolescent Mimí serves as a ventriloquist for his middle-aged father, mimicking his patterns of speech and parroting his fanciful origin story, which Mimí was either absent from or too young to interpret maturely. Federí’s language, like that of many of Elena’s male relatives in the Neapolitan Novels, is of the neighborhood he grew up in: a dialect replete with obscenities and “ancient invectives passed down from generation to generation.” In the English edition, translator Oonagh Stransky often reproduces Federí’s colorful threats in their original dialect, but occasionally, she renders them in folksy Americanisms (“a gusher, a romper, a knuckle sandwich,” to name a few that appear in quick succession). This can be distracting, especially when grounded in long lists of Italian street names that are almost Knausgårdian in their verisimilitude (“from Piazza di Spagna to Via del Babuino and down Via Margutta …”).

By mimicking his father’s conversational narration of past events, Mimí often presents scenes in summary rather than as action, undermining their drama and reducing them to melodrama. This is intentional: Federí is a fabulist, and when he recalls, for example, “his fateful departure for the Russian front and his miraculous return, safe and sound,” the reader is made to understand that he never saw any action in Stalingrad. But, even if mocking, the narrator’s mimicry is rarely supplemented by any commentary or retrospective analysis. After reporting on numerous occasions of Federí’s fascist sympathies and his “nuanced admiration for Hitler’s soldiers,” the narrator offers only, “Maybe he just liked their uniforms better”—a missed opportunity to interrogate his father’s moral and aesthetic sensibilities. In this way, the narrator in Part I resembles the young Giovanna of Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults, who is similarly unable to challenge her father’s beliefs and fabrications.

Thankfully, Part II is narrated by the adult Domenico, who after his father’s death walks the streets of Naples like one of W.G. Sebald’s flâneurs, trying to find in the city’s archways and apartment entrances a skeleton key to understanding his father. He ends up in a crumbling municipal building, face-to-face with his father’s “masterpiece,” The Drinkers, which he posed for as a child. Confronted with his own reflection, the narrator is forced to reckon with his conflicted feelings for his father through the memory of posing for him. Very little happens in this drawn-out remembrance—Domenico’s fragmented recollections are pieced together over 150 pages, a third of book’s overall length—but the scene is held together by the tension within the narrator, who tries desperately to hold his pose and not upset his father’s lifework.

In the painting, the young Mimí pours water from a jug into the outstretched glass of a shirtless construction worker, who takes reprieve from the Neapolitan sun with two coworkers during their lunchbreak. As the adult narrator reflects, the scene resembles Édouard Manet’s idyllic Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (“The Luncheon on the Grass,” 1863), elements of which Federí sought to transpose to a “squalid construction site.” In this way, the narrator comes to see, his frustrated “railman-artist” father, who took pride in showing that he “could make money better and more nobly” than other members of his economic class, sought to make his everyday surroundings beautiful, sublime, sacred. In his father’s words, he sought “to put chaos in order … and be the god that brings structure to the general shitshow of natural events.”

By mimicking his father’s conversational narration of past events, Mimí often presents scenes in summary rather than as action, undermining their drama and reducing them to melodrama. This is intentional.

Readers of the Neapolitan Novels will hear in Federí’s pronouncements echoes of Elena (Lenù) and Raffaela (Lila), the narrator’s “brilliant friend.” Like Lila, Federí is bound by the Naples city limits, which represent his “geographical destiny,” despite his best attempts to escape. Like the writer Lenù, Federí tries to “put chaos in order” through his art, his only chance of transcending the neighborhood. But, unlike Lenù at the end of the Neapolitan Novels, Federí doesn’t arrive at the mature conclusion that the neighborhood, far from a hindrance, is in fact “essential to the success of [his] work,” and that he therefore shouldn’t “dismiss it.” This is the son Domenico’s redemptive role.

 

Through his countervailing narrative, Domenico dispels the myth that his father was entirely self-made, and that his family and the neighborhood served only to hold him back from fulfilling his artistic ambitions. In Part III, the narrator reveals that while his father worked monomaniacally on The Drinkers—and while the narrator strained for hours on end to pose for him—his mother, Rusinè, was quietly falling ill. Throughout the novel, Rusinè tiptoes around her husband and his artwork, which occupies most of their apartment, laid out on its beds and floors. She is careful not to set off her husband, who is liable to explode with anger and strike her at the merest provocation. She only shakes her downcast head when he embellishes his past and complains of the countless betrayals he has suffered.

The adult narrator pays moving and guilt-stricken tribute to his mother. “I believed she suffered in agony for years,” he writes, “and, for a long time, I carried—I still carry—the regret that I didn’t realize it, that I had trained myself not to realize it.” The narrator’s father, too, appears to show some regret when, on her deathbed, he counts up “all the money he had earned by painting Parisian street scenes” and makes arrangements for his wife to have a private hospital room, at great personal expense. As Rusinè dies, Federí is surprisingly devoted to his wife, sleeping by her side and foregoing his artistic practice—his raison d’être—but there is little to suggest that the painter fully appreciates the sacrifice she made for him and his artwork.

Federí’s outlook is perhaps best summed up in a phone conversation he has with his son, a few years before his own death. “Everything passes, kid,” Federí says. “So let’s think about ourselves. At the very least, let’s try and keep our name alive.” The adult Domenico, still afraid to upset his father, keeps his sobering response to himself: “Papà, a name is nothing more than the sound of someone clearing their throat, a smear of ink.” In this scene, we hear the father and son’s conflicting views on authorship and artistic legacy: while the painter Federí is desperate to be remembered for his individual accomplishments, the writer Domenico approaches Ferrante’s stated belief, from her 2022 essay collection In the Margins, that “what writing captures doesn’t pass through the sieve of a singular I, solidly planted in everyday life, but is twenty people, that is … a hypersensitive plurality all concentrated in the hand provided with the pen.”

Via Gemito may be a challenge to the myth of the singular, self-made artist in more ways than one. While Starnone’s novel is a significant achievement, singled out for Italy’s top literary prize, the conclusive answer to the Ferrante authorship question may one day provide evidence that collaboration can elevate art to still-higher levels of achievement—whether Starnone or Raja wrote the Ferrante books and the other served as their editor, or if indeed they sat down and wrote the books together. The demonstrated stylistic similarities between Starnone and Ferrante may also be explained by Raja’s profession as a translator, a collaborative artistic profession if ever there was one, which leaves her well-placed to channel other people’s voices. Whatever the case may be, the likely scenarios suggest that an author’s books are products of all the writers he, she, or they have read throughout their life, perhaps especially (or hopefully) those that they hold dear.

The House on Via Gemito 
Domenico Starnone 
Europa Editions
$27.00 | 480 pp. 

Published in the November 2023 issue: View Contents

Marcus Hijkoop is a writer and editor based in New York.

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.