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.