The high-speed train from Naples to Rome takes a little over an hour and costs about ten euros; you can run up for a breakfast meeting and still make it back in time to pick the kids up from school. In Domenico Starnone’s novels, though, that journey has overtones of danger and myth. Naples, where the writer and many of his principal characters grew up, comes across as a hot-breathed, dragon-like city that keeps its children bound even after they escape. The capital, meanwhile, is a source of laurels and legitimacy, booby-trapped with humiliation. The chasm between the two cities forms the terrain for The House on Via Gemito, the tenth of Starnone’s twenty-three books but the one that made him a celebrity in Italy when it came out in 2000.
Federí, the railway worker and artist who fills the novel with his paintings and his roars, is working in the ticket office of the Naples station in the 1950s when a union big shot demands five spots on a sold-out train to Rome. Federí refuses to accommodate him, and the conflict degenerates into a showdown over who gets which privileges and who must follow whose rules. The path that runs through painting is also mined. Federí wins a juried art competition in Rome and then is denied his prize because, he fulminates, the city is a cesspool of favor-trading and corruption. In the postwar cultural hierarchy, an artist with a working-class day job gets no respect. That, at least, is how Federí has always told the story to his son Mimí, who, as the novel’s narrator, passes it on to us half a century later, its payload of indignation intact.
Mimí (a diminutive of Domenico) now lives in, yes, Rome, a writer and intellectual safely ensconced amid the elite that his father wanted so badly to join. The custodian of the family story, he guides the reader into the swamp of his origins: the bombed-out ruin where he spent his wartime infancy, the cramped apartment he grew up in, the tight weave of Naples streets and courtyards, the occasional flashes of glamour. After Federí’s death, Mimí returns to excavate his memories of a household bound by custom, fear, and volatile love. He disinters shocking, fragmentary recollections: a headless chicken sprinting around the house spraying blood from its severed neck, a menacing mastiff staring out at the little boy from a painting. One long series of flashbacks and digressions is held together by the young Mimí’s ultraslow progress down the hall to his parents’ bedroom to collect a pack of cigarettes. I won’t give away what he finds there except to say that it shouldn’t be in a bedroom.
This look back at 1950s Naples from a hundred miles and many years away will feel familiar to readers of Elena Ferrante. (Literary detectives have speculated that the pseudonymous writer is actually Starnone or his wife, the translator Anita Raja.) Mimí intertwines his father’s story with his own, and when Via Gemito won the prestigious Strega Prize after its Italian publication, it was widely understood to be autobiographical. Some points are verifiable: a quick search turns up the painter Federico Starnone, father to the writer Domenico. Hardly anyone had ever heard of him or seen his paintings when the novel came out, but The Drinkers, the work that in the novel looms largest in Mimí’s mind, adorned the jacket, as if to prove that it existed and was good. (This may be one case where the reader is asked to judge the book by its cover.) As the novel careens back and forth across the twentieth century, it becomes virtually impossible, even for the narrator, to separate fiction from fact. His own recollections, which he warns the reader not to trust, mingle with his father’s finely crafted, even more suspect, anecdotes. The past calls to Mimí most loudly just when it is slipping out of reach.
No sooner had I started The House on Via Gemito than I had an urge to toss it aside. It opens with scorn, lies, and violence:
When my father told me he hit my mother only once in twenty-three years of marriage, I didn’t even bother replying. A long time had passed since I had challenged any of his stories, with their fabricated events, dates, and details.
Fair warning, then: either the narrator or his main interlocutor will prove unreliable; probably both. So have we just met a volatile guy who lost control and at least tried to make amends, or a habitual wife abuser who’s never going to change?
If Starnone had offered a straightforward answer, this would be a less adrenalized novel. Instead, uncertainty and flimflam supply the voltage. Federí may have a core of tenderness, but he camouflages it in sparking wires, self-justifying speeches, and fusillades of insults in Neapolitan dialect. Every enemy—and there are so many!—is a sfacimmemmèrd, unless he’s a chiavechemmèrd, or some other imaginative amalgam of words for dick, shit, jizz, hole, and fuck. To an Italian speaker, those phrases look un-Italian on the page, decipherable but strange. The translator, Oonagh Stransky, has wisely left a few intact but doesn’t try to reproduce the way Federí reflexively strings them together in a scatological incantation.
Perpetually insecure and pathologically jealous, Federí refuses to let Mimí’s mother, Rusinè, accompany him on expeditions into the world of art openings or join his fellow artists in hours-long huddles around café tables. He thinks her both too crude and too coquettish to help him advance. In one argument that Mimí observes with horror, Federí accuses her of vanity, yanks a pair of ornamental combs out of her hair, and tosses them into the stove, where they curl and stink. Better they should pollute the house than adorn his wife.
Starnone depicts his father as a mean son of a bitch; he practically dares readers to abandon him. If we don’t, it’s because Starnone helps us see him as a flammable stockpile of creative energy, kindled by a sense of injustice—a man who generates complex and contradictory relationships. In an astonishingly bitter paragraph full of patricidal fantasies that appears in the original but is inexplicably missing from the translation, the son meets the father’s excesses with a love that’s “like barbed wire tightened around the heart.” In another passage, Mimí asks, “What meaning did I have without him?” The son’s question about the father is also the author’s about his character: you sense the struggle to wrestle him into a narrative form, to coax the reader into accepting this anarchic, belligerent spirit without glossing over his faults. Federí tells Mimí that his own father had slapped him down for aspiring to anything more than a life of manual labor. “You, however, will go to university,” he decrees. “You will be able to become whatever you want…. I will not stand in the way.” Mimí hears that not as a benediction but as a demand, and as the novel testifies, the real-life Domenico has obeyed—he’s studied, taught, written, and won the sorts of prizes that eluded Federí.
Domenico Starnone grew up to be a high school teacher, screenwriter, and journalist. Jhumpa Lahiri elegantly translated three of his novels: Ties (2017), Trick (2018), and Trust (2019), all more burnished and controlled than The House on Via Gemito, which is almost always absorbing but can get repetitive and at times messy.
Ties is a tightly laced work, with the menace and spareness of early Ian McEwan (but without the gothic denouement). It opens with omens. A long-married couple is headed to the beach, having arranged for their grown children to take turns feeding the cat. Before they go, a young woman makes a delivery and cheats the husband out of five euros. As he’s packing the car, a huckster sticks him with a couple of fake leather jackets and plucks another hundred out of his hand. Even before their vacation has begun, one of the main characters has let down his guard and let chaos nibble at the edges of his life. When the couple returns to Rome a week later, someone has ransacked the apartment, not just to burgle it but evidently to experience the ecstasy of destruction. The cat has vanished. Old secrets come out of their hiding places. The ties that bind husband and wife, parents and children, are stretched until they are about to snap.
In Trust, the protagonist’s trajectory is deceptively smooth, humming toward prosperity, security, and prestige. The engine of his life appears well tuned, but lift the hood and you hear the clatter of terror and insecurity. The teacher and writer Pietro Vella believes himself to be a mediocre, belligerent, possibly evil man, despite a lifetime’s evidence to the contrary. As he labors to please his wife, raise his children, meet deadlines, and satisfy an appreciative public, he realizes that what he truly craves is disapproval, and he finds it in the frequently insulting honesty of an old flame, Teresa.
The buttoned-up Pietro examines himself for traces of savagery, a search that Starnone chronicles with great linguistic precision. The narrator describes an indecent act as sconcio; disorder is sconquasso—sibilant, percussive words that ring with admirable specificity. On several occasions, he refers to a grunt not by the obvious word grugnito but the recherché goringhio. Pietro, on the other hand, is suspicious of verbal preciousness. “There’s nothing human that can’t be traced back to a growl, an argh, an ugh, an ooh ooh ooh,” he says. “All of it, even poetry, even the broken gates of dawn, even the suns that strike the eyelashes, was composed of growls.”
In Via Gemito, too, Starnone keeps returning to the theme of language as a collection of rude howls. Federí’s dialect and his verbal assaults aren’t there just for local color but to dramatize the brutality of his battle for respect. The language of that conflict, both verbal and non, can be funny at times:
A large majority of earthly things, once mentioned by my father, became the undisputed private property di questo cazzo, of his cock, this cock, which he not only mentioned eagerly and in various manners, but gestured at energetically, his two hands converging like an arrow sign toward his crotch and genitals.
I suppose the author really did grow up on Via Vincenzo Gemito in Naples, but it’s almost too fortuitous to be believed; the street is named after a self-taught Neapolitan sculptor, two generations older than Federí, whose last name means “moan.”
Mimí’s voice is precise and transparent, as if he were keeping a certain therapeutic distance from the events he describes. But Federí keeps disrupting that narration. He’s a competitive raconteur, and his version of his life, his language, and his self-stoking indignation keeps erupting onto the page, clamoring for his son’s—and the reader’s—attention. “Are you listening to me? Or am I just pissing in the wind?” Federí demands of his young son. Oh, he’s listening, all right. At times, the adult Mimí cedes the floor, letting his dad orate. In the best passages, though, writer and subject seem to jostle for control of the story, even trading off midphrase. The result can be electrifying, as in the scene when a coworker named Gigí encourages Federí to embellish his (nonexistent) role in the four-day popular uprising against the Germans in September 1943 so that he can obtain a document that will advance his career. To Federí, the suggestion smacks of every petty, corrupt, self-aggrandizing deception that is chipping away at postwar Italy. He doesn’t simply refuse, he explodes:
And then, his eyes bulging like a madman straight out of the psychiatric hospital in Aversa, he started screaming at Gigino: “Go fuck yourself, you steaming piece of shit! What do you take me for? A clown like you?” By refusing to sign, he waived the possibility of being recognized as a partisan, which would have made his life easier later on, but—and this he said proudly—being the man that he was, he’d never, ever, act like that piece-of-shit idiot clown. Buonanotte, Gigí.
In the Italian this is all said in one long, spittle-flecked sentence that goes hurtling through a colon, an exclamation mark, two sets of dashes (whipping past another colon), and a couple of phrases in dialect, ricocheting from the voice of the father to that of the son and back again, until it lands with a contemptuous flourish on “Buonanotte, Gigí.” Stransky wrestles this galloping prose into a form that makes it easier to read but sacrifices some of the syntactical delirium.
Starnone’s willingness to let Federí’s style dominate the book allows Mimí to recount events he couldn’t possibly remember, because he was too young or not even born. One of Federí’s few periods of happiness comes during World War II, when the Allies take over the city and he joins a team of workmen assigned to restore a theater, the Teatro Bellini, for the entertainment of the troops. Because Federí speaks some English (unlike the designated interpreter) and knows how to paint (unlike the appointed set designer), the British officer, Staff Sergeant Leefe, puts him in charge of the crew: “Freddy, you start now.” With these words, Leefe rebaptizes Federí and gives him license to start his artistic career from scratch with a new sense of self-respect, professional stature, and the admiration of the foreign occupiers.
It’s a painfully colonial moment: What right does Leefe have to confer or deny another man’s dignity? But Federí laps it up, because with the Brit’s approval comes money, artistic authority, and most of all praise. “Damn, you’re good, Freddy,” Leefe says, and Federí feels
that shiver of pleasure that ran through his body whenever someone acknowledged his talent, ever since he was a child. It was a kind of contraction of all his energy followed by a slow dilation of his entire being. It made him feel at one with the pure rays of sun that shone through the skylight, with the smell of wood shavings, glue, and paint, with the taste of iron and grime from the nails he held between his lips as he hammered one thing to another.
Federí wants nothing more than to devote his life to art, and he resents everything—job, wife, kids, Naples, cramped apartment—that gets in the way. His obsession crowds out his family—literally, in the case of The Drinkers, a painting so huge that he commandeers the sheet from the marital bed as a canvas, forces family members to model, and shoves the living room furniture aside to make way for his studio. Despite his ambitions, he remains a stunted man, only sporadically taken seriously as an artist, never confident of his own abilities or clear-eyed about his limitations. That leaves him begging for approval not just from an occupying officer but from his own young son.
Mimí can provide the words on command, but he spends a long, mystified childhood obeying, observing, keeping quiet, and nodding, all in vain attempts to ward off his father’s rage. The modeling sessions provide glimpses of serenity, and he takes them with the seriousness of a sacrament. “I have decided to hold the pose so well and with such rigor that my father can’t possibly complain,” he reports. “I want to see if he’ll calm down, if he’ll finally stop unloading all his blame on us for getting in the way of his art.” No such luck. That unquenchable anger shapes the son far more than Federí’s rare moments of contentment.
Among the novel’s many ironies is that Starnone reproduces Federí’s acts of erasure, elbowing the rest of the family out of the frame in his relentless concentration on the father. Rusinè is barely a specter, fretting, primping, and complaining in the doorway. We know from the beginning that she’s headed for an early death, and when she reaches it, Mimí’s relationship with his father more or less ends, too. Starnone surrounds Federí with supporting characters, a demanding chorus of relatives, rivals, adversaries, and neighbors, all competing to drag the man down. A couple of siblings rate passing mentions but nothing more. The feeling is one of thronged claustrophobia: a boy and his dad holding hands in a crowd.
That tight focus grows wearying. Two thirds of the way through, I desperately wanted the book to break out rather than break off, to let us watch both men age and change. In Ties and Trust, the years leave scars on the main characters, but don’t eliminate the possibility of healing—or deeper damage. Relationships remain in flux up to the last page. In Via Gemito, though, the story gets stuck in a kind of hectic stasis. Even as they struggle for control of the plot, father and son mostly remain what they always were: orator and amanuensis.
The question of whether Federí hit Rusinè once, twice, or all the time gets rolled into a great cloak of doubt about everything we’re told. Maybe he was a mediocre painter and terrible husband—paranoid, unfaithful, belittling, and grandiose. Or perhaps he was a working-class hero with a rare talent that others couldn’t see behind his brusque manner, an artist who beat at the walls of a confining world until they gave, if only a little. The quality of that innate gift is the subject of his own childhood tales and the lodestar of his adult life, but he insists on it so much that we can’t not be skeptical.
To his child, art is not a beautiful object but the source of his father’s—and his family’s—unhappiness: “I didn’t see [the paintings] for what they actually were but only perceived his discontent.” The grown Mimí can’t decide whether the work is really any good. When he goes hunting for a nude in the grim municipal offices where it is supposed to have washed up, a functionary informs him that he’s banished it from the room because “it was pretty ugly, if I can be honest.” Another bureaucrat helps track it down in a different office, squeezed between two filing cabinets. Then he bickers with a colleague over whether the painting that neither had noticed before was done in impasto or pastel.
Via Gemito’s publication eventually brought the elder Starnone a measure of posthumous glory. His long-forgotten—or rather, never really remembered—magnum opus, The Drinkers, emerged from oblivion. Painted in the 1950s, it’s a nostalgic echo of Mexican murals like those of Diego Rivera, with sinewed workers enjoying an hour of honest leisure. Judging by the images that circulate online, Federico’s urge to paint was powerful, but his vision was incoherent. He drifted from Cézannesque landscapes to splashes of Futurism, never in step with artistic trends, rarely with much self-assurance. The Mimí of the novel thinks the actual paintings might matter less than his memories of them. As he explains to his siblings, the circumstances of their creation are more vivid to him than any pigment could be:
The dregs of all that torment and unhappiness and violence and disdain and arrogance and desperation and even love really only existed in my body and theirs, in the bodies of their children, in the teeming images that crowd your mind before you fall asleep and which then turn into either dreams or nightmares. When faced with that electrical storm of nerves, all art falls short.
That might seem like a strangely self-negating assertion for a novelist to make, but of course it’s the ultimate revenge.