Saturday, October 6, 2018

Domenico Starnone's Nifty Trick

Peter Milton, illustration from "The Jolly Corner," 1979

If Domenico Starnone’s Trick (Scherzetto, 2017) is any indication, I need to read more contemporary Italian fiction; I found this Strega award-winning author’s most recent novel, translated into English by his friend the American writer Jhumpa Lahiri, to be an exceedingly clever, entertaining and haunting short novel. I swallowed it in a day. 

Starnone’s atypical protagonist in Trick is 75-year-old Daniele Mallarico, a reputable artist who, as the novel opens, is recovering from an operation, struggling with a contract to provide illustrations for a book, and has just been asked by his daughter Betta to come from his house in Milan to the old family home in Naples to look after Betta’s 4-year-old son Mario for a few days. This last is not a task Daniele relishes, given his age and health, the stress of the book deadline, and his young publisher’s negative reaction to two sample plates he has submitted. His annoyance is amplified when he arrives in Naples to find Betta and her husband Saverio on the verge of divorce and the housekeeper, Sally, unable to show up for one of the three days the curmudgeonly Daniele must supervise “that live feral puppet” Mario. 

A “type of sport, a chess match, a game halfway between hide and seek and cat and mouse” between the two unfolds over these three days, beginning with a succession of slapstick mishaps which gradually snowball for the reader into anxiety concerning what small moment of connection or catastrophe might occur next. Starnone brilliantly conveys the old man’s difficulty in keeping up with the child’s impetuosity, mercurial emotional swings and mischievous “tricks” as young and old try to figure one another out amid fiercely competing interests and the desire to please, tenderness alternating with rancor bordering on outright hostility. As the visit wears on, the situation devolves, with the boy seeking constant entertainment and his grandfather desperate for peace and time to work on his illustrations. 

At an impasse with this work, Daniele begins to sketch the rooms of this apartment overlooking Piazza di Garibaldi, the home in which he grew up. It’s an escape from the actual work he has to do and an exercise in memory, “making images of the double house, the present one and the one from the past, one inside the other.” Mario, looking at one of the sketches, points to a squiggle in the corner and says, “That’s you,” then shows his grandfather an old photo in which the young Daniele stands in the same spot as the squiggle. Even prior to this, the child has uttered mystical pronouncements on his grandfather’s work, calling it “dark” and liking a use of yellow that Daniele can’t see anywhere. In another effort to find peace, Daniele allows Mario to sit beside him as they draw together. At first, Mario’s drawings  resemble those his proud mother has hung around the apartment, but suddenly the boy produces a startlingly mature image that reveals true talent. It’s a portrait of his grandfather, who reels. 

Dario Maglionico, Reifaczione #9, 2014

The refreshing conceit of Trick - a self-absorbed elderly man stuck with a needy, petulant 4-year-old - could on its own have carried the story, but Starnone turns Trick into a fascinating dialogue with the book Daniele is attempting to illustrate: Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner.” In James’ short story, Spencer Brydon, an American of late middle-age who has returned to New York after having spent most of his adult life in Europe, passes his nights wandering the empty house where he grew up, and where he experiences a disturbing encounter with an indistinct figure, a sort of ghost of his erstwhile self, or perhaps the self he might have been had he never left New York. 

In constructing his contemporary riff on “The Jolly Corner,” Starnone amplifies its themes, making both Trick and James’ story grander, more intriguing. Like “The Jolly Corner,” Trick is a summing up of life choices, of paths taken and not taken, capturing a moment of abrupt and frightening existential confrontation. Taking the visitation with a self one might have been a step further than James, Starnone brilliantly embodies the ghost, this double self, in an actual, physical child, then cleverly conducts his exploration of the theme through art. Seeing Mario’s drawing, Daniele comes face to face with his own “clarifying event,” his own ghost essentially emerging from the volatile, unpredicatable ectoplasm of a child’s mind: 

He’d shown me that he could do them better, immediately, now, at the age of four. And he did all this so that I intuited what he would be able to do in the future, once he’d stopped growing, when – in the event that he embarked on my same path, scaling down the thousands of other possibilities open to ferocious beasts like him – he’d erase me with his bravura, he’d cancel every memory of my work, he’d reduce me to a relative with a feeble creative vocation, to a clump of time spent in mediocrity. 

Starnone’s choice of “The Jolly Corner” is an inspired one for a Neapolitan writer. If there’s a common, consistent theme in modern Neapolitan literature, it gravitates around the deep ambivalence the city’s native sons and daughters feel about their hometown and the equally terrible pull it exerts on those who leave - creating a ghost itself, a semblable -  what Starnone’s Neapolitan predecessor, Rafaelle LaCapria, called “a mortal wound.”[i] That Daniele makes his home in Milan, the northern pole of the geographical divide that may be Italy’s most salient cultural (and literary) feature, is hardly an insignificant detail. The Neapolitan specificity of the tale is emphasized again and again as Daniele weighs his fruitless attempt to shake off his origins:

I’d made efforts, in those years, to escape the various possible violent paths of my surroundings… I was  a crowd of variations… I'd done it, I’d managed, always gasping for breath… And I’d become flesh, the rest were ghosts. But now here they were, they were parked in the living room of the apartment in which I’d grown up… The sense that everything was precarious, a feeling Naples had conveyed to me since my adolescence, and which had prompted me to flee when I was twenty, was resurfacing. I dredged up the agglutination of construction and savage corruption, of looting and theft.

Daniele even pointedly connects his artistic ambitions to a greater one aimed at saving Naples from itself:

A long time ago, when I was twenty, I thought I’d play a part in defeating the worst citizens of Naples and with my harsh and hopeful little works, uphold the best. It wasn’t the case. The worst don’t give a fuck about art, they want power, always more power, and so they keep spreading wealth and terror, thinning down the number of people who won’t join them. 

Dario Maglionico, illustration for Scherzetto, 2016

There’s a 20-page appendix to Trick, a parallel tale in itself, consisting of excerpts from Daniele’s diary during the period the novel has just recounted and accompanied by sketches he is making for “The Jolly Corner.” In the narrative up to this point, Daniele has behaved in a manner that awkwardly tries to bridge Mario’s four years and his 75, but here, in a more intemperate, embittered voice, he tells the tale to himself while also setting down thoughts on “The Jolly Corner” as he struggles to illustrate it. The story “unnerves” him, particularly through associations it raises concerning his own father, a gambler and drunk. The section’s informal literary critique questions aspects of James’ story such as the notion of “an unexplored compartment” in Spencer Brydon’s mind and delves into the tale’s odd details, including the blackness of “the black stranger” Brydon meets and the “severed fingers” of a hand it raises to its face. Starnone extends James’ theme of the encounter with one’s past to one’s legacy to future generations. Frustrated and fed up, Daniele nonetheless wonders, “What will this child become in this city? Will all his I know, I’ll do it, already at the age of four, morph into a vacancy unsheathing foolish notions, inexistent skills, the sharp thirst for revenge, swagger?” 

There’s a lot more to recommend Trick, including the conspicuous care with which Starone structures his novel and toys with atmosphere, register, negative space and contrasting elements – light and dark, interior and exterior, the concrete and the indistinct, object and image (using drawings, photos, mirrors, reflections), heat and cold, wet and dry, even down to the weather backgrounding the drama (a drenching rainstorm may well allude to Nicola Pugliese’s best-selling 1977 Neapolitan novel, Malacqua, republished in Italy for the first time in over three decades only a few years ago). There are subtle, comic nods to James’ other work, including what may be a pointed contrast with the relatively rarified world of James’s own Italian settings (this isn’t exactly Isabel Archer’s Venice) and even a physical turn of the screw(driver) which plays a key role in the story. But such brainy, entertaining, expertly controlled conceits come secondary to Trick’s unsettling existential concerns, its confrontation with what our choices mean in relation to our pasts and to those who may follow us. Cose internationali - universal things, one could say. But the resonance of them in the novel’s Neapolitan context, given the price the city can exact from those born there, both those who leave and those who stay, is particularly haunting.

Peter Milton, illustration for "The Jolly Corner," 1979[ii]

[i]The theme is so prevalent that it only takes until page 2 for it to show up in the 500 pages of another Neapolitan novel I picked up the same day, Ermanno Rea’s A Mystery in Naples:  “All damned then? I’m afraid so. Everyone. I mean, both those who remained and those who departed.” 

[ii]As I reread James’ “The Jolly Corner,” I became convinced that Starnone had also been inspired by the particular edition of that story my library happened to have: that published in 1979 by Terra Nova Editions with illustrations by Peter Milton. Mario’s comment on a yellow in his grandfather’s work that Daniele can’t see is almost certainly one of Starnone’s typically playful, subtle allusions, this one to Peter Milton’s discovery that he was color-blind only when an admirer commented on a use of pink in his work. 


  1. There seems to have been quite a bit of buzz about this book on Twitter in the last few months, possibly helped by its inclusion in the Asymptote book club earlier this year. Anyway, I've seen lots of positive reports of it - now boosted by your insightful review (I didn't know about the link to Henry James until I read your piece). The relationship between Daniele and Mario sounds beautifully drawn.

  2. I was initially skeptical about Starnone since what little I know of him was mostly due to the theory a few years back that he was the person behind the pseudonym Elena Ferrante. But Trick bowled me over. It just has a degree of care in its construction that I don't often see in contemporary fiction, and a willingness to push deeper and deeper, to turn the screw as far as it'll go, rather than rest on one or two clever ideas. It's a Jamesian ghost story in the best sense, and yes, the relationship between grandfather and grandson is terrifically realized, a little too real for comfort in fact, but also hilarious at times. Reading it side-by-side with "The Jolly Corner" was a great experience.

  3. I'd somehow vaguely dismissed this book as slight, but clearly I'm totally wrong. You make it sound fascinating. Just what my TBR pile needs...

    1. Yeah, I'd seen it around but it wasn't something I intended to read. All I knew of Starnone was the rumor that he had written the Elena Ferrante books (it appears that was actually his partner, Anita Raja). But I was more than pleasantly surprised with this book and greatly impressed by the care Starnone took in its construction. Plus, I found it thrilling to read "The Jolly Corner" alongside Starnone's novel; this is one extremely clever way to engage another literary work. Starnone has apparently done this kind of thing before - with a short Elena Ferrante novel no less!

    2. I think I might, but I read the Ferrante novel with which it engages and am not eager to revisit that! Starnone has another novel to date untranslated that interests me quite a lot more; I hope Jhumpa Lahiri is continuing to translate him - and other Italian writers.

    3. Actually, I went ahead and started to read Ties, and even only 25 pages in am realizing that I needn't have worried.

  4. Because it's good?

    Is the Ferrante in question Days of Abandonment?

    1. Yes, apparently it's Days of Abandonment. Anyway, I've now finished reading Ties, which I found far less interesting than Trick. I doubt that I'll look very deeply into the ways it engages the Ferrante novel - like Trick it can be read on its own - but I have no regrets about reading it. It's refreshing to encounter a writer who's concerned with the lives of old people (and their progeny).