Let’s get straight to the point. “Ties” is not only the leanest, most understated and emotionally powerful novel by Domenico Starnone — the least internationally known of Italy’s leading novelists, a self-aware postmodernist in the Italo Calvino vein with a penchant for literary jokes and meta-narratives — it is also a key text in that burning literary mystery: Who is behind the pseudonymous novelist Elena Ferrante?
Starnone happens to be married to Anita Raja, the literary translator who was identified as Ferrante last fall in a report — effectively an unmasking — by the Italian investigative journalist Claudio Gatti that provoked fury among many of the author’s fans, who didn’t want to know. Gatti based his work on financial records, notably an uptick in Raja’s payments from the parent company of Europa Editions, Ferrante’s publisher and also the publisher of “Ties,” here in a fluid English translation by the novelist Jhumpa Lahiri.
But in literature, unlike investigative reporting, the telling is more important than the takeaway. “Ties” responds to Ferrante’s 2002 novel “The Days of Abandonment” — the second book published under the name of Elena Ferrante, after “Troubling Love” 10 years earlier — and turns it inside out. The books share the same universal plot: A man leaves his wife and children for a younger woman. But the two authors take the story in different directions, and have different prose styles. “Ties” is in some ways a sequel to “The Days of Abandonment,” in other ways an interlocking puzzle piece or another voice in a larger conversation.
“The Days of Abandonment” is told from the perspective of Olga, a woman whose husband, Mario, has just left her and their young son and daughter for another woman. The story unfolds in often excruciating psychological detail, as Olga falls apart and then pulls herself together again. We have little access to Mario’s inner life. “Ties” puts the same plot elements through a kaleidoscope, telling the tale from three different perspectives, first that of the wife, Vanda, then of the husband, Aldo, and eventually that of their grown children, jumping backward and forward in time over an arc of decades.
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“In case it’s slipped your mind, Dear Sir, let me remind you: I am your wife,” the novel begins. These are the words of Vanda, writing to Aldo, who has left after 12 years of marriage to move in with Lidia. “You see us as an obstacle to your happiness, a trap that smothers your desire for pleasure,” she writes. It is 1974, and politics are in the background. “You came across a respectable young girl close at hand and in the name of sexual liberation and the dissolution of the family you became her lover,” Vanda asserts. “You’ll go on like this forever, you’ll never be what you want, just what happens by chance.”
At the moment of this confrontation, Aldo tells Vanda only that he’s “been with another woman,” not the more hurtful truth that he’s deeply in love with Lidia. We learn years later about his lack of nerve. Several years after this dramatic rupture, Aldo and Vanda come back together — a painful process that takes time; their new equilibrium requires them to hide things from each other. They live together for decades. One day, they return from a beach vacation to find their Rome apartment ransacked.
In the chaos, the past comes rushing into the present. Out tumbles a box in which Aldo had kept photos of Lidia, and the letter from Vanda that opens the novel. He thinks back to that fraught time, to the day he told his wife he was leaving. “I tried to explain that it wasn’t a matter of betrayal, that I had enormous respect for her, that real betrayal was when you betrayed your own instinct, your needs, your body, yourself,” Aldo recalls, but Vanda, raging and cursing, would have none of it. “She shrieked, but then immediately she contained herself so as not to wake the children.”
The children grow up. We learn how their parents’ breakup has shaped their adult selves. But in “Ties,” no one has the last word. All the different truths are set before us, each given its due, each character fully realized, with the empathy and insight of a gifted novelist. Starnone’s prose here is highly skilled without calling attention to itself. In this novel, unlike some of his others, the cleverness doesn’t obstruct the emotional impact.
Not incidentally, Aldo and Vanda both come from Naples. There’s an unforgettable scene in which, on their way to the beach, a huckster takes money from Aldo. “We were raised in Naples for God’s sake, and you let yourself get scammed like this?” Vanda tells him. The huckster has pretended to recognize Aldo, and Aldo assumes he might be a former student from the time when he taught high school or at a university in Rome.
Like Aldo, Starnone was also a high school teacher who eventually found success as a writer for Italian television. In interviews with the Italian press, Starnone has said that his mother was a seamstress and his father an angry, jealous man who worked for the railway. This is also the background of the narrator of his 2000 novel “Via Gemito,” which won Italy’s prestigious Strega Prize, and that of the novelist protagonist of his 2007 novel “First Execution,” the only other of his books to be translated into English.
If this biography seems familiar, it is because it echoes the parentage Elena Ferrante claims in “Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey,” a 2016 collection of interviews. Then again, elsewhere in “Frantumaglia,” Ferrante cites Calvino, who once said, “I don’t give biographical facts, or I give false ones, or anyway I always try to change them from one time to the next.”
“Ties” is the only recent novel by Starnone that doesn’t become metafiction. Instead of stories within stories, we have “a series of Chinese boxes,” as Lahiri writes in a brilliant introduction that made me want to read more literary criticism by her. Explaining her own preoccupation with this novel, Lahiri, who has written a book in Italian, describes how she fell in love with “Ties” and addresses the challenges of translating it.
The Italian title is “Lacci,” literally “laces,” and there’s a key scene in which Aldo teaches his daughter how to tie her shoes. But the word also indicates ties that bind, a meaning that evokes Aldo’s desire to slip free of his marital bonds — then come back into their grip. This novel, as Lahiri writes, is ultimately about “the need to contain and the need to set free.”
When the book came out in Italian in 2014, the Italian paper La Repubblica interviewed Starnone about the similarities between it and “The Days of Abandonment.” He said he had had “no contact” with Ferrante. “I have an ironic relation to writing,” he said. “I don’t consider it the priesthood, whereas this woman seems like the high priestess of writing.” I smiled when I read this.
Every couple is an enigma to outsiders, and often even to itself. “Ties” is also about that, about the unspoken mysteries that bind us, that push us away from one another and bring us back. We may never know what Starnone and Raja are cooking up in their kitchen. But I cannot think of two novelists writing today whose recent books are in such clever and complicit conversation as those of Starnone and Ferrante. There may not be a smoking gun here, but, luckily for us, there are oh so many Chinese boxes.