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Ties by Domenico Starnone

Author: Laura Freeman
Newspaper: The Times
Date: Mar 21 2017

The opening words of Domenico Starnone’s Ties come as a howl. No, worse than that. They are the words of Vanda, a woman who wants to howl, but for the sake of her children, her dignity, whatever is left to save of her marriage, is doing all that she can to be civilised. Cordial, even.

“In case it’s slipped your mind, Dear Sir, let me remind you: I am your wife. I know that this once pleased you and that now, suddenly, it chafes. I know you pretend that I don’t exist, and that I never existed, because you don’t want to look bad in front of the highbrow people you frequent. I know that leading an orderly life, having to come home in time for dinner, sleeping with me instead of with whomever you want, makes you feel like an idiot.”

Starnone’s novella, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri, seizes you and doesn’t let go for 150 pages. The tone is cool and contained. Hysteria threatens, and is kept away — although only just.

The first of the book’s three parts is Vanda’s: nine letters written from the family apartment in Rome to her husband, Aldo, who has gone off with the younger Lidia. Has he forgotten she is a person with “thoughts, feelings, a voice of her own, and not a puppet in your Pulcinello show”?

The second part is Aldo’s. Thirty years have passed. Aldo and Vanda are in their seventies, reconciled, living together, but hardly happy. They snipe or sit in silence. The children have grown up, left home, and treat their parents as piggy banks.

The Italian title is Lacci — laces — and there is much play on the word. Aldo teaches the children to tie their shoelaces. Ties can bind a family or trip it up.

The reveal in the third part is disturbing and utterly unexpected The older Aldo and Vanda return from a holiday and find their apartment trashed. At first it has the look of a burglary, except all that is missing is the cat, Labes, and a box of Polaroids. They are of Lidia, some of them naked. So, burglars or blackmailers?

The mess turns up Vanda’s old letters. Aldo re-reads them and justifies the affair, long over, to himself. When he told Vanda about the other woman he put it like this: “It’s small-minded to repress desire.” Later he says he told her only so he could sleep with Lidia “unharassed, without subterfuge”.

The third part belongs to the children. Here, the tale turns on a sixpence. The reveal is brilliant, disturbing and utterly unexpected. I won’t spoil it.

In any portrait of a marriage, happy or unhappy, we are curious, prurient about the author. Is Starnone Aldo? Did he betray a Vanda? What makes this book particularly enticing is that Starnone is married to the translator Anita Raja. Last year Raja was “unmasked” by the investigative journalist Claudio Gatti as Elena Ferrante, the author of the triumphantly successful Neapolitan Quartet and of three earlier novels. There are no happy marriages in Ferrante’s books, only relationships as toxic as Fiat car fumes.

Between them they have made a literary cottage industry out of destructive love. In earlier novels such as Via Gemito and First Execution, Starnone’s men are brought low by the ego-crushing demands of family or are duped by pretty, younger, wilier women.

Ferrante does not promote her books in festival marquees. She does not sign copies in Feltrinelli, the Italian Waterstones. She does not give interviews, except by email. She has written: “ ‘Remain in the shadows’ is not an expression I like. It hints of plots, assassins. Let’s say that, 15 years ago, I chose to publish books without having to feel obliged to make a career of being a writer.”

Before the Gatti ambush, critics had speculated that Ferrante was in fact Starnone; only a man could write such powerful prose. Before the Gatti ambush, critics had speculated that Ferrante was Starnone; only a man could write such powerful prose. What distinguishes them is this: you understand Ferrante’s lovers and their mistakes; Starnone’s are more random, more inexplicable. You are drawn to them, but do not sympathise, as you do with Ferrante.

Did Raja seethe over the breakfast table when her works were attributed to her husband? Or did they laugh, united in this shared conspiracy, and go to their desks to write strange, hypnotic stories of men and women determined to destroy each other’s lives?