Alacquered blue cube and a cat named Labes: these nonhuman characters shed unforgiving light on human frailty in the wrenching new novel by Italian writer Domenico Starnone, Ties, scrupulously translated by Jhumpa Lahiri. Between the controlled geometry of a modernist art object and the unpredictable behavior of a cat, Ties suggests that rule-bound marriage and rule-defying free love are equally self-defeating choices, each destined to thwart happiness.
The novel takes place against the backdrop of late 20th-century efforts to revolutionize sexual relations in Italy, a revolution whose defining moment was the legalization of divorce in 1970. It is the story of the liberation and suffering engendered by one character’s conviction that “the institution of marriage was in crisis, that the family was in its death throes, that fidelity was a virtue of the petty bourgeoisie.” But Starnone’s project extends beyond mere cultural critique: this novel strips away the protective carapace of tradition to expose a raw zone where the primal animal self becomes, or does not become, the modern social self.
A slim volume that can barely contain the psychic violence it describes, Ties offers an elliptical plot about the futility of both art and mortality. At a climactic moment that is also a moment of indecision, Starnone’s protagonist, a television writer named Aldo Minori, realizes that “Every story is a dead-end, you always arrive at a moment like this. So what to do, go back, start again? Even though you’re old enough to know that every story, sooner or later, slams up against the last word?” Thus: form is all, but form is nothing. Aldo’s lacquered cube, whose blank blue surfaces contain life-shattering secrets, and the Minoris’ pet cat Labes, whose random movements obey an invisible logic, are marked by the same tension between meaning and meaninglessness that torments the human characters.
Domenico Starnone is revered in Italy but relatively unknown to English readers. Ties is the 13th in a line of works that includes the Strega Prize–winning novel Via Gemito (2001), but only the second of Starnone’s books to be translated into English. The writer has been thrust into a curious literary spotlight after being identified as the spouse of the writer known as Elena Ferrante; early reviews of Ties in the British and US press treated the novel as a sort of late-breaking answer to the marital darkness in Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment.1
But to read Starnone’s fiction as a conduit to Ferrante’s (or as a roman á clef of his marriage to an enigmatic writer) robs Starnone of the consideration due his own artistry. Ties, as the novel’s English-language translator Jhumpa Lahiri observes in a penetrating introduction, is the work of “a writer with dexterity of the highest order,” a portrait of an educated bourgeois family whose members try, and fail, to transcend the primal aspects of their existence that are indifferent to civility. Starnone’s story of betrayal and aging illuminates a particular moment in Italian history, but it looks past that moment to train its gaze on what Lahiri calls “wild states of being that refuse to be domesticated, that cannot be trammeled or curbed.”
Whether to be domesticated, trammeled, or curbed is the dilemma that confronts Starnone’s characters in each of the three chronologically disjunctive sections of Ties. The novel’s opening section consists of a sequence of anguished letters written to Aldo by his wife, Vanda Minori, between 1974 and 1978, after Aldo, then in his mid-30s, leaves his family to take a 19-year-old lover named Lidia. Aldo himself narrates the novel’s second and lengthiest section, shifting between past and present as he reflects back on his affair with Lidia, during a weekend in 2004 when he and Vanda—now both elderly and long reconciled—cope with the wreckage of their apartment following a mysterious break-in. The Minoris’ grown daughter, Anna, narrates the final section, which takes place during a single afternoon when she draws her brother, Sandro, into a ruthless dialogue about the realities and illusions of their childhood.
Thus, Ties is at once an epistolary novel, a bildungsroman, and a Zeitroman; Lahiri notes that it is also “a clever whodunit, a comedy of errors, a domestic drama, a tragedy.” Starnone pushes each genre to its limits, creating a modernist collage out of competing narrative forms. But the novel’s artful generic hybridity, surprisingly, renders genre itself irrelevant. Unlike Starnone’s First Execution (2007), a looping, self-reflexive novel that descends from the metafictions of Italo Calvino, the formal composition of Ties remains secondary to the pitiless human truths that spill out of Aldo’s affair with Lidia.2
These truths, and the narrative arcs that convey them, throw Starnone’s characters into profound existential uncertainty. Vanda Minori, for example, one of three women in the novel who responds to masculine cruelty by attempting suicide, maintains that her living body is merely an illusion: “For all intents and purposes I died,” she writes to the unfaithful Aldo, “You killed me a while back, not in my role as a wife but as a human being who was in her richest, most sincere moment.” And if Aldo resists the truth of Vanda’s claims, he too comes to regard his existence as a frustrating oscillation between plenitude and void.
Early in his affair with Lidia (through which he aspires to overturn the social conventions that reduce people to “gears in a senseless machine”), Aldo tells Vanda openly, “I have been with another woman.” But the affair and the confession, rather than freeing him, only haunt him with the unanswerable question of what it means to pronounce the very words “I have been.” Decades later, at the age of 74, Aldo still resents the moral obligations that hinder his vision of himself as an anonymous “fragment of thinking, living matter”; nevertheless, he is dismayed to confront an impersonal, myopic life history recorded in “a trail of scrawls, reports, pages, newspapers, floppy discs, USB fobs, hard-disks, the cloud.” The single term of the novel’s title describes the characters’ inability to define themselves across time: the word “ties,” as Lahiri notes, suggests a story about the contradictory processes of “leaving traces, about trying desperately, in vain, to tie ourselves to life itself. It lays bare the foolish, flawed human impulse to endure.”
But “ties” is Lahiri’s English translation of Starnone’s original title, Lacci, a word that means “laces” in Italian and that refers to a painful, unresolved conversation between Aldo and his children.3 While I have so far quoted Lahiri’s English as a transparent vessel for Starnone’s Italian, I now want to shift my focus to the opacities of the translation. Lahiri wrote about her immersive, devotional relationship with the Italian language in her multigenre work In Altre Parole (2015), a meditation on her decisions to renounce English, relocate to Rome, and acquire—gradually, painstakingly—a language in which she will always be an outsider.
In Altre Parole also records Lahiri’s budding literary alliance with Starnone, who told her soon after she moved to Rome, “A new language is almost a new life, grammar and syntax recast you, you slip into another logic and another sensibility.” Starnone’s astute prediction has been realized: Lahiri’s increasing command of Italian has recast her authorial purview and her literary abilities. In 2016, while beginning to write short stories in Italian, she served (with Starnone, in fact) on the jury of the Strega Prize, Italy’s highest literary award, and was soon after invited to translate Lacci, the inaugural recipient of “The Bridge” Book Award Prize.4 Lahiri’s English version of Lacci marks an important step on her linguistic journey. Her own aesthetic and critical priorities—as a reader, writer, and now a published translator of Italian—have taken on the multifaceted “new life” Starnone anticipated.5
Like all translations, Ties is a metamorphosis as well as an act of literary ventriloquism. On one hand, the refined accents of Lahiri’s English prose are well matched to Starnone’s sentences. Her meticulously choreographed translation dances with the literal, the idiomatic, and the metaphorical as she captures the idiosyncrasies of each character’s voice and the austere poetic tenor of Starnone’s language. Thus: “un filo lungo di tempo raggomitolato” becomes “a vast length of coiled time”; “andiamo con ordine,” the opening line of Aldo’s narrative, is not the colloquial “First things first,” but a strictly literal “Let’s proceed in order,” a translation consistent with the novel’s attention to structure and chaos. “Di colpo si ripresentassero” turns into “resurfaced out of the blue,” a seemingly unremarkable cliché that doubles as a sly reference to the secrets erupting out of Aldo’s blue cube.
Lahiri’s own literariness expresses itself in such moments, as when she transposes Vanda’s direct address to her husband (“caro mio” and “egregio signore” in the original) into formal English salutations (“My Dear” and “Dear Sir”), a small 18th-century touch that intensifies the ironic heat of Vanda’s feminism. A passage such as “The moments realigned, shedding new clarity on those distant figures,” for example, contributes fresh nuance to Starnone’s “Gli attimi si riallinearono, portarono chi ormai era lontanissimo a nuovo nitore.” Rather than translating “portarono … a nuovo nitore” as “brought … to new clarity,” Lahiri elects to use the verb “shedding,” a subtle choice that captures the novel’s obsession with the loss immanent in gain.
Loss and gain: this very passage, in which Aldo regards his family as intimates and strangers, reminds us that style is only one aspect of Lahiri’s engagements with Ties. Surprising philosophical affinities between a translator famed for realism and an author known for experimentation strengthen the dramatic impact of Starnone’s story. Lahiri has explained that she gravitated toward the extraordinary demands of writing in Italian rather than in English because of a sense that “it’s the language of the other that can give back, that can restore to us something that is missing.”6 Critics have consistently, and misguidedly, attributed Lahiri’s preoccupations with otherness to matters of cultural identity. However, her fiction, like Starnone’s, points to time—biological, geological, historical—as our cruelest agent of alienation.
Consider the final story in Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies (1999), “The Third and Final Continent,” in which the chasms of forward-moving time dwarf any difference in culture. “The Third and Final Continent” draws a heartrending parallel between a young Indian student newly arrived in Massachusetts and his landlady, Mrs. Croft, a 103-year-old Cambridge native. The immigrant, 10 thousand miles from his Calcutta birthplace, is not more displaced than Mrs. Croft. He roots himself and a subsequent generation in Cambridge, while Mrs. Croft dies a foreigner in her hometown, exiled by the accumulation of years that have made Cambridge—and the contemporary world—illegible to her. In this and subsequent fictions, Lahiri locates the “language of the other” in time rather than in nation or race. Fluency in the language of one’s own time, paradoxically, only diminishes with age.
Lahiri’s translation of Ties highlights this temporal paradox. Vectors of time in Ties disillusion the characters; culture moves forward as bodies decay; and the atavistic or childish desires of a single moment can assassinate a lifetime’s maturity. Starnone renders narrative time telescopically as well as microscopically, so that fleeting moments expand and entire decades contract within the same paragraph. We are pushed to reconstruct linearity and causality out of fast-accelerating plotlines, the complex time of trauma, and precise points of emotional stasis.
And this is the book’s highest achievement: the novelist’s agile handling of time expresses itself in his characters’ agony. Temporal parallax, aesthetically pleasing for the reader, only wounds Aldo, Vanda, and their children, as they struggle to reconcile the gains of growth with the losses of aging. Consider Aldo’s shock upon rediscovering Vanda’s old letters, four decades after they were composed. Sitting in the study following the ransacking of their house, Aldo is searching for the missing cat Labes and the lost contents of his beautiful blue cube, when Vanda’s writings assault him:
The letters preserved the traces of a pain so intense that if freed, it could have crossed the study, spread through the living room, burst through the closed doors and returned to take possession of Vanda, shaking her, yanking her out of sleep, prompting her to rant and rave at the top of her lungs. But I didn’t hide the envelope, nor did I toss it into the trash. As if flattened by a weight that suddenly came back, bearing down on my shoulders, I sat back down on the floor. I pulled away the elastic and after almost forty years I read, though out of order, a few of the aged pages, ten lines here, fifteen there.
This razor-edged paragraph enacts the work of the entire novel, as Starnone condenses the Minori family’s problems into a single instant of physical, psychic, and temporal disorder.
Lahiri’s métier, too, is the artful compression of different pressures within overlapping frames of time. In translating Lacci into Ties, Lahiri connects Starnone to a host of English-language writers whose craft she most admires: William Trevor, Alice Munro, Bernard Malamud. Like these writers, Starnone moves his story quietly from simplicity to tragedy. He shows us, while shunning showiness, how aesthetic economy can contain and convey emotional excess. Above all, Starnone and Lahiri share a talent for locating fearsome universals in the illusory safety of the quotidian. Nothing could be more ordinary than a cat and a cube: but in Starnone’s hands, they stand for an elusive totality that his characters can envision but never realize.