TO BE HUMAN is to be a monster. Domenico Starnone’s fiction revels in this aspect of humanity, particularly his 2019 novel Trust, newly translated into English by Jhumpa Lahiri. Pietro Vella, a vivacious high school teacher, has begun a relationship with his former student, Teresa. During an argument, Teresa proposes an exchange: “Let’s say I tell you a secret, something so awful that I’ve never even told it to myself, but then you have to confide something just as horrible to me, something that would destroy your life if anyone came to know it.” That spirit of perversity — the desire to entrust another volatile human being with our personal heart of darkness — sets Pietro’s course. Their brief, tumultuous affair doesn’t last, and Trust explores the lifelong consequences of their tryst. Throughout the book, Starnone returns again and again to a central question: Are you superman or monster? Who decides?
Lahiri has translated two other Starnone novels, Ties (2014) and Trick (2016), in 2016 and 2018, respectively. Antony Shugaar translated another, First Execution (2007), in 2009. Together they represent a small fraction of the author’s prodigious work as a novelist, screenwriter, and journalist. Starnone has written more than 20 books and received the highest honor in Italian literature, a Premio Strega for his novel Via Gemito (2000). Ties, Trick, and Trust are all briskly plotted books, under 200 pages, and they follow a dramaturgical three-act structure. In the first section of Trust, Pietro recalls his life from the distance of old age, where his passion for Teresa still haunts him:
Love as I’ve known it, in fact, is a lava of crude life that burns the refined one, an eruption that obliterates understanding and piety, reason and rights, geography and history, sickness and health, richer and poorer, exceptions and the rules. All that’s left is a yearning that twists and distorts, an obsession without a cure: where is she, where isn’t she, what’s she thinking, doing, what did she say, what did she really mean when she said that, what isn’t she telling me.
As cruel a force as love is, Pietro cannot resist it. Like Nabokov’s Lolita, Teresa defines Pietro’s life. The threat of mutual betrayal marks the moment for which there is a “before” and “after.”
The torment of the Janus self will be familiar to readers of Ties and Trick, two works that approach the subject from different angles. In Ties, a man abandons his wife and two children for an affair that threatens to destroy all five people swept up in the drama. (As noted in Rachel Donadio’s review in The New York Times Books Review, Ties provides a parallel story to Elena Ferrante’s 2002 novel, Days of Abandonment. Starnone is married to Anita Raja, who some suspect may be Ferrante.) In Trick, illustrator Daniele Mallarico returns to Naples, and the apartment where he grew up, to watch his precocious grandson Mario for a few days. A kind of madness sets in for man and boy, and Starnone infuses each scene with anxiety and suspense. Back in familiar surroundings, the ghosts of past selves surround the aging artist.
Here in Naples numerous me’s were in bud since early adolescence and yearning to assert themselves, clutching at the city’s thousand possible variations, because the substance of Naples is also variable, there could have been many, so many cities within it, better or downright worse than this. But they were possibilities that had brief lives, I discarded them. Or maybe I only thought I had.
The irreconcilable pieces of the whole and the wish to commit to a single self plague the characters until their own monstrous natures threaten to drive them mad. Curiously, the women in Starnone’s books appear much less conflicted.
In public, these men appear infallible. Pietro Vella’s students adore him. An early article on the education system makes him a demigod in the academy. He publishes respected books on his theories. Devotion to enlightening the young is admirable, but a pernicious vein runs through Pietro’s dedication: an overwhelming appetite to be beloved, unquestioned, right. Shortly after he splits with Teresa, he meets Nadia, a new mathematics graduate and fellow teacher, “the opposite of Teresa.” Over coffee, Pietro asks if he can kiss her palm. She replies:
— You should have kept it to yourself, it’s foolish, you can’t tell people everything you desire.
— Some foolish things are lovely both to say and do.
— Foolish things are and always will be foolish.
Pietro wears her down with Socratic interrogation, the teacher convincing the student. He suggests she not tell her longtime boyfriend about his kisses. “Are you suggesting I lie to him?” she demands. “Lies are the salvation of humanity,” Pietro replies. This question of his own nature hounds him. Is he the generous, expansive man of letters, devoted to his students and to bettering the schools, or is he a fraud? It comforts him to entrust that judgment to Teresa, abdicating responsibility for his own life.
The secret shame Teresa holds looms like an offscreen horror. And as any student of the genre knows, the unseen monster terrifies most completely, the mind filling in unspeakable horrors. Monster movies are inevitably a portrait of those facing the monster. Pietro pays almost no attention to Teresa’s secret, for the simple fact that she doesn’t appear the least afraid of ruin. But once Pietro reconnects with her after marrying Nadia, he becomes obsessed with concealing himself. “With Nadia, I thought, who knows how much time I’ll have to lose in hiding myself and hiding herself to me, thereby saving our relationship and the family we’d created; with Teresa there’s no wasting time, we know much more about each other than people should rightfully know.” That he and Teresa “mutually revealed not only who we really were, free from all staging, but had also revealed, one to the other, who, had the occasion arisen, we might have been” tortures Pietro. When they meet up after an exchange of letters, Teresa raises the issue of their pact again.
I looked at her, perplexed. Was she joking, or being serious? She was proposing a form of control from afar, a hyper-exacting Super Ego who, for the next fifty years, would speak to me with her voice, and to her with mine? What an imaginative girl, too bad I couldn’t handle her for more than an hour at a time.
It’s unclear whether Teresa has actually suggested this arrangement or if Pietro wills it into being. Still, she’s game. “Bravo. If you keep behaving like this you’ll become the best of the best.” His life becomes a seawall against an encroaching truth about himself he cannot bear to admit and cannot stand that another knows.
Pietro recognizes that his need to cultivate devotion predates Teresa:
I’d always aroused, in both sexes, a need for an indissoluble bond. Ever since I was a boy, I’d been considered indispensable; playmates and friends had wanted me all to themselves, they’d hound me. But then what would happen? It was as if everyone, each in a different way, got scared of how strong our bond was, and out of the blue, from being all-too present, they turned into shades in my memory.
Pietro elicits deep sympathy at one moment and repels in the next. “I felt like a book that people raved about at the start, but then, little by little, started to satisfy less, or even went downhill. My mother — my mother, no less — hadn’t she behaved this same way? I’d been her favorite, but in a family where love wasn’t enough to erase the suffering.” That suffering, when Pietro reveals it, feels like a skeleton key to his entanglement with Teresa. Starnone renders these battles with clarity and pathos. He’s brilliant on the clamor of a mind in conflict with itself.
At the heart of Ties, Trick, and Trust stand celebrated men — the groundbreaking TV producer, the renowned artist, the revolutionary man of letters — who all have nearly invisible wives and marriages with a profound silence at their core. Ties tackles this connection most directly, opening with a wife’s pleading, wrathful letters to the husband who has abandoned her. But early in Trust, Nadia discards her growing success as an academic for reasons she doesn’t immediately reveal. She senses some hidden self in Pietro. When he presses her by claiming that “[y]our business is my business,” she rebuffs him. “No. Each person minds his or her own business.” Pietro thinks, “It’s so hard to have truly clear communication when you’re in a couple.” This man of potent imagination devotes little thought and even less effort to Nadia during their life together.
Nadia did all she could to fit into the increasingly complex scenario around me, and I appreciated this, but there was an excess of solicitousness in her that disturbed me. I mean, it mattered so much to her to highlight how well our lives had gone that at times I thought: she’s lying to herself; she doesn’t think things are going well at all.
Solicitous, he suspects her of duplicity. On the same page, he reverses himself: “I sensed her aggression, her tenderness, her coldness, her overbearingness, and I suffered for the way her instability made her suffer. But I literally had so much to do that I never found the time to minimize her suffering.”
And so, the wives can’t win. They come across as drudges and unsexed harpies because they face the work of life. The men’s lust for adoration leads to a shattering disillusionment when the glow of devotion wanes, when they can’t think of themselves as great men anymore. But Starnone pushes their downfalls into the realm of existential crisis: he interrogates the system of a family, the roles his characters feel forced to act out on both sides. His women are wrathful shades, speaking on the literal margins of the books, like the chorus pronouncing judgment. Starnone gives them the last word, but it’s a wail into the abyss. With a few deft strokes of his concentrated prose, he tears down the curtains, blinding his audience with daylight.
In the Italian edition, Trust is titled Confidenza. Lahiri’s titles have a neat alliterative relation to each other that isn’t as clearly delineated in the originals, but here confidenza contains a few more shades of meaning. It suggests intimacy as well as trust, but also a kind of trick, as in “a confidence man,” alongside the self-assurance of confidence, with a hint as well of fidelity. In those shades of meaning lie the twisted strands of Pietro’s life. The shared secret both alienates and forces an intimacy with Teresa that he cannot renounce. In Trick, as the artist Daniele Mallarico struggles to draw again, he experiences a breakthrough and reclaims “the sense of being independent, the same sense I felt as a boy, when I didn’t know what I was capable of and discovered it, somewhere between amazement and fear.” Starnone walks this tightrope by uncovering the terrible powers of self-deception and self-destruction, the constant undercutting of the one by the many. In the face of this uncertainty, his characters long for a tether, some connection to the world as it is, some witness to their most harrowing self.
Who’s to say which self is true, the edifice we construct or the hidden heart? In his private thoughts, Pietro behaves like a criminal who fears discovery, but he is drawn inexorably to confession. Pietro cannot decide where his sympathies lie or which self is most true, superman or monster. In these incisive novels, Starnone asks if the binary itself is false. As Daniele puts it in Trick, “I have enormous affection that grows rather than diminishes with time, for the I that I painfully chose from many, my I. How we love — all of us — our chatty little imp.”