The vast majority of novels that I’ve read in my life have had a definite vision, a clear statement to make – moral or spiritual or political or otherwise. I have found it easy to extract a message, identify a point of view. Some formal conclusion. Ties by Domenico Starnone was different. You can go through this finely wrought little book multiple times and still keep wondering over the true object of the writer’s sympathies.
I don’t know much about contemporary Italian literature. I have mentioned two figures on my blog up till now: Alberto Moravia (Boredom) and Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities, Why Read the Classics?). “Elena Ferrante” is another name (pseudonym) I keep hearing from time to time. For those of you who aren’t familiar with her, Ferrante is the author of the phenomenally successful four-part Neapolitan Novels.
And who is Domenico Starnone? He is a writer, screenwriter and journalist who was born near Naples in 1943 – winner of Italy’s most prestigious literary award, the Strega Prize. Around 2006, it was suggested that Ferrante was Starnone himself. Last year, it was claimed by an investigative reporter that Ferrante was Anita Raja, Starnone’s wife. The mystery continues…
Anyway, Ties – originally Lacci (literally “laces”) – came out first in Italy in 2014. It is Starnone’s thirteenth work of fiction and winner of the 2015 Bridge Prize for Best Novel – an award aimed at reinforcing mutual understanding between Italy and the USA. The book has been translated into English by Jhumpa Lahiri and published by Europa Editions (Ferrante’s publisher as well). Europa (@EuropaEditions) deals with literary fiction, high-end mystery and noir, and narrative non-fiction from around the world.
Ties is the story of husband and wife Aldo and Vanda, going from their youth to old age. They get together early, have two children – Sandro (born 1965) and Anna (born 1969). Soon, the relationship is put under strain. For Aldo, life with Vanda becomes burdensome, all routine and responsibility. He seeks comfort and adventure elsewhere, in the company of a much younger lover. The sexual revolution is in full swing and Aldo feels “besieged by that culture of deinstitutionalization – of everything.” But Aldo and Vanda do not separate. His practices persist. Yet the two of them survive. And feelings of rage, humiliation, pain and jealousy resurface again and again.
In the introduction to the novel, Lahiri perceptively writes that Ties is a book of contradictory impulses, the interaction of positive and negative charges – “the need to contain and the need to set free”. She explains:
The novel reckons with messy, uncontrollable urges that threaten to break apart what we hold sacred. It is, in fact, about what happens when structures – social, familial, ideological, mental, physical – fall apart. It asks why we go out of our way to create structures if only to resent them, to evade them, to dismantle them in the end. It is about our collective, primordial need for order, and about our horror, just as primordial, of closed spaces.
The “need for order” and the “horror of closed spaces” are explored in the book through the opening and closing (or tying and untying) of various containers – shoes, envelopes, cubes. What does the book make of the container of marriage? It leaves the reader in a position of discomfort. It clearly registers the boredom, monotony and sheer exertion that come with lifelong commitments, with strict social roles being passed from generation to generation. But it also pokes fun at Dionysian abandon, exposes the ultimate hollowness of that enterprise. Ties remains unimpressed with the “multiple children from multiple women” situation.
For all its ethical and philosophical ambiguity, its mixing of victims and culprits, if a lesson could be learnt from this book it would simply be this – one cannot escape the consequences of one’s actions. What we do our children will witness, what we are they will become…
A few lines:
For a long time you reasoned with pedantic calm about the roles we were imprisoned in by getting married – husband, wife, mother, father, children – and you described us – me, you, our children – as gears in a senseless machine, bound always to repeat the same foolish moves.
Everyone laughs about sex, even though we all know that it can sow discord, make us unhappy, generate violence, drive us to desperation and death.
After all, what can we do, there’s no escape from chromosomes, it’s neither my fault nor yours, we inherit everything, even the way we scratch our heads.