Published 3.7.2017. New York: Europa Editions. Translated from Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri. 149 pages.
Graphic design by Emanuele Ragnisco
This deservedly recognized and duly Notable-ized book, translated by Pulitzer Prize-winning (and ruminating, I Have a Pulitzer-length preface-writing) author Jhumpa Lahiri, hardly needs me to add to its acclaim; which does not mean, however, that there are no reasons to write a review. First of all, I read and greatly enjoyed the book, and am partial to Michael Dirda’s observation in a blog post for The American Scholar:
I’ve also come to feel that if I don’t write about a book—in a review or essay—then I haven’t actually read it. Gathering my thoughts, outlining an author’s argument, framing a few apt quotations, trying to make inchoate impressions coherent—all these activities give substance to my experience of a work, make it real in a way that simply “reading” alone doesn’t.
Second, presuming based on what the author bio says that there are at least a dozen more Starnone books that will be translated at some point (thanks @europaeditions!), and having (as a prerequisite) read and enjoyed this one, I think it’s useful to make some observations about the author’s methods here in order to provide some guide rails to myself in discussing other books by the author. Third, a review of an already-acclaimed book is an opportunity to contribute to the conversation about it, to seek to explain what about it makes it so appealing—or, occasionally, to show how a shyster author managed to pull the wool over so many critics’ eyes—and to call attention to aspects of the author’s craft which other reviewers have either neglected or unduly credited (whether due to the inherent subjectivity of reading or due to systematic biases in terms of what aspects of that craft professional reviewers consider worthy or unworthy of mention.)
In some ways, a book so obviously meritorious as Ties is a good test case for a general idea I advocate (influenced, partly, by the revival of interest in Style in the field of Comp/Rhet, for which I refer readers to work by Joseph Williams, Paul Butler, Robert J. Connors, Star Medzerian Vanguri, and others) that book reviewing is enriched when we give equal emphasis to style as we do to plot, characters, and themes. (This emphasis is reflected in the equal 50% weight I give to style in my rubric.)
So Ties: to say this book succeeds on all levels is a cliché which, by its very triteness, undersells my appreciation; but putting it in the most blandly instrumental way I can, if my rubric for grading books were a statsheet then this book would be a stat-stuffer, because it does everything that I look for well and some things exceptionally well. This is not a book only for those who appreciate just a distinctive style, or some interesting characters, or a well-designed plot: it has all of those things, but it is mainly the style I will focus on because it is style most other reviewers will have likely passed over.
Ties is divided into three books, each of which is narrated by a different point-of-view character. Book I is that most old-fashioned of things—an honest-to-god epistolary novel!—except Starnone skips us right to the good part with one hell of an opening line: In case it’s slipped your mind, Dear Sir, let me remind you: I am your wife. Vanda, the aggrieved wife whose letters we are reading—nay, gawking at, as one does at a trainwreck or a high-speed chase on TV—certainly has the wherewithal to cut a cheating husband down to size; her magnificent, towering rhetoric moves in phases, from mock sympathy:
I know you pretend I don’t exist, that I never existed, because you don’t want to look bad in front of the highbrow people you frequent. I know leading an orderly life, having to come home in time for dinner, sleeping with me instead of whomever you want, makes you feel like an idiot. . . . I know, believe me, I know.
Enough, sorry, I’m going overboard. I know you, I know you’re a decent person. But please, as soon as you read this letter, come home. Or, if you still aren’t up to it, write to me and explain what you’re going through. I’ll try to understand, I promise.
It’s been six days and you haven’t called, you don’t write, you don’t turn up. Sandro asked me about you, Anna doesn’t want to wash her hair because she says you’re the only one who can dry it properly.
It’s not enough to swear that this woman, or girl, doesn’t interest you, that you won’t see her again, that she doesn’t matter, that it was just the result of a crisis that’s been building for a while. Tell me how old she is, what her name is, if she works, if she studies, if she does nothing.
To belittling psychoanalysis:
I bet she was the one who kissed you first. I know you’re incapable of making the first move, either they reel you in or you don’t budge. And now you’re stunned, I saw the look on your face when you told me, “I’ve been with another woman.” Do you want to know what I think? I think you have yet to realize what you’ve done to me. It’s as if you’ve stuck your hand down my throat and pulled, pulled, pulled to the point of ripping my heart out, don’t you get it?
This is not one, but many different kinds of pathos. And while the content of Vanda’s letters is intense, so is the style. When I call it rhetoric, I mean that Vanda appeals to (or we might say attacks) her husband in language that is not only theatrical, but also cadenced, as shown by the repetitive structures of the phrases I’ve highlighted. This is not so much a histrionic outpouring as a slow, measured burn; an indictment that rather than wearing on the listener, gets more definitive and damning the further and longer it goes.
While pathos is at the heart of Vanda’s letters, logos certainly plays a part as well, and one of the pleasures of this chapter is in how precisely Vanda engages with Aldo’s excuses about needing freedom and rebelling against the traditional family structure and cuts them down with irresistable, seemingly airtight logic.
I must admit that Vanda’s filleting of her husband was so emotionally stirring in its portrayal of what Aldo, her husband, had done to her and the two children by virtually abandoning them, and seemed so meticulous and logical in dismantling his bullshit and lies, that to me Vanda’s indictment seemed irrefutable and Aldo (who at this point is just some unnamed jerkwad who abandoned his wife and kids for a younger woman) was entirely condemned to me as a reader. But then I reached a point in the chapter where Vanda was still sending letters to Aldo, even after years had gone by and he had failed to lay claim to custody of the children in court, even after it seemed that for all intents and purposes there was nothing further to be gained by castigating the man, so that abuse like the following began to seem gratuitious:
Jesus, you really are a weak and confused man: insensitive, superficial, the opposite of what I thought you were for twelve years.
The ensuing paragraph, with its powerful peroration of accusatory “you” statements, seems especially caustic because it reads like an attempt by Vanda to rewrite the history of her marriage with Aldo, to make everything seem worse than it actually was, and as a reader I began to have second thoughts about my loyalty to Team Vanda: Once you start willfully misinterpreting someone, it becomes that much more impossible for there to be a reconciliation, because now the two parties need to proceed with the knowledge that they once intentionally tried to hurt each other. It is a profoundly cynical, profoundly destructive paragraph, and yet that too felt like an honest phase in this woeful pageant of the abandoned woman; yet still, I began to wonder if Vanda was on the verge of insanity, and worried that the rest of the novel would chart her slow, increasingly pathetic descent into being a bitter, unreasonable person (like one of those film montages where someone drunk calls nonstop through the night to the number of someone who clearly doesn’t want to talk to them.)
But then Book I ended, which felt like a relief and a surprise, as it had begun to seem Vanda’s wrath was unsoundably deep and merciless, and I was worried the whole book was going to dwell there. Instead, Book II is quite different, and in fact almost a bizarre fun-house image of Book I, and it is here that Starnone’s mastery of plotting begins to come into relief. Book II begins with the words, “Let’s proceed in order,” as though the prosecution had rested and now it was time for the defense—the much maligned husband, Aldo—to make his case.
I was initially confused, because it seemed as though we were seeing the same events told from the husband’s perspective, except this was much later; almost 50 years have passed since the letters in Book I. Well, that’s odd. And yet, the husband’s depiction of the relationship, even as so much time has passed, seems like a point-by-point refutation of Vanda’s depiction of Aldo—a refutation if not of what he did, than at least his motivations for doing it.
Every detail of Book II, Chapter I seems designed to refute or spin what has come before. Aldo (narrating in the third person) off-handedly says Vanda “had a wrist fracture that wasn’t healing,” which was causing a hassle for her (and which I immediately read as symbolic—fractures that don’t heal, grudges one can’t let go.) When the doorbell rings and Aldo answers the door to find Vanda’s medical device being delivered by a pretty “young woman” who is making the delivery, he is distracted by her appearance and allows himself to accidentally be cheated into overpaying her ten lira, which he hesitantly tells Vanda. He hesitates, as becomes apparent, because Vanda has a difficult personality:
Tightening her lips, which is what she does when she’s irritated, she went on to study the instructions. She’s hung up on money. She’s been obsessed with saving it all her life. Even today, in spite of all her aches and pains, she’s quick to bend over and pick up one cent from the sidewalk. She’s one of those people who never neglects to emphasize, as a reminder intended above all to themselves, that a euro is worth two thousand lire and that if, fifteen years ago, two people spent twelve thousand lire to go to the movies, today, at eight euros a ticket, they spend thirty-two thousand. Our current well-being and to some extent that of our children, who frequently ask us for money, is owed less to my job than to her toughness.
The picture of Vanda that emerges is a familiar stereotype: the impossible woman, the shrew with the henpecked husband. Why would you betray me? the Vandas of the world protest, while the Aldos say (or rather think, because nothing good can come of saying it) because you are impossible to please. Nothing satisfies you. You criticise everything. (We find out later that Vanda wasn’t always like this.) Meanwhile, the two darling kids suffering without their father, Sandro and Anna, of them we hear that they do not get along and so “it’s usually best to avoid forcing brother and sister to meet, for whatever reason.” Their aunt Gianna, represented in Chapter I as so put-upon by being forced to take care of the children in Aldo’s absence, is here depicted as a selfish practitioner of favoritism who left Sandro “a handsome nest egg” and Anna nothing.
Yet it would be a mistake to think that our author, Starnone, leaves us merely with Vanda’s jeremiad neatly juxtaposed with Aldo’s rebuttal. Instead, he has the aged Aldo come upon those incandescent letters once again many years later. This prompts him to recount in Book II, Chapter II what happened during those days of abandonment in the 1970s from his perspective, to tell the story of his love affair with the young woman named Lydia and his estrangement from his family. While he reveals how he allowed th situation to become what it became, he is forced to confront the pain he caused his wife while also trying to invent a way of life for himself that balances his competing wants and needs. We see that Aldo, far from being a jerk, is a man with flaws who ultimately resigns himself to making compromises in life to reduce the pain inflicted on his family. These compromises are not perfect or morally spotless, but they constitute a state of being he finds livable.
One of the most admirable things about this book is how Starnone retreads the same events repeatedly while adding entire new dimensions to our understanding of the characters and events each time. Whereas many “well-plotted” books are content to introduce new characters and events by the truckload, Ties is a story with just four main characters and one main story that is presented from multiple perspectives, with each iteration adding new elements to our understanding of what motivates each of the character. (There are so many passages where Starnone shows rare insight into what makes people like Vanda and Aldo act as they do.) The story proceeds deliberately: each of its sections does something different and tells us something new. I had the sense of being in the hands of a storyteller who knew exactly what he was doing, who had the overarching structure of the story well in hand as he was writing; details that seem incidental in Book I become considerably consequential in subsequent chapters. As a result, the book keeps surprising and engaging you right till the very end.