The tangled tale of two Italian literary giants

This is the story of two Italian authors writing back-and-forth novels about a broken family

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This is the story of two Italian literary giants writing back-and-forth novels about a broken family. And there may well be a deeper story about the authors themselves here, too. After all, they might be members of the same family. They are rumored to be married.

Ties, from Italian author Domenico Starnone, is a novel in three parts about a broken family trying in vain to unbreak. A husband who abandoned his wife and two children for a younger woman returns home after four years. They try to resume their life together and — while they technically succeed — the results are predictably grim. Translated into English by Jhumpa Lahiri and published by Europa Editions, Ties covers three different time periods in three different voices, presented out of sequence: The first section consists of letters from the wife. The second features the husband, Aldo, recalling the past as he rereads those letters decades later. The third section, told from the perspective of their daughter, now in her forties, rewinds to a slightly earlier point in time. That structural incoherence — and the mystery it introduces — mirrors the extent to which the family remains fractured.

Ties is a fascinating read in its own right, but the novel's shifting three-part structure makes it feel more like a set of exhibits or court documents than a complete whole. It behaves, that is, like a supplement, like an addendum to a complicated story. For readers familiar with the famous pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante, it will feel like the missing part of one story in particular: her 2002 novel Days of Abandonment.

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Ferrante's book explored the perspective of a woman whose husband left her and their children for a younger woman, and her struggles at finding herself becoming the dreaded stereotype, the poor thing (or poverella) she'd always pitied and resolved not to be. Starnone's novel — which tells a remarkably similar story, but from the point of view of the husband and one of the kids — feels like a deliberate counterpoint. What would happen if the family Ferrante broke apart were to be unhappily soldered back together? What would happen if Ferrante's story of the wife were told from the point of view of the husband and daughter instead?

Asked about the resemblance in an interview, Starnone denied it, pointing out that abandoned wives are hardly exclusive to Ferrante. But then he volunteered that both his and her novels feature the wife breaking a glass object in the midst of the separation, so...

And this cannot be ignored: If the rumored identification of the pseudonymous Ferrante is correct, then Ferrante and Starnone are in fact married to each other.

Is this, then, a resonant literary dialogue between these two major Italian authors? If so, what's the point? Why write the inverse of a novel that was published 12 years earlier?

One answer might be that, while Ferrante's Days of Abandonment explores the layers of pain in the aftermath of the split, it lavishes particular attention on how humiliating it is to the wife to become generic at the moment when her grief is most acute. Everyone expects her to get over it and move on. Men leave. It's what they do, friends tell her. In Ties, Starnone explores that dynamic from the other side. Aldo's reconstruction explores the ways that casual indifference to abandoned women develops and the ways in which it can — however briefly — be annihilated. And it does so at the moment when the husband is most vulnerable to his own humiliating stereotype: He fears he has become an easy target, an old and foolish man.

Both these novels, as I've said, explore the aftermath of the husband's abandonment. In both, the man initially conceals his true reasons for leaving. (He's fallen in love with a much younger woman.) The wife, at first resistant, tries to understand. Later she'll search for him in vain after he stops answering his phone. In both novels, she writes him searching, difficult letters. In both, the couples have two children, a boy and a girl, the boy four years older than the girl. Both novels feature the discovery of a break-in, with the protagonist developing increasingly paranoid fantasies about who broke in and why. In both novels, the protagonist is temporarily unable to open the door to his or her home. In both, a pet becomes the vehicle for a mystery. In both, the discovery of some underlined words marks a pivotal (though not necessarily correct) interpretive change with respect to all that's happened.

The similarities get more granular still: Both Vanda, the abandoned wife in Ties, and Olga, the abandoned wife in Days of Abandonment, were 22 when they married. Both women tend to express their troubles in ordered lists. Both women keep careful financial records — in Ties, the husband narrates these as "a punctilious financial account of our family from 1962 to today, sheets of graph paper on which she'd noted in detail the incoming and outgoing sums." ("At night I wrote down, in my notebooks, income and expenses, in every detail, as if I were an accountant who had to show the books to the owner of the business," writes Olga in Days). Both ponder a sexual entanglement with a much-older neighbor.

Certainly there are differences: The most obvious is that, in the second section of Ties, the man who abandoned his family returns — and tells the story of the miserable reconciliation in his own words. But there are others. The family in Ties exists in the social upheaval of the '70s, not the '90s of Days — and in Naples, not Turin. The children in Ties are named Sandro and Anna, not Gianni and Ilaria. The pet in question is a cat, not a dog, and the break-ins in both novels are perfect inversions of each other: In Days of Abandonment, the apartment is found to be in perfect order; the only sign that anything has been taken is a door ajar and two missing treasures. In Ties, the door won't open, the apartment is a shambles, and nothing appears to have been taken.

But the greatest difference is that three-part structure. I've suggested that what Starnone's novel does — as a supplement to Ferrante's — is investigate the societal filter that so powerfully tunes out the wife's suffering, but from the point of view of the other members of her indifferent family. It does so, curiously enough, by beginning with the abandoned woman, Vanda's, voice. The first section of Ties consists exclusively of the letters Vanda wrote her husband Aldo after his departure. But the ugly truth about letters is that context is everything, and Starnone gives none. In contrast to Days, where Ferrante's narrator has an absolute claim to the reader's sympathy, the effect in Ties of presenting a spurned wife's letters without context is that we find her immensely off-putting. Vanda is a bummer the first time you meet her, and you turn on her reflexively. "In case it's slipped your mind, Dear Sir, let me remind you: I am your wife," the novel begins. Interpellated into that "you," the reader flinches. (What have I done?)

In just a few words, then, it stages the abandoned wife in Days' eternal problem: that her anger — and the rhetoric she uses to express it — alienates everyone, including the reader. We instinctively side with the husband. We retreat and watch her anger from a safe, defensive distance. Sure, we recognize that her pain is real, but we don't feel any particular duty to share it. The surprising effect of reading Vanda's words without mediation that we all become — however briefly — Italian men named Aldo.

The second problem Ties tackles is how the passage of time affects the telling of the marital story. In Days of Abandonment, Ferrante portrays a raw narrator struggling to make sense of her immediate crisis: "There was no distance," she complains, "whereas the rules say that to tell a story you need first of all a measuring stick, a calendar, you have to calculate how much time has passed, how much space has been interposed between you and the facts, the emotions to be narrated. But I felt everything right on top of me, breath after breath."

Ties isn't just the man's version of that story: It's the man's version told several decades later. It's a tower of measuring sticks and calendars that should put the events of the past in proportion. Instead, an inverse relation obtains: The farther in time Aldo drifts from the crisis, the more he psychologically comes to resemble the wife's distracted state of mind in Days. Aldo is old in Ties. He's confused and easily scammed — suddenly he fears he's the fool he never dreamed he'd be, the masculine equivalent of the spurned woman in Days. He complains of feeling "foggy" and fragile, "as if any blow might shatter me." He feels the "danger of losing control of the entire delicate system of weights and counterweights that had kept my life in check for five decades."

There's an inverse complementarity to these two novels, then: Even certain metaphors bounce between the two novels, developing a kind of magnetic resonance. Olga describes her daily life in Days of Abandonment as "taut as a wire digging in to the flesh." In Ties, Vanda references a similar figure. "You used a dramatic image," she writes to Aldo. "You said that your father had wrapped barbed wire around your mother, and that every time you saw a sharp clump of iron pierce her flesh you suffered."

Keeping to their contrapuntal pattern, the novels deploy that same metaphor in ways that neatly oppose. In Days of Abandonment, that image of metal piercing flesh becomes literal: The wife ends up with a huge cut on her leg — the result of asking her daughter to prick her to bring her back to herself.

But in Ties, that wire slackens into a metaphor for the reactivation of a buried past. The novel's second section begins with Aldo, the husband, getting scammed by a "solenoid girl" who delivers an electric stimulator. (A solenoid is a cylindrical coil of wire that produces a magnetic field when electricity runs through it.) "We've lived together for 52 years, a vast length of coiled time," Aldo says. The vandalism of the apartment — and the discovery of those old letters — effectively electrifies that coil. It sparks an unwelcome magnetic field and a sometimes self-serving journey of remembrance.

The effect of that journey — in the Aldo section, at least — is the brief deactivation of the husband's filter against the wife's pain. (The very filter, you'll recall, that Starnone elicited in the reader by beginning with Vanda's letters.) Aldo's own self-excavation begins with the cad's usual pro forma admissions of his shortcomings — the "I don't deserve you" rhetoric the wives in these novels realize exists mainly to get rid of them. But Aldo's rote confessions start to develop into a more honest assessment of the many lies he told himself to keep from feeling the effects of his selfishness.

This is not a happy novel. Neither is the one it seems to be responding to. But Starnone activates some potent sympathetic harmonies between these careful, beautifully rendered records of marital discord. If neither Days nor Ties present the full literary correspondence between the characters of husband and wife, this epistolary exchange between two giants in Italian letters might — in some bizarrely playful way — be pretending to provide just that.

Editor's note: This article originally misstated the Italian title of Ferrante's 2002 novel. The incorrect reference has since been removed. We regret the error.

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