Author Q&A: Domenico Starnone

Trust (Europa Editions)

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At the start of Trust, tempestuous lovers Pietro and Teresa choose to seal their bond by each disclosing a shameful secret to the other. A few days later they break up. Apart the pair thrive – Pietro in his marriage to Nadia and his career in education, and Teresa as a scientist living overseas. But the shadow of the secret Pietro confessed haunts him, and Teresa periodically reappears, standing at the crossroads of every major moment in his life. Or is it he who seeks her out? Like Ties and Trick, the third book in Domenico Starnone’s informal trilogy, all translated by Jhumpa Lahiri, is an examination of a single relationship which also reflects on ageing, monogamy and discontent and unfolds with all the tension of a thriller despite much of the action taking place in the mind of the protagonist. Starnone’s skill in portraying the inner lives of his characters, and his Neapolitan roots, have drawn speculation about his links to pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante and readers will find their links strengthened here in many ways. But while Ferrante examines the complexity of female relationships, Trust cements Starnone, a prolific writer with a career spanning five decades in Italy, as a master chronicler of the male psyche. Here Starnone answers questions on the novel in Italian, alongside translations by Daniela Petracco.

Did you have a clear idea of what the shameful secrets Pietro and Teresa trusted each other with were while writing?
Only in part. I chose a fair number of actions that, when told in a certain phase of our existence, appear to be very serious, but which in time, in old age, we tend to look upon, as Teresa says, with less discomfort.

Solo in parte. Avevo scelto un discreto numero di azioni che, a raccontarle in una certa fase della nostra esistenza, appaiono gravissime, ma che col tempo, con la vecchiaia, tendiamo a guardare, come dice Teresa, con minore disagio.

Was it a challenge to use language to address the importance of silence and things that go unsaid?
In my initial drafts, I have a tendency to tell too much. It happens – I think – because I want to make clear, to myself first of all, the sense/meaning of the story. Then I start to remove what is superfluous. In Trust, I found a lot to be deleted. Deleting is always a good thing but here it was a necessity. What moves the story forward is what the characters don’t tell, not even to themselves.

Nelle prime stesure ho la tendenza a raccontare troppo. Succede – credo – perché voglio chiarire innanzitutto a me stesso il senso della storia. Poi però comincio a levare il superfluo. In ‘Trust’ ho cancellato moltissimo. Cancellare fa sempre bene, ma qui era una necessità. A muovere la storia è ciò che i personaggi non dicono nemmeno a se stessi.

Trust is also about the education system in Italy. What are Pietro’s major concerns in the 1980s when he writes on the topic and have they been addressed by the conclusion of the novel in the present day?
Some teachers do their job without enthusiasm, while for many others, their genuine commitment clashes with insoluble problems: the way in which social, cultural and financial inequality affects the students’ performance, for example.
Pietro is what you would call an excellent teacher. Of humble origins, he knows that the education system can often destroy you instead of helping you. This is why he loves his students – all of them – and is loved back. His categorical imperative is: don’t do to your students what your worst teachers did to you. For him, good schooling is founded on rigour and seduction. Rigour helps you grow, seduction traps you. It is precisely because of this that Teresa, his most promising student, the student who owes him the most, will love him and hate him her whole life.

Gran parte degli insegnanti fa il proprio lavoro o svogliatamente o con un onesto impegno che si scontra con problemi insolubili: per esempio gli effetti delle disuguaglianze economiche e socioculturali sul rendimento degli studenti. Pietro è quel che si dice un ottimo insegnante. Ha origini sociali umili e sa che la scuola, spesso, invece di aiutarti ti distrugge. Perciò ama i suoi studenti – tutti – ed è riamato. Il suo imperativo categorico è: non fare ai tuoi allievi ciò che i tuoi pessimi insegnanti hanno fatto a te. La sua buona scuola è fondata sul rigore e sulla seduzione. Ma il rigore aiuta a crescere e la seduzione intrappola. Teresa, l’allieva più dotata, l’allieva che gli deve di più, proprio per questo lo amerà e lo odierà per tutta la vita.

Confidenza is the Italian title of the book and while translator Jhumpa Lahiri chose the title Trust – a major theme of the book – self-confidence is another theme. Pietro is tormented by a belief in his own mediocrity, an impact of the ‘malady of his origins’. Has your own upbringing in Naples impacted your own confidence among intellectuals, despite your own great professional success?
No, I don’t think so. Maybe it did when I was a young man but Naples has become an important resource in my work as a writer.

No, non credo. Da ragazzo forse sì, ma presto Napoli è diventata un’importante risorsa per il mio lavoro di scrittore.

Do you agree with Teresa’s reflection that ‘it’s not the pedagogy of love that improves us, but the pedagogy of fear’?
No. Pietro’s pedagogy of love, and the pedagogy of fear Teresa makes use of, are wrong and dangerous. I am for a pedagogy of reason and reasonableness.

No. Sia la pedagogia della seduzione, che caratterizza Pietro, sia la pedagogia della paura, di cui si serve Teresa, sono sbagliate e pericolose. Io sono per la pedagogia della ragione e della ragionevolezza.

Pietro is almost a decade older than Teresa and her teacher, and in his marriage to Nadia he has the more illustrious career. But he lives in fear of Teresa exercising her hold over him and Nadia reminds him that his success is hers and sets about ensuring the people who admire him admire her more. What were you exploring about power dynamics between men and women?
I don’t know. I was interested in focussing on how Pietro pursues a model of male perfection. His self-esteem is founded on his ability to seduce/captivate his students, on the power he exerts on them. His intellectual growth depends on time stolen from his wife Nadia and the care of their children. He even uses Teresa’s love, and the fear she instils in him, to adhere to the model of an honest man. Basically, I wanted most of all to take a peek behind the mask of a man who is moderately successful, esteemed, loved.

Non so. Mi interessava mettere a fuoco come Pietro persegue il suo modello maschile di perfezione. Lui fonda la stima di sé sulla capacità di seduzione dei suoi allievi, sul potere che esercita su di loro. Cresce intanto intellettualmente rubando tempo alla moglie Nadia e alla cura dei figli. Si serve persino dell’amore di Teresa e della paura che lei gli incute per aderire a un modello di uomo integro. Insomma volevo soprattutto curiosare dietro l’apparenza di un uomo di qualche successo, amato, stimabile.

After Ties and Trick, Trust is your third book in six years to be translated into English. While they each standalone, are there common themes that tie them together and do you see them as a series within your wider body of work?
They were not planned as a trilogy but came one after the other in quick succession. They are experiments, technically even, in the form of the novella, the long short story, rather than novels. They are relatively short, critical summaries of the entire lives of their male protagonists.

Non sono stati pensati come una trilogia ma sono venuti a breve distanza l’uno dall’altro. Sono esperienze, anche tecniche, di racconto lungo, più che di romanzo. Riassumono criticamente vite intere maschili in un giro relativamente breve di pagine.

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