In 2012, having published four books and won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, Jhumpa Lahiri moved to Rome. There, she experienced what she described as “a radical transition, a state of complete bewilderment.” A set of preconceptions had hardened around her writing, and in Italy, Lahiri hoped to jettison these in pursuit of a new vulnerability. She looked to the Italian language to reinvent herself on the page, restoring the joy and freedom in her work.
One consequence of this immersion was In Other Words, Lahiri’s memoir about language, and her first book written in Italian. (An English translation by Ann Goldstein appeared in 2015.) Just as important, in their way, were her first efforts at translation—a pair of novels, Ties and Trick, by her friend Domenico Starnone, the author of more than a dozen books and a winner of Italy’s prestigious Strega Prize. Ties, published last year, tells the story of a marriage in extremis and dissects a lifetime of accrued routine, deception, and petty resentment. When it came to light that Starnone is married to the writer who goes by Elena Ferrante, critics returned to Ties, suddenly eager to read it as a counterpart to Ferrante’s own Days of Abandonment.
Trick, Lahiri’s second Starnone translation, out in March, is another vivisection of family life, a novel as lean and unflinching as its predecessor. An elderly illustrator, Daniele, visits his childhood apartment, now his daughter’s home, to babysit his four-year-old grandson. The boy’s frenetic energy fills Daniele with foreboding, forcing him to reckon with his past and his senescence—to accept that his creative powers are waning and his body is failing him.
In a pair of phone conversations—one last year, after Ties came out, and one more recently, following the publication of Trick—I talked to Lahiri about the raw power behind Starnone’s work; about her approach to translation and her love of the Italian language; and about balconies, which are scary.
How did you come to Ties, and what made you decide to translate it?
Well, I read it when it was first published in 2014. I was living in Rome, and I knew Domenico already. We had become friends. I had read some of his other work. A fellow writer friend of mine gave me a copy of Lacci. She bought it for herself, too, and we decided to read it together. I just remember as we were reading in our separate homes, sending constant text messages basically saying, Oh my god—what about the part on page so and so? And, Oh my god—did you get to the passage where he described … After I read it, I sent a text to Domenico saying, “What a remarkable book. If I ever translate a book from Italian, I would like it to be this one.” At the time, I was so immersed in my Italian project that I wasn’t really thinking about moving back into English—and yet this book struck such a chord in me that I couldn’t forget it.
You write in your introduction about the book’s sense of containment and, simultaneously, disorder. It’s divided into three sections with strikingly different tones. First comes Vanda, who conveys, in a series of letters to her husband, an exacting, unsparing anger in the heart of their marriage. Then comes Aldo, the husband, who attempts to earn our compassion even as he describes his reprehensible decision to leave his family. Finally, there’s Anna, one of the couple’s two children, who recounts her grim upbringing with a kind of pitiless frankness. I have to imagine that these three posed a challenge to you as the translator—particularly the opening section comprising Vanda’s strident letters, which are almost alienating in their intensity. How did you find your bearings for these different tones in the book?
The real challenge of Ties was these three very distinct voices. Oddly, it was Aldo’s voice that felt most natural to me. Vanda’s was the most challenging section. I kept coming back to it, just knowing in my gut that it was off. It was so hard to try to capture her craziness, her desperation, her humanity, her sense of humiliation—that raw, unfiltered rage. But also her manipulation because she’s a highly manipulative character. I think all of the characters are, in Ties. They’re transparent, like open boxes, and at the same time, they’re utterly impenetrable in terms of their motivation. It’s wonderful to have such contradictory characters to work with, but it made it hard to settle on a register—and at a certain point, you must settle, right? You have to say, There are certain words that Vanda would use and certain words she wouldn’t. I was aware also of their ages. The book is set in the present day, but Vanda is almost eighty. I had to think about which words someone of that age would use to express this rage—they’re not the ones I might use.
In the introduction, you write about the fertile lexicon of Italian words just for the English word disorder. Were there any concepts or words in particular that were especially hard to convey?
Well, Starnone uses these Neapolitan words. That terminology was less familiar to me than it is now. It’s in a totally different register compared to most Italian writing. I’m in a very refined place, shall we say, when I’m sitting down to translate Domenico because his knowledge of the language, his knowledge of the weight words carry, their etymology, their Latin roots, I mean—the fact that there’s a Latin dictionary at the heart of this novel is not a casual coincidence. As I say in my introduction, the book, to me, really is about language, what language contains and doesn’t contain. That’s the real philosophical root of the novel, in some sense. Can language even bear the weight of this mess of our lives? Is our project as writers even … possible? I was making lists, writing down lots of unfamiliar words that have slowly entered my arsenal. There’s the repeated use of this adjective scontento, scontontecha—which is discontent in English, but it has different shadings. A little kid might be scontento if his parents aren’t paying attention to him. But scontento, this scontentet, can also speak for a much more existential sentiment. It was interesting to translate this word, apparently simple but actually very subtle, over and over again.
In a piece for The New Yorker a few years ago, you said that Domenico once wrote to you, “A new language is almost a new life. Grammar and syntax recast you, you slip into another logic and another sensibility.” Learning Italian, I imagine, has caused a metamorphosis for you as a writer. But I wondered how translation has furthered it, or how it’s changed your relationship to both languages.
The discovery of translation has been fundamental to my sanity, coming back to the United States. It’s just been so meaningful to me to have Domenico’s work, in particular, to translate. It comes with this growing friendship that I find very comforting in some sense. It’s also extraordinarily challenging, translating. But even though I’m not writing as much in this phase, I know that the translation is feeding my creative work. Right now, I feel like my creative project is translation. It’s just constant reading and rereading, on such a deep level. If you’re reading anything at that depth, it brings this deep nourishment, linguistically and technically. When I see how Domenico deals with something—say, indirect discourse. Or, How does he deal with time? How does he deal with description? To plow through this new territory—it’s very invigorating for me.
Before it was revealed that Starnone is likely married to Elena Ferrante, an interviewer had pointed out to him the similarities between his Ties and Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. He shrugged it off but went on to note that both books feature a wife breaking a glass object during a period of separation. I wonder if you saw a connection there—is there a kind of dialogue happening, if not between those two books explicitly then maybe between Ties and a larger Italian tradition?
I remember reading these articles when they came out in the Italian press. People were immediately drawing comparisons between the plots of the two novels, arguing that Ties was kind of his side of the story, right? I’ve read all of Ferrante’s work, and yes, it’s plausible to say that there’s a similar world here. There are some elements that we see in both books, some preoccupations. A similar timeframe, also with two children, a boy and a girl. But this is a universal plot we’re talking about. When Days of Abandonment came out, people were saying, This is a modern day Medea. But I think Ties goes into a different place. Aldo’s tragedy, it’s the tragedy of going back. It’s the tragedy of not staying away. It’s not the destruction wrought by the one who strays and the suffering of the one left behind.
In Ties, Aldo has retained these Polaroids of his old lover nude. He’s kept them hidden away in a box for many decades, and he’s still afflicted by the thought that they might disappear, and with them his memories of a certain robust happiness. It comes to consume him. He’s almost more oriented toward the past than toward any part of the present or the future.
And it’s very relevant to me in so many ways. I feel like my whole life I’ve been raised by people who in some sense hold onto the equivalent of those photographs—to the memory of happiness. Almost as a form of self-protection. But that’s why I think this novel is its own thing. I mean, okay, you can say there are some similarities with Days of Abandonment. But that’s only a very superficial reading of the book. I think this book has a completely different energy and a completely different force. And to be honest with you, regardless of who Elena Ferrante is—and I admire her work very much—I feel that Ties is far more sophisticated, if you want to know the truth. You don’t know how to read it really. It won’t let you. And as much as I admire Ferrante, I don’t have that relationship to her work. It makes me think, It stimulates me to a high degree but not on this level. This book has, for me, a kind of philosophical power.
What about the other novel, Trick? Was it a foregone conclusion that you’d return to translate Starnone again?
I wasn’t planning on translating another novel by anybody right away. But then Domenico sent me the book, and as soon as I read it, it was kind of a foregone conclusion. I felt that I couldn’t not translate it. I was already very much inside of his language and his characters. They’re not the same in Trick and Ties, but there are a lot of similar meditations on life, aging, and the passage of time. He’s looking at those things more deeply in Trick. He doesn’t repeat himself at all—he only enriches these questions. So I made the space and the time to do it. I translate a lot by gut at this point. There’s a lot of Neapolitan dialect in Trick, and my intuition told me what to do, how to handle it. Really, it’s more of a tonal thing. I felt that tone, having been to Naples and knowing a lot of Neapolitan and understanding the character of the places. What the narrator is saying in Trick is that Naples is a highly contradictory place of incredible refinement and violence. There seems to be a kind of violence in the language but an extreme coherence too. Those sections where he’s remembering being an adolescent, and the anger, the sheer rage that’s in the book. Just hearing the dialect triggers something in him.
Daniele, the aging illustrator who narrates Trick, is at work on a series of illustrations for “The Jolly Corner,” a ghost story by Henry James.
The whole novel has this extraordinary intertextual play with James, which I found ingenious, artful, profound. It got me thinking about influences, about reading and translation. It’s a book that distills so many things that I’ve been thinking about, a whole assembly of questions. As I said in my introduction, I found an interesting correspondence with Kafka’s whole oeuvre. Talking about his influences, Domenico always mentions two authors, Calvino and Kafka. And even from the first page of Trick, I thought, Well, this is The Metamorphosis. This is Gregor Samsa trying to get out of bed in the morning. I found correspondences with Letter to His Father too—Kafka remembers being sent out on some kind of balcony for having asked for a glass of water, and this memory marks him, scars him permanently, just as Daniele’s time trapped on the balcony scars him in Trick. There’s all of this amazing reflection on space, on being outside, being on the balcony. Domenico’s really done this extraordinary weaving of various influences.
The novel presents such a haunting vision of what it is to grow old—what it means to go back home.
I think Ties and Trick are both about going home—and they’re hellish stories about it. Ties is about the failure, the misery of return too. They’re an interesting pair. I think Starnone is exploring this idea under different circumstances, one obviously much more romantically charged—husband, wife, family, parenthood. But they’re both about lineage. With Trick, he’s writing on what it means to become an artist, to create an artistic identity. For some people, that willful transformation involves a total violent betrayal of one’s family and one’s origins. Trick focuses on the tension between the artist one becomes and the terror that one was not meant to be such an artist—that visceral, primal fear that somehow you shouldn’t be doing this, that you were supposed to be doing other things. That this was the direction of your DNA—all the arrows were pointing one way, and you, somehow, with both admirable and shameful determination, forged a new destiny for yourself. That spoke to me very, very much.
Dan Piepenbring is an advisory editor of The Paris Review.
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