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Sharing Space: The House on Via Gemito


Watercolour painting of a writer and an artist

Art by Florence Sykes

Naples is a place that I have never visited, yet I have absorbed through Elena Ferrante’s novels such a distinctive depiction of it that the opposite feels true. For millions of readers, the vision of Naples presented by this pseudonymous novelist is so striking that they have come to associate the city with her work. Its dusty streets, its dry heat, and its cool and crumbling stone: all these have been imprinted onto our minds by Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. My Brilliant Friend (Europa Editions, 2018) and its three sequels revolve around narrator Elena’s relationship with her friend Lila, a bond that veers between jealousy, frustration, and love. It sits naturally within the world of Naples, a chaotic space where no one has the privacy they desire.

And yet, Elena Ferrante is not the only Italian novelist working today fascinated by Naples. Amid endless speculation about who the real identity of Ferrante might be, one name has dominated the discussion. Domenico Starnone, an immensely successful Italian novelist in his own right, is frequently suspected to be the ‘real’ Elena Ferrante. Others suggest that Ferrante’s luminous novels are the works of Starnone’s wife, the translator Anita Raja, or that they are the product of collaborations by the couple.

Reading Starnone’s The House on Via Gemito, translated by Oonagh Stransky and published in June by Europa Editions, I saw why so many have pointed out similarities between these novelists. Naples, within which the ‘house on Via Gemito’ is situated, exerts its presence on every page. The novel follows the relationship between the narrator Mimi and his father Federí. Federí is a man who hopes to become a famous artist, but who has been thwarted by the family’s impoverished circumstances. He is a man forced into “nobody-hood” by living in a place that denies him the opportunities he craves.

For his son, Federí’s insistence on his frustrated genius is a source of irritation. Mimi must endure his father’s constant complaints about growing up with people who have sought to constrain him. Federí ‘insisted’, we learn, ‘on his successes, his artistic precocity, on the way his father tried so hard to reduce him to being just an ordinary man’. Mimi is disturbed by this outburst, wondering, ‘what’s so bad about being an ordinary man?’. In the unforgiving environment of Naples, this difference of perspective between father and son comes into focus. Forced into the confines of ordinariness, Federí ‘always [comes] home furious’ and ‘always the victim’.

Federí cuts a both terrifying and awesome figure who expresses his frustration through outbursts of anger and occasional cruelty. His claustrophobia, the consequence of squashed ambition, is felt in every crevice of their physical space. Mimi reflects that, as he recalls the endless arguments started by his father, ‘it’s hard to tell if the glass windows trembled because of the wind or because of my father’s excessively loud voice’.

Naples, for Starnone, functions as a kind of pressurised container within which his characters develop affections, resentments, and enmities. In visual art, negative space is the blank space around and between the subject of the image. The setting of The House on Via Gemito offers such ‘negative space’ and within it, relationships between characters emerge. The novel operates like the paintings that Federí produces in the family’s single bedroom, huge canvases that colonise beds, cupboards, and every wall. It uncovers how people must negotiate the space they share.

For Mimi and Federí, existing harmoniously within their measure of space is a constant challenge. On the cover of the Europa edition of the novel is The Drinkers, a painting that Starnone’s father produced in real life. It is brought to life in the narrative, featuring as the most important painting that Federí works on. In this ambitious composition, a young boy pours water from a jug: this figure is Mimi. Our narrator poses for an agonising number of hours, fearing an outburst of Federí’s irritation if he moves even an inch. These scenes, in which son poses for father, are at the heart of the book, which is divided not into chapters, but rather three extended parts. Mimi describes moments of tension and unease in his role as a sitter:

“Federí is sitting at the easel and I’m seated across from him in this uncomfortable pose […] I feel him casting glances at me, not his normal looks but those of an artist, the ones that feel like ropes with huge hooks or barbs or spears attached to the ends” (Part II, p.256).

It takes the utmost effort for Mimi to hold this pose envisioned by his father. And yet, despite the ‘hooks’ and ‘barbs’ of Federí’s attention, his father’s keen eye misses something. Mimí realises, with both self-satisfaction and fear, that he has been positioned too far from the other model’s outstretched hand. The composition will not work. In miscalculating the space between the two figures, Mimi tells us, ‘the water will forever spill onto the tomatoes, the plate, the cloth. My father placed me in a position where, even if Luigi reaches out as far as possible, I will never be able to pour the water into his glass’.

At this moment, the central problem of the novel—not fitting the space into which you have been placed—reaches its clearest point of focus. Mimi feels that he cannot live up to his father’s expectations of him. Federí feels that he ought to be living alongside other artists in Paris but is pinned to his position in Naples as father and breadwinner, working a thankless job on the railroad. His wife Rusiné, having married young and had children, struggles with a fixed role too. Forbidden all forms of independence in her role as Federí’s wife, Rusine retreats inwards. Federí so dominates the canvas of the family’s existence that there is, for her, no alternative.

Frustrated in his attempts to command space, the city of Naples continually puts Federí back in his place, through neighbourhood fights or sickness or disappointment. This idea of being constrained by our relationships and circumstances recalls Starnone’s 2014 novel, Ties: its central image, tying one’s shoelaces, reminds us that our surroundings constantly threaten to trip us up. In this novel, too, we are presented with a confined space in which a family’s contrasting personalities contend for dominance.

Starnone treats setting like a canvas, creating a limited space to generate friction for his characters. In this, I suggest, his writing is distinct from Elena Ferrante’s. Ferrante’s canvas is broader, and rather than the negative space of setting, it is organised around its central characters. My Brilliant Friend inhabits the similarly confined space of Naples, but Ferrante expands her scope in Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay to allow the narrator Elena to explore a world outside of the suffocating city of her youth. The similarities in setting between Ferrante and Starnone speak to shared origins rather than a single identity.

Both Starnone and Ferrante are interested in our imperfect understanding of others, how we can know a person all our lives and yet remain essentially ignorant of their private frustrations. The House on Via Gemito is dominated by Federí’s voice, as Mimi retells his father’s stories—but this voice is always mediated. This brings the gap between our inner and outer lives into sharp relief. In this gap, an unconquerable space, lies the complexity of family relationships.

SARAH MOORHOUSE graduated from Oxford in 2022 with an MSt in English Literature (1700-1830). She works in publishing and divides her time between Oxford and London. Her writing can be found in The Bookseller, LitHub and Necessary Fiction.


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