The International Booker Prize Reading Challenge: The House on Via Gemito, by Domenico Starnone, translated by Oonagh Stransky

I hadn't been able to explain to them that it wasn't our father's talent that was up for discussion. For many reasons, I loved his paintings at least as much as they did, but I was confusedly searching for something else. I was trying to understand how life decays when we're overpowered by an obsession for results [...] The dregs of all that torment and unhappiness and violence and disdain and arrogance and desperation and even love really only existed in my body and theirs, in the bodies of their children, in the teeming images that crowd your mind before you fall asleep and which then turn into either dreams or nightmares. When faced with that electrical storm of nerves, all art falls short. Living and thinking matter - I seemed to comprehend while falling asleep - is the only set design worth loving.

- from The House on Via Gemito, by Domenico Starnone, translated by Oonagh Stransky

The second book I’ve read for the International Booker Prize 2024 Reading Challenge is The House on Via Gemito by Domenico Starnone, translated by Oonagh Stransky. As I read through the International Booker Prize longlist for the Challenge, I’m hoping to alternate between reading shorter and longer novels, moving between different continents or languages, and also between works written by men and women. 

After starting in Argentina with the short novel Not a River by Selva Almada, I’m turning to Italy with The House on Via Gemito, which at 464 pages is more than four times as long! This is a rich and complex novel that I’m going to struggle to summarise neatly in a few paragraphs, but here goes: like several novels on this year’s longlist, The House on Via Gemito is a work of auto-fiction in which the narrator (named, like the author, Domenico), looks back on his memories of his father, a narcissistic, bellicose, yet apparently brilliant Neapolitan artist named Federico, attempting to untangle truth from fiction in the many, many tales recounted by his father throughout his life. 

I was drawn to this novel for several reasons: firstly, as a former art history student, I knew that I’d enjoy its depiction of the life of an artist, and of the impact that his obsessive dedication to his work has on his wife and family. Secondly, as a huge Elena Ferrante fan, I was looking forward to returning to the world of twentieth-century Naples. It’s been claimed that Starnone might even be the author, or co-author, of Ferrante’s work (‘Elena Ferrante’ is the nom de plume of an anonymous yet hugely successful Italian author). 

While Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and the following three novels in the Neapolitan Quartet focuses on the friendship between two young girls, and later women, The House on Via Gemito is decidedly more masculine in tone, exploring questions of male pride, honour, and jealousy, and also, of course, the relationship between fathers and sons. I initially found it quite difficult to get into the novel, not least because it begins with a depiction of violence against women, as the narrator analyses his father’s claim that he ‘only’ hit his mother two times during their marriage, comparing it against his own memories of his parents’ often tempestuous, and decidedly controlling, relationship. 

Throughout the novel, I wavered between absolute horror at the selfish, negligent, and at times outright violent behaviour of Federico, and admiration for his single-minded dedication to his artistic practise. As in Ferrante’s work, class is also a strong and recurring theme in The House on Via Gemito, as the working-class Federico teaches himself to paint against his own father’s opposition to his attending art school, despite his evident talent, and works tirelessly to seize every opportunity that arises to establish a name for himself among the artistic circles of Naples and beyond. It’s a particularly interesting work to read at a time when we are increasingly questioning the extent to which an artist’s biography and actions can or should colour our enjoyment of their work.

Ultimately, I found this to be something of difficult read, though I enjoyed its depiction of Naples (enhanced by the translator Oona Stransky’s decision to leave many colourful expletives in the original Neapolitan dialect), and there are some genuine moments of relief in the novel, such as the chapters recounting Federico’s involvement in the theatre during the Allied occupation of the city. I’m glad that, due to the Reading Challenge, I persevered in reading it, and suspect that I’ll be thinking about it for weeks to come. Overall, I’d give it somewhere around 4 stars out of 5.

You can read an excerpt from the novel here.

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