"Lotus Opening" by L. Folk

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

When Creativity and Domesticity Clash, There May Be Brilliance: A Review of Domenico Starnone's novel Trick

In Domenico Starnone's fourteenth novel Trick, septuagenarian Daniele Mallarico is a renown illustrator in the twilight of his career who must return to his childhood home to care for his grandson Mario, a precocious, goblin-like child who demands his grandfather's attention at all costs. The two battle wits, jockeying to have their needs met--Mario to engage his grandfather in play and Daniele to illustrate Henry James's ghost story "The Jolly Corner." Despite Daniele's league of frustrations in trying to make art happen with a four-year-old in the house, he ultimately produces a brilliant body of work, but not for the James story. What transpires are illustrations of Daniele's own ghosts, of family, his former selves, and to quote James, "all the old baffled foresworn possibilities," different versions of himself he may have become, having grown up in Naples, a city known for its rage ("la raggia").

Daniele admits that he is afraid of being without work, that he is less in demand, that his body is deteriorating; the James story is a chance for him to sustain his productivity and confidence, his life force. But he is thwarted at every turn by the child and by his own limitations:

I had no fun at all. Playing with the child had not only worn me out but depleted energy from the drawings I'd felt the urgency to pin down...Now they sat there like ailing beasts waiting, mutely and blindly, either to heal or die.

He becomes stumped, blocked. He can't envision the New York apartment where Spencer Brydon sees his ghost and he stops trying. He succumbs to what comes easier, to what demands recognition, reckoning:

I still saw my father in flashes, grim, throwing his hair back with both his hands, and my mother, who transformed amid fits of terror and melancholy from a shabby Cinderella to a lady in a veiled hat, and my grandmother, who having suffered a stroke, now sat always silent, arrugnata, a word that, in dialect, meant a body folded in on itself, curved like a billhook left to rust in some corner.

Daniele realizes in the midst of his reflections that he is the lucky one; yes he has always had "various human types lurking in [his] body, some violent, others wretched" but because he had talent, he could conveniently "crush all [his] other spirits and banish them to the farthest reaches of [his] blood." Without his talent, without his work, however, he lies vulnerable to these; they rise up and taunt him just as effectively as the child does.

I found this book to be utterly spot on in portraying the clash of creativity and domesticity; I read it with awe and empathy. Starnone is like Ferrante, immeasurably close to the witness self, precisely articulating each of the protagonist's experiences and the emotion and thoughts that accompany them. Both Starnone and Ferrante (argued to be one in the same or husband and wife) deal in what I call "the brutal truth." There is no pretense in their writing, no decorum, no niceties, no moral trivialities; these writers write from the primal self:

When my father sent me to the foundry he wasn't being wicked, poor man, he was giving both himself and me a lesson in realism. The tradition in my extremely sprawling family tree was to be a mechanic. Or an electrician, like my father. Or a turner like my grandfather...Or [making a] living by my wits, by hustling, by the wiles of necessity, leaving no doubt that I only ever have women on my mind, that I'm never satisfied with any of them, that I collect them, caress them, take advantage of them, beating them when they don't want to bend over nice and quiet...Or to reject the dark chasms of women and slip into male bodies with the excuse of humiliating them, or only because it's easier to feel at home with known actions and reactions, or because the drives are confused, the flesh is uncertain, always moving without resolution from men to women, from women to men, holes here and holes there, so many useless distinctions.

The story culminates with little Mario locking his grandfather out on the balcony in the rain and the cold. The boy literally holds the old man hostage, and as with most hostage cases, release only comes when something is gained. This gain is twofold: the boy succeeds in gaining the grandfather's undivided attention, and the grandfather gains insight and acceptance: he's never going to finish the illustrations for the James story; he can't, it's beyond him, and that's okay. What's more important is that he's pinned down his own ghosts, in a kind of artistic reckoning.

Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies, Unaccustomed Earth, The Namesake) does an impeccable job in translating the novel from the Italian and her introduction is written with grace and respect. She gives us food for thought on how a translator deliberates over words, the dance of words on the page, the different levels of meaning. The dialogue she captures is so real it seems as if you're hearing it and not reading it. She informs us of Starnone's penchant for James and how the two stories play off one another. Also included in the text is an appendix of real drawings done by the artist Dario Maglionico, which are haunting and surreal, a perfect and justified complement.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Visions of Maine

It's early July in Maine and the beach roses are still in bloom, as are the irises. We're staying where we stayed last year at the Ocean Point Inn in East Boothbay, a charming old inn that was built in the nineteenth century and was once a farm house. Our unit is an efficiency with a deck that looks out at the bay where boats are docked and rock gently with the lapping waves. Across the water is what appears to be an island with rocky shores and rugged firs. There's a house there, a grandiose house and whoever owns it must own the island as well. That's what people up here do: they own islands. We saw one for sale when we were kayaking.

Last night I watched the sun set over the water and an osprey halted itself in mid-air then dove for a fish. I was awestruck at its acrobatics, how it could reverse direction so efficiently, be so precise. It snatched that fish decisively and was back up in the air in less than a second. And then its mate came from somewhere else and the two flew home over the firs. We humans have to think, plan, execute, but animals can simply execute. They run on instinct, a code in the brain.

This place reminds me of the essay by E.B. White titled "Once More to the Lake." White talks about the new flywheel motors and the third track missing; I don't get a sense of the passage of time here, more that time is slower and involves less. You would think I would be okay with that. I want to be okay with it, but the truth is there is this undercurrent of unease rippling inside me, as if all those things time is normally stocked with are rumbling underneath my skin, and I can't let myself truly be present.

The lobster boat chuffs now into the bay there are far away voices. The water is relatively still. It's a quiet sight. A dog roams the rocks on the island, a trap is dropped and the boat makes a turn and stops. I think to myself, why am I not enjoying this? What tears at me?

In a dream my father planted an orchard
when there were apples already in the trees
and protested when I bit into one
In a dream women came to decorate with holiday flowers
begonias in the windowboxes with satin ties

In a dream my English teacher tried to teach me algebra
and a shelf of her precious books was burned
because it took up too much space
In a dream my high school turned into a labyrinth
and I walked through the same shadows again and again

In a dream I had racks of beautiful clothes and pants that fit me
because they took out the tumor and my stomach was slim
In a dream I called my boyfriend by the wrong name
and embarrassed myself in front of my family
In a dream I needed someone to love me
so I thought him up and he appeared miraculously at my side
and freed me from the labyrinth
but this stranger was a quick fix
and I longed for the time I forged   my    own    way

There are tiny bees here that reap the nectar of the antique roses, and I found two mating on my arm. Delicate but steadfast creatures, I had to wait a while before the wind took them away. At night, frogs chirp and croak in the lily pond between the buildings and the lotus flowers peek up from the muck like the soothing thoughts of a bodhisattva. Mary walks the sea wall with tiny daises in her hair and Stephen can recite the totem animals of Maine. When he put on a Polo shirt with miniature sharks on it, I could see the handsome man he's destined to become. And I am half here, because a part of me drifts a few feet above my head in a limbo space, where I am wishing and waiting for a time to create and process the gifts of this place. But that never really comes. Despite the separation from my daily routine, there are responsibilities here, things to do as a family. Even here there are things that must be done.

I debate with myself what I should do in the brief time I have to myself. I could swim in the ocean, but the rocks would cut my feet. The cold water will numb my limbs. The sun burns my skin if I don't use sunscreen and the mosquitoes will devour me if I walk in the woods. This is a treacherous environment despite its beauty and you must be prepared, but I never am.

My husband tries to be prepared at all costs. He spent hours packing the day before the trip and then again just before we left. He gets anxious that he will miss something, the car has to be packed just so, and he often snaps at me and the kids before we leave for one reason or another. His neuroses usually pays off, though, because we have everything or almost everything we need. He packed food, clothes, toiletries, drugs, vitamins, drinks, books, electronic devices and their chargers. (We had to buy salt and paper towels). I am one who believes in spontaneity and being resourceful; he can't tolerate poor planning. He thinks my lack of planning and packing is childish. Reckless. I think I have more faith in life than he does. I am willing to put myself out there, rely on instincts, wit, or at least this is what I tell myself.

The homes on Ocean Point are well kept; some are refurbished cottages, others are hidden mansions accessed only by a private road or trekking up the granite coast. It's a precarious hike, you've got to be careful of your footing, and the question in my mind is what must one do to acquire, build one of these museum-like habitations? And I use the word habitations loosely, because it doesn't appear as if anyone is in them. It's wild on this nook of the coast; all you can hear are gulls and waves and you get a sense of the treacherous solitude of Maine. What must one do? Further down the coastal scenic road and I have a full sense of Have and Have Not. There are "PRIVATE" and "NO TRESPASSING" signs everywhere. I can't help but feel rejected when I see four inviting Adirondack chairs facing the sea and a red and black "PRIVATE" sign.

We went kayaking on the Damariscotta River and it felt right to exert some energy to be fully indulged in the landscape. It cleared my head. In the evenings, we perused the Boothbay Harbor shops, had dinner and ice cream. Mornings, we had a full breakfast at the Inn and were served by hospitable people who spend their summers working at the inn and then live somewhere else during the winter. They were seasonal people, and I wondered about their lives, if they were always working, working, the maids in their beautiful Jamaican braids and their carts full of cleaning items, cleaning the toilet bowls and the rugs and the sinks, making the beds, finding who-knows-what the guests have left behind. What was this place to them?

The last day, we visited the Botanical Gardens (the pictures I have posted are from there). Here people have learned the secrets of the treacherous landscape and have harnessed it to put forth blooms. I finally feel at ease and delight in all the burgeoning flora; it's like the Garden of Eden, and I feel welcome here. A cultured space like this belongs to everyone and no one at the same time.