by Ashley D. Escobar
I had never heard of Domenico Starnone until I picked up a copy of his slender green novel Trust in Posman Books at Chelsea Market. My friends had left me to look at the miscellaneous items by the cashier––juvenile pins, scented-erasers, and animal figurines. I rolled my eyes as Penelope looked for a rainbow ribbon to wear on Valentine’s Day. College, with all its secrets and façades, seemed like another world. We had gone to so many bookstores already, our feet hurt, and we were hungry, but when I saw the word “trust” in large white letters accompanied by a couple, not exactly in an embrace but close to one another with a single hand in the air, I knew I had to buy it. I was tired of solitary brooding after finishing Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. The next minute, I was out the door with Trust safely tucked away, acquainted with the insides of my Paris Review tote bag.
I had recognized the Europa Editions uniform aesthetic, even before catching the bird logo on the left corner. Trust had recently been translated into English from Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri. The only writer I was familiar with in the Neapolitan canon was Ferrante––general suspicion is that the anonymous author is Starnone’s spouse, if not him––but Starnone felt promising for someone I had never read. He felt as familiar as Ferrante. I didn’t need to learn that Starnone’s also a screenwriter and journalist, that he now lives in Rome. Trust spoke for itself.
Flipping pages over French fries at Pastis, the words “literature teacher” and “student” jumped out at me, and I wondered if it was just my own frequency bias or if the subject between professor and student is still as provocative today. When compared to current titles such as Julia May Jonas’ Vladimir, a subversion of popular interest in age-gaps and illicit affairs, you begin to ask yourself, why can’t we have this story from the student Teresa’s perspective, or the wife’s? I slowly realized Trust is less about taboo or transgression and more about the subtlety and elusiveness of the game. Action is traded for reflection, for contemplation, for tension between the public and private worlds of the characters.
Trust stayed by my side. Trust was the meeting place between my inner thoughts and the outward appearance I had as I carried the novel with me. Trust was the only order in my turbulent week of disrupting my friends’ routines, of loitering in parks and stoops, of loathing dinner at another French restaurant. Trust sat with me during a two-and-a-half-hour train ride back to Bennington, Vermont via Albany on the verge of tears.
I read Trust throughout the course of a single night spent destination hopping around Brooklyn. I was meeting my friend for pool at the Brooklyn Inn. I left my hotel for the wet pavement with only Trust in hand and the vague notion that the bar was five blocks down Hoyt St. Pool for me, like the word trust, is all about the angles, the reliance, the dependence upon another’s moves. I believe the mark of a man is based on his worst game of chess. A psychological reckoning toward intent and strategy. Starnone’s Trust begins with a gambit. Pietro remains haunted by his former student and lover, well after marriage and children. Before breaking up, Pietro and Teresa trade secrets, the kind that could “destroy your life if anyone came to know it.” The secret is never revealed to the reader, but its power is what is daunting. The secret is what turns Pietro into prey.
In Seduction, Jean Baudrillard writes “All appearances conspire to combat and to root out meaning (whether intentional or otherwise), and turn it into a game, into another of the game’s rules, a more arbitrary rule––or into another elusive ritual, one that is more adventurous and seductive than the directive line of meaning.” Teresa makes the definite move:
She smiled, as if she were inviting me to play a game, but deep down she was quite tense. Her anxiety was contagious, I was stunned, I was concerned that, at only twenty-three years of age, she could already have a secret so very unmentionable.
I won the game with a slight suspicion that my friend had let me. Any win felt like Pyrrhic victory. We crossed Atlantic Avenue for the Center for Fiction’s “Quiet Happy Hour for Readers.” I ordered a drink called “Enemies to Lovers,” a common, if not cliché, literary trope. The drink’s description asks you to “embrace your spicy side with this hot, slow burn of mocha. It’s literally steamy.” So far, Pietro’s account isn’t “steamy” to the average reader, more of a nuanced build-up of patterns and details. We tried to be quiet but every now and then I’d gasp over a line, over Pietro’s annoyance toward Teresa as his student: a “quarrelsome girl who balked at everything I said, who equipped sarcastically at all my shortcomings.”
The Italian title is Confidenza, confidence. However devoted Pietro is as a confidant of Teresa’s secret, the acclaimed author is nowhere near self-assurance or self-reliance. “Confidence” evokes less of the “secret exchange” in Italian and more of certitude in one’s abilities in English. Pietro’s loss of confidence, in the English sense, is apparent, not only due to the potential harm Teresa may bring upon the release of the secret, but the imposter syndrome he feels alongside his rising acclaim. Trust is what keeps them together, what can tear them apart. After sharing the premise of the novel with my friend, he suggested I read sociologist Viviana Zelizer’s The Purchase of Intimacy. Zelizer argues that in an intimate dynamic “at least one person is committing trust, and at least one person has access to information or attention that, if made widely available would damage the other.”
Like Baudrillard’s game, Pietro admits to being Teresa’s “object,” of fearing how she might destroy his “feeble state of well-being”:
Teresa tended to be brilliantly, creatively perfidious; her perfidy, typically, didn’t work in the shadows, with coded language for those who might understand, but was blurted outright into the faces of those who were its object, with a burst of intelligence that ended up entertaining those present and also the victim himself; so forget about what she might be capable of in a moment of triumph, in her absolute prime.
After drifting through Ft. Greene Park’s fog for a breath of fresh air, we went to a pizza bar. I appreciated how grounded the restaurant was, with Mason jars and paper menus in a pandemic-era world. A world where stamps are an occasion rather than a necessity. I admired the importance of physical correspondence Starnone creates throughout Trust. As intimate as a phone call can be, handwriting is much more personalized and private. There’s room to read between lines, trace word patterns, analyze diction and intent. Pietro must slip a note to Teresa, his mantra: “Love fades, but friendship endures.” All he receives in return is: “You’re scared, huh?”
I love how Teresa shows up to haunt him, to propose an “ethical marriage” after his reading. Her audacity, her temperament, it was familiar. Her voice: “always on the edge of sarcasm.” I admired how she transcended her teacher, how Pietro is left imagining her life abroad. “Farewell parents, farewell friends and relatives, farewell to the mountain rising and falling, farewell, above all, to me.”
Arriving in the lobby of the Ace Hotel, I began to feel as much of an imposter as Pietro. Sure, I’m not some traveling lecturer of educational sermons, but I didn’t feel the gravity of being a “writer.” Like Pietro, I was imitating, or attempting to imitate, someone I had once read or seen in a film but this “sensitivity and this intelligence” would soon belong to me. I could only dream of the loneliness and temptation one retreats to in a hotel room on a book tour. I sighed in relief, over my aptly named cocktail “Find Me Later,” that Pietro doesn’t end up sleeping with his editor Tilde after Teresa endlessly teases him about it. I knew the adult world, in all its ambiguity and grayness, was steadily approaching but I was still a student on winter break, and all of this was relatively fiction.
In all honesty, I skimmed over the final two stories narrated by Pietro’s grown-up daughter––who tries to obtain a presidential prize for him––and Teresa, especially not Teresa. Perhaps I disliked her bluntness and resistance to flowery language, as a writer interested in particulars. Teresa admits: “I prefer sentences that don’t force themselves to sound pretty to convey behaviors and states of mind.” I didn’t want to see her aged. Yet even in old age, Teresa maintains her power. Pietro doesn’t attend his own ceremony, a predictable move. He’s a coward through and through. A missed opportunity for Teresa: “I was, and am, far more dangerous than he.”
In the afterward, translator Lahiri comments on how Teresa and Pietro’s relationship is a “true marriage of minds.” The devastating truth is that as intellectuals, this elopement was the peak of their love lives, of intermingling that close to someone else’s mind, as close to taking a walk inside. Connections as intense and intimate are rarer and rarer; one must be fully present and engaged to reach such circumstances. It’s like what occurs to Ishmael while watching Captain Ahab on the quarter-deck in Moby Dick: “Reality outran apprehension.” As soon as you get carried into this shared flowing mural of vulnerability and dreams, there isn’t any room, or time, for fears to show their face until everything ends. Intimacy seems unreachable to ever obtain again. Fingers crossed.
Ashley D. Escobar is a fiction MFA candidate at Columbia University and a multidisciplinary artist. She is the author of SOMETIMES (Invisible Hand Press, 2021) and co-founder of Wind-up Mice art & literary journal. Her work has appeared in The London Magazine, TRANSOM, and Hobart, among others.
Image: Elisa Calvet B./Unsplash