Posts Tagged ‘Natalia Ginzburg’

Lost Books – The City and the House

June 26, 2019

A well-deserved Natalia Ginzburg revival is already underway in both the US and the UK, though not one which has (so far) extended to her final novel, The City and the House, published in 1984 and translated by Dick Davis in 1986. As a later work this neglect is perhaps unsurprising, but it might also be explained by the fact that it is an epistolary novel written long after the form was in its prime, and perhaps too close to its extinction (I mean the point when we can reasonably accept characters will commonly write letters to each other). Having said that, Ginzburg handles the form with skill, presenting a core exchange between former lovers Giuseppe and Lucrezia while encompassing a number of other correspondents, allowing her to examine a network of relationships along the way, and combining to give a powerful sense of time passing.

We learn in the first letter that Giuseppe is planning to leave Italy and live with his brother, Ferruccio, in in America. Giuseppe tells Lucrezia that, “I have never managed to do anything and I am nearly fifty.” He feels he has few ties to Italy, having only a distant relationship with his son, Alberico:

“I would have liked someone different. But that certainly goes for him too.”

He is indifferent to Lucrezia’s claim that he is the father of one of her children, telling her instead that her husband, Piero, is “an excellent father and they have not need of any other.” The life Giuseppe imagines for himself in America, however, is altered before he even leaves Rome as his brother informs him he has married an American divorcee, Ann Marie. This will be one of many crossed wires (one of Giuseppe’s most powerful reasons for going to America was the thought of the two of them living together as a couple of bachelors, going as far as to declare, “I will do the housework and prepare the meals”) to occur as the letters cross each other in the novel.

The plot of The City and the House is not complicated, but it would be both tedious and convoluted to recount, based as it is on the ever-changing relationships of its characters. Its soap opera tendencies are mediated by variety of voices and viewpoints by which it is told. Overall we have a picture of characters searching for happiness but often unsure where to find it. Giuseppe and Lucrezia typify this, partly because we sense that their previous relationship reached a point where they might have made a stronger commitment to each other, as Lucrezia suggests:

“I wanted to leave Piero and come and live with you… You told me that I should not leave Piero, that I shouldn’t even think of doing so. You said the children would suffer. I said I would bring them with me and they wouldn’t suffer much… Then you got very frightened.”

Here, Giuseppe’s fear of being a father seems, at least in part, to bring their relationship to an end. Later he will find Ann Marie’s daughter and son-in-law easier to tolerate than she does, as well as improving his relationship with Alberico. Meanwhile Lucrezia will leave her husband for another man, but with as much desperation to inflict a change on her life as love.

The idea of choosing what we do to find happiness in our lives is echoed in the choice of where contained in the novel’s title. The house referred to is that owned by Lucrezia and Piero, which many characters talk of fondly. Giuseppe writes to Piero:

“I shall carry your big, yellow old house, which you call Le Margherite, though goodness knows why, with me in my heart.”

And later, in reference to a phone call:

“It was a real joy for me to hear all their voices together and to think of them all together there, at Le Margherite, in the sitting-room, that sitting-room I remember so well with the big oval table, the lamp shade with its frayed border, the basket of firewood and the dog’s cushion, the sofa in front of the fireplace and over the fireplace the picture of King Lear.”

Just as Giuseppe moves to America, Lucrezia moves to the city, Rome. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Lear, who gave away his kingdom, is featured in Giuseppe’s description. In fact, the sale of property is a repeated act in the novel, one reason we feel time is rushing on, towards the elegiac atmosphere of the final letters. For all is lightness of tone, The City and the House could not be described as a happy novel, though its ambiguous ending leaves us with a little hope.

Voices in the Evening

February 27, 2019

Natalia Ginzburg, whose first novel was published in 1942, and her last over forty years later in 1983, was widely translated into English at the time but, until recently, had largely fallen out of print. Voices in the Evening is the third of her books to be reissued by Daunt Books, following on from The Little Virtues and Family Lexicon last year, though it predates them in its original date of publication, 1961. The translation, by D. M. Low, is from 1963, and Ginzburg’s reappearance in English seems to be a mixture of old and new translations (Family Lexicon, for example, is a new translation by Jenny McPhee; The Dry Heart, which New Directions will publish in June, is the original 1949 translation by Frances Frenaye).

Voices in the Evening is a novel which can reasonably be divide into two parts. In the first part Elsa, the narrator, is largely an observer, presenting us with a picture of the small town where she lives, a town where the past is often as alive as the present. Her role as recorder is amusingly demonstrated in the opening pages as her mother talks on paragraph after paragraph without so much as an interjection or response form Elsa:

“Couldn’t we sometimes have the miracle of a word from you?”

Her reliability is reinforced when she responds to her mother’s comments, for example in relation to the new doctor’s marital status, with more accurate information than her mother possesses. The new doctor is discussed as Elsa’s mother is concerned that Elsa remains unmarried at twenty-seven:

“…my mother’s most persistent worry is that I do not get married. This is an annoyance which depresses her, and the only consolation she gets lies in the fact that the little Bottiglia girls at the age of thirty have not got married either.”

In the chapters which follow, Elsa describes the inhabitants of the town, which itself centres on the factory where her father is the accountant: “The whole neighbourhood lives by the factory.”

Ginzburg’s work was greatly influenced by her experience of the war and the stories of the inhabitants of the town remain overshadowed by the war years. Balotto, the owner of the factory, we are told, was a Socialist:

“He always remained one, although after the coming of Fascism he dropped his habit of uttering his thoughts aloud.”

Purillo, a distant relative brought up by Balotto, on the other hand, displays “a large photograph of himself in the dining room wearing a black shirt and raising his arm to the salute among some Party officers who had come to visit the works.” It is Purillo, however, who drives Balotto and his wife to safety when he fears the Fascists are coming for them. Nebbia, the unrequited love of Balotto’s daughter, Gemmina, is killed by the Germans. Balotto’s other daughter, Rafaella, returns at the end of the war a Partisan, “wearing trousers, a red handkerchief round her neck, and a pistol in a holster.”

The novel’s second half focuses on the relationship between Elsa and Balotto’s son, Tommasino. It is hinted at earlier in the novel when her friend, Giuliana tells her, “They saw you, with Tommasino,” but Elsa merely replies, “And then?” before changing the subject. The chapter ‘Elsa and Tommasino’ cleverly begins, like the others, with a dispassionate description of Tommasino’s daily life, before Elsa reveals:

“Tommasino and I met every Wednesday in the town.”

They have been meeting every week (sometimes twice a week) for months, going to the library, buying any messages Elsa must return home with, and then retiring to a room Tommasino has rented for them. Within a page of our discovery of their relationship Tommasino is telling her:

“I am not marrying you… I don’t want to marry; if I did, I should probably marry you.”

Not only does this arrangement seem to suit Elsa as well as Tommasino, she is the most disparaging of convention. When Tommasino worries about them being seen together she tells him:

“My reputation! I don’t care a rap for that, not I.”

It is Tommasino rather than Elsa who changes things when he brings the brewers’ yeast which Elsa bought for her mother but left behind to her house, thus entangling their relationship with their other lives, and making Elsa question whether they can continue as before.

The novel’s second half deepens into an examination of the expectations placed on love by men, women and society, but Voices in the Evening does not feel at all disjointed, the same themes having been touched on in the first half, though more briefly and with more variety. Together they emphasise the complexity of relationships and the interconnected nature of our lives in an enjoyable and accomplished narrative. It is easy to see why Ginzburg is being read again.