In recent years, there has been something of a revival of interest in the Italian neorealist writer Natalia Ginzburg, driven by reissues of some of her novels and essays by Daunt Books and NRYB Classics. Valentino and Sagittarius are two separate yet related novellas from the 1950s, reissued together in one stylish edition from NYRB. Both stories deal with the messy business of family relationships, the tensions that arise when one person behaves selfishly at the expense of those around them. When viewed together, they highlight how foolhardy we can be, especially when investing all our hopes in a particular individual or venture – the fallout for the surrounding family members is often painful in the extreme.
Central to the first novella is Valentino, the much-fêted son of an impoverished family who have collectively sacrificed everything to invest in this young man’s education. The father, a retired school teacher, is convinced that Valentino is destined for great things, a belief borne out of a combination of pride and delusion. While the father dreams of a time when his son will be a famous doctor, Valentino himself is lazy, vain and self-absorbed, content to neglect his studies in favour of idle pursuits. It’s a situation typified by the following passage relayed by Caterina, the mild-mannered younger daughter of the family.
My father spent his days in the kitchen, dreaming and muttering to himself, fantasizing about the future when Valentino would be a famous doctor and attend medical congresses in the great capitals and discover new drugs and new diseases. Valentino himself seemed devoid of any ambition to become a man of consequence; in the house, he usually spent his time playing with a kitten or making toys for the caretaker’s children out of scraps of old material stuffed with sawdust… (p. 9)
One day, entirely out of the blue, Valentino announces his engagement to Maddalena, an older woman whose age and appearance cause consternation within the family. Gone are the teenage girlfriends of Valentino’s youth, only to be replaced by this unattractive yet wealthy woman whose looks are marred by her ‘hard, round eyes’ and noticeable facial hair. Catarina wonders how on earth she will explain the situation to her elder sister, Clara, who, despite being married with three children, still relies on her family for financial support.
It was not easy to explain to my sister Clara the turn that events had taken. That a woman had appeared with lashings of money and a moustache who was willing to pay for the privilege of marrying Valentino and that he had agreed; that he had left all the teenagers in berets behind him and was now shopping in town for sitting-room furniture with a woman who wore a sable coat. (p. 12)
Even though relations between Valentino’s mother and Maddalena are strained, the marriage goes ahead, prompting the family to get into debt over the wedding preparations – new clothes must be purchased to avoid losing face in front of Maddalena’s relatives, an expense Valentino’s father can ill afford. Unsurprisingly, Valentino remains largely blind to the impact of his actions on the rest of the family, preferring instead to squander Maddalena’s money on unnecessary luxuries.
When both her parents die in relatively quick succession, Caterina takes up residence with Valentino and Maddalena, promoting the story to take a couple of interesting turns – unexpected developments that would be unfair of me to reveal here. Ultimately though, we are left with a striking picture of Caterina, a young woman who has been taken for granted all her life, sacrificing her own happiness for her selfish, feckless brother; and yet, she manages to retain an underlying sense of loyalty to Valentino in spite of his many failings.
Interestingly, Sagittarius is also narrated by a daughter in a dysfunctional family; however, in this instance, it is the mother whose actions prove toxic and disruptive, rather than those of her children.
The narrator’s mother, whose name we never learn, is a bossy, self-absorbed widow who moves to the city in the hope of opening an art gallery frequented by cultured intellectuals. To help finance the move, the mother bullies her two sisters into a loan and then swiftly makes a nuisance of herself by interfering in the running of their china shop, much to the sisters’ dismay.
Her sisters dejectedly sought refuge in the stock-room, sighing as they listened to the imperious clatter of her high heels. Long familiarity had made words almost superfluous: a sigh told all. The two of them had been living together for more than twenty years in the dark, old shop frequented by a handful of regular customers, elderly ladies whom they regarded almost as friends and whom they would engage from time to time in little whispered conversations between the glove trays and the tea services. They were genteel and timid and dared not tell my mother that her presence disturbed and irritated them and that they were even a little ashamed of her, of her brusque manner and vulgar moth-eaten fur coat. (pp. 54–55)
Joining the mother in her new home in the suburbs are the narrator’s sister Giulia, who remains poorly following an earlier bout of scarlet fever, Giulia’s husband, Chaim Wesser, whom the mother dislikes intensely, a maid, Carmela, and a young relative, Constanza. While Chaim is a qualified doctor, he earns little in the city, lacking the resources to establish his own practice. The fact that Chaim is well-liked and caring counts for nothing in the eyes of his mother-in-law, a woman who has never considered him good enough for her daughter due to his lack of wealth and good looks.
With the possibility of acquiring a gallery seemingly out of reach, the mother considers herself to be the victim of some big injustice, choosing to blame others for the unfairness of the situation. Once again, Ginzburg captures the measure of this woman so effectively in her characteristically perceptive prose.
And when she compared her lively fantasies of the past with her monotonous existence, she felt herself to be the victim of some great injustice. She was unclear as to whom to blame for this injustice, but vaguely attributed it to her own lack of money, to Dr Wesser’s earning so little and to Giulia for having married him; and she became irritated with Carmela who was stupid and dirty and left her filthy aprons draped over the armchairs, and with Constanza who was extravagant with the jam, and with cousin Teresa who didn’t pay enough for her daughter’s keep. (p. 76)
Out of sheer desperation, the narrator’s mother latches onto a somewhat shabby woman named Scilla whom she meets at the hairdresser’s, viewing her as someone who might prove useful in the future. As luck would have it, Scilla appears willing to go into business with the mother, meaning those dreams of an art gallery or shop might finally come to fruition. However, there is something odd about Scilla, a nagging doubt that the narrator finds hard to figure out…
As with Ginzburg’s other novels, Voices in the Evening and Happiness, As Such, these stories rely heavily on family tensions, highlighting the chaos and destruction such relationships can provoke. Ginzburg’s prose seems unadorned and straightforward on the surface, but this apparent simplicity belies the complexity of emotions running through the text. Resentment, delusion, evasion, pride, loyalty and compassion all come together to form these perceptive, richly textured narratives. There’s a wonderful darkly comic note to many of Ginzburg’s observations too; it’s there in the passage about Maddalena, the second quote in this piece. In summary, then, Valentino and Sagittarius form an excellent introduction to Natalia Ginzburg, a writer whose insights into the minor tragedies in everyday life are remarkably astute. For the interested, there is an excellent article about this writer here, published in The Guardian in 2019.