The Road to the City by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Frances Frenaye)

The more I read the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, the more I like her – especially her short novellas such as Valentino and Sagittarius, recently reissued by NYRB Classics.

The Road to the City was Ginzburg’s debut, originally published under the pseudonym ‘Alessandra Tornimparte’ in the early 1940s. Ostensibly a story of a young woman’s desire to escape her village for a life in the city, the novella has much to say about various socioeconomic factors – how our destinies can be shaped by gender, social class, opportunities and education. It’s a simple, relatable story, told in Ginzburg’s characteristically unvarnished style.

The novella is narrated by seventeen-year-old Delia, who lives with her parents and three younger siblings in an unnamed Italian village an hour’s walk from the nearest city. There are multiple problems in the household – money is tight, affection is lacking, and life in general is mundane, a situation compounded by Delia’s father who is frequently tired and short-tempered. Consequently, Delia longs to escape her dreary surroundings by moving to the city, just as her elder sister, Azalea, decided to do at the roughly same age.  

They say that big families are happy, but I could never see anything particularly happy about ours. Azalea had married and gone away when she was seventeen, and my one ambition was to do likewise. (p. 3)

(Possibly a nod to the opening passage of Anna Karenina there, with its reference to happy – or should that be unhappy? – families.)

As a respite from this unhappy home life, Delia spends her days hanging out in the city, visiting Azalea and roaming the streets until it’s time to go home. Accompanying her on these trips are her younger brother, Giovanni, and their cousin, Nini – a sweet-natured boy who lives with Delia’s family, his own parents having died some years earlier.

Despite acting as a kind of role model for Delia, Azalea it seems is far from happy in her marriage. She has a lover (as does her older husband), and with a maid to take care of the children, there is little left to occupy her days. Nevertheless, Delia dreams of a similar life of leisure and luxury – glamorous clothes and a comfortable home befitting a city lifestyle.

While Nini seeks to better himself through reading and an apprenticeship at a local factory, Delia shuns the prospect of work, looking to marriage as her preferred route out of poverty. With this in mind, she courts Giulio, a stout, unattractive medical student from a higher social class who could be her ticket to a better life. But when Delia falls pregnant, tensions between the two families abound, especially when Giulio’s father tries to pay off Delia’s parents – an offer the latter firmly turn down.

A wedding is hastily agreed for a future date, allowing Giulio to complete his current round of studies. Meanwhile, Delia is packed off to a no-nonsense aunt who lives up in the mountains, hopefully avoiding the sort of scandal that a teenage pregnancy tends to attract.

As the novella unfolds, we follow Delia throughout her pregnancy, complete with the various romantic entanglements that ensue. In truth, Delia cares little for Giulio as a person; it is his social class and status she finds appealing, primarily as a gateway to a more exciting life in the city. Nevertheless, while marriage to Giulio represents a convenient escape route for Delia, there are potential downsides too. The last thing she wants to happen is to end up like Giulio’s mother, tied to the home all day while her looks fade and wither.

…and as I undressed for bed I thought of how Giulio was always kissing me there in the woods, but he hadn’t yet asked me to marry him. I was in a hurry to get married, but I wanted to enjoy myself afterward too. And perhaps with Giulio I shouldn’t be so free. He might treat me the way his father treated his mother, shutting her up on the pretext that a woman’s place was in the home, until she had turned into an old hag who sat all day long by the window, waiting for someone to go by. (p. 16)

Nini, on the other hand, is a more natural fit as a partner, declaring his love for Delia despite her selfish character. With time on her hands to reflect and ponder the future, Delia misses the carefree days she used to idle away in the city, a realisation that taps into some recurring themes in Ginzburg’s work – specifically, our inability to recapture the past and failure to appreciate the true value of things until they’ve gone.

The Road to the City is a rather tragic tale, lucidly conveyed in Ginzburg’s pithy, candid style. There is something raw and unadorned about the writing, an approach that fits well with the brutal reality of life for young women in Delia’s position – poor, uneducated women with little choice but to marry and raise children in a patriarchal society that favours men. While Delia is very prickly as a character – lazy, selfish, unreliable and insolent are descriptions that immediately spring to mind – it is hard not to feel some sympathy for her as she waits out her pregnancy in the hills. Ultimately though, the novella offers a stark commentary on society, highlighting the constraints placed on women and the consequences these can lead to for all those involved.

The Road to the City is published by Daunt Books; personal copy.

20 thoughts on “The Road to the City by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Frances Frenaye)

  1. gertloveday

    As I read your enjoyable review I was reminded of Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults, although Giovanna in that book seems much more in control of her life than Delia. But Ginzberg’s book was published in the 1940’s and Ferrante’s in 201i9. perhaps things have improved for young women. I love the description of Delia as,’lazy, selfish, unreliable and insolent.’

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a really interesting connection which hadn’t occurred to me before, but now that you’ve mentioned it I can see some of the parallels. Delia is such a spiky, unrepentant character, and I love that fact that Ginzburg makes no apologies for her selfish nature – another (less assured?) writer might have decided to tone that down a little.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I would definitely recommend giving her a try as she’s more stripped back than Ferrante in her Neapolitan novels mode (the standalones are a little different and more compressed). If you have a kindle, maybe download a sample of this or one of the NYRB Classics novellas to see how you get on?

      Reply
  2. Liz Dexter

    This one does sound intriguing and enticing – I’ve read plenty of novels about women in the UK and America trapped with marriage the only way out, but not so many European ones. Not a writer I knew, so thank you for bringing her to our attention!

    Reply
  3. Jane

    This is on my list, I’ve given it as presents but haven’t gotten around to it myself but you’ve inspired me to get to it quickly. I like the idea of a lazy, selfish girl dreaming of glamour and yet we can sympathise!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, cool! Yes, I really like the way Ginzburg paints Delia on the page. As a writer, she doesn’t make any unnecessary concessions to likeability, which makes me feel that she’s more interested in authenticity – i.e. staying true to her character’s values, even if it means they seem foolish and selfish to the reader. That’s another running theme in her work, I think.

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    I haven’t read anything by Natalia Ginzburg, though she’s been on my radar. I really like the sound of this, Delia sounds like an interesting, complex character. The more pared back style appeals too. Would this be a good place to start with Ginzburg?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it could be a good way in, especially if you’re happy to start with something early and relatively unpolished. The NYRB Classics novella pairings (‘Valentino and Sagittarius’ and ‘Family and Borghese’) are my favourites as they’re a bit stronger and more developed…however, this wouldn’t be a bad place to begin!

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review, Jacqui. I’ve yet to read Ginsburg, but you’re making a very strong case for her. This sounds like a bit of an unpolished gem and I’m not sure I would have got on well in the Italy of the time with its very restricted opportunities for women…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It was interesting to go back to this debut, partly as a way to look for glimpses of some of her favourite themes. I’m not sure how I would have got on in this environment either, especially as opportunities for betterment through education seemed few and far between…

      Reply
  6. 1streading

    It’s great to see that the reprinting of Ginsburg’s work continued – though I have not kept up with reading them! I hadn’t realised this was her debut – it will be interesting to compare to her later work.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’m curious to see how you find it. Oddly enough, I actually preferred it to some of her later books like Voices in the Evening (probably my least favourite so far). There’s something about the simplicity and directness of The Road to the City that really appeals.

      Reply
  7. Julé Cunningham

    In a patriarchal society is a prickly character like Delia fighting against it by being ‘lazy, selfish, unreliable and insolent’? A kind of passive resistance perhaps. Anyway, a writer I’ve still not read and plan to do so…one of these days.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, there’s definitely an element of that, a sort of railing-against-the-establishment feel. She’s a fascinating writer, certainly someone I’d recommend you try at some point.

      Reply
  8. madamebibilophile

    This sounds excellent Jacqui. It’s a brave choice to make Delia unlikable when highlighting the difficulties she faces, but it sounds like it makes for such an interesting exploration of character and society.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, very much so in terms of your point on the social context. Even though Ginzburg’s interests are firmly rooted in domesticity and family life, there’s always that wider, socio-economic dimension too. As you say, she uses familial relations and dynamics to draw attention to the inequalities in Italian society at the time – especially for women, the poor, and those on the fringes.

      Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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