Tag Archives: Literature in Translation

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.

Family and Borghesia by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Beryl Stockman)

Family and Borghesia are two separate but related novellas by the Italian neorealist writer Natalia Ginzburg, reissued together in this lovely edition from NYRB Classics. Both stories deal with the messy business of family relationships – how couples come together and subsequently break apart, often creating shock waves across their wider family networks. Viewed together, they illustrate how painful day-to-day life can be, how difficult it is to defend ourselves against unhappiness and detachment.

She remembered saying that there were three things in life you should always refuse: hypocrisy, resignation and unhappiness. But it was impossible to shield yourself from those three things. Life was full of them and there was no holding them back. (p. 110)

Central to Family are Carmine, a forty-year-old architect (financially stable but somewhat disaffected by life), and Ivana, a thirty-seven-year-old translator searching for a full-time job. Their stories unfold as a revisitation of the past – a key theme in Ginzburg’s work – taking us back to the time when these two were lovers, despite their differences in background and class. (Carmine’s parents are poor, his mother barely literate, while Ivana’s family are from the educated middle-classes, her father a successful mathematician.)

We follow Carmine and Ivana through the ups and downs of their relationship. They have a child, who subsequently dies at a very young age; their relationship falls apart, and Carmine marries Ninetta, who likes Ivana at first but later turns against her (to a certain extent). Meanwhile, Ivana has a number of lovers, one of whom provides her with a child (Angelica), which Ivana raises on her own. She also falls into a long-term relationship with a doctor who suffers from depression – a condition that culminates in him taking his own life after losing the will to survive.

By now, Carmine spends most of his evenings with Ivana and her daughter, Angelica, neglecting his wife Ninetta and their seven-year-old son, Dadò. In effect, Carmine and Ninetta’s marriage has fallen apart, leaving Carmine to ruminate on times past – not only the chances squandered but the more mundane day-to-day activities too. Central to the novella is our inability to recapture these moments – how we don’t quite appreciate the value of what we’ve got until it’s gone. 

Borghesia focuses on a different family, equally complex and troubled as the group featured above. Ilaria is a widow who acquires a sequence of cats in an attempt to stave off the loneliness she experiences day-to-day. Like the characters in Family, Ilaria is part of a complicated family network. She receives financial support from her brother-in-law, Pietro, who lives in the flat above, while her eighteen-year-old daughter, Aurora, shares the flat next door with her boyfriend, Aldo. Aurora, a student, and Aldo, who has dropped out of college to drift along aimlessly, are also being supported by Pietro – possibly as a kind of debt to his deceased brother. (The brothers owned a valuable piece of land together, which Pietro refused to sell when Ilaria’s husband was still alive.)

Once again, this is a story of couples coming together and falling apart as we follow Pietro, Aldo and Aurora – and their respective affairs – over time.  Caught in the middle of all this is Ilaria, who is broken by the death of her first cat.

To have lost him was a slight thing. It was a poor sort of pain. But, all of a sudden, she was discovering that even poor sorts of pain are acute and merciless, and quickly take their place in that immense, vague area of general unhappiness. (p. 76)

Both novellas were written and published in 1977. As such, they share a sense of fluidity around the nature of family, a relaxation of the strict views towards marriage that were prevalent in Italian society in the 1940s and ‘50s. Nevertheless, these more liberal domestic arrangements bring their own sources of tension, often leading to sadness and restlessness as relationships evolve.

One of the things Ginzburg does so well here is to create richly imagined characters through simple, beautifully-crafted prose. Her descriptions and clear and vivid, frequently drawing on details to bring these individuals to life. (Evelina is Ninetta’s mother from the first novella, Family.)

The whole room was dominated by Evelina’s large head and gauzy blue hair, her tall, commanding, flourishing figure and her smile, which, like Ninetta, she offered as if it were a precious jewel. But behind it, there was also a sort of satisfaction at being so tall and straight and exuberant in her old age. Her presence was like a monument to elegant old age, healthy, shrewdly wealthy and wise. Carmine suddenly felt he detested her. He detested the two people with her as well. It seemed horrible to him that mixed up in all this hate was Dadò. (pp. 29-30)

Ginzburg can be funny too, even when dealing with dark subjects like depression, death and infidelity. Her descriptions often start in a neutral tone, then veer into humour, darkness or both, highlighting some of the absurdities we have to deal with as we amble along.

Winter passed once again and spring came, and Pietro was still planning to get married but kept putting it off because Domitilla had to study, or practise for a horse-show or play in a folk-group. (p. 91)

Nevertheless, at heart, these novellas highlight the painful nature of family life – what binds us together as individuals often forces us apart. Several of these characters seem lost or purposeless, drifting through their lives, navigating the things that cause us pain – infidelity, abandonment, illness, suicide, premature death, loneliness and depression. And yet, Ginzburg manages to maintain a lightness of touch in these stories, highlighting the inherent emotions without a hint of sentimentality, exploring the relationships with insight and depth.

In short, Family and Borghesia would make an excellent introduction to Ginzburg’s work, like a pair of Italian neorealist films in the style of Roberto Rossellini or Vittorio De Sica.

(I read this book for Karen and Lizzy’s Read Indies event, now extended to mid-March.)

Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

First published in 1966, this remarkable novella by the acclaimed Portuguese writer Maria Judite de Carvalho was recently translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa. It’s a work of great precision and compression – a quietly devastating story of three generations of women, confined and subsumed by the men who surround them. There are similarities with Anita Brookner’s novels here – both thematically and stylistically – as Carvalho goes deep into the inner lives of her female protagonists, conveying them unflinchingly for the reader to see.

The story centres on Dora Rosário – a widow who we see over the course of ten years from the age of twenty-five through to thirty-six. For ten years, Dora mourns her husband Duarte’s death, making a career out of grief and widowhood, effectively building a shrine to him through the memories in her mind. Duarte – a lazy, unambitious man – left Dora virtually penniless, forcing her to embark on a humiliating round of visits, searching for handouts from family and friends. These are ‘the others’, separated from Dora and her daughter, Lisa, by the nature of their circumstances.

Many of Duarte’s friends and acquaintances distance themselves from Dora, fearing she will ask for help or financial support. Even Duarte’s mother – the forthright, morally powerful Ana – is reluctant to provide any money, despite her conspicuous wealth. While Ana is happy to look after Lisa, caring for her while Dora looks for a job, she draws the line at anything else.

…all this happened under the simultaneously suspicious and reticent eye of her mother-in-law, the eye of someone who “in her place” would have done things differently. However, this suddenly easy life didn’t smooth any corners or heal any riffs. She and her daughter continued to be on one side and the others on the other side. (p. 15)

Carvalho quickly conveys a striking portrait of Dora, a woman suppressed by the hand that life has dealt her, an inward-looking individual who seems old before her time.

She never said more than was strictly necessary—the bare indispensable minimum—or else she would begin to say only what was necessary, then quickly grow tired, or stop mid-stream, as though she suddenly realized that it wasn’t worth going on and was a waste of effort. She would sit quite still then, her face a blank, like someone poised on the edge of an ellipsis or standing hesitantly at the sea’s edge in winter, and at such moments, all the light would go out of her eyes as if absorbed by a piece of blotting paper; (p. 5)

Luckily for Dora, a friend finds her a suitable job, managing an antique shop while the owner is abroad. ‘The Museum’, as her daughter Lisa calls it, seems a fitting environment for Dora, with its collection of vintage tables, desks and chairs, ‘gathered together like decaying aristocrats in a home for superior elderly folk’.  

Despite Duarte’s fecklessness and impractical principles, Dora still worships her deceased husband, whom she reflects on during the evenings after work. Her life is small and uneventful, except for the Museum and her visits to Ana and Aunt Júlia’s house for supper on Sunday evenings. Júlia too has been permanently damaged by men, haunted by the shame of her illegitimate son, who died young from Scarlet Fever. Now she is plagued by severe fits – possibly signs of madness – babbling uncontrollably in imaginary conversations with her former lover.

For Ana – who is desperate to hold off any signs of ageing – the future lies in her granddaughter, Lisa, a bright, inquisitive young teenager whose whole life is ahead of her. At seventeen, Lisa wants to travel the world, viewing a career as an air stewardess as her ticket to exotic locations. She sees her mother as hopeless and antiquated – a somewhat dowdy but polite woman who is wedded to the past.

One night, while Júlia is recovering from one of her episodes, Ana reveals something to Dora – a secret relating to Duarte which shatters Dora’s world.

[Dora:] “…At the moment, I don’t know where I am or who I am. I must be crumbling into pieces, there must be bits of me all over the place.”

[Ana:] “Sweep them up when you’re feeling brave enough and put them together again.”

“Yes, that’s what I have to do, isn’t it?” Dora said, not even thinking about what she was saying. And then immediately afterward, her voice rose dangerously in volume: When would she, too, fall and shatter? It was as if she had lost control of herself and of her voice. Or perhaps it was as if she were screaming for help from inside a coffin that had just that minute been nailed shut: (pp. 63–64)

Consequently, Dora sets about reinventing herself while simultaneously erasing Duarte from her memory, catalysing a series of events that ends in devastation.

Carvalho’s novella is narrated not by Dora herself but by a friend, Manuela, who also finds herself drawn into the turmoil generated by Ana’s revelations. Manuela has man troubles of her own; effectively isolated, she is stuck in a stagnating relationship with Ernesto, a vain, self-centred man in his early forties. In her failure to provide Ernesto with a child, Manuela realises that she is no longer her partner’s lover or companion. Instead, Ernesto sees her as ‘the landscape to which he had grown accustomed’ – a convenient audience or backdrop to reflect back his greatness.

He [Ernesto] would arrive home, give me a peck on the cheek, drink his usual glass of whiskey, then tell me all about his day in great detail, and so I thought he really loved and needed me. In fact, I was merely a convenient body beside him, and ever-attentive audience always ready to express unconditional admiration when he told me of yet another professional triumph. (p. 158)

I don’t want to say how this story plays out, other than to confirm it’s devastating to observe. Carvalho explores these women in depth, showing us how they have been failed by the men who supposedly love them. Betrayal, duplicity, selfishness and abdication of responsibility all play their parts in marginalising these women, confining them to the roles deemed acceptable by Portuguese society – a patriarchal doctrine, heavily influenced by Catholicism and Salazar’s authoritarian regime.

Furthermore, the relationships between these women are also far from ideal. Following Duarte’s death, Dora receives little support from her few remaining female friends or family members. Ana makes no secret of the fact that she partially blames Dora for Duarte’s lack of ambition – he didn’t amount to anything when alive because Dora had never pushed him. In light of this perception, Ana’s actions towards Dora – especially the bombshell revelation – seem unnecessary and cruel.

This brilliant novella is something of a minor masterpiece of 20th-century literature. A timeless reminder of how destructive the actions of unthinking men can be, defining and destroying the women who serve them. All credit to Two Lines Press for publishing this English translation – and Gary Michael Perry, whose recommendation brought it to my attention. As I alluded to at the beginning of this piece, fans of Anita Brookner, Natalia Ginzburg (and possibly Penelope Mortimer) would likely enjoy this rediscovered gem.

Autumn reads – a few favourites from the shelves

A few weeks ago, Trevor and Paul released a podcast on some of their favourite fall/autumn books, including a few they hope to read this year. It’s a fascinating discussion, which you can listen to at The Mookse and the Gripes podcast via the usual platforms. Their conversation got me thinking about my own seasonal reading, particularly books with autumnal settings or moods. So, with a nod to Trevor and Paul’s selection, here are a few of my favourite autumn reads.

A Sunday in Ville d’Avray by Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

This beautiful, evocative novella is set in Paris on a Sunday afternoon in September, just at the crossover point between summer and autumn. The narrator – an unnamed woman – drives from the city centre to the Parisian suburb of Ville-d’Avray to visit her married sister, Claire Marie. As the two sisters sit and chat in the garden, an intimate story emerges, something the two women have never spoken about before. Claire Marie reveals a secret relationship from her past, a sort of dalliance with a mysterious man whom she met at her husband’s office. What emerges is a story of unspoken desire, missed opportunities and avenues left unexplored. This haunting, dreamlike novella is intimate and hypnotic in style, as melancholy and atmospheric as a dusky autumn afternoon.

A Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

During a trip to Bognor in the early 1930s, R. C. Sherriff was inspired to create a story centred on a fictional family by imagining their lives and, most importantly, their annual September holiday at the seaside resort. This premise seems simple on the surface, yet the novel’s apparent simplicity is a key part of its magic and charm. Here we have a story of small pleasures and triumphs, quiet hopes and ambitions, secret worries and fears – the illuminating moments in day-to-day life. By focusing on the minutiae of the everyday, Sheriff has crafted something remarkable – a novel that feels humane, compassionate and deeply affecting, where the reader can fully invest in the characters’ inner lives. This is a gem of a book, as charming and unassuming as one could hope for – a throwback perhaps to simpler times.

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

Set on an Oxfordshire country estate in the autumn of 1913, The Shooting Party offers readers a terrific insight into the dying days of the Edwardian era, the beginning of the end of a time-honoured way of life for the English upper classes. The novel follows the final twenty-four hours of a three-day shoot, a landmark event in the social calendar of the Nettlebys and their immediate set. As the story unfolds, we learn more about the main characters, their distorted moral values and the rarefied world in which they circulate. What Colegate does so well here is to shine a light on the farcical nature of Edwardian society, the sheer pointlessness of the endless social whirl and the ridiculous codes that govern it. Fans of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between will likely enjoy The Shooting Party, a superb novel that deserves to be better known.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

What can I say about this widely-acclaimed Gothic classic that hasn’t already been said before? Not a lot, other than to reiterate how brilliantly unsettling it is. The novel’s narrator, Merricat Blackwood – an eighteen-year-old girl with a distinctive, childlike voice – lives with her amiable older sister, Constance, in a large isolated house on the outskirts of a New England village. However, the girls have been ostracised by the local townsfolk, primarily due to an infamous poisoning in the family six years ago. As such, the book has much to say about outsiders – more specifically, how as a society we treat people who seem strange or different from the ‘norm’, and how our suspicions and prejudices can lead to fear – and ultimately to violence. An atmospheric, unsettling, magical book, shot through with touches of black humour, ideal for Halloween.

American Midnight – Tales of the dark short story anthology

Also making a strong claim for the Halloween reading pile is American Midnight is a wonderfully chilling short story anthology released in 2019. The collection comprises nine tales of the dark and supernatural, all penned by American authors and originally published in the 19th or 20th century. The featured writers include Edith Wharton, Edgar Allen Poe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Shirley Jackson (again!). One of the best things about the selection is the diversity of styles across the ranger – from gothic folk horror to classic ghost stories, there’s something for virtually everyone here. American Midnight is a wide-ranging collection of unsettling stories, shot through with striking imagery and a palpable sense of unease, exploring some of the mystery and darkness in America’s chequered past. For more unnerving short stories, check out Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales, Daphne du Maurier’s The Breaking Point and Edith Wharton’s Ghost Stories – all come with high recommendations from me.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

At first, this might seem an unusual choice; however, I’ve chosen it because the novel’s heroine, Mrs Palfrey – a recently widowed elderly lady – is in the twilight of her life. As the book opens, Mrs Palfrey is in the process of moving into London’s Claremont Hotel (the story is set in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, when this was not unusual for those who could afford it). Here she joins a group of residents in similar positions, each likely to remain at the hotel until they can no longer avoid a move to a nursing home or hospital.

To save face in front of the other residents, Mrs P persuades a kindly young man, Ludo, to play the role of her grandson, and an unlikely yet deeply touching relationship between the pair soon develops. This beautiful, bittersweet novel prompts the reader to consider the emotional and physical challenges of old age: the need to participate in life; the importance of small acts of kindness; and the desire to feel valued. Taylor’s observations of social situations are spot-on, and there are some very amusing moments alongside the undoubted poignancy. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is an understated gem – a wise, beautifully-observed novel that stands up to re-reading.

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them already or if you’re thinking of reading any of them in the future. Perhaps you have a favourite autumnal book or two? Please feel free to mention them in the comments below.

The Years by Annie Ernaux (tr. Alison L. Strayer)

Broad in scope, evocative in detail, The Years is the French writer Annie Ernaux’s dazzling collective autobiography, in which the cultural and social history of a generation is refracted through the lens of one woman’s experiences. It is a hugely impressive work, drawing on photographs, personal memories, cultural references, political history and social trends, threading together the perspectives of an individual (Ernaux), a generation (those who grew up in the aftermath of WW2) and a nation (France).

The underlying narrative running through the text is based on the trajectory of Ernaux’s life, from 1940, her birth year, to the mid-2000s, not long before the book was first published in French. Interestingly Ernaux uses ‘she’ rather than ‘I’ when conveying her own personal experiences, almost as if she is observing herself from a distance while writing the book. The collective experiences, however, are conveyed through the use of ‘we’, reflecting the ideas and perspectives of Ernaux’s generation and social class.

In fact, the question of how best to approach this style of memoir is one that Ernaux grapples with in the book. This is not the usual kind of autobiography, designed to convey an individual’s life history, story or analysis of the self. Instead, Ernaux envisages ‘a kind of woman’s destiny’, a text that will portray the passage of time, both individually and collectively – the blending of the personal with the universal referred to above.

She would like to assemble these multiple images of herself, separate and discordant, thread them together with the story of her existence, starting with her birth during World War II up until the present day. Therefore, an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of the generation. (p. 169)

By applying this approach to The Years, Ernaux recognises that our lives and experiences are influenced by the broader political, social and cultural environments in which we find ourselves. Moreover, our personal values and beliefs are reflected in our stances on these external dynamics, highlighting the relationship between the internal and external.

Over the course of the book, Ernaux focuses on key timepoints in her life: birth, childhood, adolescence, a move to college, early marriage and motherhood, the separation and divorce from her husband at forty, her relationship with a much younger lover at the age of fifty-seven. Each of these snapshots in time is introduced through the description of a photograph or a video clip. It’s an engaging way to open each section, cleverly blending imagery with glimpses of the author’s personal experiences and inner thoughts. In the photo described here, Ernaux – who is nineteen at this point – is posing with her college classmates, the philosophy class at the Rouen Lycée.

She is in the second row, third from the left. It is difficult to see in her the girl with the provocative pose from the previous photo, taken scarcely two years earlier. She wears glasses again, and a ponytail from which a lock of hair escapes at the neck. Frizzy bangs do nothing to soften her serious demeanour. Her face bears no sign of the events of the summer before, the boy’s invasion of her being, as semi-defloration evinced by the bloodstained underwear hidden between some books in her cupboard. No sign, either, of her actions and movements after the event: walking the streets after school in hope of seeing him; returning to the young ladies’ residence and weeping. Spending hours on an essay topic and understanding nothing. (pp. 73–74)

Feminism, sex and the female body are prominent themes in the book, highlighting their importance to Ernaux and her generation. Ernaux was a teenager in the mid-1950s, a decade too early to fully benefit from the sexual revolution at this point. It was a time when parents monitored their daughters very closely, scrutinising their clothes, make-up, movements and relationships. For Ernaux and her contemporaries, ‘shame lay in wait at every turn’, while the need to conform to societal expirations limited their freedoms and experiences. Nevertheless, like any enterprising teenagers, they managed to evade these restrictions now again, immersing themselves in the culture of the moment.

But we outsmarted the surveillance and went to see The Girl in the Bikini and Tempest in the Flesh with Françoise Arnoul. We would have loved to resemble the film heroines, possess the freedom to behave as they did. But between the films and books, on the one hand, and the dictates of society on the other, lay a vast zone of prohibition and moral judgement. To identify with anything we saw in the films or the heroines was forbidden. (p. 50)

Cultural and technological references also feature heavily in the book, with Ernaux conveying a picture of post-war French life, a world of rapidly evolving technologies, cultural trends and consumer behaviour. In terms of approach, the following passage gives a feel for Ernaux’s style, characterised as it is by the fusion of elements from various aspects of her world.

There would be the SS France, the Caravelle jetliner and the Concorde, school until sixteen, centres of arts and culture, the Common Market, and, sooner or later peace in Algeria. There were new francs, scoubidou bracelets, flavoured yoghurt, milk in cartons, transistor radios. For the first time one could listen to music anywhere, whether one was lying on the beach with the radio next one’s head or walking down the street. The joy of the transistor was of an unknown species. One could be alone but not alone, and have at one’s command the noise and diversity of the world (p. 76)

As one might expect, historical and political events cast their shadows over the lived experience – developments such as the Algerian war, the protests of May 1968, the election of François Mitterrand, the rise of the far right, AIDS, 9/11, etc. etc. As the years go by, we continue to glimpse moments from Ernaux’s life as her two sons grow up, leave home, find partners and have children of their own. Towards the end, there is a noticeable sense of melancholy, a growing awareness perhaps on the part of Ernaux of her own mortality, as the time she has ahead of her inevitably decreases. Not for any pressing reason – it’s simply the natural passage of time.

In summary, The Years is an evocative meditation on the lives of a generation, a beautifully written text that highlights the impact of collective history on personal memories and experiences. A fascinating book best experienced in person – I’ve barely scratched the surface of it here.

The Years is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; personal copy.

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (tr. by the author)

This slim, beautifully constructed novella is an exploration of solitude, a meditation on aloneness and the sense of isolation that can sometimes accompany it. The book – which Lahiri originally wrote in Italian and then translated into English – is narrated by an unnamed woman in her mid-forties, who lives in a European city, also nameless but almost certainly somewhere in Italy. There’s a vulnerability to this single woman, a fragility that gradually emerges as she goes about her days, moving from place to place through a sequence of brief vignettes.

The titles of these individual chapters mostly refer to various physical spaces – ‘On the Street’, ‘In the Piazza’, ‘At the Ticket Counter’, ‘By the Sea’ etc. Nevertheless, the novella is as much a reflection of the narrator’s emotional mindset as it is of her physical location. The Italian title Dove Mi Trove (‘where you find me’ or ‘where I find myself’), can be interpreted in two different but closely connected ways, encompassing the narrator’s situation physically and emotionally. While three chapters carry the title ‘In My Head’, explicitly referencing the narrator’s inner thoughts, this emotional dimension is detectible throughout the book, like a thread or undercurrent running through the text.

As we follow this woman around the city, we learn more about her life – things are gradually revealed as she reflects on her solitary existence, sometimes considering what might have been, avenues left unexplored or chances that were never taken.

Now and then on the streets of my neighbourhood I bump into a man I might have been involved with, maybe shared a life with. He always looks happy to see me. He lives with a friend of mine, and they have two children. Our relationship never goes beyond a longish chat on the sidewalk, a quick coffee together, perhaps a brief stroll in the same direction. He talks excitedly about his projects, he gesticulates, and at times as we’re walking our synchronized bodies, already quite close, discreetly overlap. (p. 5)

We learn about this woman’s childhood, the tensions that existed between her parents, the devastation she felt when her father died relatively suddenly some thirty years earlier – a loss that has left its mark on her life. While the narrator seems relatively comfortable with her solitary existence, knowing that she has chosen freedom and independence over a different type of path, there is a sense that she has disappointed her mother in some way – failing perhaps to live up to the traditional expectations of marriage and motherhood, the more expansive kind of life these experiences would have granted. Consequently, there is an unspoken sense of guilt or resignation in the narrator’s interactions with her mother – a somewhat oppressive elderly women who also lives alone.  

When I was young, even when my father was alive, she kept me close to her side, she never wanted us to be apart, not even briefly. She safeguarded me, she protected me from solitude as if it were a nightmare, or a wasp. We were an unhealthy amalgam until I left to lead a life of my own. Was I the shield between her and her terror, was I the one who kept her from sinking into the abyss? Was it the fear of her fear that’s led me to a life like this? (pp. 29–30).

I love the way Lahiri uses this collection of fragments – there are around forty-five in total – to build up a picture of her narrator’s life, her emotional frame of mind and quotidian existence. As a result, we get the sense of a woman who is aware of her solitude – her aloneness – without feeling weighed down or oppressed by it. Someone who feels resigned to living a solitary life despite the odd regret or tinge of anxiety.

Occasionally, there are social situations she finds stressful – overwhelming, even – inducing a kind of claustrophobia alongside the feeling of exclusion. It’s a state that Lahiri eloquently captures in ‘By the Sea’, which features a celebratory dinner for the baptism of a colleague’s child – a situation that prompts the narrator to seek solace on the adjacent beach, complete with the sea in all its restless magnificence. At other times, however, she takes comfort from her sense of separateness when surrounded by others, sometimes forging unspoken connections with like-minded souls.

In ‘At My Home’, we see how protective she can be about her privacy and how violated she feels if someone invades it. When an old school friend and her new husband come to visit, the narrator finds the latter arrogant – a pompous, self-centred man who looks through the narrator’s bookshelves, eats all the best pastries and bemoans the untidy state of the city. Later, after the family’s departure, the narrator discovers that the couple’s toddler has drawn ‘a thin errant line’ in ballpoint pen on her white leather couch. It’s as if the visitors have left an indelible mark on the narrator’s privacy, a violation that proves impossible to erase or cover up. 

At heart, the protagonist is a people watcher, a consummate observer of others, often wondering about their lives, their current preoccupations and concerns, maybe even their desires. In one fragment, which appears towards the end of the novel, she sees a woman who seems to be very similar to herself – their clothes and body movements are virtually identical, mirroring one another in a ghostly sort of way. Who is this other woman? she wonders. An alter ego, perhaps? A more purposeful or determined version of herself? A figure with ‘a sprightly step’ who ‘clearly knows where she is going’.

Has she always lived here, like me? Or is she just visiting? If so, why? Is she meeting someone? Is it something for work? Is she going to visit her grandmother, a woman in a wheelchair who can no longer come downstairs and sit in the piazza? Is she a woman with millions of things to do? Is she anxious or carefree? Married or alone? Is she going to ring the buzzer of a friend of hers? A lover? (p. 151)

It’s a passage that feels indicative of the slightly elusive nature of this central figure, conveying the air of mystery or privacy that surrounds her existence.

There is a luminosity to these vignettes, a beautiful dreamlike quality that runs through the text. Lahiri’s prose is precise, poetic and pared-back, a style that feels perfectly in tune with the narrator’s world. This is a quietly reflective novella, the sort of book that benefits from close attention and the focus of a single-sitting reading. I’d love to see it on the longlist for the International Booker Prize, which will be announced next March.

Whereabouts is published by Bloomsbury; personal copy.

Meeting in Positano by Goliarda Sapienza (tr. Brian Robert Moore)

This is such a gorgeous novel, as luminous as a hazy summer’s day, shimmering with beauty and sensuality. Its author, the Italian actress and writer Goliarda Sapienza, started her career in theatre and film, working with Luchino Visconti among others in the 1940s and 50s. Moreover, it was a film that first brought Sapienza to Positano, the magical Italian village on the Amalfi Coast, which she viewed as her spiritual home. In his excellent afterword to the novel, Sapienza’s husband, Angelo Pellegrino, conveys the history behind Meeting in Positano and his wife’s relationship with the region, offering us a window into the past. The novel was written in 1984 but failed to secure an Italian publisher until 2015, nearly twenty years after Sapienza’s death. All credit then to Other Press for issuing this radiant translation by Brian Robert Moore – it really is a very evocative read.

The novel, which is narrated by a young woman named Goliarda, has a semi-autobiographical feel, tapping into Sapienza’s world of 1950s Italy. During a visit to Positano, while scouting for locations for a film, Goliarda glimpses a beautiful woman, flitting around the café bars and restaurants of the village, holding onlookers in her sway. The woman in question is Erica Beneventano, known locally as ‘Princess Erica’, a charming widow from a (once) very wealthy family. While Goliarda doesn’t meet Erica in person during the trip, she remains captivated by this vision of loveliness, like a destiny she is yet to meet.

…that curious creature whom everyone in Positano loved—something already rare in and of itself—always fluttered at the edges of my imagination, like a meeting that I could not miss. (p. 15)

Sometime later, when Goliarda returns to Positano for a break, she comes across Erica on the beach, sparking a friendship that ultimately lasts for several years. Following their chance encounter on the beach, Erica invites Goliarda to her housea luxurious mansion with a secret bolt-holewhere the two women talk about culture, politics and art, the latter being a topic particularly close to Erica’s heart. Unsurprisingly, Goliarda is enchanted by her intelligent companion, leading to an intimate (although not explicitly sexual) bond between the two women.

Like that sunset or Giacomino’s personality, she too is eternal—with her timeless gesturing, her melancholy as old as the world itself. Or her beauty, which every hour is renewed and changes its appearance: sometimes a slightly withered flower, sometimes a soft cloud, or—as it is now—a beautiful, colourful orange, pulsing with a joy for life. (p. 78)

During their discussions, Erica shares with Goliarda the story of her rather eventful life, with Sapienza skilfully shifting her focus from one central character to another as the novel unfolds. Erica, it seems, is the middle sister of the Beneventano family, whose wealth and land were lost by the men of her father’s generation. Rewinding to the time of their parents’ deaths, we find the sisters have been left virtually penniless, necessitating their move to a small apartment in Milan, where Erica and her older sister Fiore must work to earn a living. Tragedy strikes when Fiore commits suicide, no longer able to cope with the narrowness of her life. It’s a development that acts as a clarifying filter for Erica, revealing the misguided nature of their previous highly privileged lives, cocooned from the realities of the outside world.

A reconciliation between Erica and her estranged Uncle Alessandro swiftly follows, ultimately resulting in her marriage to Alessandro’s business associate, Leopoldo; not out of love but for financial security, leaving Erica’s younger sister, Olivia, free to marry for more romantic reasons.

Erica reveals her previous experiences of love as largely unhappy ones, highlighting her marriage to Leopoldo as a prime example of this emotional state. To say anything more about the nature of the couple’s marriage would be unfair of me at this stage (I’ll leave you to discover this for yourself, should you decide to read this excellent book). Suffice it to say that the relationship contributes to the air of darkness surrounding Erica, a hint of something unsettling that Goliarda clearly detects. As Goliarda notes at one point, Erica seems distanced from those around hera sense of being dignified and deeply troubled at the same time.

As it so happens, I’m generally not shy with men or with women, so why this deranged feeling of uncertainty every time I see her? Is she too beautiful? Too full of passion? It’s fear, I conclude in a flash, remembering the near whiteness that gleaned from her eyes yesterday in front of the window. Am I afraid for her, or for myself? No, it’s for her that I fear something. (p. 32)

As the friendship between the two women evolves, Erica is reunited with Riccardo, her first love from the adolescent days of her youth. It’s another development that signals heartache for Ericaand ultimately for Goliarda, tooas events from the past come back to haunt her.

Sapienza has written a beautiful novel here, full of nostalgia and yearning for the enchantment of the past. It is at once a paean to the allure and intimacy of female friendship and a love letter to Positano itself, a village that exerts its pull over those who visit.   

“Positano can cure you of anything. It opens your eyes to your past suffering and illuminates your present ones, often saving you from making further mistakes. It’s strange, but sometimes I get the impression that this cove protected by the bastion of mountains at its back forces you to look at yourself square in the face, like a ‘mirror of truth,’ while this vast sea, usually so calm and clear, similarly inspires self-reflection…” (p. 130)

With its long sunsets, shimmering sea and rusted red cliffs, Positano is almost another character in the novel, casting a languorous spell over inhabitants and visitors alike. Again, there is a sense of the village exerting a kind of dominance or hold on people— ‘the more you solemnly announce your departure—the harder it becomes to leave’. As a former actress and a writer, Sapienza has a filmic eye for detail, conveying the Positanesi with ease and authenticity.

Giacomino Senior—legendary cook of Positano, who at ninety-five years old still basked on the sunny steps next to one of the large stone lions, at times looking like an in-the-flesh copy of those statues, especially when he’d doze off— (p. 9)

Her prose, too, is evocative and sensual, perfectly capturing the allure of Positano as the setting for this radiant narrative. The intensity of the bond between the two women is beautifully conveyed, encompassing joy, desire, regret, longing and tragedy. Meeting in Positano is a wonderfully elegiac book, full of subtlety and complexitythe more you read, the more profound it reveals itself to be.  

It’s also my first read for Meytal’s Women in Translation (#WITMonth) event, which takes place every Augustmore details about that here, along with my previous recommended reads for #WITMonth.

Spanish Lit Month – some reading recommendations for July

As some of you may know, July is Spanish Lit Month (#SpanishLitMonth), hosted by Stu at the Winstonsdad’s blog. It’s a month-long celebration of literature first published in the Spanish language – you can find out more about it here. In recent years, Stu and his sometimes co-host, Richard, have also included Portuguese literature in the mix, and that’s very much the case for 2021 too.

I’ve reviewed quite a few books that fall into the category of Spanish lit over the lifespan of this blog (although not so many of the Portuguese front). If you’re thinking of joining in and are looking for some ideas on what to read, here are a few of my favourites.

The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazan (tr. Paul O’Prey and Lucia Graves)

This is a marvellous novel, a great discovery for me, courtesy of fellow Spanish Lit Month veteran, Grant from 1streading. The House of Ulloa tells a feisty tale of contrasting values as a virtuous Christian chaplain finds himself embroiled in the exploits of a rough and ready marquis and those of his equally lively companions. This classic of 19th-century Spanish literature is a joy from start to finish, packed full of incident to keep the reader entertained.

Who Among Us? by Mario Benedetti (tr. Nick Caistor)

This intriguing, elusive novella by the Uruguayan author and journalist, Mario Benedetti, uses various different forms to examine a timeless story of love and misunderstandings. We hear accounts from three different individuals embroiled in a love triangle. Assumptions are made; doubts are cast; and misunderstandings prevail – and we are never quite sure which of the three accounts is the most representative of the true situation, if indeed such a thing exists. Who among us can make that judgement when presented with these individuals’ perceptions of their relationships with others? This is a thoughtful, mercurial novella to capture the soul.

Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli (tr. Christina McSweeney)

A beautiful collection of illuminating essays, several of which focus on locations, spaces and cities, and how these have evolved over time. Luiselli, a keen observer, is a little like a modern-day flâneur (or in one essay, a ‘cycleur’, a flâneur on a bicycle) as we follow her through the city streets and sidewalks, seeing the surroundings through her eyes and gaining access to her thoughts. A gorgeous selection of pieces, shot through with a melancholy, philosophical tone.

Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

Another wonderful collection of short pieces – fiction this time – many of which focus on the everyday. Minor occurrences take on a greater level of significance; fleeting moments have the power to resonate and live long in the memory. These pieces are subtle, nuanced and beautifully observed, highlighting situations or moods that turn on the tiniest of moments. While Fraile’s focus is on the minutiae of everyday life, the stories themselves are far from ordinary – they sparkle, refracting the light like the crystal chandelier in Child’s Play, one of my favourite pieces from this selection.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was just twenty-three when her debut novel, Nada, was published. It’s an excellent book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. Here we see the portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. This is a wonderfully evocative novel, a mood piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting. Truly deserving of its status as a Spanish classic.

The Infatuations by Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

My first Marías, and it remains a firm favourite. A man is stabbed to death in a shocking incident in the street, but this novel offers much more than a conventional murder mystery. In Marías’s hands, the story becomes an immersive meditation, touching on questions of truth, chance, love and mortality. The writing is wonderful – philosophical, reflective, almost hypnotic in style. Those long, looping sentences are beguiling, pulling the reader into a shadowy world, where things are not quite what they seem on at first sight.

Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

I love the pieces in this volume of forty-two stories, drawn from a lifetime of Ocampo’s writing – the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory as they progress. Several of them point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday, the sense of strangeness that lies hidden in the seemingly ordinary. Published by NYRB Classics, Thus Were Their Faces is an unusual, poetic collection of vignettes, many of which blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. Best approached as a volume to dip into whenever you’re in the mood for something different and beguiling.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. Anne McLean)

Vila-Matas travels to Paris where he spends a month recalling the time he previously spent in this city, trying to live the life of an aspiring writer – just like the one Ernest Hemingway recounts in his memoir, A Moveable FeastVila-Matas’ notes on this rather ironic revisitation are to form the core of an extended lecture on the theme of irony entitled ‘Never Any End to Paris’; and it is in this form that the story is presented to the reader. This is a smart, playful and utterly engaging novel, full of self-deprecating humour and charm.

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them. Hopefully, I’ll be able to fit in another couple of titles during the month, possibly more if the event is extended into August, as in recent years.

Maybe you have plans of your own for Spanish Lit Month – if so, what do you have in mind? Or perhaps you have a favourite book, first published in Spanish or Portuguese? Feel free to mention it alongside any other comments below.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (tr. Antonia Lloyd Jones)

Drive Your Plow… , the 2009 novel by Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, is quite a difficult one to describe. It is by turns an existential murder mystery, a meditation on life in an isolated, rural community and, perhaps most importantly, an examination of our relationship with animals and their place in the hierarchy of society. That might make Plow sound heavy or somewhat ponderous; however, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a wonderfully accessible book, a metaphysical novel that explores some fascinating and important themes in a highly engaging way. I loved it.

Central to the narrative is Janina, a highly intelligent, idiosyncratic woman in her sixties who lives in a remote Polish village near the border with the Czech Republic. Janina – who narrates the novel – is a marvellous creation, the sort of woman who sees the world in a very particular way, standing up for what she believes in without being willing to compromise her intrinsic values. She invents names for everyone around her, eschewing the lacklustre nature of formal names in favour of more appropriate epithets that capture something fundamental about a person – typically a particular aspect of their appearance or personality. Consequently, we have characters named ‘Big Foot’, ‘Good News’ and ‘Black Coat’, to name but a few.

I believe each of us see the other Person in our own way, so we should give them the name we consider suitable and fitting. Thus we are polyonymous. We have as many names of the number of people with whom we interact. My name for Świerszczyński is Oddball, and I think it reflects his Attributes well. (p. 30)

In winter, there are only two other residents besides Janina who remain in this remote, snowbound area – Janina’s neighbour, Oddball, and one of the local hunters, Big Foot, whom Janina despises, the source of her hatred for this man ultimately revealing itself as the story unfolds.

One night, having noticed something strange about Big Foot’s house, Oddball discovers the hunter lying dead on the kitchen floor, so he calls on Janina for help. Even though Janina knows it is wrong to disturb a body before the police appear on the scene, Oddball insists on making it look more respectable, and it is during this process that the presence of a clue emerges. There is a bone lodged in Big Foot’s mouth, ‘long and thin and sharp as a dagger’.

At first, it appears as though Big Foot simply choked on the bone while eating his dinner; however, as Janina examines the contents of Big Foot’s kitchen, another theory begins to seed itself in her mind. On the windowsill she spots a deer’s head and four trotters, presumably the spoils of a kill that Big Foot had carried out before his death. Moreover, other deer are visible in the vicinity that night – Janina and Oddball see them clustered together outside Big Foot’s house on their approach.

What if the herd have taken revenge for the slaughter of their sister? Are animals seeking vengeance on the hunters of the district, striking back against the perpetrators of these inhuman acts? ‘Animals have a very strong sense of justice,’ Janina muses at one point – while humans merely have a view of the world, animals have an innate sense of it.

As other deaths swiftly follow, Janina becomes increasingly convinced that her theory holds water, particularly when deer prints are found near the body of the second victim – another hunter, the Commandant – who is found dead in a shallow well.

One of the many things that Tokarczuk highlights in this endlessly fascinating novel is the invisibility or dismissal of women, especially when they reach middle age. Janina writes impassioned letters to the local police, outlining her theories on the ‘murders’, which she backs up with supporting evidence, such as the deer prints and the alignment of the celestial planets. Astrology is a major area of interest for Janina, and her belief in its influence over our lives is fervent and unwavering.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given society’s attitudes to ladies of a certain age, the police swiftly dismiss Janina as a nut job, a ‘crazy old crone’ with nothing better to do with herself. Would a young man or an attractive woman be treated differently, Janina wonders? Almost certainly, yes.

Once we have reached a certain age, it’s hard to be reconciled to the fact that people are always going to be impatient with us. In the past, I was never aware of the existence and meaning of gestures such as rapidly giving assent, avoiding eye contact, and repeating ‘yes, yes, yes’ like clockwork. Or checking the time, or rubbing one’s nose – these days I fully understand this entire performance for expressing the simple phrase: ‘Give me a break, you old bag’. I have often wondered whether a strapping, handsome young man would be treated like that if he were to say the same things as I do? Or a buxom brunette? (pp. 38-39)

Central to the novel are issues of animal rights. Does man have a greater right to life than an animal? Where do animals sit in the hierarchy of society? Who sets these ‘rules’ and parameters, and are they correct? Who deems whether someone is useless or unimportant, and by what criteria?

Naturally, Janina is a fierce defender of animal rights – the belief that animals are just as important as her fellow humans, if not more so, is fundamental to her actions. As far as Janina is concerned, the way a society treats its animals speaks volumes about its values, potentially undermining any notions of justice or democracy.

‘You have more compassion for animals than for people.’

‘That’s not true. I feel just as sorry for both. But nobody shoots at defenceless people,’ I told the City Guard that same evening. […]

‘Its Animals show the truth about a country,’ I said. ‘Its attitude towards Animals. If people behave brutally towards Animals, no form of democracy is ever going to help them, in fact nothing will at all.’ (p. 109)

As the novel draws to a close, there is a form of resolution to the mysterious deaths which feels satisfying and appropriate, especially given the novel’s inherent themes. Nevertheless, that’s far from being the most interesting thing on offer here. Alongside the moral and ethical issues of animal rights, Tokarczuk casts her eye over a myriad of fascinating subjects from the poetry of William Blake to the challenges of ageing to the frailties of the human body – ‘fancy being given a body and not knowing anything about it. There’s no instruction manual.’

She also manages to fit in some time for a brief digression on one of the major failings of men, how several of them succumb to ‘testosterone autism’ as they age and regress. (For the interested, the major symptoms of this condition include: ‘a gradual decline in social intelligence and capacity for interpersonal communication’, the development of an interest in various tools, machinery, WW2 and ‘the biographies of famous people, mainly politicians and villains’. In parallel, the capacity to read novels almost entirely disappears.)

In summary then, Drive Your Plow… is a wonderful metaphysical noir, one that subverts the traditional expectations of the genre to create something truly thought-provoking and engaging. It’s also beautifully written, by turns arresting, poetic, mournful, and blacky comic. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures something of the novel’s luminous quality and mood.

Outside, in the pool of light falling from the porch lamp, the snow was changing into a slow, sleepy shower. Oddball stood next to me in silence, tall, thin and bony like a figure sketched in a few pencil strokes. Every time he moved, snow fell from him like icing sugar from pastry ribbons. (p. 14)

Drive Your Plow… is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; personal copy.

Valentino and Sagittarius by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Avril Bardoni)

There has been something of a revival of interest in the Italian neorealist writer Natalia Ginzburg in recent years, 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.