Over the past few years, there has been a resurgence of interest in Italian women writers from the mid-20th century, largely focusing on Natalia Ginzburg, whose work I very much enjoy. (Her essay collection The Little Virtues is easily one of my standout reads of the year so far.) Other female writers are also being rediscovered, from Alba de Cespedes and Anna Maria Ortese to Elsa Morante and Iris Origo. (Whilst Origo wasn’t born in Italy, she lived there for many years, documenting the events of WW2 from her home in Val d’Orcia, Tuscany.)
Now we can add the Italian writer, poet and artist Lalla Romano to that list, courtesy of this beautiful reissue of her 1957 novella A Silence Shared – freshly translated by Brian Robert Moore and recently published by Pushkin Press. It’s a gorgeous, enigmatic novella, like an ode to stillness and silence, all expressed in Romano’s subtle, poetic prose.
The story takes place deep in the midst of the Italian countryside during the autumn and winter months of 1943. Giulia, the young woman who narrates the novel, has left her home in Turin to stay with two of her mother’s elderly cousins, leaving behind her husband, Stefano, who works in the city. With bombings continuing across Northern and Central Italy, the cousins’ rural home is a place of relative safety, particularly given the tense atmosphere in Turin.
Shortly after her arrival, Giulia becomes intrigued by an enigmatic married couple also sheltering in the hills – the lively, spontaneous Ada and her distant, pre-occupied husband, Paolo. The pair have been driven into hiding at the secluded Tetto Murato (which literally means ‘walled roof’) mostly due to Paolo’s activities in the resistance – a situation compounded by severe asthma, which frequently lays him low.
I had heard people talk about them [Paolo and Ada], the way locals talk about out-of-towners: as something suspicious, if not outright scandalous.
He, a teacher and intellectual, sent to that isolated town near the border as if in a kind of exile; she, proud, aristocratic. No one knew how they managed to get by: they didn’t give lessons, and yet no one could say they had racked up any debts. Worst of all was that they “didn’t go to church”. (p. 15)
As the weeks slip by, Giulia is increasingly drawn to Paolo and Ada at Tetto Murato, walking there and back each day to spend time in the couple’s orbit while helping with Paolo’s care. A sense of connection swiftly develops between Giulia and Paolo, a kind of affinity or unspoken bond which flourishes in their shared silences, enhancing the rarefied atmosphere in the house. Similarly, when Stefano pays the occasional visit to Giulia, he is often drawn to Ada – not in a sexual way but in a spiritual sense, like two kindred spirits coming together as one.
There is something dreamlike and hypnotic about this novel, as if the reader is viewing every development through a light, gauzy curtain, rendering everything with a hazy, shimmering glow. Romano excels in creating an intimate, emotionally charged atmosphere, highlighting the developing relationships between Giulia, Paolo and Ada – not forgetting Stefano during his occasional visits to the house.
The stove at the foot of the bed emitted heat, but the siege of the night and the cold was pressing up against the small windows. I lay motionless, the fur weighing lightly and pleasantly on my body, in the warmth and in the faint scent of that bed that wasn’t my own. “Their” bed. I was a bit perturbed, but happy, too. It had been easy: with Ada, everything was easy. (p. 77)
This is a novel in which silence envelops everything from the house at Tetto Murato to the occupants themselves. Very little happens in terms of narrative plot; instead, Romana is more interested in evoking atmosphere and mood, painting her novel in scenes where so much remains unsaid. Moreover, there is an unspoken air of disapproval in the cousins’ attitude to Giulia’s closeness to Paola and Ada – another kind of silence that permeates the book.
The need for concealment offers the central characters the possibility of deep intimacy – an atmosphere that encourages intense, unspoken emotions to flow between them, transcending marital bonds and fidelities – with Paolo’s illness adding another layer of intimacy and intensity to an already clandestine situation.
I would give my all, straining to make out what Paolo said when, in the drowsy state caused by the injections, a sudden start would jolt through him. I spoke to him for hours during the night: it was my task, and—in the dark and in the silence—communication between the two of us became natural, profound. (p. 106)
Romano was a painter before she became a writer, and her gift for visual imagery plays a significant part in this book. In conveying the mood at Tetto Murato, the author draws on all the senses, from the starlight gracing the landscape at night to the aromas of smoke, grain and baked apples wafting through the house. As Giulia, Ada and Paola lie in bed together, snuggling under the fur blanket for warmth, we can feel the heat from the fire, sense the sharp frost outside, hear the crunch of snow underfoot.
I held my breath for a second when arriving at Tetto Murato. The silence enveloped—more compact than the snow—the semi-buried houses, and the great black pine tree, in its infinite melancholy, seemed simultaneously to point to and to hide a secret. (p. 130)
The sense of place is also beautifully evoked, particularly the countryside that Giulia cuts through on her daily pilgrimages to Tetto Murato. The simple, untamed beauty of the landscape – a beauty ‘born out of poverty’ – is characterised by fields of mulberry trees and patches of wild brambles, highlighting the contrast with the tense atmosphere in town.
Beyond town, the riverbanks—the high, woody stretches along the river—flourished, thick and blooming; and so much beauty seemed like madness, now that the sky was cut through daily by flocks of migrating birds and the town was becoming more and more withdrawn, taciturn, patrolled up and down by the frightening ranks of the Muti brigade. (p. 37)
As winter gives way to spring, other changes permeate the air – a sense of wistfulness or regret as the protagonists’ time together may come to a natural end.
Romano has written a haunting, dreamlike novel here, like a love letter to human connection in a time of great uncertainty, heightened by the need to shelter from the turmoil of war. (My thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.)