The Road to the City is, at first glance, shockingly simple. From the first-person narrative voice of the seventeen-year-old Delia, to the novel’s conceit – her journey to adulthood and independence; to the spare descriptions of her Italian village, of the city she’s magnetically attracted to, and even of her emotions, Ginzburg employs clarity and candour.
Yet, as we follow Delia’s attempts to escape her unhappy village life for the apparent leisure and luxury of her older sister, Azalea’s city existence, the layers of simplicity build into something far more nuanced and complex.
Delia is a winning protagonist – I was willing her on, wishing her success in her love affairs and her bid for freedom. Yet in many ways she seems selfish, uncaring, and even mercenary in her attempts to reach her goal of leisure and wealth. She seems happy to marry an abusive man, wound her cousin Nini, whom she loves, and tolerate a baby for whom she has no maternal feelings, as long as she ends up with her apartment in the city, her maid, her ‘feathery pink wrapper’ and ‘fox fur thrown across my shoulders’.
Along this road, however, Delia does suffer. She falls pregnant as a result of a rape perpetrated by the man she eventually marries. Giulio takes her for a walk, and his intent is clear: ‘This was a long walk, a large part of it uphill and I was afraid of snakes.’ She attempts to resist, but Giulio gets her drunk ‘and did exactly what I had expected’.
It is with such passages that Ginzburg uses simplicity to build complexity. The sparsity of the language and imagery around this key moment creates a tension that conveys far more about the position of women in the Italy of the era, and about the choices they faced, than would more extravagant language that might appear to better reflect the pain Delia suffers.
She suffers more pain when the pregnancy is discovered. Her father beats her, and she is sent away to an aunt in the mountains. But at the same time her marriage to Giulio is contracted. Delia is regretful – she craves the freedom she had, when she could travel the road to the city and meet her beloved, but slightly out of reach, Nini. However, she also sees the opportunity available to her, and manages to persuade Giulio to rent them the apartment she’s always wanted. Once the baby is born, and the new life beckons, Azalea tells her sister:
‘How are you making out with your husband? … You were very wise to hold out for an apartment of your own. If you’d gone to live with his mother you’d never have a penny to call your own. You have to take a strong hand with the men because if you show any signs of weakness they’ll strip the shirt off your back.’
At first glance, The Road to the City is a simple and tragic story about the star-crossed lovers, Delia and Nini; but for me it’s much more about socioeconomics. Delia and Azalea are ultimately driven by their desire for some form of financial, and therefore personal, independence. Their gender and their poor rural background narrow the ways they can achieve this. Both opt for the road to the city, and both finally make it. Yet, as the closing lines suggest, they will be forever reminded of the journey they have taken and the sacrifices they have made:
‘It was harder and harder to remember the way [Nini] looked and the things he used to say, and it frightened me to think of him now that he had receded far into the distance and become one of the vast multitude of the dead.’
Reviewed by West Camel
THE ROAD TO THE CITY
by Natalia Ginzburg
translated by Frances Frenaye
published by Daunt Books (2021)
June 2021 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.
West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015, and is currently working for new press Orenda Books. His debut novel, Attend, is out now.
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