Daunt Books continues to satisfy my Ginzburg addiction with a drip feed of new editions of the work of someone I’m coming to regard as a towering figure of twentieth-century literature. Their publication of her two novellas, Valentino and Sagittarius, does nothing to alter my opinion. In them I find all the features that gladden my reader’s (and writer’s) heart: Ginzburg’s ability to conjure a world or a character with a few small details; tension created through dialogue and character interactions; a wry humour that never detracts from a deep seriousness; plots that seem to slip by unnoticed, but then grab you by the throat; the wonderful economy applied to all these great things. And, of course, most importantly, the pinpoint-perfect prose that makes any page, any paragraph, of Ginzburg’s something like a literary epicurean delight.
Both first published in Italian in 1957, towards the beginning of Ginzburg’s career, the two novellas share a tone and several features. Valentino is the tale of an impoverished middle-class family – ‘Life was not easy and finding the rent money was always a problem’ – who hang their hopes on the eldest son making a success of his life. From the outset it is clear that these hopes are in vain.
Sagittarius sees a well-heeled widow move her family to the city, where she hopes to establish herself as part of the local elite, principally by setting up an art gallery: ‘The difference between her gallery and every other gallery in town consisted in the fact that she would offer her visitors a cup of tea every afternoon at five o’clock.’ Again, from the beginning these hopes seem certain to be dashed.
Both works are dominated by a self-centred and often deluded central character. In Valentino, the eponymous hero does bring his family great advantage, by making the most unlikely of marriages with a wealthy, land-owning woman. But the relationship is rocky, and there is more than a hint of the mercenary in Valentino’s behaviour.
In Sagittarius, the widow makes the acquaintance of a bohemian artist, Scilla, who claims to be well connected in the city, and in a position to acquire a space for the hoped-for gallery. But Scilla is not everything she seems, and as her promises and excuses mount, disaster seems inevitable.
I was most struck, however, by another feature that these two novellas share: the almost-erasure of their narrator. Both works are told from the point of view of a young woman – Valentino’s sister, and, in Sagittarius, the widow’s daughter. In both cases, we’re given but a few details of the narrator’s life: she’s a teacher; she’s single for much of the book; and her needs are subordinated to the whims, desires and prospects of her family – particularly those of Valentino and the widow. And in both cases we finish the books with a sense of tragedy – that one life can be virtually erased in order that another life can flourish, in however chaotic a way.
In Valentino, the narrator, Caterina, has a moment of personal happiness with her brother’s friend, Kit – who, it is implied, may be in a gay relationship with Valentino. But Kit dies by suicide. And Caterina is naturally angry at Valentino for his careless, self-centred behaviour. But in the end, she tells us, ‘I have to repudiate my anger: I must be loyal to Valentino, I must stay at his side that he may find me there if he chances to look in that direction’.
In Sagittarius, the narrator is somewhat more assertive. Living apart from her family, she works for herself, and pushes back against her mother’s demands that she dress more attractively and improve her prospects of marriage. Yet the narrative point of view itself is subservient to the point of view of the widow – always referred to simply as ‘my mother’. As the story unfolds, we see it through ‘my mother’s’ eyes, her thoughts, feelings and reactions going way beyond what she can have related to her daughter. It is as if the daughter inhabits the mother’s perspective.
‘My mother’ has another daughter, Giulia, who, significantly, is almost completely silent throughout the novel, her only act to disappoint ‘my mother’ in her choice of husband. In her, the narrator’s erasure is reflected in the most tragic of ways. At the very end of the novella Giulia dies in childbirth, and ‘my mother’ finally understands her as ‘someone who wants nothing more than to be left alone to retreat into the shadows’.
It is Ginzburg’s genius that she manages to offer us this sense that the narrators are subservient and subordinate, diminished almost to the point of invisibility, while at the same time creating a certain ironic distance that allows the reader to stay ahead of the action, and of the central characters, who seem at the point of overwhelming the books’ narrators. And by leaving it unclear whether these narrators are party to this distance, Ginzburg elevates these two novellas from the brilliantly clever to the deeply moving.
Reviewed by West Camel
VALENTINO and SAGITTARIUS
by Natalia Ginzburg
Translated by Avril Bardoni
Published by Daunt Books (2023)
September 2023 #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 Orenda Books. He has written two novels, Attend and Fall. He is the editor of the Riveter magazine and the #RivetingReviews for the European Literature Network.
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