Seaver Books, 1987

Natalia Ginzburg’s The City and the House (1985)
Trans. Dick Davis

This was Natalia Ginzburg’s last published book, an epistolary work, which contains letters sent by a handful of Italian men and women who are struggling to understand their attachments to (and distances from) one another, those in varying degrees of near-and-dear.

Danielle and I ended up reading it together because of a short exchange when one of us noticed it made a brief appearance on the other’s Goodreads profile. (I love it when that happens!)

We were both seduced by the idea of reading something by a woman who “has been accorded the status of ‘Italy’s best (woman) writer'” (which I’ve taken from the back cover of the novel), and we are both fond of epistolary reads, so it seemed a perfect match all the way around.

But even though one of the reasons that I usually warm so immediately to epistolary works is the sense of a dramatic and pervasive intimacy with the characters’ lives and voices, I didn’t find that was true of The City and the House.

Partly this is due to the fact that there are so many letter-writers. It takes about 40 pages to feel that the reader has the sense of the small community that Ginzburg is drawing, and the process remains a bit uneasy, because so many of them are undergoing such major life changes that the reader can’t help but feel a little mistreated, with one tragedy and misunderstanding after the next.

Nonetheless, stories do not need to have a “Sound of Music” feel to win my reader’s admiration. I do appreciate what Natalia Ginzburg is drawing for her readers.

Life is messy, relationships are the messiest part of it, and reading letters about their genesis and dissolution is going to be overwhelming at times.

At the heart of these letters are Giuseppe and Lucrezia.

He is writing to her because he is planning to move to America, and it seems as though he wants to put an emotional distance between them, even before its evident geographically, because he starts writing letters to her before he leaves Italy.

Lucrezia responds, too, with a long letter, which suggests that there is a lot she feels has been left unsaid throughout the course of their relationship.

And their relationship? At first it’s hard to deduce exactly what that is. And of course it’s true that they wouldn’t be discussing this between them in their letters, even though that would be convenient for the reader! So it takes the reader some time to understand its dimensions, and this is largely due to comments made about it in contrast to other relationships that Lucrezia and Giuseppe have, rather than to their own words.

Although I wasn’t wholly appreciate of this element of the work whilst trying to decipher it, I can see, looking back on the narrative, that that must have taken some doing.

The intermittent letters from other members of their circle of friends/acquaintances were placed perfectly to fill gaps that the reader would experience, whereas to have had it filled by the letter-writers would have cast a false note into the form. And even these “minor” characters have just enough of a presence for the reader to understand the implications of their own complicated interactions and connections (and disconnections).

I think Giuseppe chooses to write his letters, even before he leaves Italy, because he both craves and disdains the distance that has developed in important relationships in his life.

This is true not only with Lucrezia, but with his son, Alberico, and his brother, with whom he will live when he gets to America. And it also hearkens back to an earlier time in his life, when he believed that he would write a novel.

So when Giuseppe says, “Now I would like to see if I can manage to write something I shan’t tear up” he is actually talking about trying to make something stick, not just by putting words on a page, but in some other way.

But what one writer thinks is worth saving, with a ribbon wrapped around it, is what another will tear up.

When Egoisto and Albina write their letters, they halt because they “realize we are just piling up pointless details”. And yet Roberta piles up the details as a regular way of sharing information with her cousin, the same things that she would have chatted with him about when he was living nearby now confined to the page.

And, in the meantime, Albina writes to Serena “Write to me, because I don’t have anyone to talk to here, and a letter would be company for me.” But, even as Albina wants Serena’s pointless details, she is avoiding writing to Giuseppe of the same kind of details.

Letter-writing and love and life: filled with all sorts of expectations, the potential for so many misunderstandings.

The letters are marked with days and months, but not years, so the reader does not realize when leafing through The City and the House just how much time passes when these epistles are shared.

The story has a much wider arc than one would expect from reading the earliest letters. This creates the possibility for the kinds of major changes that erupt in the lives of the characters therein.

Stylistically, just like Giuseppe, I feel, as the reader, at a substantial distance from these events. Nonetheless, I find the observations and intricacies of the relationships (and all the various kinds that are explored herein) fascinating.

If these are Natalia Ginzburg’s preoccupations, I’m definitely interested in reading more of her work.

Do you know her? Do you have a favourite? Have you ever thought that you might have started at the “wrong place” with a major writer?