Unlived Lives in Natalia Ginzburg’s “Valentino” and “Sagittarius,” Translated from Italian by Avril Bardoni

By Eric Gudas

One refers, as a commonplace, to “the unlived life”; but fiction excels at dramatizing people’s myriad unlived lives. Natalia Ginzburg’s fiction links stifled hopes and ambitions with suppressed speech. The narrators of Ginzburg’s Valentino and Sagittarius: Two Novellas (1957), which New York Review Books Classics has just reissued in Avril Bardoni’s decades-old translation, use strikingly similar figures of speech to depict unwilling silence. In “Valentino” (1951), the narrator’s mother perpetually talks over her husband, “leaving him choking on a half-finished sentence, puffing with frustration” (13); and when the middle-aged widow at the center of “Sagittarius” (1957) is prevented from uttering a spiteful rejoinder, she, too, is “left seething with frustration and choking on the angry words she had been given no excuse to deliver” (72). Because Ginzburg repeats key word and phrases within individual works, it’s no surprise she would link “choking” and “frustration” across these novellas, whose characters inhabit a world in which the inability to speak—and therefore to be heard by one’s interlocutors—becomes an almost fatal condition, one that can even be passed from parent to child. Near the end of “Valentino,” the narrator laments that “there is no one to whom I can speak the words that most need to be spoken…. I have to keep them bottled up inside me and there are times when they threaten to choke me” (48 – 49).

Readers must listen hard for these painful, and perhaps lethal, silences of self-suppression because so many voluble characters people Ginzburg’s fiction. Her narrators—in these novellas, unmarried women in their twenties—spend very little time engaged in introspection. Instead, they listen to others and recall what they hear in the traditional form of dialogue or, particularly in “Sagittarius,” using that form of reported speech in which their own voices merge with their interlocutors’ voices and even thoughts—a form we critics call free indirect discourse. These narrators disappear so far into the act of listening that one forgets they are performing, in Ginzburg’s fictional world, an act of selflessness that others often deny them. The very narrator who keeps her speech “bottled up inside,” whose mother “always interrupted” her father, relates how she spends hours listening to her brother Valentino’s dreams and complaints; her next sentence is one of either novellas’ most significant, couched in the ruthlessly simple syntax so characteristic of Ginzburg’s writing: “I let him talk” (13; 48).

Because Ginzburg, too, lets so many of characters simply talk, her writing has a headlong, strongly-voiced quality, full of everyday speech’s habitual minutiae and compulsive repetition. In a reversal of the “bottled-up” formulation, a character in “Sagittarius” talks “non-stop, pouring out all the words, the phrases, the speeches that she had had to bottle up through the long lonely seasons in Dronero,” her provincial home (63). I’m not surprised that Ginzburg declared Jane Austen her “favorite English novelist” (Boyers 12). Both Ginzburg’s fiction and her memoir-cum-novel Lessico famigliare (1963)—the latter brilliantly rendered into English by Jenny McPhee as Family Lexicon (2016)—are as full as Emma with what Austen scholar Adela Pinch calls the “distinctive idioms, the everyday hum, of the [book’s] chatterers”; and even beyond that hum, one senses “not what the voice says, but what its essence is, what is heard” (Pinch xvii). The long blocks of reported speech in Ginzburg’s work, like the monologues of Austen’s Mrs. Bates—“a great talker on little matters” (Austen 18)—dramatize both the narrators’ act of listening and their internalization of what they hear.

In “Sagittarius,” we meet a particularly poignant “talker on little matters,” the eighteen year-old Barbara who, with her “thick pony-tail of flaming red hair,” turns heads wherever she goes and whose mother, Scilla, brags that “her [daughter’s] measurements [are] exactly the same as Ava Gardner’s” (81, 119). Before Barbara turns any more heads, Scilla seems determined to marry her off to an older man, Pinuccio, even though he has a violently suspicious nature that should worry any future parent-in-law. Barbara, meanwhile, opens up effusively and unself-consciously about her misgivings to her new friends, the novella’s unmarried—and therefore, in Ginzburg’s world, unnamed—twenty-something narrator and her own unhappily married, pregnant sister, Giulia. Barbara worries about moving to the Sicilian estate of Pinuccio’s family, where he insists they relocate upon marrying:

they were very strange, very haughty people, minor nobility with pots of money, and they lived shut away in a castle on a cliff-top from where one could see nothing at all except prickly pears and the sea. Pinuccio’s father weighed over a hundred kilograms and could only get up the stairs by leaning on the shoulders of two servants; and there were several sisters, old maids, who still wore mourning for an uncle who had died in the war and because of that could never leave the castle grounds; they baked their own bread, knitted strange black stockings as long as snakes and recited the rosary every night around the lamp. (88)

Perhaps the primary pleasure of reading Ginzburg lies in passages like this, which offer up details whose particularity lies in their having been lodged in the mind of the speaker and, subsequently, in her listeners’ memories, regarding characters whom we readers will certainly never encounter first-hand in the fictional world. In this case, because Pinuccio’s parents refuse to meet his bride, they remain strangers even to Barbara, who fears the gothic family “castle,” populated by corpse-like men being carried from the sickroom and eternally mourning women, in which her groom wants to sequester her.

Like Austen, Ginzburg “makes voices stick in the mind through her use of use of free indirect discourse, which makes a character’s voice seem indelible, capable of soaking into other beings”—in this case, the novella’s narrator, into whose memory both these creepily grotesque figures and Barbara’s horror of them have lodged (Pinch vxii). On one hand, this passage has nothing to do with the plot of “Sagittarius” per se, which revolves around a confidence scheme perpetrated by Barbara’s mother, Scilla, on the narrator’s widowed mother. However, the vividness with which Barbara, in clause after clause (clauses separated only by semicolons in writing, while Barbara no doubt speaks in comma splices), imagines these “strange black stockings as long as snakes” waiting to swallow her future expresses a schoolgirl’s very real fear of death-in-life or—of the unlived life.

Like many of Ginzburg’s characters, Barbara evidently fears being forced into the particular hell of her unlived life-to-be—where the pears’ spikes and the black rosary beads replace the coffee, chocolates, and mandarin oranges she consumes whenever she pleases and dour adults crowd out the high school classmates who still playfully call her “Goldilocks” (90). For our narrator, who is training to be a teacher, her own mother’s caustic, vindictive words may presage her own unlived life: “when I graduated I would end up teaching in some drab school facing a whole pack of girls with white, pasty faces and puzzled expressions” (120). Guilia, the narrator’s older sister and the most ominously silent character in either novella’s densely verbal world, seems already to inhabit a twilight zone of passivity in which she does “nothing but sit by the window with the puppy in her arms, gazing out beyond the garden to where the trains were passing in the fog” (77). All of these passing moments that presage the ennui facing younger women are situated within the greater—as far as the plot’s machinations—ennui of the middle-aged widow whose daughter narrates “Sagittarius”: “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” (76).

Both novellas ruthlessly anatomize the consequences of projecting one’s “fantasies” onto another person or onto an idea. Valentino, whose father hoped he would “become a man of consequence” and whose wife assumes he will pass his exams, in the end only loves “to pamper his curls in the mirror and smile at his reflection” (9, 49). (Valentino’s narcissism is coded as gay—a word no one in the novella uses—even before his closeness with a male cousin by marriage becomes a turning point in the plot.) The middle-aged widow of “Sagittarius” experiences an “injustice” so shattering that she, whose pettiness and garrulity brought a diva-like vitality to the novella—“fur-coated with beret jammed askew over wiry grey hair and cigarette clutched in gloved hand [and] pacing about”—by its conclusion “wants nothing more than to be left alone to retreat softly into the shadows” (54, 134).

It would be easy to conclude a review of Valentino and Sagittarius, as I have almost done here, without mentioning the only character connected to the war in either narrative, namely Chaim, a doctor, the brother-in-law of the latter novella’s narrator, and a Polish Jew. However, we apprehend Chaim at second- or even third-hand, as it were, because he functions primarily as an object of the narrator’s mother’s pettiness: “My mother thought resentfully of all the favours she had done [him]; of how, when the Germans had come to Dronero and the doctor had hidden in cousin Teresa’s house, she had taken him cigarettes every day” (66). This passing—but no less cutting—observation has more to do with the narrator’s preoccupation with her mother’s lack of charity than it does with the German occupation of Dronero, which is brought up and dismissed in this sentence alone.

In Valentino and Sagittarius, Ginzburg seems much less concerned with the socio-political world beyond the family than in her multigenerational saga of Italian fascism and the war, All Our Yesterdays (1952); in fact, in these novellas, such a world exists as background to the family. Ginzburg herself remarked, “I believe the family to be terribly important, even when it is obsessive or repressive or full of insidious germs which can pollute life. But it’s a necessary institution, a way in which children become adults, for which there’s no substitute” (Boyers 23 – 24). The novellas of Valentino and Sagittarius each depict a family world which is, by definition, “obsessive [and] repressive” and whose narrators attain adulthood, in part, by extending empathy to family members who refuse to “to become adults”—that is, who seem almost to welcome their own unlived lives.

The narrator of “Valentino,” for instance, ruminates on the hard-won selflessness she shows toward her brother, who transfers his dependency from his wife to her: “He is the only person left in my life; and I am the only person left in his. So 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” (48). The narrator of “Sagittarius,” a more Jamesian literary affair than “Valentino,” makes no such declaration of loyalty to a mother whose selfishness she has relentlessly offered up for the reader’s scrutiny. However, the depiction of her mother when disaster has befallen her—“imploring us with eyes in which the old brilliance was now drowned in a veil of tears” (134)—is imbued with such pity, one realizes that the scrutiny the narrator pays her mother’s speech and thoughts, in all of the latter’s myriad self-delusions, constitutes a form of love.

According to her introduction to Five Short Novels (1964), Ginzburg was unhappy with “Sagittarius,” which she criticized for being “totally devoid of dialogue” (Ginzburg, “Prefazione,” my translation). Pace its author, I consider “Sagittarius” a brilliant novella, precisely for the way in which the narrator’s voice inhabits the voices and thoughts of other characters, such as Barbara and of course her mother. In fact the mother’s voice often usurps the narrator’s, and this act of coerced free indirect discourse reveals, more than direct narration ever could, the mother’s intrusion on her daughter’s psyche. Nevertheless, “Sagittarius” contains a kernel of the dialogue-driven books Ginzburg would write in the 1960s, Voices in the Evening and Family Lexicon, in the narrator’s mother’s frequent use of the stock phrase anche per i poveri della parrocchia, which Bardoni translates as “enough and to spare for the parish poor” (56). In Family Lexicon, Ginzburg’s own mother also repeatedly uses the very same expression, which McPhee translates as “enough for all the poor of the parish” (McPhee 128).

These two translations of per i poveri della parrocchia are similar enough to suggest affinity with the Italian saying itself; but either way, the expression, like all verbal maxims specific to a time and place, has something untranslatable about it. McPhee’s success in translating Family Lexicon’s various verbal registers, from the demotic to the formal, without simply substituting American idioms for Italian, has prompted me to wonder how much that book’s poly-vocality pervades Ginzburg’s other work. I have begun to wish British and American publishers would commission new translations of Ginzburg’s books, instead of reprinting translations that date, like Bardoni’s, to the late 1980s or even, in the case of The Dry Heart (1947), recently reprinted by New Directions, the late 1940s. I believe English-language readers may finally be catching up with Ginzburg, long acknowledged as a major voice in Italy, in a century she didn’t live to see. Contemporary translators may be more sensitive to the books’ many-voiced qualities than those books’ original translators. Minna Zallman Proctor’s recent, nuanced translation of Ginzburg’s Caro Michele (1973), as Happiness, As Such, has prompted me to consider voice in Ginzburg’s later, epistolary fiction, especially her out-and-out masterwork, The City and the House (1985), a novel last translated into English in 1986.

In the meantime, I will re-read Bardoni’s version of Valentino and Sagittarius for the novellas’ characters, who emerge fully-formed, as it were, from Ginzburg’s tossed-off phrases, casually observed details, and eloquent silences—as when, at her wedding dinner, the reluctant bride Barbara “replac[es] the hairpins in her chignon which [is] beginning to work loose and hang down on her neck, ready to transform itself back into a pony-tail” (114). In her lucid introduction to this reissue of Valentino and Sagittarius, Cynthia Zarin puts her finger on the unduplicable quality of Ginzburg’s writing—its closeness to life: “These stories are woven from our own dreamy miasmas and compromises. Reading them, it is almost impossible to remember that they are stories, recorded in an ever-evolving now” (xi). Such translucency is hard won in any—as we say—original language, let alone in a translation; and so I welcome the reprinting of these novellas as rendered by Bardoni, which have been part of my own “now” for the last thirty years, even as I look forward to future versions.

Ginzburg, Natalia. Valentino and Sagittarius. Translated by Avril Bardoni. New York Review Books, 2020.

Small Press Distribution has plenty of copies of Eric Gudas’s book, Best Western and Other Poems; his prose about literature, photography, music, and film has appeared in All About Jazz, Raritan, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Poetry Flash, and elsewhere.

Works Cited

Boyers, Peg. “An Interview with Natalia Ginzburg.” Natalia Ginzburg: A Voice of the Twentieth Century (Toronto Italian Studies). Edited by Giuliana Sanguinetti Katz and Angela M. Jeannet, University of Toronto Press, 2000, pp. 10 – 31.

Ginzburg, Natalia. Cinque romanzi brevi: e altri racconti. E-book, Einaudi, 2013.

McPhee, Jenny, translator. Family Lexicon. By Natalia Ginzburg, New York Review Books Classics, 2016.

Pinch, Adela. Introduction. Emma by Jane Austen. Edited by James Kingsley, Oxford UP, 2003, pp. vii-xxix.

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