Queering Family Roles and Gender Norms in Natalia Ginzburg’s “Valentino”

By Enrica Maria Ferrara

Traditionally, Natalia Ginzburg was seen as a writer who did not take sides with the feminist movement, refused to endorse the cause of women as victims and men as perpetrators, thus conveying a “disinterested view of sexual politics that has inevitably alienated both male chauvinists and militant feminists” (Bullock 1-2). While this consideration ties in with the writer’s own rejection of “the label ‘woman writer’ in favour of an androgynous writing” (Fanning 165), it does not take into account the long gaze cast by Ginzburg’s female narrators, often sitting in the liminal position of witness-observer, over the complex societal and family tapestry of her stories.

Rather than antagonizing the male figure as the only available path to construct a liberated female subject, Ginzburg takes a different approach altogether, one that could be seen as an example of intersectional feminism avant la lettre, as she explores the unsteady and perilous grounds of 1950s queer identity. She does that for the first time in the short story Valentino (written in 1951 and published in 1957) where, as we will see, Ginzburg illustrates her concept of a gender-fluid identity going against the grain of the strictly heteronormative mindset that dominated society in post-war Italy. Indeed, her interest is not just transient or whimsical if one considers that Valentino is the first of many male gay characters in Ginzburg’s narrative: Gigi in Voices in the Evening ([1961] transl. D. M. Low 1963); Osvaldo and Michele in Happiness, As Such ([1973] trans. M. Zallman Proctor 2019); Matteo Tramonti and Giuliano Grimaglia in Family ([1977] trans. B. Stockman 1988), Marchese Paradiso in Borghesia ([1977] trans. B. Stockman 1988) and Alberico and Salvatore in The City and the House ([1984] trans. D. Davis 1986).

The peculiarity of Valentino’s approach, a novelette that was awarded the coveted Viareggio prize in 1957 (jointly with Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees), is that while depicting a society undergoing a deep process of change as far as gender norms are concerned, Ginzburg also comes to grips with the disturbing legacy of fascist essentialist politics that had banned all homosexual behaviour as deviant, and promoted a rigid notion of traditional family with its reproductive function and inflexible roles. Indeed, family is, in Ginzburg’s poetics “the place in which primary impulses and social pressures intersect and face one another; where individual identity reveals its own relational dimension and gender roles turn out to be interchangeable” (Manetti 389). And while, on the surface, Valentino is the main queer character in the story, we would not do justice to Ginzburg’s masterful account if we did not single out his wife – “short and fat” Maddalena, with her shiny nose and moustache, “sable coat and flat rubber-soled shoes” – as the other powerful invention deployed by the writer to destabilize gender norms.

Narrated by the meek Caterina, one of Ginzburg’s many narrators who are “passive to the point of seeming a bit obtuse, accustomed to being on the margins” (Calvino, “Natalia Ginzburg or the Possibilities of the Bourgeois Novel”; Calvino 1087), Valentino is the story of the homonymous protagonist who studies to become a medical doctor and is believed by his father to be destined for great things. He will grow up to be a “man of consequence,” which is the expression adopted by the translator to render the Italian phrase “un grand’uomo.” While Bardoni’s decision to emphasize status and reputation is to be endorsed – especially if one dwells on the overall character arc of the protagonist turning into a lazy squanderer who will not compensate his family for the financial sacrifice they had to endure on his behalf – clearly the Italian adjective “grande” has a polysemic resonance that the expression “man of consequence” cannot replicate. There is a certain pride or even grandeur associated with the notion of Valentino as the only male sibling who is spoiled by his family and turns into their beacon of hope just because of his gender, despite there being, as Caterina remarks, “little enough reason to believe” that he would fulfil their expectations. In addition, the expression “grand’uomo” creates a beautiful contrast with the physical appearance of the frail and small women that populate the book, as well as with Valentino’s insubstantial personality and effeminate looks.

Let us not forget that physical detail is crucial in Ginzburg’s style, since, as Italo Calvino wrote, “She is one of the very few people today who still believe in things, and therefore on her pages we constantly come across objects” (Calvino, “Natalia Ginzburg or the Possibilities of the Bourgeois Novel”; Calvino 1086):  “the little cats and dogs and monsters” that Valentino makes for the caretaker’s children with scraps of fabric and sawdust, signalling a kind but infantile nature; his skiing outfit with “the white woollen balaclava” and later his riding outfit with the “tight-fitting jacket and crop,” indicating his penchant for a performative identity; Maddalena’s “black hat squashed down on one side” which gives her a masculine, unkempt appearance, but also signifies her attitude to command respect and obedience from her employees. When Kit, who is Maddalena’s cousin and Valentino’s closeted love interest, enters the plot, and the mystery around Valentino’s personality thickens rather than being dispelled, this material quality of Ginzburg’s language, embodied in her objects, becomes even more important as silence –  the language of the closet – insinuates itself in all the dialogues and scenes. One is reminded of the metonymic tropes weaved around the other pioneer gay character of Italian 1950s narrative, Dr Fadigati in The Gold Rimmed Glasses (1958) by Giorgio Bassani, whose sexuality is alluded to via his eccentric glasses and the soft angora sweaters he wears.

It is worth remembering that silence was the strategy adopted by the fascist regime when discussions took place in 1929-1930 around the appropriateness to criminalize homosexual behaviour in the new Penal Code (Codice Rocco). Eventually, notwithstanding the incompatibility between same-sex relationships and the fascist plans of virilizing the nation, it was decided that emphasizing homosexuality in the legal sphere would undermine the image of Italy as a virile nation of male conquerors. Thus prevention and control of homoerotic behaviour were delegated to the Church which Mussolini encouraged to be “a prod to mores” (Benadusi). This meant that the public opinion turned a blind eye to gay relationships when discreetly pursued, and that tactics such as the marriage of convenience were tolerated if not encouraged.

This is extremely interesting when related to the triangle of Valentino-Maddalena-Kit whose amorous dynamics will remain closeted until the very end, except for some stereotypical traits associated with homosexuality in those post-fascist years  (narcissism, frivolity, selfishness, laziness,  childish temperament) which are attributed to Valentino and Kit, and for the masculine appearance, quick stride, boisterousness and business-like manners of Maddalena. This characterization is executed in  a very light-handed way, enabling the disclosure of Valentino and Kit’s authentic sentiments via a performance of objects – as illustrated above – and through the articulation of a peculiar silence that resounds so clearly to acquire a distinctive meaning. As we are reminded by Segdwick, “closetedness itself is a performance initiated as such by the speech act of a silence (…) that accrues particularity by fits and starts, in relation to the discourse that surrounds and differentially constitutes it” (3).

So while, on the one hand, we get the feeling that Ginzburg does not manage to push her gender discourse far enough and ends up complying with the reticence imposed by the enduring homophobic fascist culture, on the other hand, there is a sense that the writer is more interested in staging the unsaid and providing an outlet to lay bare the malfunctioning of the Italian family as a heteronormative institution.

A case in point is the pseudo-engagement between Caterina and Kit, a brief but precious sub-plot that precipitates the wreckage of all other characters’ relationships. Kit’s proposition is pre-empted by the gossip of Maddalena’s maids who encourage Caterina to consider Kit as a desirable party not in light of any attractive features he might possess but on the basis that he needs a wife to look after him: “perhaps what he really needed was a woman to look after him and mend his socks and care for him generally.” After a sudden day-trip with Kit to the countryside, Caterina is overwhelmed by a sense of contentedness stemming from her rediscovered ability to enjoy the simple pleasures in life, away from the rowdy household of Valentino and his wife who are always quarrelling. When Kit proposes to her on a whim, she accepts not because she is in love with him but in the hope to attain an ideal happiness which she felt might be denied to her otherwise, due to her age and financial status.

However, upon returning home and confessing to her brother that she is indeed evaluating Kit’s proposal, a smirk appears on Valentino’s face which is the signifier of more complex emotions whose equivalent is, in fact, silence: the language of the closet:

Neither of us spoke for a while. He continued to smile crookedly; I couldn’t look at him because there was something unpleasant in that smile: I couldn’t understand what was behind it; I sensed shame and embarrassment but didn’t understand why he should be ashamed or embarrassed, nor could I understand what was going through his mind.

It is the first time that an emotional reaction is attributed to Valentino, who – as Kit remarked a few times to Caterina during their platonic escapade – “cares for nothing at all, not things nor people nor anything else.” As readers are tempted to endorse Kit’s assertions, they are suddenly displaced by Valentino’s crooked smile, rising from that pool of silence and suggesting alternative emotional landscapes some of which are also signalled by the persistent anger that all characters – except for Caterina – demonstrate to him. Clara, for example, his older sister, is unceasingly furious with Valentino because he didn’t fulfill their father’s expectations, was unable to complete his course of studies and broke their mother’s heart when he married an older and ugly woman. Maddalena is frustrated and angry with him as she has to witness his frivolous behaviour and squandering habits. Such heightened passions create a horizon of expectations around the protagonist and his secret which remains hovering around him, undisclosed, until the very end, while all the characters perform a sort of crazy dance around the closet.

What Ginzburg seems to be doing through her remarkable narrative style is thus promote an inquisitive attitude that aims to puncture the silence without providing formal answers: “while the characters are grappling for answers, the reader is doing this as well (Fortney 654). It stands to reason that through the disappointment and anger produced by Valentino’s carelessness towards money and people, the writer aimed to allude symbolically to a deeper sense of betrayal which the family might have felt in coming to terms with Valentino’s homoerotic tendencies.

The note written by the father to Valentino shortly before his sudden passing confirms this hypothesis; we learn that the old man apologized to his son for wanting him to become “a man of consequence,” and admitted that “it would be enough if he became a man at all, because at present he was merely a child.” Stigmatizing homoerotic behaviour as a mark of immaturity or, indeed, stunted sexual development was a customary trait of the main theories around same-sex attraction circulating at the time. It is interesting to note, for this purpose, that Valentino’s love interest, Kit, is described by the narrator as possessing physical features that resemble a child: the hair on his neck “were long and damp and looked like those of a new-born baby.”

What is even more striking is that while a marriage of convenience traditionally would have aimed at saving appearances, keeping a respectable façade and averting potential conflict within the family, the choice of Maddalena as a future bride – with her shocking masculine bearing and facial features – has the opposite effect of exacerbating the parents’ disappointment, indeed causing much anguish and grief.

Clearly, Ginzburg’s intention is not only to challenge stereotypical views of femininity and masculinity through the queer physical appearance of Valentino and Maddalena, and the portrayal of Valentino’s homoerotic relationship with Kit. She also aims to identify the root cause of the tragedy that will ensue – as Maddalena and Valentino break apart after Kit’s suicide – in the rigid frame of an idealized family model still imbued with essentialist gender politics that are the legacy of a fascist society. This becomes apparent as the denouement unravels. Caterina pays a visit to Valentino’s house only to discover that he has been sent away by Maddalena who, in turn, has finally advocated for herself the traditional woman role, tending to the house and children.

Maddalena was sitting in an armchair, her glasses on the end of her nose and a pile of socks beside her to darn. It was unusual for her to be at home at that hour and unknown for her to darn socks. “Hello,” she said, looking at me over the top of her spectacles. She seemed, all of a sudden, to have grown very old, to be a little old lady.

“Where’s Valentino?” I asked.

“Not here any more. He doesn’t live here now. We have separated. Sit down.”

I sat down. “You’re surprised to find me darning socks,” she said, “but I find it soothes the nerves. Apart from which, I need a change; from now on I intend to spend my time darning socks and looking after the children and sitting down a lot. I’m tired of managing farmland and shouting at people and wearing myself out.”

As the woman concludes that she has enough money to send a monthly alimony to Valentino, the reader will not fail to notice the irony underlying that final image of Maddalena, so at odds with the larger-than-life, androgynous character we have grown to love, and so similar, instead, to the idealized representation of a married woman that Maddalena’s maids had once conjured up for Caterina. However, what is revolutionary about Maddalena’s metamorphosis is that she conforms to the traditional image of mother and wife in her husband’s absence rather than in his presence whilst, simultaneously, fulfilling the stereotypical fatherly and masculine function she had performed from the very beginning, as she will provide financially for her husband’s family. There is a real hybridization and fluidity of family roles alluded to in this glorious finale which ultimately questions the suitability of the heteronormative catholic family to accommodate changing notions of gender in post-war Italy. The binary alternative between male perpetrators and female victims, queered through the lens of Valentino and Maddalena’s stories, intersectionally points to a shared vulnerability in which all individuals, regardless of their gender, are the victim of social norms and constraints enacted in the family.

Enrica Maria Ferrara is a Tenured Teaching Fellow of Italian at Trinity College Dublin, as well as a writer of non-fiction, translator, and poet. She has published widely in the field of Italian studies, comparative literature, and film. Her recent titles include Staged Narratives / Narrative Stages, co-edited with Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin (Florence: Franco Cesati, 2017), the English translation of the volume Disaster Narratives in Early Modern Naples, edited by D. Cecere, C. De Caprio et al (Rome: Viella, 2018), and the volume Posthumanism in Italian Literature and Film: Boundaries and Identity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020). Enrica is currently working on the last draft of her debut novel.

This essay is part of our special issue “Reading Natalia Ginzburg.”

Works Cited

Benadusi, Lorenzo. The Enemy of the New Man. Homosexuality in Fascist Italy. Transl. Suzanne Dingee and Jennifer Pudney. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2012.

Bullock, Alan. Natalia Ginzburg: Human Relationships in a Changing World. New York; Oxford: Berg, 1990.

Calvino, Italo, Saggi 1945-1985. Ed. Mario Barenghi. Vol. I. Milan: Mondadori, 1995.

Calvino, Italo. “Natalia Ginzburg or the Possibilities of the Bourgeois Novel.” Translated by Stiliana Milkova and Eric Gudas. Reading in Translation. February 22, 2021.

Fanning, Ursula. Italian Women’s Autobiographical Writings in the Twentieth Century: Constructing Subjects. Madison, Teaneck: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2017.

Fortney, James Michael. “’Con quel tipo lì’: Homosexual Characters in Natalia Ginzburg’s Narrative Families”. Italica.  86 (4), 2009: pp. 651-673.

Ginzburg, Natalia. Valentino and Sagittarius. Two Novellas. Transl. Avril Bardoni. Introduction by Cynthia Zarin. New York Review Books, 2020. EBook.

Manetti, Beatrice. “Natalia Ginzburg”. In Il romanzo in Italia. Eds. Giancarlo Alfano and Francesco de Cristofaro. Vol. III, pp. 385-400. Rome: Carocci, 2018.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet.University of California Press, 1990.

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