Friday, 1 April 2016

Book Review: The City and the House by Natalia Ginzburg review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

I reckon that all of us occasionally go through times when we feel fed up with everything including ourselves and we would gladly seize any opportunity presenting itself to make a fresh start. Most of us, however, know too well that wherever we go we can’t run away from ourselves, can’t start with a clean slate like a newborn nor change overnight – probably not even in a lifetime – who we are deep down in our souls because some character traits are too fundamental and past experiences too influential. After many disillusions the middle-aged protagonist of the epistolary novel The City and the House by Natalia Ginzburg leaves Rome to join his older brother in the USA and to start a new life, but he becomes an even more solitary person who follows from the distance the troubles and joys that his friends and his estranged son have to deal with in Italy.

Natalia Ginzburg was born Natalia Levi in Palermo, Italy, in July 1916. Already in 1933 she made her debut as a writer with a short story, but she had to wait for her literary breakthrough until after World War II. Due to her Jewish descent she had to publish her first novel The Road to the City (La strada che va in città: 1942) under pseudonym, while she wrote under the name of her first husband Leone Ginzburg for the rest of her life although for being an opponent of the Fascistic Mussolini regime he was killed in prison in 1944 and she married Gabriele Baldini six years later. English editions are available of her most notable novels, namely All Our Yesterdays (Tutti i nostri ieri: 1952; also translated as A Light for Fools), Voices in the Evening (Le voci della sera: 1961), The Little Virtues (Le piccole virtù: 1962), Family Sayings (Lessico famigliare: 1963; also translated as Ginzburg, Natalia), Dear Michael (Caro Michele: 1973), and The City and the House (La città e la casa: 1984). Natalia Ginzburg died in Rome, Italy, in October 1991.

The series of letters forming the novel The City and the House and spanning about three years tells the story of Giuseppe Guaraldi and the people whom he leaves behind in Rome when he follows the invitation of his elder brother Ferruccio to live with him in Princeton, New Jersey, USA, where he has been working as a researcher for many years. At the time Giuseppe is a men well in his forties, tired of his job, of his daily routine, of his environment, and in a way even of his friends and family.
“I am very happy to be leaving. I am very happy that I’ll see you again. My life here has become difficult recently. I couldn’t breathe any more. When I decided to come and see you I was able to breathe again.”
But already before his departure for the USA, things there take an unexpected turn because Ferruccio marries a colleague, so they won’t just be the two brothers sharing a house like in their youth. His room in Princeton turns out to be the children’s room of the previous owners of the house and his brother as well as his sister-in-law are both too absorbed in their scientific research to pay much attention to him. After a while Giuseppe gets a job teaching Italian literature to adults and he sets out to write a novel, but otherwise he leads the life of a recluse. In their letters his friends in Italy keep him up-to-date about their love affairs, their marriage problems, and their plans for the future wondering time and again why he doesn’t come back. Then, only little more than six months after his arrival in the USA, Ferruccio dies suddenly and yet Giuseppe hesitates to return to Rome.
“… At the moment I don’t want to decide. I’ve lost my brother and I think of myself, for the moment, as being exempt from making decisions. At the moment it would be painful to detach myself from the life I have established here. …” 
Thus he stays on in Princeton with his brother’s widow although they have so little in common that they hardly talk. Meanwhile the lives of his friends and his estranged son Alberico move on into many, often surprising directions with Giuseppe as mere observer in the distance…

Thanks to the number of different people whose letters to each other make up The City and the House, the novel allows at the same time a very personal and varied look at life in the early 1980s, notably at the confusion and disorientation that many experienced because old ways of life and established values of society were fading ever more and making room for something not yet fully defined. In this respect, the situation has hardly changed during the past thirty or forty years. In fact, complexity and speed of life have even increased leaving ever more people at a loss. Natalia Ginzburg’s late novel shows that walking out on the accustomed geographical and social environment doesn’t necessarily help to find a new direction and to develop strategies to do more than just keep going. After his move to the USA, Giuseppe continues in the old rut slipping ever deeper into passivity and (self-imposed) solitude because he is on his own without the active support of his past world (that includes his brother). The other characters of the novel may be just as confused, disoriented, disillusioned, even desperate, but with the help of each other they are able to move on... and live life to the fullest.

I read The City and the House by Natalia Ginzburg with great pleasure although I had to content myself with a borrowed English translation because I couldn’t find an original Italian edition. The quiet, though colourful story offers many interesting, sometimes surprising turns and twists in the lives of the different letter-writers from whose points of view they are told. Moreover, as an epistolary novel it is rich in often very private observations and reflections which is something that I always appreciate because it helps me understand the minds of others. All things considered, the novel was worth the time and therefore I warmly recommend it.

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