The City and the House by Natalia Ginzburg – a review
Natalia Ginzburg, who died in 1991, published this, one of her last novels, in 1985. Written entirely in letter-form it follows the fortunes of a group of friends when one of them, Giuseppe, leaves his flat in Rome where he has lived for more than twenty years, to go and live with his brother in America. He must say goodbye to his cousin, Roberta, a rough-diamond of a woman; to his former lover, Lucrezia and her husband Piero, and to all his friends – Serena, Egisto, Albina – who used to gather for weekends at Le Margherite, Lucrezia’s house in the country. But even before Giuseppe’s departure, the circle of intimates has begun to fragment as frustrated yearnings and past infidelities strain the bonds of friendship and love.
Ginzburg, the daughter of a fiercely anti-fascist family, waited at home with her three children while her first husband was tortured to death by fascist police in Rome in 1944. Already a writer, after the war, she was part of the movement to simplify the language of fiction, shortening her sentences, styling her writing to resemble, as much as possible, everyday speech. Her first aim was always understanding, communication.
In The City and the House the language is pared down to the bone. We have only letters from friends or lovers or, sometimes, only acquaintances. Each wishes to communicate what is happening to them or to someone else, a mutual friend, everyday events, from time to time a personal tragedy . . . the stuff of life. We don’t meet any heroic characters, the people who show themselves to us throughout these pages are people like ourselves. Straight and quirky, marked individually with flaws, hopeless longing, curiosity, and distanced love. Perhaps the central theme is duration.
My copy is translated by Dick Davis. It was difficult to put it down for long.