Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The City and the House

The City & The House / Natalia Ginzburg
trans. from the Italian by Dick Davis
NY: Arcade, 2019, c1984.
312 p.

I read Natalia Ginzburg's Family Lexicon last year, and was quite taken with it. So when I saw this book I snapped it up without even realizing that it is an epistolary novel, one of my favourite forms.

There are a group of friends writing to one another here; Guiseppe is moving to America to live with his brother, it's not like he really wants to go but he doesn't want to stay either. So the book begins with goodbyes. 

And throughout the letters there are continual goodbyes -- to homes, relationships, friendships, understandings -- there is loss and disaffection permeating these blunt and honest letters. The circle of friends is centred around Lucrezia and Piero, who own Le Margherite, a rambling country house outside Rome where they go to spend weekends in the freewheeling atmosphere of a house overrun with Lucrezia's badly behaved children, and to talk and eat and interact. Even the furniture becomes vital to them. 

Guiseppe's leaving is the first crack in this circle, which then begins to crumble. Le Margherite is sold, and the friends are set adrift, losing their connections, shifting allegiances and leaving the circle altogether. They write to one another furiously, terrible sad things happen, and there is no reconciliation or return to the past. 

This is simultaneously enthralling and very sad. The style, all those letters, works beautifully to tell this story. But because it is only letters there are also those loose ends that are never fully described or explored -- you don't do that in a letter. Thus it felt like there was space around and behind what we are reading; what is going on in the time that the character isn't writing? And how do the characters truly feel about some of the dreadful things that overtake them?

This evokes a certain time in Rome, and you get a sense of these characters going about their lives from the intimacy of their voices in their letters. The sadness, the attempts to save face or put the best spin on things, the honesty when despairing, the manner in which new ways of living absorb the characters and create new distance between them. 

I was absorbed in this one, waiting to hear from one character or another, hoping to hear that things were making a turn for the better. It's a gem, with strong characterizations and pithy writing, and an atmosphere all of its own. 

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