Book Review

Valentino and Sagittarius by Natalia Ginzburg

the lockdown continues and nothing changes


I read my first Natalia Ginzburg about 18 months ago and had planned to read more. I never did.

The time since then has been a horror, it truly has been a horror.

A literal pandemic that eroded the previously-held, universal, false beliefs that kept society functioning.

There seems to be some kind of lazy return to those beliefs with the recent coronation of Joe Biden as American Prime Minister, but I think it is essential for us all to return to the starker – but much more honest – belief that everything is shit all the time for most people.

So much of the world is filtered through America. I’m – shamefully – English and I live in Canada, but both the local news I read here and the news I read of “home” sometimes feel like almost 50/50 domestic to American news.

America looms so loud and so large, and tho it makes sense here (it’s a two hour drive/ten minute flight away), because an actual civil war in a neighbouring nuclear state is something to be feared, but but but-

COVID is here and it dominates, too.

We look to America because it often seems to be worse than where “we” are. In the UK, though, that has had to stop. When the president of the USA makes morally sound, but gentle, progressive noises that show a basic sense of human compassion, the UK’s “liberal” media decries it. It’s such a such a shitshow.

There is no hope within me for England recovering from itself. Ignorance of history and consequence is considered a virtue, basic understanding and moral evaluation of the horrors undertaken by British colonialists is considered a fringe “loony left” opinion. Christ.

Anyway, these two novellas of Natalia Ginzburg’s are nothing to do with England, of course they’re not, but they did make me think of English lives.

I suppose it’s the discussion of class, the centring of money and the demonisation of pleasure as experienced in Valentino.

Valentino

Valentino is the spoilt youngest child – and only boy – of a lower middle class family in rural Italy.

His sisters and his parents sacrificed and eschewed fun, frivolity and pleasure in order to pay for Valentino’s schooling, and giving him money and clothes to charm and seduce. The parents hope he will become a doctor, “a man of consequence”, but Valentino has no interest in doing so, and he marries an “ugly” woman about a decade and a half older than him because she has lots of money.

The parents, depressed by their son’s transparently avaricious marriage and his swift abandonment of medical studies once he has an allowance from a rich woman, both die, and Valentino’s wife – who is not the villain of the piece – does her best to help the sisters, financially, in any way she can.

The oldest sister, tho, resents her for damaging her brother even more than he had damaged himself before: at least before their marriage he had to continue his education, as he would otherwise have had no money for fancy clothes and riotous parties.

The younger sister, the middle sibling I think, gets on with the wife but feels uncomfortable accepting all her generosity, especially – once their children are born – the badly-matched couple become more and more aggressive and abusive towards each other.

Valentino, of course, is having an affair, but rather than with a pretty woman his own age, it is with a bumbling, ineffectual middle aged man who had no status to gift him, only love.

It’s direct, it’s emotive, it’s a short piece but it’s very affecting and very evocative of the interiors and the exteriors it describes. The narrator, the younger sister, is briefly engaged to the brother’s boyfriend, but they never fuck, they never even kiss, it wasn’t real, what is what is what is?

A beautiful, short, piece.

Sagittarius

Sagittarius is about twice as long as Valentino, and even more affecting.

It’s narrated by a young woman again, but it is about her middle aged mother, who – desperate for friendship, desperate for collaboration, desperate for creativity – is conned out of her life savings by a person she believes is the only friend she’s had for years.

I found this one very powerful, particularly its ending with blunt acceptance and decision to abandon pursuit of redress. The money, like the con artist, is gone, disappeared. It was a long time ago, it was harder then to chase a person the length of a country or even Italy’s width.

It reminded me, I suppose, of my experience with the structurally-unsound boat misadventure I had three and a half years ago.

It’s easy to let things go, isn’t it?

It’s only money, and what is lost – the sense of shame at having been exploited and conned and tricked – is more potent, and that certainly wouldn’t have been recalled by court order. Well, maybe this isn’t what I mean. I’m not angry at the con job, I’m angry at the circumstances that led me to being exploitable. Hustlers gotta hustle, as they say. We marks have to acknowledge when we’re beat. (I write about this in detail in my forthcoming book, Hip-hop-o-crit.)

Sagittarius was affecting for me for this reason, this sense of recognition. It’s also a beautifully paced, neatly written and lavishly descriptive piece. Avril Bardoni’s translation is easy to enjoy.

Meh.

Sorry for digressing.

I feel like maybe it was a bad idea to effectively cut my blog output by 50%. But we’ll see, won’t we. Christ Christ Christ.

I’m sorry

I’m sorry

I’m sorry

(Written very early February, maybe late January, I don’t remember, a while ago. Since then, though, I’ve got back into the swing of producing the TRUTHER PRESS poo anthology, so I’m feeling a little more productive and a little more hopeful. That’s the purpose of the reduction in blogging, really: to give myself the freedom to read a little wider and work a little harder. Once a week is still good, right? Who cares, who’s even reading this? lol lol lol lol lol)

ORDER VALENTINO AND SAGITTARIUS FROM NYRB CLASSICS NOW

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