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Natalia Ginzburg: La città e la casa (The City and the House)

One of the key themes of 20th century literature is the collapse of systems and structures we have known for centuries, whether to replace them and, if so, with what. It might be expected that the Italians would be more concerned with the collapse of religion but it is more the collapse of the family that seems to be the focus of the Italians. Many major Italian authors have discussed this theme but none more so than Ginzburg. Even in her excellent biography of the Manzoni Family, nominally about the great Italian writer, Alessandro Manzoni, her focus seems to be on how his family was falling apart.

In this novel, the family has gone to hell in a handbasket. There is no obvious collapse, merely signs of the family life having deteriorated beyond repair and the feeble and ultimately useless struggles of the protagonists to replace it. The whole novel is told in a series of letters between the main characters. Giuseppe has clearly made a mess of his life. He has a son with whom has little contact till they start writing to each other and a mistress who is still living with her husband and who claims that one of her sons is Giuseppe’s (he denies it and takes little interest in the boy). He goes off to the USA, specifically Princeton, to stay with his brother. Between making his decision and getting there, his brother marries an American woman but still welcomes Giuseppe. The brother dies, Giuseppe marries his brother’s widow, who, in her turn, dies. Giuseppe lusts after his sister-in-law/wife’s daughter (Chantal) by a previous marriage, who separates from her husband during the book. Giuseppe becomes friends with the husband. Giuseppe, having failed as a father, also looks after Chantal’s daughter, till Chantal suddenly ups and leaves. And this mess is just for Giuseppe. Back in Italy, Giuseppe’s son, Alberico, takes care of Nadia who is pregnant by someone but not by Alberico and looks after the child even after Nadia is killed, till Nadia’s parents take him away. Giuseppe’s ex-mistress, Lucrezia, leaves her husband for another man, who gets her pregnant but still has his previous girlfriend and strings Lucrezia along. Lucrezia loses the baby and seems more upset about that than about her surviving children or ex-husband.

There is more. A lot more. Suffice it to say that not one of the main characters has a satisfactory family life. They move in and out of families, marry for the wrong reasons, leave for the wrong reasons, ignore their children, die. Ginzburg tells us all this in letters, which seems chatty, straightforward and which, rather than expressing misery, seem to express an inability to comprehend what is happening, an inability to see that the family is breaking down and that there is nothing to take its place. If you have a family, read this book to find out what is going on. And if you don’t, read it to find out what you are not missing.

Publishing history

First published in Italian 1984 by Einaudi
First English translation 1986 by Carcanet