Valentino and Sagittarius
by Natalia Ginzburg (1951 & 1957)
translated from the Italian by Avril Bardoni (1987)
NYRB Classics (2020)
134 pp

Over the past few years Natalia Ginzburg’s name has been popping up. Two of my favorite publishers — NYRB Classics and New Directions — have been publishing a handful of her books, and each are publishing more of her work over the next few months. I figured it was time to jump in, finally, and what better way than with a couple of bite-sized novellas? What better way, indeed! I loved both Valentino and Sagittarius. I’m in. I can see 2021 being my year of reading as much of her work as I can get a hold of.

The first is Valentino, which was my favorite of these two. Written in 1951 (though originally published the same year as Sagittarius in 1957), the story is narrated by a young woman who is old enough to be off on her own. In fact, she is old enough to wonder if she ever will marry. Valentino is her brother, and he’s also just breaking into those years when his promise should start to come to some fruition. Up until now, he’s been your typically self-centered, rather spoiled, boy, though his parents have allowed it because . . .

My father believed that he was destined to become a man of consequence. There was little enough reason to believe this, but he believed it all the same and had done ever since Valentino was a small boy and perhaps found it difficult to break the habit.

Everyone is surprised when one day Valentino, who has courted and dismissed many beautiful women, shows up engaged to marry a wealthy woman named Maddalena. There is one readily apparent issue with Maddalena, though:

‘That woman is ugly as sin,’ said my mother quietly. ‘She’s grotesque, Valentino. And since she boasts about being so wealthy, everyone will assume that you are marrying her for her money. That’s what we think too, Valentino, because we cannot believe that you are in love with her, you who always used to chase the pretty girls, none of whom was ever pretty enough for you. Nothing like this has ever happened in our family before; not one of us has ever done anything just for money.’

Valentino denies that this is why he is marrying Maddalena, and marry her he does. This crushes his father, who spend the remainder of his short time on earth bitter and morose.

In the drawer of his bedside table we found a letter addressed to Valentino which he must have written some days before, a long letter in which he apologized for having always believed that Valentino would become a man of consequence; there was, indeed, no necessity for him to become a man of consequence, it would be enough if he became a man at all, because at present he was merely a child.

The first part of the novella focuses a lot on Valentino’s surprising marriage, but I was surprised at how much time the story covers as it shifts its focus to the narrator’s own painful desires for love and marriage. For a good chunk of the book I wondered just why it was called Valentino, though it comes full circle in a way I should have probably figured out and expected. I didn’t, so it was a surprise and made the entire novella in retrospect that much more achingly sad.

Sagittarius was also a surprising novella, though I found it a little bit more meandering. Still, I thought it was excellent. Once again, our narrator is a young woman who has moved out and is not yet married. This time, she is telling us a story about her mother. When the story begins, her mother is newly widowed and has just bought a home in the city to get away from her small town. One gets the sense — and perhaps rightly — that she is ready to take advantage of some new freedom. Cleary, though, she has always seen herself as in charge and involved. After all, her moving to town is not a welcome development for the narrator, who is going to school in the city, and it is not welcome news for the mother’s two sisters who live in the city and own a shop. They knew they’d have to front her money for her home, which they do, and also put up with her coming to try to take over and manage their shop, which she does.

The mother is a difficult person, to be sure. She walks around with an air of superiority and meddles. She had already pushed away one daughter whom she hoped would marry a particularly impressive young man.

At times she was nearly overcome by her own emotion: her throat constricted and a sob crept into her voice; at long last she was playing the role she had always dreamed about, that of a mother, full of anxious solicitude, preparing to confide her daughter into the hands of a young man with good intentions, good prospects and a good character. She was so wrapped up in her own performance that she almost forgot to look at the young man in question; later, when she tried to call him to mind, all she could remember was a blond crew-cut and two fleshy lips clamped around the neck of a bottle.

I thought the story would be about this — a woman coming to town and disrupting the lives of those who thought they’d kind of escaped her. But that all passes pretty fast because the mother is really looking for something else, and that’s what Ginzburg is exploring. The mother is looking for that thing that will make her life what she wants it to be. The house. The city. The shop. But none of this really helps her feel that satisfaction she is sure is just around the corner: “There were days when my mother was almost as bored in town as she had been in Dronero.”

But maybe the promise she’d felt her whole life was about to be fulfilled. She meets a woman named Scilla, and they decide they are going to start their own shop, called Sagittarius. Instead of finally living the life she felt she was prepared for, the book takes us all to “a surge of self-pity in which there was no sweetness at all, a self-pity that was utterly desolate and black as night.”

Ah, these were refreshing. I read them quickly over a delightful weekend. I recommend you do the same. And now . . . bring on more Ginzburg.

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