#APStogether | Natalia Ginzburg

#APStogether January 5, 2021

The City and the House is a tale of two continents, with several cities and many houses that serve as provisional homes to the characters—all of them becoming unmoored despite their wishes to stay rooted. An epistolary novel written with Natalia Ginzburg's dry wit, The City and the House turns physical dramas into detached narratives in letters that leave a permanent impression, even a permanent wound, on the reader.

Reading Schedule
Day 1 (January 5) | pp. 1-20 (through “We will see one another next Saturday. I’ll bring Ignazio Fegiz. Egisto”)

Day 2 (January 6) | pp. 21-38 (through “…their system has broken down. Egisto”)

Day 3 (January 7) | pp. 39-57 (through “And this made me very upset and worried. Giuseppe”)

Day 4 (January 8) | pp. 58-70 (through “…we are just piling up pointless details. Giuseppe”)

Day 5 (January 9) | pp. 71-87 (through “I shall come to collect the keys. Alberico”)

Day 6 (January 10) | pp. 88-107 (through “…but perhaps he’ll write to you one day. Lucrezia")

Day 7 (January 11) | pp. 108-130 (through “Let me know if you are still sleeping in the room with the bear-cubs. Lucrezia”)

Day 8 (January 12) | pp 131-150 (through “You’ll meet Anais. Egisto”)

Day 9 (January 13) | pp. 151-170 (through “…to find reassuring thoughts that will make me sleep. Yours, Lucrezia”)

Day 10 (January 14) | pp. 171-191 (through “…in which your future is fated and all mapped out for you. Egisto.”)

Day 11 (January 15) | pp. 192-211 (through “Send me your news. Giuseppe”)

Day 12 (January 16) | pp. 212-228 (through “I buy black underpants so that I won’t have to wash them so often.”)

Day 13 (January 17) | pp. 229-247 (through “with love from your father.”)

Day 14 (January 18) | pp. 248-265 (through “…and anyway she doesn’t like children. Yours, Giuseppe)

Day 15 (January 19) | pp. 266-285 (through “With love and wishes from Alberico”)

Day 16 (January 20) | pp. 286-303 (end)

Day 1 | January 5
pp. 1-20 (through “We will see one another next Saturday. I’ll bring Ignazio Fegiz. Egisto”)

In the first twenty pages two apartments are sold. Real estate transactions are never simple changes of ownership. Roberta asks Giuseppe: “What will you do if one fine day you decide to come back?” Giuseppe is not alone in his blunder. Ask Lear.

“He was a quiet, biddable, docile child and didn’t cause any bother.”
A footnote to Chekhov’s pistol theory: children called biddable in Part I will make or become wreckage in Part III.

In this epistolary novel, characters write letters long and short to one another. Still, there are many unsent letters, which become a refrain. The first unsent letter: Aunt Bice’s letter to Alberico is not yet posted when she dies.

Day 2 | January 6
pp. 21-38 (through “…their system has broken down. Egisto”)

Quintessential Ginzburg, stories told slantingly: Lucrezia narrates her life—births, deaths, affairs, breakups—dryly in a letter to Giuseppe. From Albina’s letter we learn that Lucrezia locks herself in her room to write him, not taking care of her children’s meal.

“I fall in love easily… Perhaps waiting so anxiously made me fall in love with him… He was just very kind and I fell in love with him.”
It takes a special kind of talent not only to fall in love easily but to articulate the illogic of falling in love.

There are letters by post, hand-delivered letters, letters brought over by intermediaries (and read by them), and letters unsent yet described in letters—Albina’s torn-up love letters to Giuseppe, for instance. This is one of the most epistolary novels.

Day 3 | January 7
pp. 39-57 (through “And this made me very upset and worried. Giuseppe”)

“At a certain point in our lives everything we see for the first time is external to us.”
Is being a permanent tourist so intolerable a fate? Perhaps so, though there must be something intolerable in every role for Giuseppe, whose ego is like an oversized, unhatchable egg.

“How could I have protected you when I myself have such a need to be protected?” Giuseppe’s words echo the devastating final line of “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” by Denis Johnson: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.”

“I kissed him on his beard. He is taller than I am and I had to stand on tiptoe.” For a father who has little affection for his son, this paternal kiss, carried on tiptoe, leaves a lasting imprint on a reader’s mind.

Day 4 | January 8
pp. 58-70 (through “…we are just piling up pointless details. Giuseppe”)

“She had a baby girl and her mother died. She separated from her husband who killed himself a short time afterwards.”
Death is always a swift occurrence in Ginzburg’s narrative. There is no drama, the ripples are barely visible on the surface...

The swiftness of death in Ginzburg's work: of her husband tortured to death by the Nazis, she wrote simply this: “During the German occupation Leone had died in the German Wing of the Regina Coeli prison in Rome, one icy February.” (Family Lexicon)

Lucrezia’s meat-loaf is becoming another refrain in the letters. “Her meat-loaves fall apart.” More things in heaven and earth fall apart than Lucrezia’s meat-loaves!

Day 5 | January 9
pp. 71-87 (through “I shall come to collect the keys. Alberico”)

“Since I have been here she had never made a meat-loaf but I’m sure that if she did make one it wouldn’t fall apart.”
A minor hell is where a person is forever remembered by her failed meat-loaf. Poor Lucrezia. Only Piero so far praises and believes in the meatloaf.

Two months into the novel, Giuseppe and Alberico are proven to be “a couple of real fools” for selling their apartments. The problem, though, is that if they could turn the clock back, they would have made the same, inevitable decisions.

“There’s a reason for everything. A stupid proverb because the things we do often have neither rhyme nor reasons to them.”
Giuseppe belongs to rare species of narcissists who are not afflicted with self-deception.

Day 6 | January 10
pp. 88-107 (through “…but perhaps he’ll write to you one day. Lucrezia")

“He went to America in order to hide himself away under his brother’s wings. But brothers don’t have wings.”
Clear-eyed Albina! Lucrezia seeks Giuseppe's protection in her love affair with him. Albina, once in love with Giuseppe too, has no such illusion.

"It’s not as if death were something meritorious. It comes to everyone sooner or later.”
Death is never mundane, yet what a quintessential Ginzburg character Albina is, as unsentimental as Ginzburg.

“My brother loved her, and as it’s turned out, she is the only thing of his I still have.”
An understatement of a fraught triangle. One would hate to parse the sentence, for fear of losing the various facets and disturbing the muddled beauty .

Day 7 | January 11
pp. 108-130 (through “Let me know if you are still sleeping in the room with the bear-cubs. Lucrezia”)

“The best time for me is in my office…and I see the sunset over the rooftops, through the window, and then the greyness of the dusk, and then darkness.”
Piero’s understated loneliness: like a rehearsal of the end of a marriage or even death, every evening.

“I’m glad that you often go to Le Margherite. And I’m generally glad to think of you involved in my former life.”
Giuseppe, not knowing yet at this moment that Ignazio Fegiz has become Lucrezia’s lover, writes like a dour prophet.

“Sad things that happen to other people make me feel diffident.”
Egisto, unable to express his condolence, articulates a deeper, sadder truth: it’s not indifference that leads to our silence, but the diffidence when facing the scale of a tragedy.

Day 8 | January 12
pp 131-150 (through “You’ll meet Anais. Egisto”)

Giuseppe to Lucrezia: “Real friendship does not scratch and bite, and your letter scratched and bit me.” The affair between them is over, but their letters, full of love entangled with discontentment, are the most passionate and wounding words in the novel.

“She is unhappy because now she finds herself carrying around the weight of so many ruined years.”
Thank goodness for Albina and Egisto, two people, despite living with their own muddles, are clear-eyed observers and narrators.

Lucrezia’s marriage ends. Alberico’s little family flounders. Giuseppe starts a relationship with his brother's widow. All these dramas, dryly told in letters, are the best antidote to that old, questionable instruction: show, don't tell.

Day 9 | January 13
pp. 229-247 (through “with love from your father.”)

Roberta, writing about Alberico: “He always seems like somebody who has just walked for miles and miles.” Roberta is really a solace. She sees the homelessness and rootlessness of Alberico better than anyone else.

“Don’t think I’m not astonished to have married her. I feel astonished about it every day. I don’t know if she wonders why she has married me.”
A dreadful clarity: never self-deceptive, Giuseppeis is nevertheless an effective saboteur of his own life and other lives.

Alberico mis-remembering Lucrezia’s name as Ophelia: is there something otherworldly about her? She, despite the messes she has made, continues to occupy the center of many people’s attention.

Day 10 | January 14
pp. 171-191 (through “…in which your future is fated and all mapped out for you. Egisto.”)

Ignazio Fegiz to Roberta: “He said that perhaps, in a certain sense, I could be said to be right.” Roberta calls I.F. “as closed as an oyster.” And when he speaks of the truth, his words are as slippery as oyster, too.

Albina’s letter, listing her reasons to want to marry Nino and his reasons to want to marry her, is like a snow-covered volcano.

Missed connections, miscarried plans, broken marriages, uprooted children, driftless adults–a little over half into the novel, we have suffered enough casualties as though we lived through this civil war of desires and discontentments along with the characters.

Day 11 | January 15
pp. 192-211 (through “Send me your news. Giuseppe”)

Roberta writing about Ignazio Fegiz: “He’s one of those people it’s impossible to hate when you actually see them.”Seeing is believing. Can't decide if Roberta is generous, or one's disbelief comes from not seeing I.F but only reading about him.

“Everyone says to me: Pull yourself together. You already have lots of children. I know, but I want this one too.”
One of the most astonishing and sympathetic Lucrezia moments. That "I know, but I want..." statement easily grants her a place in Shakespeare.

Giuseppe has a lot to say to his step-daughter, as he has a lot to write about to Lucrezia, but not much to his brother, his son, and his brother's wife who is his wife now. Perhaps for some, the only meaningful people are those chosen as the special audience.

Day 12 | January 16
pp. 212-228 (through “I buy black underpants so that I won’t have to wash them so often.”)

“Long, beautiful silences, full of secret words. Sudden, silly bursts of laughter. Short, inconclusive phrases. Thoughts that got tangled up and went round in circles. Hair in my eyes. That constant sense of triumphant complicity.”
“That constant sense of triumphant complicity”–strangely refreshing words capturing the essence of an extramarital affair. Perhaps only someone like Lucrezia, with illusion about love, can articulate the illusory nature of a love affair.

“What a strange phrase stepdaughter is, I really cannot connect it with Chantel or with my relationship with her.”
Neither can Giuseppe make connection between “son” & Alberico, or “wife” & Anne Marie, or “love” & Lucrezia. For some, nouns must be closed doors.

Alberico writing about his film: “I enjoyed myself making it, but I don’t like it. However, if other people like it, so much the better.”
Like his father, Alberico is not susceptible to self-deception--a good reason to respect him as an artist.

Day 13 | January 17
pp. 229-247 (through “I buy black underpants so that I won’t have to wash them so often.”)

“It’s an upsetting film because the white light is there the whole time, and because little by little everyone dies.”
This description of Alberico’s film is a good summary many of Ginzburg's books.

“The child would have fresh air, fresh fruit, fresh eggs and she would grow up healthy.”
Nadia’s daughter seems the only character in the novel with some concrete future to look forward to. So rarely is an orphan promised a better life than the one she’s lost.

"Pepsicola was written across the sweatshirt, just where the bullet hole was."
Poor Nadia. Not many chapters ago we all watched you eat the ham-roll and found it terribly sad and funny.

Day 14 | January 18
pp. 248-265 (through “…and anyway she doesn’t like children. Yours, Giuseppe)

Alberica: “I have his bald, dry head in front of me, as smooth as an egg. …I like his head. It’s familiar to me.” Dr. Lanzara does not occupy much space in the novel, but his familiar head gives a sense of solace not provided by family and friends.

“Goodness knows why we look at people so vaguely. Then they die and we wish we were able to remember them.”
Lucrezia gets many of the memorable lines in this messy drama.

Giuseppe, about his step-grandchild’s role in his marriage after his affair with his stepdaughter: “The child’s presence makes our situation a little more bearable, a little easier.” The epitome of human messed-up-ness told as a dry fact. (Also, poor child.)

Day 15 | January 19
pp. 248-265 (through “…and anyway she doesn’t like children. Yours, Giuseppe)

Lucrezia, imagining Piero’s return: “I had even prepared how I was going to refuse to do this—affectionately, calmly, firmly, very firmly and resolutely.”
Is it bleak or hopeful that Lucrezia is always able to see a preferable alternative to the dire reality?

Lucrezia, writing about Piero: “I had always believed myself to be the centre of his life, the centre of his thoughts.”
A person’s blind spot as big as her ego: to think of oneself as the center of another person’s thoughts. (Thoughts? Thoughts!)

Anne Marie, after Chantel takes away the child: “She tried to keep her smile in place.”
An astonishing character, with a long, hard life, with a stoicism unheard of to Giuseppe and most of his friends, Anne Marie could have carried an entire novel by herself.

Day 16 | January 20
pp. 286-303 (end)

“The house where I live now is profoundly alien to me, and it has always been.”
Change the word “house” to “life” or “world”, the statement would still be an apt summery of Giuseppe’s situation, and many others'.

All these deaths later, Giuseppe and Lucrezia on the phone: “It was a long-distance weep.” For a moment, these two are as tragic and as absurd as two minor, blundering Greek gods.

The City and the House: what a devastating novel. It might as well be called Orphans with Parents, or, Lovers without Love, or, The Story of Meatloafs and Other Imperfections.

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