Natalia Ginzburg’s 2 novellas Valentino and Sagittarius both focus on the magnetic pull of family–even if a family member is toxic. It often occurs to me that we tolerate certain toxic behavior in family members and relatives, while we would distance ourselves from others if they behaved in the same way. This can certainly be argued for both of Natalia Ginzburg’s stories, told by narrators who are blindly accepting of the horrible behaviour of family members who drag them to the ground.
In Valentino all the hopes for the rise of family fortunes is invested in the sole ne’er do-well son. The tale is narrated by Caterina, Valentino’s sister who lives with her brother and parents in a tiny rented apartment. There’s also Clara, a married sister, who also needs support, a woman with “constant toothache” who has three children. Caterina attends a teacher training college and tutors children in her spare time. Valentino’s expenses are “never-ending” and never questioned as he is “destined to become a man of consequence.” Valentino’s father believes his son will become a world-famous doctor:
Valentíno himself seemed void of any ambition to become a man of consequence; in the house, he usually spent his time playing with a kitten or making toys for the caretaker’s children out of scraps of old material stuffed with sawdust, fashioning cats and dogs and monkeys too, with big heads and long, lumpy bodies. Or he would don his skiing outfit and admire himself in the mirror; not that he went skiing very often, for he was lazy and hated the cold, but he had persuaded my mother to make him an outfit all in black with a great white woolen balaclava; he thought himself no end of a fine fellow in these clothes and would strut about in front of the mirror first with a scarf thrown about his neck and then without and would go out on to the balcony so that the caretaker’s children could see him.
Valentino, a self-centered peacock, has a constant stream of girlfriends; “Teenagers wearing jaunty little berets and still studying at high school.” Imagine then the shock experienced by Valentino’s family when he announces that he’s going to get married and then brings home his fiancée, Maddalena, an extremely ugly, “short and fat” much older heiress.
It’s clear that Valentino’s motives are venal, and he really can’t stretch out the ‘famous doctor’ fantasy for much longer. While you might imagine that Valentino’s family would be relieved that he’s marrying money, they are hostile to the match. Even though Maddalena is extremely generous to her husband’s family , they never forgive her for marrying Valentino–as if somehow she’s ruined his potential.
Sagittarius is narrated by an unmarried woman who lives with her impossible widowed mother. There’s another daughter at home, Guilia, who, after a failed romance, marries a Jewish doctor on the rebound. The mother quarrels with her husband’s family after selling off some family land, and so she moves, daughters in tow. She imposes herself on her sisters who’ve managed to run a china shop quite efficiently without her help. The bombastic widow who has an overinflated idea of her competence tries to muscle in on the shop to no avail. And then the widow meets the shady Signora Fontana, a woman whose tatty glamour appeals to the widow, and the two women plan to open an art gallery together.
Both darkly humorous novellas focus on the way the main characters mistreat their families–Valentino is a sponger, controlling everyone in his life with his dubious, superficial charm, and he transfers his appalling behaviour from his family to his wife. He’s never held accountable for his fecklessness, and so we see how someone who is a User carries on being such for the rest of his life. In Sagittarius, the widow controls everyone by nastiness; she’s abrasive to her family and yet bends over backwards to accept so much rubbish from Signor Fontana. Again: that truism of how we can be considerate to others while treating family like indentured servants who are expected to tolerate bad behaviour. Both novellas had a 19th century feel to them, so much so that modern references were a bit of a shock.
Translated by Avril Bardoni