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A Silence Shared
Lalla Romano
translated by Brian Robert Moore
18 January 2023

« If a story just like that one — dying babies, divine retribution — had come back to me from childhood memories, it would have seemed fantastical, unreal. »

Lalla Romano, Severe Self-Portrait (1940); Collection Antonio Ria.

Graziella ‘Lalla’ Romano (1906-2001) returned during World War II to her home province of Cuneo and became involved with the partisans. She rejected the terms memoir or autobiography. In A Silence Shared, set in Cuneo and the surrounding countryside, she changes some of the details of her life during the war, and narrates from the perspective of Giulia, a sort of alter ego. This story forms the opening sequence of A Silence Shared (Tetto Murato), published by Pushkin Press.

Brian Robert Moore on Lallo Romano:
« Spare prose can be more difficult to translate, since there’s nowhere to hide »


I had heard people talk about them, the way locals talk about out-of-towners: as something suspicious, if not outright scandalous.

He, a teacher and intellectual, sent to that isolated town near the border as if in a kind of exile; she, proud, aristocratic. No one knew how they managed to get by: they didn’t give lessons, and yet no one could say they had racked up any debts. Worst of all was that they « didn’t go to church ».

I had felt bad for these strangers. For them, life in that provincial town could not have been easy.

One day, a woman was pointed out to me on the balcony of a new house built over the old fortified walls — I knew it had to be her.

There was an ancient grace to this figure as she carried out the dancelike act of hanging laundry on a clothesline. Squeezed into a robe which opened out like a bell, she twirled rapidly with abrupt, even haughty movements; her hair she wore knotted at the top of her head.

I stood looking at her, mesmerized, and I was sorry when she went back inside.

On a small bench, her young daughter still sat clutching a doll. There was something ancient about her, too; maybe her long, very fair hair, which fell down over her little shoulders.

What came over me then was almost pity, a desire to protect her.

I too felt lost in that town, where I had spent my childhood, no less: my return had been forced by the war.

I lived in the now unfamiliar house of two elderly cousins of my mother. The cousins had been beautiful in their youth, and still were now that they were old, or nearly old. Stefano, my husband, regarded them admiringly, subtly paying his respects; they were grateful for the way he treated them like ladies. They listened attentively — slightly rigid — as he told of wartime life in Turin.

As for me, Stefano’s brief visits shook me, and left me feeling weaker.

The cousins had set up a gloomy room for us, their mother’s old sitting room. The only option was to stay put on the bed, in that room cramped with furniture and other useless things, which moreover happened to be freezing cold. The bed, located in the middle of the room, was tall and had a bulging « bombé » frame. It wasn’t a double bed, and even for two skinny people it was tight.

Stefano would lie stretched out; he stayed composed while he slept as long as he didn’t have bad dreams.

He liked the summer, sleeping sheetless as though in a field. I, on the other hand, liked a winter bed. In the summer and in the winter Stefano’s dry body smelled good, the smell of bread fresh from the oven, I used to say. But now it was hard to find that warm aroma again: always too much cold had been endured. His feet were icy, and in his hair lingered the sad smell of trains from his journey there.

I had work to do in those weeks, a classic to translate. I sank into it like something that was outside of time, which calmed me. When people came to see the cousins, I would put away the book, the dictionaries and notebooks, and I’d flip through issues of Pro Familia, bound by year. (I stayed in there with them because it was the only heated room.) That magazine, with its photographs of high-ranking clergymen, was no less gloomy than the visits.

The visitors were elderly women, the widows of generals and the like: gossipy and piously narrow-minded.

The cousins listened without interruption. They didn’t enquire into other people’s business. Not that they were particularly easy-going; they just avoided indiscretion. Sometimes, if the woman talking was more colourful, I listened too. That was how I heard about Ada and Paolo. The woman was telling a story about them: an example, she said, of « punished unbelief » and « divine retribution ».

The story went back a couple of years, to when « they » had arrived in town with their baby daughter who was only a few months old. The baby did not « even » have a necklace with a medallion of the Madonna around her neck, so the wet nurse secretly pinned a medallion to her shirt. The baby ended up swallowing the medallion. The doctor couldn’t figure out the problem and kept tormenting the child, who was eventually saved, when she was on the verge of dying, by a doctor in Turin. If a story just like that one — dying babies, divine retribution — had come back to me from childhood memories, it would have seemed fantastical, unreal. Now I found it frightening for the meaning its narrator gave it. I saw no greatness in their God.


I was walking alone under the porticoes; I passed by a young woman with a long stride who didn’t look like she was from around there. I glimpsed her eyes flashing at me, something black and light blue. I recognized her, called after her. She froze for a moment; I told her that I’d been hoping to meet her, that I was also from Turin. Her expression immediately changed, and, smiling, she invited me to come to her house the next day.

In the house I mostly noticed a rather large, shadowy painting. Under a big feathered hat, a pale woman’s face peered out with a dark look in her eyes, sad as if in reproach.

« Paolo’s mother, » she said. « She was such a beautiful woman. »

I compared her uplifted, luminous face with the waxen face of the woman in the painting. She added almost nonchalantly, though firmly, too: « It’s all we have left from Paolo’s house. It was such a lavish house. » I smiled to myself for all of those « suches », which evoked a world both naïve and absolute, although it wasn’t lost on me that she was at all times referring to the past.

Other paintings, English-style ink drawings: all of it had come from his house.

So, they had no other home but this one. They, perhaps, did not have anyone left.

It was different for Stefano and me: our homes and families were still there. But we had left without well-made and austere pieces of furniture or paintings.

They had grieved losses that, in some way, continued to haunt them. That face in the painting loomed slightly over everything. « She was very unhappy, » she said, seeing that I was looking at it again. « She was ill. »

With these words, it sounded as though she were trying to justify something: her own harshness, or the other woman’s? But she didn’t say anything else.

The little girl waited, standing by the door, her hair looking like strands of light. Her mother went to pull out a drawer and gave it to her « to put back in order ».

I watched the girl, who with chubby, light hands, silently placed the objects in piles and in lines. At a certain point she said, « I’ve finished. » Her mother took the drawer as it was — which is to say, with the items arranged in meticulous disorder — and went to put it back, as if that were the one and only way it had to be. Still unsatisfied, the girl asked, « Now what? »

Her mother sighed quickly (lovingly), then opened a cupboard and handed the girl a tea set to play with. The cups were nearly transparent; surely, they were also from their former home. I hazarded asking whether there was any danger of her breaking them. She looked somewhat sombre and amazed as she turned to me: « Why, of course not! »

While watching the girl, the story I’d heard about her came back to me.

I usually felt embarrassed making other people talk to me about their misfortunes, but I thought I needed to bring it up. (I knew that illnesses for a family are like battles for a general.) Ada, bent over her sewing, suddenly reared up her head; then, without complaint, she jumped right into the story.

There were no medallions involved (something the pious old woman had made up) — the baby had swallowed a safety pin. Beyond that detail, the new version of the story was essentially the same as the first.

Out of all that emotion, one image was left stuck in my head: racing in the car towards Turin on a snowy day, with the dying baby in her arms. But this time, despite my disinclination for that kind of sob story, I felt something edifying in it, which lulled the soul.

When she finished telling me the story, she declared, « I simply understood that there is such a thing as providence. »

It was not just a manner of speaking. I saw, as in an allegory, her victory and the confusion of the pious hags.

The Editors
A Q&A with Brian Robert Moore
« Spare prose can be more difficult to translate, since there’s nowhere to hide. »

When did you first encounter Lalla Romano?

I first read Romano while I was living in Milan and working in publishing there. My interest was sparked in part by her publishing history itself, and by some of the notable authors who had played different roles in championing and publishing her work: Cesare Pavese, Natalia Ginzburg, Elio Vittorini, Italo Calvino, all of whom were involved in one way or another in the publishing house Einaudi. But the more I read Romano, the more I felt she was a particularly contemporary voice, whose unflinching and deeply personal work could fit just as comfortably in the context of today’s literary landscape. Romano didn’t perceive any difference between fiction and nonfiction; even if nearly all of her books explore her lived experience through memory, she rejected the terms memoir or autobiography, because she saw memory itself as invention, fantasy. This is especially clear in A Silence Shared (Tetto Murato in Italian), in which she overtly changes some of the details of her life during the war, and narrates from the perspective of Giulia, a sort of alter ego.

It was the first book I read by Romano and it remained a favorite of mine, and I finally had the chance to start translating it during the pandemic. It spoke to me more than ever, then, especially for how Romano captures drama in stillness. By focusing on two couples in an isolated setting during the war, the novel evokes a kind of time outside of time, in which the norms of everyday life are put on hold while the characters fixate on what will come « after » — if there ever will be an after.

Lalla Romano at home in Milan; (c) Antonio Ria

What sort of writer is Lalla Romano? And, of course, an impossible-measurement question: how translatable is she?

Romano has a rather minimalist style, but she is a spectacular prose stylist. She wrote that a novel’s charm — the way it grips us — is born out of its rhythm, and the writing in A Silence Shared has these subtly strange, even entrancing rhythms to it, which I wanted to maintain. Of course, a rhythm or sentence structure being unconventional in one language doesn’t make it equally so in another, and I therefore had to try to feel what rhythms, what pauses and emphases felt right in English. One thing she sought to do as a writer was to create quiet and stillness around the words, so that the spare words themselves become more impactful; or as she put it: « The words have to be few, between spaces and silences: that way they live. »

Often for me it was less a question of literally translating Romano’s Italian sentences into English than of imagining what Romano would write if she did write in English; in a way, this is always the case when you’re trying to maintain an author’s style in translation, but I especially felt it in this case. I sensed that one could produce a seemingly accurate and even very readable translation of Romano and yet lose her presence entirely if the particular nature of her voice wasn’t carried over somehow. Spare and essential prose can be more difficult to translate, since there’s nowhere to hide, and I think that Romano often intentionally allows for various shades of meaning to coexist in what she writes, even in a single phrase or word. She even seems to make a point of this at the beginning of the novel: after Giulia finally meets Ada, this stranger whom she feels so drawn to, and the two start to build a relationship, Giulia wonders to herself about the meaning behind Ada’s quick and enigmatic lines of dialogue.


Was it intimidating that Romano has translated books herself?

As difficult as she is to translate, I actually found it comforting that Romano was a translator herself, and that she had translated some particularly difficult and intimidating authors, too. Specifically, she translated Flaubert’s Three Tales and Sentimental Education, and a couple of other books from the French. She was even going to translate Emily Dickinson after being asked to by Einaudi, but the project never went through. One reason that translation was never completed, I imagine, is that Romano saw translating as incredibly demanding work. She described translating Sentimental Education in particular as an obsessive and all-consuming process: she would get up in the middle of the night because the right word had come to her, and she even ended up having to abandon one of her own books to finish the translation. And yet, from her prose, she comes across as one of the most assured Italian writers of the last century — she never described writing her own books as similarly disruptive or anxiety-inducing. In the end, I suppose it’s not easy for anyone.

The 1971 Einaudi edition of Tetto Murato; with Romano in Cuneo during World War II

You write in your preface: « Translation, this interpretive art, is truly at the heart of the book. »  Can you explain?

I see translation as key to the novel on both a literal and figurative level. The book depicts the period in which Romano translated Flaubert’s Three Tales, an experience she credited as having turned her into a prose writer and novelist; before, she had been a painter and had written mostly poetry, but translating Flaubert led her to discover that « prose and poetry are, rather, the same thing. » A Silence Shared, which I consider to be one of her most poetic novels, seems to me a culminating moment after that realization. In fact, Romano references this autobiographical detail directly in the first few pages, writing that she — or Giulia — had a « classic to translate. »

At the same time, I find translation to be central in a more abstract sense: translation as a process of transferring meaning, of facilitating understanding across different forms of communication and different mediums. The novel focuses on the deep affinities that arise between these two couples — especially between Giulia and Ada’s husband, Paolo, an incredibly reserved partisan who has to go into hiding due to a mysterious illness — but there is very little speaking that takes place on the page. The novel, for me, is more interested in communication that exists through silence and the unsaid. I’m still amazed by how Romano allows us to feel so acutely the intensity of their relationship and of their impossible love for each other, even without « giving much away », you could say. (And it’s worth noting, as we find out towards the end of the novel, that Paolo is a translator too.)


Where would you position Lalla Romano in Italian literary history? And how does she speak to new readers outside of Italy now?

Romano is definitely a classic author, and she was one of the few women writers to reach such acclaim and to win the Strega Prize in the second half of the 20th century — but the individual novels themselves have become more like cult classics in Italy. The Italian critic Paolo Di Stefano wrote, « If she were French, she would enjoy the same popularity as the two exceptional Marguerites: Yourcenar and Duras, » and I think there’s a fair amount of truth to that.

I do believe now is a time in which her books could finally be appreciated more outside of Italy and in the anglophone world, as they deserve to be. The way her books come together to form a mosaic of a whole life — I think it creates an interesting dialogue with the work of other contemporary authors, including Annie Ernaux. She was also before her time in how she mixed both photography and text to create a narrative in several of her books, years before other, more famous contemporary authors, such as Sebald, began to do something similar. At the same time, she was an early champion of Italian authors who have really lasted, like Fleur Jaeggy, for one. In this way, we, as readers, often enjoy Romano’s legacy and impact even when we don’t realize it.