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On Natalia Ginzburg’s Valentino
Sander Pleij
06 May 2023

A Q&A with Alexander Chee

Leone and Natalia Ginzburg

From the ERB’s newsletter:

A Q&A with Alexander Chee, who wrote the introduction to the new release of Valentino, out now from Daunt Books.

Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1991) needs very few words to paint very rich and lively characters. The novella Valentino (1957) needs less than one hundred pages to build their entire world. Its narrator is Caterina, a young teacher, who lives at home with her brother Valentino and with their parents, who are convinced, erroneously, that their son (not their daughter) is destined for importance.

SP: Could you describe Valentino without giving too much away?

AC: It is about a woman, Caterina, who feels herself to be almost a spinster, and who tells the story of her brother, Valentino—about the one time he finally got married, after proposing to many other women in the past. The difference between Valentino’s wife, Maddalena, and those other women—or really: girls—he thought he might marry, is that Maddalena is ten years older than him and very rich. She’s much richer than everyone else in Valentino’s family, who have collectively sacrificed enormously to pay for his education—despite the evidence that he was not going to amount to very much.

I think we are meant to understand that it was very common among Italian post-war families to sacrifice everything in a bad economy for a young man they pinned their hopes on, a young man who would disappoint everyone. 

Valentino has a secret, but I didn’t catch it at first when I read the novella twenty years ago. Did you?

I understood it immediately and loved the book for that secret. But I was once in danger of being the young man a family puts all of their effort into, and I ran away from that as far and fast as I could. The secret, as you call it, is also buried in the narration: his sister Caterina, the narrator, does not immediately seem to understand it. So I suspect it is easy to miss.

How did you come across Natalia Ginzburg’s writing? 

The writer and translator Lynne Sharon Schwartz, who I’ve admired since my college days, was the link. We somehow ended up talking about Ginzburg at the Bennington MFA residency in the winter of 2015. I went and found her translation of Ginzburg’s essays, A Place to Live, which led me to The Little Virtues, and those essays had a profound impact on me, helping me think through the eventual creation of my own first essay collection.

Her voice is so powerful.

The voice in Ginzburg’s writing is nearly its own character. What she does so wonderfully is to address a subtext typically left under the floorboards of her characters’ relationships. Reading her work, one is typically always in the presence of both—the story and the voice—but with a sense of the tension each exerts on the other.

Short, simple, precise—her style is often described that way, but the words feel inadequate to me. 

I think so many of us who love her are frustrated by our attempts to describe it—the elusive quality to the vivid life in the sentences, the intelligence and wit. But so much of what she is doing is created out of her awareness of context and subtext, and the sentences move us in at least two or three ways. She is writing stories about people trying to recreate their lives, their world, their loves, in the aftermath of the destruction of so much and so many. 

In her essay « Portrait of a Writer », a beautiful short essay from A place to live, she describes herself in the third person as someone with a small gift, surrounded by people who used to understand her but perhaps no longer. 

She no longer feels she must offer her writing to remote, mysterious people. What she writes is meant for three or four people she sees often. In spells of depression, she imagines these three or four people understand nothing, and she asks fate to send her new people, or to give the old ones back their former insight. Even as she asks, she recalls that fate does not usually heed her requests.

What we think of as her simplicity, she considers a frugality—the attempt to make something she feels is meager last a little longer. 

Her frugality was actually more of a form of avarice. She made up a few things and told them in swift, dry words. Since she wanted to love what she was writing, she gave her avarice the name of restraint. She was strongly determined to disregard her own weaknesses, or else to transform them into something noble, appealing and praiseworthy.

It makes me wish she could know we are still reading her. Nothing here is meager at all.

Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, and the essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. He is a contributing editor at The New Republic and an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College.

This Q&A first appeared in the ERB’s newsletter.