Certain kinds of last paragraph give me shivers. They can occasionally occur at the end of a book. More often, though, this kind of paragraph ends a much shorter piece — usually not fiction. And it goes on delivering its magic no matter how often I read it. Although I can’t write a last paragraph like that — here, and in tomorrow’s post, are two by a great Italian writer that do it for me every time.
This is an abridged version of “Winter in the Abruzzi,” by Natalia Ginzburg, who began to write during World War II. She wrote it in Italian, of course — a language of which I neither speak nor read a single word other than “ciao” and “grazie.” The version I am quoting from comes from a collection of her essays called The Little Virtues (“Le Piccole Virtu”), translated by Dick Davis. You can read all of “Winter in the Abruzzi” in translation, for free, at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2002/may/23/winter-in-the-abruzzi/ I urge you to do so, because — for reasons of post size — what follows is less than half of the whole.
The husband in the last paragraph was the anti-Fascist scholar Leone Ginzburg. The Ginzburgs had spent the early years of World War II in political exile with their three young children in a poor village in the Abruzzi. When they came back to Rome in 1944, Leone Ginzburg was arrested and severely tortured. He died in prison at the hands of the Fascists.
Natalia Ginzburg writes plain. She writes true. When she’s done, there’s nothing left to say.
WINTER IN THE ABRUZZI
God has given us this moment of peace
There are only two seasons in the Abruzzi: summer and winter. The spring is snowy and windy like the winter, and the autumn is hot and clear like the summer. Summer starts in June and ends in November. The long days of sunshine on the low, parched hills, the yellow dust in the streets and the babies’ dysentery come to an end, and winter begins. People stop living in the streets: the barefoot children disappear from the church steps. In the region I am talking about almost all the men disappeared after the last crops were brought in: they went for work to Terni, Sulmona or Rome. Many bricklayers came from that area, and some of the houses were elegantly built; they were like small villas with terraces and little columns, and when you entered them you would be astonished to find large dark kitchens with hams hanging from the ceilings, and vast, dirty empty rooms. In the kitchen a fire would be burning, and there were various kinds of fire: there were great fires of oak logs, fires of branches and leaves, fires of twigs picked up one by one in the street. It was easier to tell the rich from the poor by looking at the fires they burnt than by looking at the houses or at the people themselves, or at their clothes and shoes which were all more or less the same.
When I first arrived in that countryside all the faces looked the same to me, all the women — rich and poor, young and old — resembled each other Almost all of them had toothless mouths: exhaustion and a wretched diet, the unremitting overwork of childbirth and breast feeding, mean that women lose their teeth there when they are thirty. But then, gradually, I began to distinguish Vincenzina from Secondina, Annunziata from Addolerata, and I began to go into their houses and warm myself at their various fires.
When the first snows began to fall a quiet sadness took hold of us. We were in exile: our city was a long way off, and so were books, friends, the various desultory events of a real existence. We lit our green stove with its long chimney that went through the ceiling: we gathered together in the room with the stove — there we cooked and ate, my husband wrote at the big oval table, the children covered the floor with toys. There was an eagle painted on the ceiling of the room, and I used to look at the eagle and think that was exile. Exile was the eagle, the murmur of the green stove, the vast, silent countryside and the motionless snow.
At five o’clock the bell of the church of Santa Maria would ring and the women with their black shawls and red faces went to Benediction. Every evening my husband and I went for a walk: every evening we walked arm in arm, sinking our feet into the snow. The houses that ran alongside the street were lived in by people we knew and liked, and they all used to come to the door to greet us. Sometimes one would ask, ‘When will you go back to your own house?’ My husband answered, ‘When the war is over.’ ‘And when will this war be over? You know everything and you’re a professor, when will it be over?’ They called my husband ‘the professor’ because they could not pronounce his name, and they came from a long way off to ask his advice on the most diverse things — the best season for having teeth out, the subsidies which the town-hall gave, and the different taxes and duties….
Every day homesickness grew in us. Sometimes it was even pleasant, like being in gentle slightly intoxicating company. Letters used to arrive from our city with news of marriages and deaths from which we were excluded. Sometimes our homesickness was sharp and bitter, and turned into hatred;…. But it was a hatred which we kept hidden because we knew it was unjust; and our house was always full of people who came to ask for favors and to offer them….
I talked to our children about our city. They had been very small when we left, and had no memories of it at all. I told them that there the houses had many stories, that there were so many houses and so many streets, and so many big fine shops. ‘But here there is Giro’s,’ the children said.
Giro’s shop was exactly opposite our house. Giro used to stand in the doorway like an old owl, gazing at the street with his round, indifferent eyes. He sold a bit of everything; groceries and candles, postcards, shoes and oranges. When the stock arrived and Giro unloaded the crates, boys ran to eat the rotten oranges that he threw away. At Christmas nougat, liqueurs and sweets also arrived. But he never gave the slightest discount on his prices. ‘How mean you are, Giro,’ the women said to him, and he answered ‘People who aren’t mean get eaten by dogs.’…..
In February the air was soft and damp. Grey, swollen clouds travelled across the sky. One year during the thaw the gutters broke. Then water began to pour into the house and the rooms became a veritable quagmire. But it was like this throughout the whole area; not one house remained dry. The women emptied buckets out of their windows and swept the water out of their front doors. There were people who went to bed with an open umbrella. Domenico Orecchia said that it was a punishment for some sin. This lasted for a week; then, at last, every trace of snow disappeared from the roofs, and Aristide mended the gutters.
A restlessness awoke in us as winter drew to its end. Perhaps someone would come to find us: perhaps something would finally happen. Our exile had to have an end too. The roads which separated us from the world seemed shorter; the post arrived more often. All our chilblains gradually got better.
There is a kind of uniform monotony in the fate of man. Our lives unfold according to ancient, unchangeable laws, according to an invariable and ancient rhythm. Our dreams are never realized and as soon as we see them betrayed we realize that the intensest joys of our life have nothing to do with reality. No sooner do we see them betrayed than we are consumed with regret for the time when they glowed within us. And in this succession of hopes and regrets our life slips by.
[Last paragraph] My husband died in Rome, in the prison of Regina Coeli, a few months after we left the Abruzzi. Faced with the horror of his solitary death, and faced with the anguish which preceded his death, I ask myself if this happened to us — to us, who bought oranges at Giro’s and went for walks in the snow. At that time I believed in a simple and happy future, rich with hopes that were fulfilled, with experiences and plans that were shared. But that was the best time of my life, and only now that it has gone from me forever — only now do I realize it.
— Natalia Ginzburg, 1944.