ENDINGS (2)

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There are certain kinds of last paragraph that 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. 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 yesterday’s post, are two by a great Italian writer that do it for me every time.

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This piece, like the last one, is by Natalia Ginzburg (although it was written later in her life), and also comes from The Little Virtues, translated from the Italian by Dick Davis.  The “He” in its title refers to her second husband, Gabriele Baldini, a scholar of English literature, whom she married in 1950.  It is longer than “Winter in the Abruzzi,” so I can give you only a taste here of how Ginzburg characterizes their unusual but affectionate and apparently entirely satisfying marriage of opposites.  If you like the flavor, do read the whole thing.  [I can’t provide a working link, but if you Google “Natalia Ginzburg” you will find it.]

Again, it’s especially the last paragraph that leaves me filled with wonder, envy and delight.

HE AND I

He always feels hot, I always feel cold. In the summer when it really is hot he does nothing but complain about how hot he feels. He is irritated if he sees me put a jumper [sweater] on in the evening.

He speaks several languages well; I do not speak any well. He manages — in his own way — to speak even the languages that he doesn’t know.

He has an excellent sense of direction, I have none at all.  After one day in a foreign city he can move about it as thoughtlessly as a butterfly. I get lost in my own city; I have to ask directions so that I can get back home again.  He hates asking directions; when we go by car to a town we don’t know he doesn’t want to ask directions and tells me to look at the map. I don’t know how to read maps and I get confused by all the little red circles and he loses his temper.

He loves the theatre, painting, music, especially music. I do not understand music at all, painting doesn’t mean much to me and I get bored at the theatre. I love and understand one thing in the world and that is poetry.

He loves museums, and I will go if I am forced to but with an unpleasant sense of effort and duty. He loves libraries and I hate them.

He loves traveling, unfamiliar foreign cities, restaurants. I would like to stay at home all the time and never move.

All the same I follow him on his many journeys. I follow him to museums, to churches, to the opera. I even follow him to concerts, where I fall asleep.

Because he knows the conductors and the singers, after the performance is over he likes to go and congratulate them. I follow him down long corridors lined with the singers’ dressing-rooms and listen to him talking to people dressed as cardinals and kings.

He is not shy; I am shy. Occasionally however I have seen him be shy. With the police when they come over to the car armed with a notebook and pencil. Then he is shy, thinking he is in the wrong….

He likes tagliatelle, lamb, cherries, red wine. I like minestrone, bread soup, omelets, green vegetables….

At the cinema he likes to sit very close to the screen. If we go with friends and they look for seats a long way from the screen, as most people do, he sits by himself in the front row. I can see well whether I am close to the screen or far away from it, but when we are with friends, I stay with them out of politeness; all the same it upsets me because I could be next to him two inches from the screen, and when I don’t sit next to him he gets annoyed with me….

He tells me I have no curiosity, but this is not true. I am curious about a few, a very few, things. And when I have got to know them I retain scattered impressions of them, or the cadence of phrase, or a word. But my world, in which these completely unrelated (unless in some secret fashion unbeknown to me) impressions and cadences rise to the surface, is a sad, barren place.  His world, on the other hand, is green and populous and richly cultivated; it is a fertile, well-watered countryside in which woods, meadows, orchards and villages flourish.

Everything I do is done laboriously, with great difficulty and uncertainty.  I am very lazy, and if I want to finish anything it is absolutely essential that I spend hours stretched out on the sofa.  He is never idle, and is always doing something; when he goes to lie down in the afternoons he takes proofs to correct or a book full of notes; he wants us to go to the cinema, then to a reception, then to the theatre — all on the same day. In one day he succeeds in doing, and in making me do, a mass of different things, and in meeting extremely diverse kinds of people. If I am alone and try to act as he does I get nothing at all done, because I get stuck all afternoon somewhere I had meant to stay for half an hour, or because I get lost and cannot find the right street, or because the most boring person and the one I least wanted to meet drags me off to the place I least wanted to go to.

If I tell him how my afternoon has turned out he says it is a completely wasted afternoon and is amused and makes fun of me and loses his temper; and he says that without him I am good for nothing.

I don’t know how to manage my time; he does….

I don’t know how to dance and he does.

I don’t know how to type and he does.

I don’t know how to drive. If I suggest that I should get a license too he disagrees. He says I would never manage it. I think he likes me to be dependent on him for some things.

I don’t know how to sing and he does. He is a baritone. Perhaps he would have been a famous singer if he had studied singing….

In our house there is music all day long. He keeps the radio on all day. Or plays records. Every now and again I protest a little and ask for a little silence in which to work; but he says that such beautiful music is certainly conducive to any kind of work.

He has bought an incredible number of records. He says that he owns one of the finest collections in the world.

In the morning when he is still in his dressing gown and dripping water from his bath, he turns the radio on, sits down at the typewriter and begins his strenuous, noisy, stormy day. He is superabundant in everything; he fills the bath to overflowing, and the same with the teapot and his cup of tea. He has an enormous number of shirts and ties….

His rages are unpredictable, and bubble over like the head on beer. My rages are unpredictable too, but his quickly disappear whereas mine leave a noisy nagging trail behind them which must be very annoying — like the complaining yowl of a cat.

Sometimes in the midst of his rage I start to cry, and instead of quietening him down and making him feel sorry for me this infuriates him all the more.  He says my tears are just play-acting, and perhaps he is right. Because in the middle of my tears and his rage I am completely calm.

I never cry when I am really unhappy….

When he was a young man he was slim, handsome and finely built; he did not have a beard but long, soft mustaches instead, and he looked like the actor Robert Donat. He was like that about twenty years ago when I first knew him, and I remember that he used to wear an elegant kind of Scottish flannel shirt. I remember that one evening he walked me back to the pensione where I was living; we walked together along the Via Nazionale. I already felt that I was very old and had been through a great deal and had made many mistakes, and he seemed a boy to me, light years away from me. I don’t remember what we talked about on that evening walking along the Via Nazionale; nothing important, I suppose, and the idea that we would become husband and wife was light years away from me. Then we lost sight of each other, and when we met again he no longer looked like Robert Donat, but more like Balzac. When we met again he still wore his Scottish shirts but on him now they looked like garments for a polar expedition; now he had his beard and on his head he wore his ridiculous crumpled woolen hat; everything about him put you in mind of an imminent departure for the North Pole. Because, although he always feels hot, he has the habit of dressing as if he were surrounded by snow, ice and polar bears….

[Last paragraph]  If I remind him of that walk along the Via Nazionale he says he remembers it, but I know he is lying and that he remembers nothing; and I sometimes ask myself if it was us, these two people, almost twenty years ago on the Via Nazionale; two people who conversed so politely, so urbanely, as the sun was setting; who chatted a little about everything perhaps and about nothing; two friends talking, two young intellectuals out for a walk; so young, so educated, so uninvolved, so ready to judge one another with kind impartiality; so ready to say goodbye to one another for ever, as the sun set, at the corner of the street.

— Natalia Ginzburg, 1962.

ENDINGS (1)

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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.

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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.