Valentino and Sagittarius by Natalia Ginzburg

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Valentino and Sagittarius

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

VALENTINO and SAGITTARIUS were first published in the original Italian in the 1950’s (the English translation is by Avril Bardoni). There is, however, a timeless quality about these two stories, as well as a satisfying fullness that belies their brevity.

VALENTINO presents the history of a family whose hopes were pinned from an early date on the ability of the beautiful Valentino to fulfill his father’s prediction that Valentino would become “a man of consequence.” Although Valentino has many talents, the family’s sacrifices come to naught; Valentino marries a wealthy, if ugly woman. When her parents die, the narrator moves in with Valentino and his wife, and for a while life is good.

SAGITTARIUS begins with the narrator already removed from her family’s house and sharing an apartment with a friend in the city; her widowed mother has just borrowed money in order to buy a house in the city suburbs, since she can no longer stand the boredom of her country home. Boredom, though, is not confined to the country, she soon learns, and almost as quickly she falls in with some less than admirable company. By the time her predictable tragedy has run its course, she has come to understand the sad smile she so often despised on her other, sickly daughter’s face before the latter’s death in childbirth.

Although there is a sadness to these stories, they are not particularly morbid or depressing. Instead, there is an oddly detached quality to the narrators’ reportorial style that is nevertheless engrossing. Through the details--the mother’s fur coat, messy cigarettes, and nose yellowed from too much powder; the ugly wife’s sudden change from hoarse-voiced property manager to sock-darning mother; the rhythm of repeated details in both novellas--Ginzburg brings these characters to life, to an experience of life familiar to all adults.