Authors: Natalia Ginzburg
Books by Natalia Ginzburg
All Our Yesterdays
The Little Virtues
The City and the House
The Manzoni Family
Valentino and Sagittarius
Family: Family and Borghesia,
Voices in the Evening
Copyright Â© 1952, 2012 by Giulio Einaudi editore s.p.a.
Translation copyright Â© 1956, 2012 by Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available on file.
mother's portrait hung in the dining-room : a woman seated on a chair, wearing a hat with feathers in it, and with a long, tired, frightened face. She had always been weak in health, suffering from fits of giddiness and palpitations, and four children had been too much for her. She died not long after Anna's birth.
They used to go to the cemetery sometimes on Sundays, Anna, Giustino and Signora Maria. Concettina did not go, she never set foot outside the house on a Sunday ; it was a day she detested and she stayed shut up in her room mending her stockings, wearing her ugliest clothes. And Ippolito had to keep his father company. At the cemetery Signora Maria would pray, but the two children did not, because their father always said it was silly to pray, and perhaps God might exist but it was no use praying to Him, He was God and knew of His own accord how matters stood.
Before the time of their mother's death Signora Maria did not live with them but with their grandmother, their father's mother, and they used to travel together. On Signora Maria's suitcases were hotel labels, and in a cupboard there was a dress of hers with buttons in the shape of little fir-trees, bought in the Tyrol. Their grandmother had had a mania for travelling and never wanted to stop, and so she had run through all her money, for she liked going to smart hotels. Latterly she had turned very nasty, so Signora Maria said, because she could not bear having no money and could not make out how in the world this had happened, and every now and then she forgot and wanted to buy herself a hat, and Signora Maria had to drag her away from the shop-window, thumping the ground with her umbrella and chewing her veil with rage. Now she lay buried at Nice, the place where she had died, the place in which she had enjoyed herself so much as a young woman, when she was fresh and pretty and had all her money.
Signora Maria was always pleased when she was able to talk about the money the old lady had had, and when she could tell stories and boast about the journeys they had taken. Signora Maria was very small, and when she was sitting down her feet did not touch the floor. For this reason, when she was sitting down she used to wrap herself round with a rug, because she did not like it to be seen that her feet did not reach the floor. The rug was a carriage rug, the one that she and the old lady used to spread over their knees twenty years before, when they drove about the town in a carriage. Signora Maria used to put a little touch of rouge on her cheeks, and she did not like to be seen early in the morning before she had put on her rouge, and so she would slip into the bathroom very quietly, holding her head down low ; and she started and was very angry if someone stopped her in the passage to ask her something. She always stayed quite a long time in the bathroom, and everyone would come and knock at the door and she would begin to shout that she was tired of living in that house, where no one had any respect for her, and she intended to pack her bags at once and go to her sister's in Genoa. Two or three times she had pulled out her suitcases from underneath the wardrobe and had begun putting away her shoes in little cloth bags. The only thing to be done was to pretend nothing had happened, and then after a little she would start taking the shoes out again. In any case everyone knew that the sister in Genoa did not want her in her house.
Signora Maria would come out of the bathroom fully dressed and with her hat on, and would then run out into the street with a shovel to collect dung to manure her rose-trees, moving very swiftly and taking good care that nobody was going past. Then she would go off with her string bag to do the shopping ; and her quick little feet in their little shoes with bows on them were capable of carrying her all over the town in half an hour. Every morning she ransacked the entire town to find where things were cheapest, and she came home dead tired, and was always in a bad humour after doing the shopping, and would get angry with Concettina who was still in her dressing-gown, and say that never would she have believed, when she was sitting in the carriage beside the old lady, her knees nice and warm under the rug and people greeting them as they went by, that one day she would have to go toiling round the town with a string bag. Concettina would be very slowly brushing her hair in front of the looking-glass, and then she would put her face close to the glass and look at her freckles one by one, and look at her teeth and her gums and put out her tongue and look at that too. She combed her hair and knotted it in a tight roll at the back of her neck, with a ruffled fringe on her forehead, and this fringe made her look exactly like a
Signora Maria said. Then she would throw open the door of the wardrobe and consider which dress to put on. In the meantime Signora Maria would be throwing off bedclothes and beating carpets, a handkerchief tied round her head and her sleeves rolled up over her dry, withered arms, but she would run away from the window if she saw the lady of the house opposite appear on her balcony, for she did not like to be seen with a handkerchief round her head, beating carpets, remembering that she had come to the house as a lady companionâand look at the things she had to do now !
The lady of the house opposite had a fringe too, but it was a fringe that had been curled by the hairdresser and then put into a graceful disorder, and Signora Maria said she looked younger than Concettina, when she came out in the morning in one of her fresh, bright-coloured wraps, although it was known for certain that she was forty-five.
There were days when Concettina could not manage to find any dress to put on. She tried skirts and blouses, belts, flowers at her bosom, and nothing pleased her. Then she would begin to cry and complain what an unlucky creature she was, without a single pretty dress to wear, and with such a bad figure into the bargain. Signora Maria would shut the windows so that no one in the house opposite should hear. “You haven't a bad figure,” she would say, “it's just that you're a bit heavy in the hips and a bit flat in the chest. Like your grandmother ; she was flat-chested too.” Concettina bawled and sobbed, throwing herself half-undressed on the unmade bed, and then all her troubles would come out, the exams she had to pass and the difficulties with her
Concettina had so many
She was always changing them. One of them was always standing in front of the gate, one who had a broad, square face and wore, in place of a shirt, a scarf, fastened together with a safety-pin. He was called Danilo. Concettina said she had given him up some time ago, but he had not yet resigned himself to this and walked up and down in front of the gate, his hands behind his back and his cap pulled down over his forehead. Signora Maria was afraid he might come in all of a sudden and make a scene with Concettina, and she went to Concettina's father to complain about all the troubles the girl had with her
and drew him over to the window to look at Danilo with his cap and his hands behind his back, and wanted him to go down and send him away. However Concettina's father said that the street belongs to everybody and one has no right to drive away a man from a street; and he pulled out his old revolver and put it on his desk, in case Danilo suddenly climbed over the gate. And he pushed Signora Maria out of the room, because he wanted to be left in peace to his writing.
He was writing a big book of memoirs. He had been writing it for many years, he had in fact given up his work as a lawyer in order to be able to write it. It was entitled
Nothing but the Truth
and it contained fiery attacks upon the Fascists and the King. The old man used to laugh and rub his hands together at the thought that the King and Mussolini knew nothing about it, while in a small town in Italy there was a man writing fiery remarks about them. He was telling the whole story of his life, the Caporetto retreat in which he had been involved and all the things he had seen, and the gatherings of Socialists and the March on Rome and all the fellows who had changed their shirts in his own little town, people who had appeared honest and decent and the shady, dirty things they had afterwards doneâ“nothing but the truth”. For months and months he wrote, ringing the bell every minute to ask for coffee, and the room was full of smoke, and even at night he sat up writing, or called Ippolito to write while he dictated. Ippolito would tap hard on the typewriter, and his father would walk up and down the room in his pyjamas as he dictated, and nobody could get to sleep, because the house had thin walls, and Signora Maria would turn over and over in her bed, trembling with fear lest someone in the street should hear the old man's raised voice and the fiery things he was saying against Mussolini. But then all at once the old man lost heart, and his book no longer seemed so fine to him, and then he said that the Italians were all wrong but that you certainly could not change them by means of a book. He said he would like to go out along the street shooting off his revolver, or else that he did not want to do anything at all, just to lie on his back and sleep and wait for death to come. He no longer left his room ; he spent his days in bed and made Ippolito read
to him. And then he would call Giustino and Anna and tell them how sorry he was that he had never done the things a father usually does, he had never taken them to the cinema or even out for a walk. And he called Concettina and wanted to know about her exams and about her
He became very kind when he was sad. He woke up one morning and no longer felt so sad ; he made Ippolito massage his back with a horsehair glove, and he wanted his white flannel trousers. He went and sat in the garden and asked them to bring him his coffee there, but he always found it too weak and gulped it down with disgust. He would sit in the garden all the morning, his pipe between his long, white teeth, his thin, wrinkled face screwed up into a grimace, and it was impossible to make out whether this was because of the sun or because of his disgust at the coffee, or because of the effort of holding the pipe in his teeth alone. He made no excuses for anything to anybody after he had stopped feeling sad, and he used to flog the rose-trees with his cane while he was thinking afresh about his book of memoirs, and then Signora Maria would be distressed about the rose-trees which were so dear to her-heart, and every morning she made the sacrifice of going out into the street to collect dung in her shovel, notwithstanding the risk that someone might see and laugh at her.