The Road to the City

Natalia Ginzburg (trans. Gini Alhadeff)

July 6, 2023 
The following is from Natalia Ginzburg's The Road to the City. Ginzburg “who authored twelve books and two plays; who, because of anti-Semitic laws, sometimes couldn’t publish under her own name; who raised five children and lost her husband to Fascist torture; who was elected to the Italian parliament as an independent in her late sixties—this woman does not take her present conditions as a given." (Belle Boggs, The New Yorker). She is recognized as one of the foremost woman writers to emerge from 20-century Italy.

Nini had been living with us since he was little. He was the son of a cousin of my father’s. His parents had died and he was supposed to live with his grandfather, but his grandfather would hit him with a broom so he’d run away and come to us. But then the grandfather died and that’s when they told him that from now on he could stay with us.

Not counting Nini, there were five of us. Before me was my sister Azalea, who was married and lived in the city. My brother Giovanni came after me, then came Gabriele and Vittorio. They say that a house with many children is full of joy, but I didn’t think there was anything joyful about our house. I hoped to get married soon and to get away as my sister Azalea had done. Azalea had married at the age of seventeen. I was sixteen but no one had asked me yet. Giovanni and Nini also wanted to leave home. Only the little ones were still content.

Our house was a red house, with a pergola in front. We kept our clothes on the stair railings because there were many of us and not enough closets. “Shoo, shoo,” my mother would say, chasing the chickens out of the kitchen, “shoo, shoo . . .” The gramophone played all day long and since we had only one record, the song was always the same. It sang:

Velvety hands
Sweet-smelling hands
An old-fashioned thrill
I can’t explain

That song where the words had such strange inflections appealed to every one of us, and all day long we repeated it, as we got up, and as we went to bed. Giovanni and Nini slept in the room next to mine and in the morning they would wake me up by banging on the wall three times: I would dress quickly and off we went to the city. The trip took about an hour. The moment we reached town we parted like three perfect strangers. I would look for a friend and go strolling beneath the porticoes. Sometimes I’d run into Azalea, her nose red beneath the veil of her hat, and she wouldn’t greet me because I didn’t have a hat on.

I ate bread and oranges by the river, with my friend, or I’d go to Azalea’s. I nearly always found her in bed, reading novels, or smoking, or phoning her lover, quarreling because she was jealous, caring not at all that the children might hear. Then her husband came home and she quarreled with him too. Her husband was already quite old, with a beard and glasses. He paid hardly any attention to her but read the newspaper, sighing, and scratching his head. “God help me,” he’d mutter to himself every now and then. Ottavia, the fourteen-year-old maid with a matted black plait down her back, and a little child in her arms, would stand by the door saying, “The Signora is served.” Azalea would slip on some stockings, yawn, gaze at her legs for a long spell, and then we would go to the table. When the phone rang Azalea would blush, crush her napkin, and Ottavia’s voice in the next room could be heard saying, “The Signora is busy, she will call back later.” After lunch the husband would go out again, and Azalea would get back into bed and fall asleep instantly. Her face then became tender and calm. All the while, the phone rang, doors slammed, the children yelled, but Azalea went on sleeping, breathing deeply. Ottavia cleared the table and asked, quaking, what might happen if the “Signore” were ever to find out. But then she would whisper, smiling bitterly, that after all the “Signore” also had someone. I left. I waited for nightfall on a bench in the public gardens. The café orchestra played and my friend and I looked at the dresses on women passing by, and I would also see Nini and Giovanni going by, but we never spoke. I’d meet them again outside the city, on the dusty road, as houses lit up behind us and the café orchestra grew louder and played more boisterously. We walked through the countryside, by the river and the trees. We’d reach home. I hated our house. I hated the green and bitter soup our mother placed before us every evening and I hated our mother. I would have been ashamed of her if I’d come across her in the city. But it was many years since she’d been to the city, and she looked like a peasant. Her hair was disheveled and gray, and her front teeth were missing. “You look like a witch, Mammà,” Azalea would say when she came home. “Why don’t you get dentures?” Then she would stretch out on the red sofa in the dining room, kick off her shoes and say, “Coffee!” She quickly drank the coffee my mother brought her, slept a little, then left. My mother said that children are like poison and should never be brought into the world. She spent her days cursing all of her children, one by one. When my mother was young a court clerk had fallen in love with her and taken her to Milan. My mother had stayed there a few days, but then she had come back. She told the story repeatedly, saying she’d gone away because she was tired of the children, and, as for the court clerk, they’d invented him. “I wish I’d never come back,” my mother would say, with her fingers mopping her tears all over her face. My mother never stopped talking, but I never answered. No one ever answered her. Only Nini answered her every now and then. He was not like us, though we had grown up together. Though we were cousins he did not resemble us. His face was pale, and never tanned even after being out in the sun, and he had a lock of hair that fell over his eyes. In his pockets he always carried newspapers and books—he read all the time, he even read while eating and Giovanni would turn his book upside down to spite him. Nini would pick it up and go on reading calmly, running his fingers through the lock of hair. Meanwhile, the record player repeated,

Velvety hands
Sweet-smelling hands

The little children played and hit one another and my mother would come to slap them, then she would take it out on me for sitting on the sofa instead of helping her with the dishes. My father would then tell her that she should be bringing me up better. My mother would start sobbing, saying that she was everyone’s dog, and my father would take his hat off the coat rack and go out. My father worked as an electrician and a photographer, and he wanted Giovanni to train to be an electrician. But Giovanni never went when he was called. There was never enough money and my father was always tired and furious. He’d come home briefly and then leave right away because the house was a madhouse, he said. But he’d say that it wasn’t our fault if we were so badly brought up. That it was his fault and my mother’s. By the look of him my father still seemed quite young and my mother was jealous. He washed thoroughly before dressing, and put brilliantine in his hair. I was not ashamed of him when I ran into him in town. Nini also liked to wash, and he stole my father’s brilliantine. But it was no use as the lock of hair would bounce back over his eyes all the same.


Excerpt from THE ROAD TO THE CITY by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Gini Alhadeff. Copyright © 1942, 1964 by the Estate of Natalia Ginzburg; translation copyright © 2023 by Gini Alhadeff. Used with permission from New Directions Publishing Corp.

More Story
Lit Hub Daily: July 5, 2023 How Franz Kafka achieved cult status in Cold War America: Brian K. Goodman traces the origins of the term “Kafkaesque.”...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.