Notes on Reading: Natalia Ginzburg and John le Carré

I am checking in with reading notes, since I have not kept up with  “reviewing” this month.

As usual, these are not quite reviews.

I recently read Natalia Ginzburg’s two novellas, Valentino and Sagittarius, recently published by NYRB, translated by Avril Bardoni, and John le Carre’s 1974 thriller, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, beloved both of intellectuals and the common readers.   These books are flawlessly constructed, elegantly-written, unflinching, and sharp.   Both writers elucidate abnormal situations that don’t, at first, seem particularly unusual.

Everyone is talking about Ginzburg, a 20th-century Italian writer who has  been rediscovered by publishers and critics in recent years. I very much enjoyed her autobiographical novel, Family Lexicon, and was pleased to receive Valentino and Sagittarius from the NYRB Classics Book Club.

In a way, Ginzburg reminds me of Elena Ferrante, though Ginzburg writes much more concisely than Ferrante. Her portraits of dysfunctional families are anchored by smart, independent women narrators who are not completely unlike Lena in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet.

In Ginzburg’s novella Valentino, Caterina, the diffident narrator, lives with her parents and mesmerizingly handsome brother, Valentino.  The focus of family life is her pampered brother, who is vain, lazy, always needs money, and is constantly getting engaged to and breaking up with pretty young women.  When he announces his plans to marry a rich woman he has never mentioned, they are appalled.  His previous fiancees have been gorgeous, so they know he is marrying Maddalena for money. “She’s grotesque,” the mother says.  Clara, the married sister, says she is a pig.  (Really, she’s not that bad.  I liked her.)

In the reliable voice of observant Caterina, who selects and relates the details of the story, the truth of Valentino’s decadent mode of life is revealed. Eventually Caterina, who has a teaching degree, is invited by Maddalena to live with the married couple, and also looks after their children.

At first she is fascinated by her brother’s expensive plumage, i.e., fashionable clothing.  Every night Valentino and Maddalena’s cousin, Kit, dress up to  go to the clubs.  Maddalena says she doesn’t mind Valentino’s womanizing; it is to be expected of Italian men  But their  picture of Valentino is completely inaccurate.  In the end, everything comes down to  family loyalty.

In Sagittarius, the narrator, another dutiful daughter, is, like Caterina,  a teacher. She is annoyed by her mother, who doesn’t have enough to do, and keeps dropping in at her apartment.  When her mother plans to open an art gallery, the narrator is happy for her. But things are hazy:  she met her partner in a coffeehouse, and they spend hours fantasizing about the gallery. Again, the most charming people have secrets and are the most unreliable. In this tragicomedy, there are appalling consequences.

I have always loved le Carre’s thrillers, and decided it was time to read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. I tried to watch the movie recently and didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on. Fortunately, the complex novel clarifies everything, as Smiley, a former spy, is recruited from retirement to uncover a Russian mole. And le Carre can really write. I have many academic friends who hate all modern books, except le Carre’s.  I see their point.

Now I must finish watching the movie.  Lots of brilliant, fascinating actors, but I must have missed something crucial when I went to get a cup of tea without pausing.

Below is a photo from the film of Benedict Cumberbatch (a bit rattled from stealing files from spy libraries, as who wouldn’t be?), and Gary Oldman  (a dead ringer for Smiley, who captures his stillness and understated character).

Benedict Cumberbatch and Gary Oldman in Tinker, Tailor

8 thoughts on “Notes on Reading: Natalia Ginzburg and John le Carré”

  1. There was a fine BBC version starring Alec Guinness in the early 1970s. Seven episodes, of around an hour each, so a more leisurely and comprehensible unfolding of the story. Guinness is wonderful – I think Oldman, good as he is, struggles to escape from his shadow – and the whole thing is brilliantly understated. There was a sequel in Smiley’s People a few years later. They bear repeated viewing; you can find segments of them online though not, I think, whole episodes.

    Philip Gooden

    1. I love Alec Guinness, so will have to watch that film too. I usually love anything BBC.And it seems impossible to screw up a Le Carre adaptation. except when, like me, you forget to pause the film before you make tea and then find yourself lost.

  2. Ellen had trouble leaving a comment, so I’ve copied and pasted it from her email:

    ‘I “attended” the webinar at the Brooklyn Community bookstore where Jhumpa Lahiri and another semi-famous female academic literati discussed Ginzburg’s book.  They were above giving the details of the story so I got little from their talk. Very show-offy.  I have an older edition of the book and have put it too on my TBR pile. I took a course at OLLI at AU (where I also teach) last spring where we read Ginzburg (Family Lexicon) and I read some good essays about her.  Also The Winter Journey.’

  3. You can watch on U Tube an earlier version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy With Alex Guiness acting the role of George Smiley. A much better rendering of the novel.

  4. I’ve read an older Ginzburg novel, epistolary, which I really enjoyed. Her consideration of relationships seemed spot-on and her style, as you’ve said, quite cool and polished (compared to the one book I’ve read of Ferrante’s which seemed much more robust). It’s nice, though, when an author like her, gets “rediscovered”, through one of the NYRB reprints or some such. And wouldn’t she have been tickled to have been the focus of that book event, so many years later!

    1. Yes, I’ve loved the Ginzburg I’ve read. It’s always nice to discover a writer who’s been around, then died and neglected and then translated here. I do know there are older translations of some of her books, but it does seem there is a revival!

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