Touch the Water, Touch the Wind
No Way is a very short novel, bare and bleak as bones. Its ominous English title is appropriate enough for its mood, except for the easy current slanginess of that phrase, mouthed by so many of us now on trivial occasions. In Natalia Ginzburg’s Italian it was simply Caro Michele (1973), the form of salutation in the letters that tell much of the story.
This story is quite ordinary, the author seems to want us to take the people as ordinary, and yet to me they appear entirely out of the ordinary, different from any society I have ever known. Not that it is news to any of us that life can be depressing, but to live in a state of such daily depression as we have in No Way seems not to be living at all. These people are in one way like people in a stupid novel, where it is depressing to think the author supposed such creatures could exist or that they would be interesting if they did. But Natalia Ginzburg is far from stupid and the novel is far from depressing to read. Perhaps it is as she has one of her characters say, “One of the rare pleasures in life is to compare the descriptions of others with our fantasies and then with the reality.”
It may even be that to her compatriots the novel is full of comic or at least pleasurable flashes of recognition. We American readers, who know only that according to The New York Times Italy ought long ago to have had its catastrophe, can compare these scenes merely with the dire and obscure political generalizations of reporters. Probably we do not know how to recognize a Roman basement apartment full of dirty socks, empty bottles, a dozen people on the floor, bad paintings of vultures and owls, and a green tile wood stove with no wood, only a rusty disassembled submachine gun in it, forgotten. Or maybe we do imagine it all too well, and also the rich publisher’s penthouse, and the suburban house with two small loathsome firs on either side of the gate.
Certainly the narrative style is not unfamiliar, this brusque, laconic, all but melodramatic understatement.
Having read the letter, Angelica got up from the chair and searched for her shoes on the rug. She wore dark-green tights and she, too, had on a blue jumper that was rather rumpled and messy because she had been wearing it since the previous day and night, which she had spent at the hospital. Her father had been operated on the day before and had died during the night.
What seems so very odd and appalling—not beyond the reach of our fantasies, to be sure, but of an extremity certainly beyond our everyday experience—is the way these people talk to one another and the way they write their letters. Of course we have been familiar in literature for a generation with the emptiness and despair of …