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My House

I have always lived (with involuntary interruptions) in the house where I was born; so my mode of living has not been the result of a choice. I believe that I represent an extreme case of the sedentary person, comparable to certain mollusks, for example limpets, which after a brief larval stage during which they swim about freely, attach themselves to a sea-rock, secrete an outer shell, and stay put for the rest of their lives. This happens more often to people born in the country: for city people like myself it is undoubtedly a rare destiny, which involves peculiar advantages and disadvantages. Perhaps I owe to this static destiny the never satisfied love I harbor for travel, and the frequency with which a journey appears as a topos in many of my books. Certainly after sixty-six years on Corso Re Umberto, I find it difficult to imagine what it would mean to live not just in another country or city but even in another part of Turin.

My house is characterized by a lack of character. It resembles many other quasipatrician houses of the turn of the century, built of brick just before the irresistible advent of reinforced concrete; it is almost bereft of decorations, if one excepts some timid memories of Liberty in the friezes above the windows and the wooden doors that open on the staircases. It is unadorned and functional, inexpressive and solid: it has proven this during the last war, when it went through the bombings, escaping with some slight damage to the window frames and a few scratches which it still bears with the pride that a veteran bears the scars left by his wounds. It has no ambitions, it is a machine for living, it possesses almost everything that is essential for living and almost nothing of the superfluous.

With this house, and with the apartments I live in, I have an unnoticed but profound relationship, such as one has with a person with whom one has lived for a long time; if it were torn down, and if as a result I moved to a more beautiful, more modern, and more comfortable house, I would suffer like an exile, or like a plant that has been transplanted in soil to which it is not accustomed.

I read somewhere the description of one of the devices of mnemonics, that is, the art (cultivated in the past by the learned and scholars and today foolishly abandoned) of exercising and improving the memory. Whoever wants to remember a list of thirty, forty, or more names and then amaze his friends by reciting them even backwards can achieve this if he makes a mental link (that is, invents any sort of connection) between each single name and, in an orderly sequence, a corner of his house; for example, proceeding from the front door to the right and exploring successively all the corners. Then, going over the same itinerary in the imagination, one can reconstruct the initial list; if one goes through the house in the opposite direction, one will also invert the direction of the list.

I have never had to carry out this performance, but I do not doubt that in general it works. However, it would not work in my case because in my memory all the corners of my house are occupied, and authentic memories would interfere with the chance, fictitious ones demanded by this technique. The corner to the right of the front door is the one that fifty years ago held an umbrella stand, and where my father, walking back from his office on rainy days, deposited a dripping wet umbrella, and on fine days his walking stick; and where for twenty years hung a horseshoe found by my uncle Corrado (at that time one could find horseshoes on Corso Re Umberto), an amulet about which it would be difficult to decide whether or not it had exerted its protective charm; and where for another twenty years there hung from a nail a large key whose purpose everyone had forgotten but which nobody dared throw away. The next corner, between the wall and the walnut wardrobe, was coveted as a hiding place when we played hide-and-seek; I had hidden there, on some unspecified Sunday of the Oligocene, and knelt down on a sliver of glass and still bear the scar on my left knee. Thirty years after me, my daughter hid there, but she laughed and was found immediately; and after another eight years my son, with a flock of his friends, one of whom lost a baby tooth in that very spot and for mysterious magical reasons shoved it into a hole in the plaster, where it probably still is.

Continuing along the right-hand path, one encounters the door of a room that looks out on the courtyard and that over the decades has had different uses. In my most distant memories it was the “good” living room, where my mother, two or three times a year, received important guests. Then for a number of years it was slept in by a fabulous, “live-in maid”; after that, it was my father’s business office until, with the war, it was used as a bivouac and dormitory for relatives and friends whose houses had been wrecked by the bombs. After the war (and the end of requisitioning under the Fascist racial laws) my two children had one after the other slept and played in it, and my wife has spent many nights in it, attending them when they were sick; I never did, with the ironclad alibi of work at the factory and the Olympian selfishness of all husbands. At the moment it is a multiple laboratory where photos are developed, the sewing machine is operated, and amusing toys are constructed. Such transfigurations can be recounted for all the other rooms; a short while ago, and with some discomfort, I realized that my favorite armchair occupied the precise spot where, according to family tradition, I came into the world.

My house has a good location, not too far from the city’s center and yet relatively quiet; the proliferation of cars, which fills every cavity like compressed gas, has by now reached here, but only for the last few months has it been hard to find a parking space. The walls are thick, and noises from the street are muffled. In the old days it was completely different; the city ended a few hundred meters to the south, people walked across the meadows “to see the trains,” which then, before they dug the trench system of the Zappata crossing, ran level with the ground. The roads on the outskirts were covered with asphalt only in 1935; before that they were paved with cobblestones, and in the morning we were awakened by the noises made by wagons coming from the countryside: the clatter of their iron rims on the cobblestones, the cracking whips, and the shouts of the drivers. Other familiar voices rose from the street at other times of the day: the cries of the glazier, the rag and junk man, the buyer of “combed hairs,” to whom the already mentioned “live-in maid” periodically sold her hair, which was long and grizzled; occasionally beggars played the barrel organ or sang in the street, and we’d throw them some coins in a twist of paper.

Through all its transformations, the house I live in has preserved its anonymous and impersonal appearance; or, at least, so it seems to us who live in it. But it is well known that each of us is a bad judge of the things that concern us, of his own character, his virtues and vices, even his own voice and face; perhaps to others it could appear greatly symptomatic of my family’s tendency to live apart. Certainly, at a conscious level, I have never asked of my house anything more than the satisfaction of elementary necessities: space, warmth, comfort, silence, and privacy. Nor have I ever knowingly tried to make it mine, assimilate it to myself, embellish it, enrich it, refine it. It is not easy for me to speak about the relationship I have with it. Perhaps it is feline in character; like a cat I enjoy the comforts but I can also get along without them and could adapt myself pretty well even to uncomfortable lodgings, as has happened to me several times, and as happens each time I stay at a hotel. I do not think that my way of writing is marked by the environment in which I live and write, nor do I think that this environment can be seen in what I have written. So I must be less sensitive than the average person to the suggestions and influences of the environment, and not at all sensitive to the prestige that the environment confers, preserves, or diminishes. I live in my house as I live inside my skin: I know more beautiful, more ample, more sturdy, and more picturesque skins: but it would seem to me unnatural to exchange them for mine.

translated by Raymond Rosenthal

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