Voices in the Evening
(New Directions, 2021)
I was at the framer’s not because I wanted anything to be framed. Rather, I wanted to know if my mother, who had died days earlier, had framed anything that she had yet to pick up. “What are the errands of the dead?” I wondered. And am I in a position to undertake them?
The quest to deliver on behalf of someone else—alive or dead—shapes Natalia Ginzburg’s Voices in the Evening. Ginzburg’s novel begins in the wake of World War II, in a fictional Italian village, where the 27-year-old narrator, Elsa, and her mother are returning home from her mother’s doctor appointment. The foremost voice we hear on this evening is the maternal one, with the “she said,” “she said,” “she said” of the mother shelling Elsa nine times over the course of the opening two pages. When Elsa does speak—after she has retired to her room, alone—she tells us, “But my mother’s most persistent worry is that I do not get married.” The worries of others, and the duty to perform for the sake of others, is the story Elsa tells, with Elsa being both the framer and the subject of her narrative.
As though she were dismantling her reality in order to reveal its parts, to show the origins of who and what encloses her, Elsa transitions from the present to the past, recounting the history of Old de Francisci, who was the original owner of the village’s factory. Old de Francisci, known as Old Balotta, or “Little Ball,” was a socialist whose way of life was sabotaged by the arrival of World War II. War itself is a kind of deadly errand, and the sons of Old Balotta are enlisted to deliver glory for Italy. The chronicle of Old Balotta’s family ultimately leads us back to Elsa. Unbeknownst to her mother, Elsa already has a sweetheart—Tommasino, the youngest of Old Balotta’s children. Elsa takes the motor bus twice every week from the piazza to go to town, where she meets Tommasino in secret. Elsa is able to maintain this private affair on the pretext that these day trips are for the sake of, among other things, choosing books for Aunt Ottavia at the “Selecta” library. Besides spending their time together at the library, Elsa and Tommasino share a room on the top floor of the Via Gorizia.
He said to me sometimes,
“See, I am not marrying you,” and I would laugh and say, “I know that.”
He said, “I don’t want to marry; if I did, I should probably marry you.”
And he would add, “Is that enough for you?” and I would say, “I can make it do.”
Those were the words of our servant Antonia when my mother asked her if she had enough cheese.
A turning point in the novel occurs when Tommasino steps outside of his circumscribed routine as a rich, solitary bachelor who partakes in biweekly trysts; suddenly, he crosses the domestic threshold. “Well, then, what impression did I make on you in my own picture frame?” Elsa asks Tommasino after he has paid a visit to her family’s home. But the impression that she, in her familial mise-en-scène, makes on Tommasino merely corroborates his intuition that he is not suited to be her husband, a conclusion that ruins Elsa’s experience of the Via Gorizia. For the Via Gorizia was adequate—it was enough cheese to make do—insofar as Elsa could envision a future in which she had more. That is, a future in which she was not merely the stowed girlfriend, there to be unpacked when needed, but the proud wife of Tommasino. Now, though, that prospective union looks to be impossible. And without the possibility of marriage, the current romanticized circumstances cannot last. “Now we cannot be here either. I have come to hate this Via Gorizia, this room.”
Tommasino eventually capitulates to what he believes to be Elsa’s wish. His marriage proposal, of course, is doomed. Elsa does not want Tommasino to marry her because she wants him to marry her; she wants Tommasino to marry her because he wants to marry her. The latter desire, however, fails to kick in, and the engagement is a kind of psychic graveyard.
“I had to do what everyone was expecting me to do, what you along with the others expected of me. So, I have taken to driving my thoughts underground. I could not look my soul in the face any more. To avoid hearing my soul cry aloud, I turned my back on it and walked away from it.”
“This is horrible,” I said. “You have just told me something horrible.”
Tommasino is not the first in his family to view matrimony as a box to tick to please someone else. His older brother Vincenzino married his wife to satisfy his father. Whereas Vincenzino’s marriage endured in silence, for Tommasino quiet comes before the vows. To evade the sights and sounds of his inauthenticity, Tommasino retreats into a preemptive speechlessness.
But why is it that marriage for Tommasino is an errand of mercy? Why does the matrimonial frame suggest death as opposed to life? Here, we observe how the voices in the evening may continue to ring in one’s head until the next day, the next week, the next generation. Indeed, the design of Ginzburg’s novel, in which the first-person “I” of Elsa disappears for long stretches—at the beginning and also, protractedly, while she reports the history of the de Francisci family—this literary form makes its profound impact when we hear Tommasino describe why he cannot view a marriage to Elsa as something that has the potential to furnish him with happiness. Because Elsa, in a sense, does not exist. That is, Tommasino is not responding to Elsa as much as he is to his own history. His reaction to the present is really an answer to the past.
“It is because I have the feeling,” he said, “that they have already lived enough, those others before me; that they have already consumed all the reserves, all the vitality that there was for us. The others, Nebbia, Vincenzino, my father. Nothing was left over for me.”
“The others,” he said, “all those who have lived in this village before me. It seems to me that I am only their shadow.”
Both Tommasino and Elsa are eclipsed in Voices in the Evening. For Tommasino, what has come before him—his family’s history—now comes between him and sources of light. The past dims his spirits. As a narrator, Elsa passes into the shadow of the body of the text—her presence recedes from view—while as a character, she is obscured by the positions of others. The ending of the novel mirrors the beginning: Elsa is again walking with her mother, and her mother is again doing all the talking. (The “she said” of the mother appears 19 times over the final three pages.) In the role of her mother’s perambulatory companion, Elsa is her silhouette.
In Voices in the Evening, Ginzburg suggests existence is a journey undertaken on behalf of those who come before us. It is as though life itself were a trip to the framer’s, where the object of someone else’s focus is our purpose. This, in a way, is a relief. In the case of my mother, it turned out that she had no outstanding pictures for me to pick up. What, then, to look for now?