‘Portrait of a Friend’ by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Dick Davies

It may not be quite proper to include this marvellous piece of writing here, because in truth it is an essay, or perhaps we would say now ‘Creative Non-Fiction’ rather than a short story. But I am including it anyway, because it has a story-like quality that deserves mention. Written to honour Ginzburg’s friend, Cesare Pavese, who took his own life via an overdose in 1950, ‘Portrait of a Friend’ is a masterclass in understated emotion – something we seek with fervour in our publications at Lunate. 

It is also a spectacular example of how to weave character and place together so that one cannot be cleanly picked from the other. Her depiction of the city of Turin is hauntingly beautiful:  

‘In summer our city is deserted and seems very large, clear and echoing, like an empty city-square; the sky has a milky pallor, limpid but not luminous; the river flows as level as a street and gives off neither humidity nor freshness. Sudden clouds of dust rise from the streets; huge carts loaded with sand pass by on their way from the river; the asphalt of the main avenue is littered with pebbles that bake in the tar. Outside the cafés, beneath their fringed umbrellas, the little tables are deserted and red-hot.’

Within Ginzburg’s writing, the city absorbs both her own quiet grief and the desolation that her friend must have felt. Tragedy can become a delicate thing and, when presenting it to an audience, sometimes it is all the more devastating for its unassuming fragility. (HC)

First published in Italian as ‘Ritratto d’un amico’, Radiocorriere, 1957. First published in English in The Little Virtues, Carcanet, 1985. New edition from Daunt Books, 2018

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