Valentino and Sagittarius: Two Novellas, by Natalia Ginzburg, translated from the Italian by Avril Bardoni. New York: Seaver Books/Henry Holt. 134 pp. $17.95. These two early novellas by the distinguished Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg have the robust, bittersweet flavor of family life: of anxious fathers, overbearing mothers, pampered sons, self-effacing daughters, disaffected sisters, and suitors who never seem quite satisfactory.
``Valentino,'' a handsome layabout, is expected by his adoring parents to become a doctor, a ``man of consequence.'' But he seems more likely to become a gigolo. His parents are appalled by his decision to marry a rich older woman, who more or less buys him. But as the story unfolds, even she fails to get what she bargained for. Valentino's surprising secret (homosexuality) seems less of a surprise these days than it may have seemed in 1951, when this novella was published in Italy, but strong writing outweighs the datedness of the melodrama.
``Sagittarius,'' dating from 1957, has the timelessness of a classic, and its cranky, highly individual characters have a universal appeal easier to experience than to explain. The central figure is a brusque, intrusive, pretentious widow, seen through the critical eyes of her daughter, who narrates the tale. The mother comes from the country to the town, where she hopes to become a member of the cultural elite. She dreams of opening an art gallery. She bullies her meek sisters, who run a china shop; she lords it over her other daughter, who is married to a poor Jewish refugee from Poland. Finally, one day at the hairdresser's, Mother meets her match: an enterprising woman named Scilla who has rich friends, does a little painting, and is interested in the planned art gallery. Yet even someone as calculating as Mother cannot foresee the consequences. Told without a trace of sentimentality, this story of a vain woman's vain dream evokes the sense of fathomless pity we associate with tragedy. Blue Eyes, Black Hair, by Marguerite Duras, translated from the French by Barbara Bray. New York: Pantheon. 117 pp. $13.95.
Identified by her no-doubt disinterested publishers as ``one of the most important literary figures in France,'' Marguerite Duras writes slim volumes of modishly sculpted prose, specializing in what reviewers call ``haunting tales'' of ``random,'' ``forbidden,'' not to mention ``compulsive'' ``passion.'' She's also the author of screenplays, including ``Hiroshima, Mon Amour,'' and something of the cinematic style is evident in her other work, such as this scene from ``Blue Eyes, Black Hair'':
``He goes over to the woman. Like her, he's young, he's tall, like her. ... The light reflected from the terrace makes his eyes terrifyingly blue. When he comes up to her you can see he's overjoyed at having found her, and in despair at having to lose her again. He has the pale complexion of lovers. Black hair. He is weeping.''
This scene is watched by another tall, pale man, expensively dressed, wearing eye makeup. Having fallen compulsively in love with the black-haired, blue-eyed man, he falls into a deep depression, attracting the attention of a woman (the very same woman earlier seen with the first man, although neither she nor the man with eye makeup figures this out till much later). Since she resembles the first man (she too has black hair, blue eyes), the second man asks her to spend time (mainly nights) in a room with him, not to make love in the physical sense, but to stare, sleep, talk, be stared at, and most of all, weep with him.
This is easy to ridicule but (to judge from the adulatory reviews Duras receives) just as easy to endow with ``significance.'' It can clearly be read as a story about narcissism: The second man is in love with a man he's never met, who is virtually a mirror image of himself. His involvement with a similar-looking woman is an attempt to move beyond narcissism. But he is unable to do more than look at her, unable to touch an ``other.''
The story also furnishes a parable about the tyranny of nostalgia: about a man and woman who ignore the possibilities of the here and now because they prefer the long-ago and faraway. It is all a kind of game, stylized and self-consciously arty, but the starkness of the writing does yield a kind of emotional intensity and the namelessness and unconnectedness of the characters are part of an attempt to examine phenomena without taking refuge in labels and definitions.