We Invent the People We Love: On Lalla Romano’s “A Silence Shared”
By Thea HawlinFebruary 21, 2023
A Silence Shared by Lalla Romano
Graziella Romano was born in 1906 in Piedmont, the far northwest of Italy. She originally trained as a painter, but after some encouraging comments from the poet Eugenio Montale, she published her first poetry collection, Fiore, in 1941. In the following years, she found that her literary interests had begun to intermingle with and overpower her art, as she translated several books for the Einaudi publishing house in Turin before releasing her debut novel, Maria, in 1953. In the creative milieu of 1950s Italy, she mixed with the likes of Natalia Ginzburg and Carlo Levi, becoming, like Ginzburg, a powerful presence in a literary scene dominated by men, with fans including Italo Calvino and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Over the course of her life, she produced an extensive body of work, including poetry, short stories, photographic books, and novels, receiving numerous prizes, including Italy’s top literary honor, the Penna d’Oro, in 1979. Yet, within Italy and abroad, her work has still not received the attention it deserves. Thanks to this new translation, and in the wake of the recent “rediscovery” and reissuing of Ginzburg’s work, another unveiling of a great Italian writer is about to begin.
A Silence Shared is Romano’s third work of prose, and, as Moore notes, it is a novel “cut directly from the fabric of the author’s life.” In Northwest Italy during World War II, the protagonist, Giulia, is working on a translation, just as Romano herself was in 1943 (her friend and former classmate Cesare Pavese had commissioned her to translate Gustave Flaubert’s 1877 collection Three Tales). Giulia — like Romano — also strikes up a friendship with a young married couple, bonding first with Ada, a woman “made for joy” who is cut from the same cloth as Giulia’s husband Stefano, a man “open and trusting of life.” Later, she also finds an affinity with Ada’s husband Paolo, an intellectual anti-fascist partisan who feels no need or desire to fill the silences around others, or to participate in conversations in which he has no interest: “He didn’t speak […] [H]e ‘left people wanting’ […] [H]e liked to tease.”
When the couple are forced to relocate for Paolo’s safety after he falls ill, Giulia travels out of town to visit them at Tetto Murato, a small hamlet in the countryside that, despite its dilapidated state, is curiously appealing: “Deep cracks ran through the walls. And yet I felt a secret — even a somewhat distressing — affinity with that desolate place; almost as though it were my true homeland, from which I had once descended.” Romano’s experience as a painter contributes to how she captures the vivid visual world of the novel, which is set in winter; the whiteness of the snow becomes a blank canvas, a silence that speaks.
As Giulia travels each day through the barren countryside to the warmth of the tiny community, the landscape of the novel plays a vital part in dramatizing the emotional movement of the characters, as she — literally — comes in from the cold. When Giulia wants to show her husband Tetto Murato, it is not merely to see her friends in their new environment but to witness “the warmth of a real home, of a real family.” Later, Giulia explicitly links the place to fantasy and fable: the house is “of [Hans Christian] Andersen’s tales,” sheltered from the cruelties of the war, outside of time. The spirit of the place clings to her: “When we left Tetto Murato […] it seemed as if we weren’t actually moving away from it, as if we were roaming through a maze.”
Romano, like Ginzburg, was directly involved with Italy’s anti-fascist movement, as a member of the Partito d’Azione (the Action Party). Giulia, preoccupied at the sickbed of Paolo, is not an active participant in the resistance fighting, but the dangers of Paolo’s position as a partisan produce some very real threats. Yet when Giulia finally does encounter the Germans on the path to Tetto Murato, a soldier simply picks up her bicycle to help her pass: their exchange is silent.
Giulia finds something in the new environment that calls to a deeper, more human part of herself. As Romano notes in her afterword, “The small community in A Silence Shared was segregated — secret — because it had to stay hidden; but there was a more profound secrecy, too […] derived from the ‘contradictions and ambiguities’ of life.” The emotions linking the characters are highly nuanced. “Are we the ones keeping you company, or are you the one keeping us company?” Ada asks at one point — it’s a question that dominates their relationship and the intense interdependency they come to share.
One day, frustrated with his confinement, Paolo breaks free from his bed and wanders out into the snow. After his return, Giulia finds herself by his side, clutching his cold hand; Ada holds the other, both women desperate to banish the cold and sickness from his body. Paolo jokingly notes that he cannot be an atheist because “[a]n atheist is someone who doesn’t need anything outside of himself, who doesn’t need anyone. And I, as you two can see, can’t be alone.” The warmth of a human body becomes symbolic of community and love itself.
Actions like holding a hand or pushing one away, the coded language of the body (even the sick body), take precedence over words; the complex web of emotions drawn between the characters over time forms powerfully silent ties. The novel’s translated title highlights the silences that are shared between the characters and the silent loves that bind them together. This love is unspoken but lingers in small acts of service. It is the kind of love that does not surface in bold acts but in a dedicated, dogged patience that seeks to build up another, to care and heal.
There is no shame in this dependency. That is why Ada invites Giulia into the couple’s bed one night. It is not a sexual invitation but a sign of closeness and love, a way to keep warm. These moments of emotional poignancy become all the more intriguing when one understands how much of the novel was based on Romano’s own life. During World War II, Romano was also separated from her husband; after their home in Turin was damaged during Allied bombings, she took her young son to live with her parents in Cuneo while her husband stayed to work in the city. “The fact is that Tetto Murato is true but not exactly truthful,” Romano noted when she reread the novel and added an introduction in 1998. In reality, she was married with a child when she wrote the novel, while the protagonist has none. The “real” Ada and Paolo had two children, not one, daughters from whom she borrowed the names Ada and Giulia.
The tangled web of fact and fiction cannot be easily unwoven. When he embarked on this translation, Moore managed to visit Romano’s old home in Milan and the Fondo Lalla Romano at the Biblioteca Nazionale Braidense. Looking through her letters — donated to the library by Antonio Ria, Romano’s dedicated companion during the last decade and a half of her life — he found Romano’s correspondence with Adolfo Ruata, the real-life Paolo. The experience was jolting: “It was like I already knew them.”
Moore’s change of title follows the example of the French translation, which took its inspiration from the book’s epigraph, from a poem by Pavese: “The only true silence / is a silence shared.” This change is wholly appropriate since the story is densely woven with poignant silences. The Italian title was suggested by Pavese himself at a party: “Tetto Murato” is a play on words, combining a dialect term for a style of housing — tetto (roof), which in the region of Piedmont refers to a group of farmhouses — with murato (bricked up). Romano took his advice and began work on the novel shortly afterwards. A pleasing coincidence occurred when she later won the Pavese prize for the book in 1957.
In 1969, Romano won the Premio Strega for Le parole tra noi leggere, an autobiographical novel about the difficult relationship between a mother and her son. In the introduction to that text, she noted how “[a]ll my books are born, like plants, from a seed: it is never an idea, but a feeling, a tie with a place, or with one or more personalities, which have relationships of varying condition but most importantly with me.” Like Annie Ernaux, Romano enjoys the subtleties of shifting between confessional and imaginative writing: her fiction conveys a sense of figuring out emotions, of drawing upon and working through lived experience, in a way that invites the reader into her created worlds.
In the introduction to the 1973 edition of her first novel, Maria, Romano notes bluntly that it is “a true story. I really knew the Maria in the book; Maria has lived many years in my house, I have often visited hers in her own town.” With her very first step into the world of fiction, she was already affirming the fundamental role that her own life would play in the realization of the stories she told. Later, in an introductory note to the 1995 reissue of her novel Una giovinezza inventata (1979), she wrote: “I cannot reread this book. It is too alive.” It is interesting, then, that she first experimented with using the third person for A Silence Shared, thus creating a distance between herself and the source material. The drafts of these versions were handwritten, crossed and scribbled out, until it was clear that Romano couldn’t deny the intimacy of the first-person narration that came to dominate the final version, and the rest of her writing throughout her life.
In an interview with the Italian broadcaster RAI, Romano noted how memory at once “conserves and deforms,” how “we invent the people we love.” In A Silence Shared, Giulia admires and loves Ada because she recognizes her feelings and owns them unapologetically: “I too knew how to freeze before that to which I could not give a name.” Through her fiction, Romano shares these unspoken, “frozen” emotions, showing us the potential actions and futures the characters deny themselves: “In my mind I ran to him, I bent over his body. Instead I only looked at him.” The division is devastating. A Silence Shared stings because so many of its silences ring true to life.
A key scene in the novel involves a crucial mode of silent communication: writing. Silence surrounds a note written by Paolo: we are never directly told what is written on the small piece of paper, and this evasiveness makes the gradual realization of the note’s emotional contents all the more powerful. The teasing out of meaning, the way Romano makes us work to understand, to fill in the blank spaces, allows the moment to become our own as we participate in its completion. The “silence shared” is also the understanding that develops between writer and reader.
“For me,” Romano once noted, “to write has always been to pluck from the dense and complex fabric of life some image, from the noise of the world some note, and surround them in silence.” Her writing fascinates because so much of it circles around how we construct and remember the lives we lead, those moments and elements that are mysterious and impossible to communicate. In moving from painting to writing, she turned her attention to depicting the very things that cannot be captured on a canvas. In A Silence Shared, Romano succeeds in giving the invisible power of silence a discernible form.
Thea Hawlin is an English writer living in Italy. Her work has appeared in publications such as Frieze, The Guardian, and The Financial Times.
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