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FICTION : THE CITY AND THE HOUSE by Natalia Ginzburg; translated from the Italian by Dick Davis (Seaver: $16.95; 219 pp.).

Show, Don’t Tell: If there is a rule of thumb in fiction, that is it. Rules, of course, are made to be broken. In an epistolary novel, they are: Everything is told in an exchange of letters.

The form has its problems. Exposition, for instance, must somehow be tucked in: “You asked me to find you a house to rent in Rome. . . ,” Roberta writes to Alberico, who surely must remember that he did so. “You say you want it to be central. . . .” The convention can be awkward.

That said, “The City and the House” is a fine book, subtle and shrewd. Its author, Natalia Ginzburg, is a novelist, essayist and translator (from the French) and a senator in the Italian Parliament.

The letters in “The City and the House” are to, from, and about Giuseppe, a good man but a passive one, and chronically depressed. He is a middle-age journalist who sells his apartment in Rome and moves to his brother’s home in Princeton.

Giuseppe regrets the move at once. “Never sell bricks and mortar, never,” writes Giuseppe to Lucrezia, once his lover. “That house will always be mine. . . . Remember me to the walls of my house,” he writes to his cousin Roberta. “Stay there. . . . Never leave it,” Giuseppe advises his friend Piero, about to sell his and Lucrezia’s country home.

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Giuseppe and his friends yearn to belong to a place, and despair of it. They are dislodged. The one glowing image of the book is that of an old aunt, Bice, who radiates confidence and optimism. Of her, Giuseppe writes that her faith in herself “filled the rooms, the sideboards and the balconies of her house.”


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