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Rediscovering Natalia Ginzburg | The New Yorker

In an early novella by the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg—it has just been reissued by New Directions, as “The Dry Heart” (translated by Frances Frenaye)—the narrator walks into her husband’s study and finds him sketching. He shows her his drawing: “a long, long train with a big cloud of black smoke swirling over it and himself leaning out of a window to wave a handkerchief.” In other words, goodbye. He laughs. She doesn’t. “I took the revolver out of his desk drawer and shot him between the eyes.”

About time! For their entire marriage, four years, she has cowered before him: “I was always worried about my face and body, and when we made love I was afraid he might be bored. Every time I had something to say to him I thought it over to make sure it wasn’t boring.” Eventually, he takes to sleeping in his study, though he occasionally calls her in, to have sex, and then, presumably, sends her out again. “Why don’t more wives kill their husbands?” the book’s jacket copy asks.

Maybe they will, because there’s a Natalia Ginzburg revival going on, abetted, perhaps, by the huge success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. Before that series was published in English (2012-15), who, among the people you know, was talking about modern Italian fiction? True, people talk about Primo Levi (a new, complete edition of his works came out in 2015, under the editorship of Ann Goldstein, Ferrante’s translator), but for reasons as much historical as they are literary. Levi was a prisoner in Auschwitz, and wrote our greatest book on that subject. But the rest of Italy’s stellar postwar generation—Carlo Levi, Alberto Moravia, Cesare Pavese, Elsa Morante, Giorgio Bassani, Ginzburg—have been widely neglected in recent decades.

Now, at least for Ginzburg, the wheels are turning again. This year has seen not just the republication of “The Dry Heart” (originally “È Stato Così,” or “That’s How It Was,” 1947) but also a new translation, by Minna Zallman Proctor, of Ginzburg’s more mature “Happiness, as Such” (“Caro Michele,” 1973). Another novel, “The Manzoni Family” (1983), will be reprinted in August. Most important, her masterpiece, “Family Lexicon” (“Lessico Famigliare,” 1963), was brought out by New York Review Books in a fresh translation, by Jenny McPhee, two years ago. There’s still work to be done, though. Several of Ginzburg’s books remain out of print. The only English-language biography I’ve found, a translation of a German book by Maja Pflug, is not in print, either. And it amounts only to some two hundred pages—this for a woman who lived and wrote into her mid-seventies.

It’s good to have “The Dry Heart” back, good to see what Ginzburg, whom few people encouraged to write, did at the beginning—quite different from what she did later. Ginzburg became famous for her ability to conjure up a mixed emotional atmosphere, poignant yet unsentimental. (Chekhov was a favorite of hers.) “The Dry Heart” is not very mixed. Although it is not without comedy, it is a cold, angry book. The main reason, unquestionably, is that it was written in the shadow of Fascism, a matter that, for Ginzburg, cut very close to the bone.

Born in 1916, Ginzburg came from a large, fractious, high-I.Q. family based in Turin, an industrial hub, the headquarters of Italy’s automotive industry (the flagship Fiat plant is there) and of Olivetti business machines. It is also an important center of learning. Ginzburg’s father, Giuseppe Levi, was a professor of neuroanatomy at the University of Turin. (Three of his lab assistants went on to win Nobel Prizes.) Paola, Natalia’s beautiful older sister, married a future president of Olivetti. Of her three brothers, Gino became Olivetti’s technical director, Mario a journalist, and Alberto a doctor. Natalia, the youngest by seven years, didn’t have much formal education; her father wouldn’t let her go to elementary school, believing that children picked up germs there, and she dropped out of college.

In the nineteen-thirties and forties, Turin was a hotbed of anti-Fascist activity, and almost everyone in the Levi family was part of it. Relatedly, they were Jews. (Or Giuseppe was Jewish; the mother, Lidia, was a Gentile.) They suffered for it. The Germans were not the only people in Europe who thought that opposition to Fascism was a Jewish plot. Natalia’s brothers were in and out of jail for seditious acts. Giuseppe lost his job at the university and had to move to Belgium in order to go on teaching. Natalia’s first novel appeared, in 1942, under a nom de plume, because Mussolini’s racial laws forbade Jews to publish books.

Most of the family’s friends were, like them, high achievers—publishers, writers, professors, scientists—and anti-Fascist and Jewish. But probably the most notorious Resistance fighter in this circle was Leone Ginzburg, an Odessa-born Jew who was a professor of Russian literature at the University of Turin. He was a leader of the Turin branch of the anti-Fascist organization Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Liberty), to which the Levi men belonged. He, too, was dismissed from his university position. Eventually, he stopped visiting the Levis’ house, because he felt that his presence there endangered them, but he obviously managed to see Natalia, because in 1938 she married him. They had three children, the eldest of whom is the eminent historian Carlo Ginzburg.

Leone, Natalia recalls, was arrested whenever an important politician came to town, and certainly whenever the King, Victor Emmanuel III, visited Turin. “Accursed king!” her mother would say. “If only he’d stay at home!” Finally, in 1940, Leone was sent into confino, or “internal exile,” meaning confinement to a town so poor and isolated that, in the government’s view, the accused could do no further damage from there. But Leone, in confino, went on doing what harm he could to the authorities. In 1943, when Mussolini was deposed, Leone decamped to Rome, to supervise an underground press. But after five months he disappeared. According to prison records, the cause of death was cardiac arrest combined with acute cholecystitis, a gallbladder infection that is often the product of trauma. That is, Leone probably died under torture.

From these griefs, suffered when she was just beginning to write, Natalia learned that unhappiness, though it feels quite powerful, doesn’t always help one write well. As she said in her essay “My Vocation” (1949):

When we are happy our imagination is stronger; when we are unhappy our memory works with greater vitality. Suffering makes the imagination weak and lazy. . . . A particular sympathy grows up between us and the characters we invent—that our debilitated imagination is still just able to invent—a sympathy that is tender and almost maternal, warm and damp with tears, intimately physical and stifling. We are deeply, painfully rooted in every being and thing in the world, the world which has become filled with echoes and trembling and shadows, to which we are bound by a devout and passionate pity. Then we risk foundering on a dark lake of stagnant, dead water, and dragging our mind’s creations down with us, so that they are left to perish among dead rats and rotting flowers in a dark, warm whirlpool.

Change the “we” to “women,” and that’s basically what Virginia Woolf said in “A Room of One’s Own,” twenty years earlier. Women, if they want to be artists, should stop sloshing around in their emotions. No doubt that statement disappointed many female writers at the time Woolf made it, and it is probably not popular even today. (I wonder what the male-female ratio is in those courses on writing “personal essays.”) But Ginzburg learned the lesson fast. In 1944, she wrote “Winter in the Abruzzi,” an essay about the time she and her family spent in Pizzoli, the poor, chalky-soiled town that was the site of Leone’s confino. Miraculously, she makes it a kind of happy tale. She talked to the children about life back in Turin:

They had been very small when we left, and had no memories of it at all. I told them that there the houses had many storeys, that there were so many houses and so many streets, and so many big fine shops. “But here there is Giro’s,” the children said.

Giro’s shop was exactly opposite our house. Giro used to stand in the doorway like an old owl, gazing at the street with his round, indifferent eyes. He sold a bit of everything; groceries and candles, postcards, shoes and oranges. When the stock arrived and Giro unloaded the crates, boys ran to eat the rotten oranges he threw away. . . . At Christmas the men returned from Terni, Sulmona, and Rome, stayed for a few days, and set off again after they had slaughtered the pigs. For a few days people ate nothing but sfrizzoli, incredible sausages that made you drink the whole time; and then the squeal of new piglets would fill the street.

The oranges the town’s boys grab at are rotten, but they are probably pretty good all the same, or better than no oranges. The men of the town come home from the cities where they went to find work after the harvest was over. For days everyone eats sausages, and the streets are filled with the cries of newborn piglets, the makings of Christmas sausages to come. Crocetta, the Ginzburg family’s fourteen-year-old maid, runs around town, trying to borrow a pan big enough for making dumplings. Crocetta also tells the children stories; for example, one that many people know as “The Juniper Tree,” in which a woman cuts off her stepson’s head and cooks it and feeds it to his father. The eight pages of “Winter in the Abruzzi” may be the most beautiful piece of work Ginzburg ever produced, full of oinks and smells, fellowship and cruelty.

It ends in sorrow. In the fall of 1943, after Germany began to occupy Italy and the Italian commanders fled to the south, Leone wrote to Natalia telling her to go to Rome, with the children, as quickly as possible. But how was Ginzburg to get out of there, with three small children? In a hilarious episode, a friend in the village convinces the Nazis that Ginzburg is a poor, sad refugee who has no papers because they were lost in an air raid. She has to get to the capital. Can they help? And so this woman, the wife of a famously militant anti-Fascist, is driven to Rome, with her children, by a bunch of Nazis in a military vehicle. Presumably, she thanked them very much. She had three weeks with her husband before he was arrested again, for the last time. He was thirty-four. Natalia wrote:

My husband died in Rome, in the prison of Regina Coeli, a few months after we left the Abruzzi. Faced with the horror of his solitary death, and faced with the anguish which preceded his death, I ask myself if this happened to us—to us, who bought oranges at Giro’s and went for walks in the snow. At that time I believed in a simple and happy future, rich with hopes that were fulfilled, with experiences and plans that were shared. But that was the best time of my life, and only now that it has gone from me forever—only now do I realize it.

This, finally, is the heartbreak that in her writing Ginzburg staved off with the oranges and the piglets.

Many of her readers, knowing what she had been through, wished she had shared her sorrows with them more often. But in her time Italian literature was still largely a men’s club, and therefore Ginzburg had wanted, as she later flatly stated, to write like a man. Besides, emotionalism was not in her nature. As her granddaughter Lisa Ginzburg wrote, her ways were “always sober and austere.”

You can get a sense of this from her appearance in her good friend Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (1964). For this movie Pasolini used mainly nonprofessional actors, people with plain faces, in dusty clothes. Ginzburg he cast as the woman who, in Matthew 26:6-13, intrudes on Jesus’ dinner with Simon the leper and anoints Jesus’ head. Anyone who can stream this film should do so. It is interesting to see Ginzburg’s face: one critic said that she looked more Inca than Italian. Movingly, one can sense her embarrassment at being in a movie, and in a slightly naughty role. The woman with the jar of ointment has often been said to be a prostitute; the disciples object to her presence at their gathering. But Ginzburg’s Mary is blunt, not seductive. She looks as though she were giving Jesus a shampoo.

In a radio interview in 1990, a year before she died, Ginzburg, likable and laconic—the interviewers probably talk more than she does—mentioned how much she admired her friend and fellow-novelist Elsa Morante for being able, in her fiction, to use the third person confidently. She herself didn’t have that ability, she said: she couldn’t “climb up on mountains and see everything from above.” But neither was she able to deploy the first person easily. Ginzburg was a moralist, which is a hard thing for a modern novelist to be, and, partly for that reason, she didn’t like to declaim, or to let her characters do so. She needed to break up the voice. Two of her novels are epistolary, so that the characters take turns speaking in the first person. Another way that she avoided an overbearing “I” was simply with the terseness of her prose. (In some passages, she averaged perhaps twelve words per sentence.) When interviewers asked her about this, she would often reply that she was so much younger than her many siblings that, as a child, if she had something to say, she had to say it quickly, before somebody interrupted her.

Whatever her griefs, Ginzburg made a life for herself after Leone’s death. In her earlier years, she had done some work for Einaudi Editore, the celebrated publishing company established in Turin, in 1933, by Leone and Giulio Einaudi (the son of a future President of Italy), together with Cesare Pavese. Now she went back to work there. In 1950, she got married again, to Gabriele Baldini, a professor of English at the University of Rome, and she moved to the capital to be with him. (She writes about Baldini in a tender essay, “He and I,” collected in “The Little Virtues,” a book of beautiful short pieces that also includes “Winter in the Abruzzi.”) In 1983, Ginzburg was even induced to run for a seat in the Italian parliament, as the candidate of the Independent Left. She won and was later reëlected. All told, however, she had bad luck. Baldini died young (in 1969, at the age of forty-nine), and the two children they had together were both born severely disabled. The first, a boy, died within a year. The second, a girl, Susanna, lived, and Ginzburg kept her at home. I have read no description of how this was for her.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that critics overstress the theme of sorrow in Ginzburg’s works. She always knew how to convert the griefs into some sort of beauty. In “Happiness, as Such,” she pulled off a wonderful act of virtuosity, an epistolary novel in which a young man, Michele, is the subject of a series of letters written to, by, and also about him, by his mother, his sisters, a friend, a former girlfriend, and assorted others. Most of these people are comically selfish; they want what they want from Michele. And where the hell is he, anyway? As it turns out, he has had to leave Italy, where he was involved in left-wing causes. He writes to his sister Angelica to please go get the machine gun out of the stove where he stored it, in his kitchen, and throw it into the river. In another letter, he tells his friend Osvaldo to go to the same apartment and get the white cashmere scarf with the blue stripes out of the bottom drawer of a bureau. It will remind Osvaldo, he says, of the walks they used to take along the Tiber. Osvaldo replies that he looked for the scarf but couldn’t find it, so he went to the store and bought another scarf. It probably wasn’t cashmere, and didn’t have stripes, but it was white. Michele is killed in a demonstration. By then, ironically, he seems to have given up politics. Everything in the book is a little sad and a little funny.

This tone, a kind of melancholy touched with poetry, is carried forward in Ginzburg’s greatest book, “Family Lexicon,” which she said was to be read as a novel even though everything in it really happened. The title means, sort of, “the way we used to refer to things,” and most families probably have such a lexicon. If Natalia arrived at the dinner table in an adolescent funk, her mother would say, “Here comes Hurricane Maria.” An uncle who was a doctor specializing in the treatment of the insane was referred to as “the Lunatic.”

Ginzburg is best when writing about her parents. Her father, Giuseppe, a loud, choleric Triestine, always took a cold shower in the morning:

Under the water’s lash, he’d let out a long roar, then he’d get dressed and, after stirring in many spoonfuls of sugar, he’d gobble down great cupfuls of that cold mezzorado [yogurt]. By the time he left the apartment, the streets were still dark and mostly deserted. He’d set out into the cold fog of those Turin dawns wearing a large beret that formed a kind of visor over his brow and a great big raincoat full of pockets and with many leather buttons. He’d go out with his hands clasped behind his back, his pipe in his mouth, his stride lopsided because one shoulder was higher than the other. Almost no one was on the street yet but he still managed to bump into whoever happened to be out then.

The mother, Lidia, a Milanese, is the opposite: immovably serene, playing solitaire and chatting with the seamstress when she is not journeying happily here and there to bring clean clothes to the men in the family who are in jail. Lidia loved to tell stories:

She would turn to one of us at the dinner table and begin telling a story, and whether she was telling one about my father’s family or about her own, she lit up with joy. It was as if she were telling the story for the first time, telling it to fresh ears. “I had an uncle,” she would begin, “whom they called Barbison.”

And if one of us said, “I know that story! I’ve already heard it a thousand times!” she would turn to another one of us and in a lowered voice continue on with her story.

“I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve heard this story,” my father would shout, overhearing a word or two as he passed by.

My mother, her voice lowered, would continue on with the story.

In 1934, Natalia’s brother Mario was the star of a scandal in which he and an associate were caught at the Swiss border trying to bring anti-Fascist literature into Italy. The other man was arrested, but Mario jumped into the Tresa River and swam for the Swiss shore. “In the water with his overcoat on!” Lidia exclaimed when she was told. She regretted that her menfolk were always being locked up, but she was proud that they were incarcerated with distinguished people. When her son Alberto was sent to prison with his friend Vittorio, she said of Vittorio, “He’s just done very well on his law school exams.” This theme, of the blindness of European Jewish families to the actual, mortal threat of the Fascists, has been sounded before, but rarely with such flair. “I wrote poems for Mussolini,” a woman the Ginzburgs knew in Pizzoli says. “What a mistake!”

The dinner table was the scene of loud arguments. The small Natalia sat there, listening, and what people said she stored away. Her later life, too, was grist for this poet of remembrance. (She had translated Proust’s “Swann’s Way” for Einaudi.) I especially treasure her 1957 essay “Portrait of a Friend” (also collected in “The Little Virtues”), about Cesare Pavese, who took an overdose of barbiturates in Turin, in 1950, at the age of forty-one.

He died in the summer. 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.

None of us were there. He chose to die on an ordinary, stiflingly hot day in August, and he chose a room in a hotel near a station; he wanted to die like a stranger in the city to which he belonged.

Although Pavese was eight years older than Natalia—he went to school with her brothers—he became not only her colleague at Einaudi but also a close friend and, through his novels, a significant influence on her. His death was a terrible blow, and, as usual, one admires the restraint of her report. One must also admire the portrait of Turin. She makes the city absorb all the desolation that she is too delicate-minded to tell us was Pavese’s. But the city is also beautiful, in an eerie way: “very large, clear and echoing, like an empty city-square.” (It seems like a de Chirico.) And Pavese is not just a man who killed himself. He is also a person who was young once. He loved cherries, Ginzburg says, and used to come over to the Levis’ house in the evening with a pocket full of them, which he would then distribute. Usually, when Pavese is spoken of, he is the man of the bleak books and the death by Seconal. But, thanks to Ginzburg, I now see him, sometimes, dangling cherries in front of a young woman. Later, he was one of the few people who urged her to write. When she was living in the Abruzzi, he sent her a postcard: “Dear Natalia, stop having children and write a book.” She had more children, but she also sat down and wrote more than a dozen books. ♦


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