Reintroducing Natalia Ginzburg, One of the Great Italian Writers of the 20th Century
The voice is instantly, almost violently recognizable — aloof, amused and melancholy. The metaphors are sparse and ordinary; the language plain, but every word load-bearing. Short sentences detonate into scenes of shocking cruelty. Even in middling translations, it is a style that cannot be subsumed; Natalia Ginzburg can only sound like herself.
Ginzburg died in 1991, celebrated as one of the great Italian writers. Her work is making its way again into the Anglophone world, encouraged, perhaps, by the popularity of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Ginzburg’s 1963 autobiographical novel, “Family Lexicon,” was published in an agile new translation by Jenny McPhee two years ago, and two other works of fiction, “The Dry Heart” and “Happiness, as Such,” have just been reissued, one in a new translation.
The family was her great obsession; it is “where everything starts,” she once said, “where the germs grow.” The families in these newly available books are petri dishes of fizzing dysfunction.
“The Dry Heart,” a novella translated with mirrorlike polish by Frances Frenaye, had fallen out of print. It begins bluntly: “I shot him between the eyes,” the narrator tells us, after killing her husband. “I had known that sooner or later I should do something of the sort.” There was a mistress; a baby that died; desperate and failed attempts to conceive another — we learn all this in the first few pages. The mystery of the novel, its coiling allure, is not what happens or why but how. How does this woman, so dazed and daffy (like many Ginzburg heroines) — a woman prone to napping, not decisive action — arrive at this murderous point?
We are presented a portrait of marriage in its loneliness and awkwardness, a dense braid of ambivalence. What truly terrifies the narrator, we learn, is not that she hates her husband but that after everything — after the grief and infidelity — she finds herself falling in love with him again, and more wretchedly dependent than ever.
This book is a Roman candle — quick and explosive. “Happiness, as Such,” translated by Minna Zallman Proctor, burns slower and reveals more of Ginzburg’s natural sympathy and wit. A family discovers that its beloved only son, Michele, has fled town, leaving chaos in his wake: debts, a girlfriend who might have just given birth to his child, a male friend who was possibly also his lover and the small matter of a machine gun that needs disposing.
The novel is told in letters, mainly to Michele from his mother — a savant of passive aggression who bullies and wheedles and bleeds onto the page. “I sometimes think about how little time we’ve spent together, you and me, and how little we know each other,” she writes. “I think you’re a moron. But I don’t know if you’re a moron or maybe secretly wise.” We’re all suspended somewhere between these poles, the writer included; few writers make as liberal and effective use of the first-person-plural narration.
Where does style come from? Is it knowingly constructed or unconsciously secreted? Invented or inherited? These questions dog me whenever I read Ginzburg, whose thumbprint is so unmistakable, so inscribed by her time, yet whose work stands so solidly that it requires no background information to appreciate. “Of course I wrote about the war,” she once said. “I was formed by the war because that was what happened to me. I think of a writer as a river: you reflect what passes before you. The trees pass, and the houses; you reflect what is there.”
Ginzburg was born in Palermo, in 1916, to a prominent family of left-wing intellectuals. Their home was a raucous salon, memorialized in “Family Lexicon.” It was the family dinner table, she said, that was the source of her famously direct style; as the youngest of five children, she learned to get her point across quickly and crisply. She married Leone Ginzburg, a teacher and leading antifascist organizer who was sent into internal exile, in Abruzzo, during World War II. Natalia and the couple’s children spent much of that time in Abruzzo with him, and she turned to writing. “Dear Natalia, stop having children and write a book that is better than mine,” her friend Cesare Pavese goaded the 25-year-old Ginzburg by postcard. She did, publishing her first novel, “The Road to the City,” in 1942 under a pseudonym to circumvent laws that banned Jews from publishing.
Leone Ginzburg was arrested in 1943 and tortured to death in a Nazi prison. “I got to know grief very well — a real, irremediable and incurable grief that shattered my life, and when I tried to put it together again I realized that I and my life had become something irreconcilable with what had gone before. Only my vocation remained unchanged,” Natalia later recalled. “At first I hated it, it disgusted me, but I knew very well that I would end up returning to it, and that it would save me.”
The war is not merely her subject, however; it is the weather in her work, the foundation on which her stories are based — the randomness, confusion, lack of resolution or explanation. And above all, her skepticism of happiness — and her passion for writing about it. Her characters are forever wishing each other happiness “if there is such a thing as happiness,” or noting that it exists only in recollection. “It is like water, one only realizes when it has run away,” she wrote in her novel “Voices in the Evening.” But water can be caught; these books snare so much of what is odd and lovely and fleeting in the world. It is work that saved and sustained the writer after unimaginable loss. It buoys us up, too.