I WAS 24 years old when I met Natalia Ginzburg in Rome. I had just come from three weeks of intensive study of Italian at the Universita per Stranieri di Perugia (University for Foreigners in Perugia), and before that had managed to pass an Italian reading comprehension test for a graduate program that I never completed. With the misplaced confidence of the young, I assumed I’d be able to conduct an adequate conversation with her. During the Italian course at Perugia, the teacher had introduced us to Ginzburg’s early essays collected in Le piccole virtù (The Little Virtues) and I was immediately enamored of them. Every lucid, plangent sentence enchanted my ears and twisted my heart. The essay “Broken Shoes” considered the condition of her shoes as she walked through Rome after the fascists murdered her husband, preceded by a spell of political exile with their children in a village in the Abruzzi region. The essays about their life in that town sketched the mutually generous friendships that developed between her family and the local people.
I had never read anything like them, so simply written (probably one reason why they had been assigned to my intermediate class) and yet so richly evocative of the enormous questions, loss, war, family. I felt I had to know this woman. I was under the common illusion that being face to face with a writer would reveal her spirit, that she would somehow embody the sensibility I revered. I was totally mistaken, as are most readers who gather to see writers in person. The person is not the work; the place where the work comes from is utterly hidden, maybe even to the writer herself.
A friend arranged a meeting, and I was ushered into a dim living room with heavy furniture and motioned to a chair. Ginzburg sat opposite me on the couch staring, no doubt wondering why I’d come, waiting for me to say something. She gave me tea, pretty much the only thing she gave me. The apartment was very still — where were the children? But of course by that time, two decades after the war, they were no longer the toddlers I envisioned from the essays. I fumbled for words, trying to say how much I admired her writing, and she asked perfunctory questions about how I liked living in Rome. I wanted to know all about the war, the exile, the grief, but she was so austere that I didn’t dare ask. But why need I ask? She had said it all already in the writing, unforgettably: “The experience of evil, once suffered, is never forgotten. […] We will never be cured of this war. […] We are people who will never feel at ease, never think and plan and order our lives in peace.”
I was relieved when the visit was over.
Back home, I tried translating some of the essays in Le piccole virtù. Along with the themes of postwar melancholia and social disruption, I found a wit so dry that it might elude readers altogether. Even in the grimmest of circumstances, she cannot resist noting the absurdities of ordinary situations. In the essay “My Psychoanalysis,” she’s in Rome after her exile, grieving, lonely, and with an uncertain future: her husband is dead; her children are in Turin with her parents; and on top of all that her shoes are falling apart. To me, the account of her treatment is comical, though a therapist I showed it to found nothing amusing.
The friend who had recommended Dr. B. […] said he was Jewish, German, and a Jungian. The fact that he was a Jungian […] to me was immaterial since I had confused notions about the difference between Jung and Freud. In fact one day I asked Dr. B. to explain this difference to me. He spun out an elaborate explanation and at some point I lost the thread and got distracted gazing at his brass ring, the little silver curls over his ears, and his wrinkled brow […] I felt like I was in school, where I used to ask for explanations and then get lost thinking of other things.
This is not the only time Ginzburg adopts a faux naïveté: I have no doubt that she knew the difference between Jung and Freud. In an essay on politics she claims to know nothing about politics, although by that time she had served two terms in Parliament. In the essay “My Craft,” she says the only thing she knows how to do is write. She takes this pose, I believe, in order to approach her subject in the most fundamental terms, using simplicity to cut through rampant sophistry. Her essay “He and I” is a list of contrasts between her and her second husband, a scholar of English literature. Some are trivial (“He’s always warm, I’m always cold”), others profound. Readers have seen it as an incisive portrait of a marriage. This it may be, but even more, it is a wry snapshot showing how two such different people can manage to make a life together.
A friend in Italy sent me a copy of Famiglia when it appeared in 1977. I translated the book for practice. By that time, my Italian was much improved through the courses I had taken for the graduate program that I never completed. Translating it was one of the happiest experiences of my writing life; I almost felt as though I were writing it, as if I were the person with that lucid, witty, and heartbreaking voice.
Now here it is again, reissued by NYRB Classics in the original English version by the British translator, Beryl Stockman. Rereading it made me wistful, because I wished it were my translation, which naturally I preferred. The book contains two novellas, and its title is Family and Borghesia; in Italian the title on the cover was simply Famiglia, a wise choice because Family is the masterpiece. Borghesia, the companion piece, is a fine work, but it is overshadowed by the longer one that precedes it.
The two have many elements in common. It is as if Ginzburg assembled a batch of ingredients and whipped up two different dishes out of them. One turned out to be a superb, unforgettable feast, while the other turned out fine, nourishing, as everything Ginzburg wrote is fine and nourishing, but lacking the secret something that makes a masterwork. Probably asking for two masterpieces in one small book is asking too much.
In each novella the central figure is middle-aged — Carmine in Family is just over 40, Ilaria in Borghesia somewhat older. Each story offers a large cast of characters: neighbors, a busybody, in-laws, a few drifters who come and go, several described with recurring tags like Homeric epithets; each novella contains a suicide. The protagonists are the poles around whom the motley supporting characters revolve, like the whirling horses in a merry-go-round. Each protagonist has lost a child years ago, and each is involved in an unhappy relationship: Carmine’s wife, Ninetta of the dark bangs and phony smile, is superficial and selfish; Ilaria’s sometime lover is a deeply depressed doctor who lives in another town, barely pays attention to her, and halfway through the narrative kills himself. Each one has a living child: Carmine’s son Dodo is a chubby, fearful, coddled five-year-old, and Ilaria’s daughter of 18 is recently married but will shortly find a new man worse than the first.
Ginzburg remarked in one of her essays that she would like to write a book called Vicende, “Event.” “Events” would be more appropriate, or “Vicissitudes.” She’s done precisely that in both these novellas — it’s one damn thing after another, a chronicle of interwoven lives. But Famiglia has the more sophisticated shape.
It opens with Carmine and Ivana, long-ago lovers but now simply good friends, and their children sitting in a café on a hot summer Sunday afternoon, mildly bickering, eating ice cream in a desultory way, having just left an awful movie they went to for the air-conditioning, but the air-conditioning was broken. Ivana’s adolescent daughter has a tuft of red hair concealing one eye, which Carmine keeps brushing aside. The red hair came from her father, whom Ivana knew only briefly, who beat her, and who ended in a psychiatric hospital where he killed himself. The little group forms a family of sorts, a family of the kind that keeps recurring in Ginzburg’s later fiction — arbitrary and ephemeral, replacing the traditional prewar family. As Ginzburg often wrote in her essays and illustrated in her fiction, the war destroyed houses, traditions, patterns of life, and the patterns that have replaced these are shifting and uncertain, built on sand.
Carmine, an architect, is a lost soul, miserable with his shallow wife Ninetta. Over the course of the narrative, each has a brief meaningless affair. He is comfortable only with Ivana and the substitute family he finds at her house, where he spends most evenings. Beyond the familiar anomie in Ginzburg, he shows the enervating symptoms of postwar social mobility. Once a country boy from an Abruzzi village, he is out of place in his over-decorated upper-middle-class apartment. When Carmine’s peasant parents visit, Ninetta patronizes them with false courtesy: she cannot get used to their blackened teeth, their black clothing, their silence. Who knows what they make of their son’s sleek surroundings — the red carpets and red tablecloth and the red jacket of the servant who presents the dinner plates, not to mention the hanging lamp that looks like a condom? (Beryl Stockman calls it a contraceptive, but euphemisms do not suit Ginzburg.)
Carmine and Ivana no longer remember exactly why they parted, nor is there any regret or wish to resume the affair. To write merely of a wrong choice and the subsequent remorse would be too simple for Ginzburg’s purposes. She implies that the lives would have soured no matter which choices were made. The postwar social breakdown, not to mention the human condition itself, brings on the private catastrophes of Family. Not until the very end do Carmine and Ivana talk about the baby they lost to polio, yet having suffered that agony together is the one thing that keeps them close. During a bout of pneumonia, “while his temperature was climbing, [Carmine] found himself thinking that the best part of his existence was Ivana and all that surrounded her. No other source gave him that vital something which made him more intelligent, less ordinary, and stronger.”
The series of downhill events in Family feels inevitable and irresistible. Even Carmine’s parents, when they visit, “realized more and more that something had happened, something secret and tragic, something it was better not to talk about.” Only as the story draws to a close do we grasp that it has been propelled all along by the steady thrust of decay and death. But after the many events, we are brought unexpectedly back to the day of the movie and the ice cream: all that followed was a flashback. Now, as his life begins to decline, Carmine remembers those hours that seemed so ordinary, even boring, as one of the happiest times of his life. You don’t notice happiness when you have it, Ginzburg once remarked: happiness, she said, is like water.
Carmine’s fatal illness starts with mild symptoms that refuse to go away. Very soon he is in the hospital with an illness that has a long, intimidating name. Yet as in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, every detail suggests that the man’s life has created the illness, is the illness: his confusion about social class, his all-too-human equivocation, his failure to discover who he is and how he should properly live. As Carmine dies, Ginzburg, like Tolstoy, vaults beyond the moral and psychological parameters she has set up — not to a vision of spiritual redemption, though, but to something far more primal and rooted.
He was a little boy and his mother was young, with a round rose face and white teeth and thick black hair gathered in a big bun studded with metal hairpins that jutted out from beneath her kerchief. […] He was very little, in his mother’s arms. They were at a railroad station in town, at night, and it was raining very hard and there were crowds of people waiting for the train, all holding umbrellas, and mud streamed between the tracks. Why on earth his memory should have squandered and destroyed so many days, so many facts, and yet preserved that one moment so accurately, carrying it safely across years, storms, and ruins, he did not know. He remembered nothing about himself in that moment, not the clothes he had on, nor the shoes, nor whatever wonders and curiosities wound and unwound in his head. All of that, his memory had thrown out as useless. Instead, it had preserved at random a little pile of minimal impressions, heartbreaking but slight. It had preserved the voices, the mud, the umbrellas, the people, the night. [Translation mine.]
Eric Gudas, in his afterword, finds this “the most intense, bewitching, and gorgeous passage in all of Ginzburg’s work.” I wouldn’t argue with that.
Borghesia, like Family, is rich in character and event, mingling comic blunders with grievous error, and also ends with the protagonist’s death in middle age. The plot, such as it is, turns on the beleaguered widow Ilaria’s growing involvement with cats, three in succession, each with its closely defined nature and habits; the story is punctuated by the arrival then disappearance or death of each — the cats being as subject to the vagaries of fate as are the mostly forlorn characters.
Ilaria, her older brother-in-law Pietro, her teenaged daughter Aurora, and her husband all live in the same apartment building, supported by Pietro. Ilaria does the housekeeping and cooks for whoever is around. That might include Aurora’s husband, even after she leaves him, a neighbor and her child, an elderly servant, or a drifting young girl hired as a servant but who does no work. Among the events Ginzburg casually tosses in are the birth of Aurora’s two babies (as one character notes, she and the current cat get pregnant and give birth at the same time). For comic relief, there is Pietro’s infatuation with and marriage to a teenager the others label “the little nun” because of her appearance and dress; the little nun quickly surprises everyone by taking up with Aurora’s rejected husband.
Both novellas, shot through with tragedy, have moments of throwaway wit. One is Ilaria’s cat becoming the inseparable friend of the neighbor’s cat that viciously attacked her. Another is comical non sequiturs. In Borghesia, Ilaria remembers a servant’s advice to give the cat plenty of water. “The servant had fled to Switzerland in the meantime, having been involved in an obscene photographs scandal.” The aging Pietro explains his love for the little nun: “He did not understand her, and he was marrying her in order to be able to understand her. Ilaria said, but would it not be better to understand her first, then marry her?”
So why doesn’t this story have the emotional richness of Family? Unlike Carmine, a tangled, tormented character, Ilaria’s emotional life is hollow: that is the essence of her tale, the reason why a friend suggests she get a cat. But her hollowness can’t carry the weight of the narrative as Carmine’s complexity does. The surrounding characters, while never dull, do not work their way into the heart. Compared to Family, Borghesia seems something Ginzburg might have tossed off as a companion piece. Even the humor is broader and lighter than in Family.
Like all of her work, these two novellas follow “the long chain of human relations […] making its long and inevitable parabola,” as she writes in her superb 1953 essay, “Human Relations.” They are suffused with the rigorous wisdom Ginzburg earned through calamity and her determination to persist nonetheless in her work. It is very difficult and demanding work, she writes in “My Craft,” and hungry for material.
The daily ups and downs of our life, the daily ups and downs we witness in others’ lives, all that we read and see and think and discuss feeds its hunger, and it grows within us. It is a craft that thrives on terrible things too; it feeds on the best and the worst in our life, our evil feelings and our good feelings course through its blood. It feeds on us, and it thrives.
Despite her craft’s voracious demands, she still finds it “the most wonderful in the world.”