“I Know That Story!”: On Natalia Ginzburg’s “Family Lexicon”

By Eric GudasApril 15, 2017

“I Know That Story!”: On Natalia Ginzburg’s “Family Lexicon”

Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg

NATALIA GINZBURG’S novel-cum-memoir, Lessico famigliare (1963), masterfully translated by Jenny McPhee as Family Lexicon, plunges its reader into a maelstrom of fart jokes, mimicry, conversation scraps overheard in childhood and repeated for decades, loudly bellowed parental edicts and epithets, invented idioms, puns, libretto excerpts, doggerel, and, occasionally, lyric poems. Often, Ginzburg remembers, their mother “recited poetry or sang” after dinner; at other times, the whole Levi family “had heated discussions over how ugly or good-looking someone was.” This cacophony of words sometimes verges on pure sound, as when the narrator’s father “let[s] out a long roar” in the shower each morning, or when her friend Lola eschews words for a “guttural and affectionate dove cry.” Gradually, a sense of time and place — Italy between the 1920s and ’50s — emerges from this barely controlled aural chaos, just as the hesitations and unfinished sentences of James Joyce’s Dubliners reveal glimpses of turn-of-the-century Ireland, or the brutally formal dialogue of Ivy Compton-Burnett, whose novels Ginzburg revered, gestures toward Edwardian social hierarchies. In the author’s “Avvertenza” (“warning”) that opens the book, Ginzburg states rather elliptically, “Even though the story is real, I think one should read it as if it were a novel, and therefore not demand of it any more or less than a novel can offer.” Indeed, Family Lexicon recalls the great modernists’ reimaginings of childhood — Joyce, Compton-Burnett, Katherine Mansfield, parts of Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience, and, farther back, Swann’s Way, which Ginzburg translated into Italian while in exile and then in hiding during World War II.

In her novel, Ginzburg, the daughter of a Jewish-born father and a Catholic-born mother — adamant nonbelievers and socialists both — grows up as the youngest of five siblings during Mussolini’s rise to power. The scene is Turin, home of an antifascist resistance movement into which Ginzburg’s family is increasingly drawn. The young Natalia Levi marries Leone Ginzburg, a Jewish Russian-Italian literary scholar active in the resistance, who will be killed in a Nazi prison before the war’s end, leaving his widow and their three children to return, eventually, to her parents’ home. (The chronological straightforwardness of my last three sentences differs totally from Ginzburg’s own mode of narration.) But it would be wrong to classify Family Lexicon as a historical memoir — say, My Childhood in Mussolini’s Italy — or the portrait of a writer as a young woman, since Ginzburg, one of Italy’s best known and most beloved postwar writers, ruthlessly downplays her own artistic development. In fact, Ginzburg announces that she has left out “much that concerned [her] directly”: “I had little desire to talk about myself. This is not in fact my story but rather, even with gaps and lacunae, the story of my family.”

Family Lexicon doesn’t so much narrate that story as immerse us in a language-world of dialect (Triestine and Milanese), memory (of Ginzburg’s own childhood, inextricable from her parents’ retellings of their childhoods), and, above all, conflict. When the Levis aren’t squabbling about their friends’ relative ugliness, they have “ferocious arguments over politics, which ended in tantrums, napkins hurled into the air, and doors slammed so hard the whole apartment shook.” McPhee’s translation expertly retains what critic Lorrie Goldensohn has called Ginzburg’s “own indelible voice-print,” a “tough, residual boniness carried over from the original sentences [that] gleams through even as they move in their new English sound.” That “voice-print” is intimately connected with her characters’ speaking voices, and in particular with a “brutal frankness” prized both in Ginzburg’s own family and subsequently in all of her writing, where it erupts on almost every page, often peppered with exclamation points. Family Lexicon is studded, for instance, with her father’s caustic barbs, including my absolute favorite, uttered at various times to different members of his family: “You’re bored because you have no inner life.” And in the novel’s leftist milieu, where characters accuse each other of being “bourgeois” time and again, Lidia Levi candidly and hilariously critiques herself: “‘If Stalin came to take away my maid, I’d kill him,’ my mother said. ‘What would I do without my maid? I, who don’t know how to do a thing?’”

While reading Family Lexicon — and rereading it, to revel in McPhee’s translation — I laughed at these ripostes, insults, and joyful self-lacerations and read them aloud to whoever was closest to hand, most often my own family. I remembered these catchphrases long after I had closed the book, in much the same way Ginzburg and her siblings parrot zingers from their past. Ginzburg announces early on that these sayings cause her and her siblings to “immediately fall back into our old relationships, our childhood, our youth, all inextricably linked to those words and phrases.” Family Lexicon, then, is fundamentally a nostalgic book, a paean to the family stability, volatile as it was, that Ginzburg experienced in her childhood and to which she returned, for a time, after the war. The novel ends only when she and her children finally leave her parents’ literal and figurative protection to live with her second husband in Rome.

Family Lexicon also meditates on the process by which memory and the act of storytelling turn human experience into language, or, in Ginzburg’s humbler term, sayings. In Family Lexicon, words and phrases function as metonyms for, and sometimes even embodiments of, particular memories. “A lot of my mother’s memories were like this: simple phrases that she overheard,” the narrator recalls. “One day she went out for a walk with her boarding school classmates and teachers. Suddenly one of the girls broke rank and ran to embrace a passing dog. She hugged it and in Milanese dialect said: ‘It’s her, it’s her, it’s my bitch’s sister!’” One assumes the story remained lodged in Lidia’s memory, and then in her children’s, because of its absurdity and its mild transgressiveness (pointed up by McPhee’s choice of “bitch” instead of an earlier translator’s “doggie”), but the narrator offers no explicit clues for interpretation. Instead, this pivot to fact in the next sentence sounds almost like a non sequitur: “My mother attended boarding school for many years.” Rather than explain and interpret the family sayings that shaped her, the narrator tends simply to repeat them, in much the same way that her characters tell the same stories over and over. Family Lexicon concludes with Ginzburg’s father interrupting his wife to complain: “How many times have I heard her tell that story!” In answer to an almost identical complaint in her novel Voices in the Evening (1961), one of Ginzburg’s fictional mothers replies, “It serves to make a bit of conversation […] One tells stories and talks, someone says one thing, and someone else another” (trans. D. M. Low). In this model of family interchange, the domestic utterances accrete instead of cohering.

Ginzburg uses the unit of the paragraph to dramatize this process of accretion, the jumbling together of people, memories, and sayings in a child’s consciousness, to be reconstructed decades later by the adult writer. Here, the narrator remembers herself at about 10 years old, in the mid-1920s:

Turati and Kuliscioff were ever-present in my mother’s reminiscences. I knew they were both still alive and living in Milan (perhaps together, perhaps in two different apartments) and that they were still involved in politics and the fight against fascism. Nevertheless, in my imagination, they had become tangled up with other figures who were also ever-present in my mother’s reminiscences: her parents, Silvio, the Lunatic, Barbison. People who were either dead or, if still alive, very old and belonging to a distant time, to far-off events when my mother was a child and heard someone or another say, “It’s my bitch’s sister!” and “Sulphuric acid smacks of fart.” These were people impossible to meet now, impossible to touch, and even if I were to meet them and touch them they were not the same as the ones I imagined and even if they were still alive they were in any case tainted by their proximity to the dead with whom they dwelled in my soul; and they had taken up the step of the dead, light and elusive.

Not for the first time, the narrator refers to friends of her mother’s parents who had helped found the Italian Socialist Party in the 1890s, then to other figures from her mother’s youth, and finally to catchphrases of her mother’s childhood stories. All of these people, nicknames, and sayings have the status of myth in the youthful narrator’s mind, but myth made confusing by mystery and taboo. Her father’s prudish unwillingness to talk about the socialists Filippo Turati and Anna Kuliscioff’s out-of-wedlock relationship makes that topic off limits, while the suicide of Silvio, her mother’s brother, lurks, barely referred to, at the edge of the narrator’s childhood, and “fart” and “bitch” offer up the forbidden in the form of profanity. These people and their sayings have become as uncanny as the shades of the departed. Mixed together, they represent The Past, but a past that impinges unnervingly on the present and its prohibitions.

Imagined transgressions have such potency for the narrator because her family life is so full of restrictions and taboos. The primary source of inhibition and conflict in Family Lexicon is not Mussolini but Ginzburg’s father — Giuseppe Levi, a biology professor at the University of Turin, whom the narrator never addresses or refers to by name. His “bullying” and “despotism” rule her family: “At home, we lived in a recurring nightmare filled with my father’s sudden outbursts, exploding as he did often over the most trifling things.” These outbursts are punctuated by insults like “moron,” “buffoon,” “poser,” “dimwit,” and “lummox” (her mother prefers the more flowery “hooligan” and “rapscallion”), which her father lobs at his family, friends, colleagues, and even the ghost of Marcel Proust, who, in his estimation, “must have been a jackass!” Personal and political fury are so bound up for this raging patriarch that when he calls out “Thug! Delinquent!” at the dinner table, his family doesn’t “know if he was angry at Mussolini or [his son] Alberto who hadn’t yet returned home” from playing soccer. The adult writer’s loving — because acidly unsentimental — evocation of this domestic tyrant stays locked in continual tension with the profound fear she evidently experienced as a child. Her mother, too, has “such a terror of [her husband’s] anger” that she seems almost like a sixth child in the Levi household, whose head lays down strict — if often quietly disobeyed — codes of conduct for the family, while Lidia, at least in her daughter’s eyes, “was totally incapable of forbidding anyone anything.” Indeed, Ginzburg even subtly and ironically links her father with fascist repression by means of the verb “forbid,” which she associates mostly with him (“I forbid you to discuss politics with the servants!”) but at times with the regime itself (“Novelists and poets had been starved of words during the fascist years. So many had been forbidden to use words”).

As Peg Boyers notes in her afterword to the novel, “Ginzburg exposes [her father] as something much less than an idealized paterfamilias.” This understatement sounds like Ginzburg herself, who laconically reports on her father’s intolerance and prejudices — for instance, “he believed it hardly mattered if girls didn’t study because eventually they would get married” — without explicitly considering their effect on her. Instead, she portrays him as a larger-than-life figure who grows more fearsome and even physically repellent with every deed and gesture. After one of his strenuous hikes, “[h]e’d read the paper silently, his face red and swollen having been burnt by the sun reflecting off glaciers, his lips chapped and bleeding, his nose covered in a yellow cream that looked like butter, his brow furrowed and stormy.” His outdoorsmanship leaves physical marks on him, just as his scientific exploration coats him in gory traces in this piece of family lore: “In Spitzberg he had gone inside a whale’s cranium to look for cerebro-spinal ganglia but couldn’t find them. He got covered in whale blood and the clothes he brought back home with him were stained and hardened with dried blood.” This primal, bloody, swollen, angry monster of a father remains undomesticated and untamed, but his more terrifying and oppressive attributes gradually come to seem the wellspring of his righteous opposition to the fascist regime. They become transformed into the qualities for which his daughter — to use a word that Ginzburg assiduously avoids in connection with her father — loves him.

Ginzburg depicts her father as unconcerned with the religion of his birth except in connection with his habitual assessment of people’s looks: “Jews are notoriously ugly […] I am, in fact, ugly too.” But, in her usual anti-expository way, she hints at his vulnerability as a Jew. Early on, she establishes his “fear of homelessness”: “All his life he was plagued with the anxiety that from one moment to the next he might find himself on the street.” Once the war starts, and particularly after the Italian Racial Laws of 1938 cost him his professorship, such fears prove all too rational. By the late 1930s, the narrator reports:

Turin was full of German Jews who’d fled Germany. Some of them were even assistants in my father’s laboratory. They were people without a country. Maybe, soon, we too would be without a country, forced to move from one country to another, from one police station to the next, without work or roots or family or homes.

This “we” includes Ginzburg herself, her Jewish, antifascist husband Leone, and, of course, her father. In the end, Giuseppe Levi is indeed “forced to move from one country to another” — Italy to Belgium and back again, and finally into hiding in the countryside around Ivrea, to avoid capture by the Nazis. In retelling his wartime experiences, though, Ginzburg dwells less on his vulnerability than on his absolute, almost foolhardy courage — a quality that, earlier in the novel, seems tied up with an obnoxious bullheadedness, but here acquires the aura of a superhuman power:

I remembered my father running like a buffalo with his head down through the streets during the war whenever there was an air raid. My father wouldn’t go down into the shelters and whenever the sirens sounded he started to run, not to a shelter but towards home. Under the roar and whistle of planes, he ran hugging the walls with his head down, happy to be in danger because danger was something he loved.

“Nitwitteries!” he’d say afterward. “No way I’d ever go into a shelter! What do I care if I die!”

Unlike many of the novel’s Italian Jews — including Ginzburg’s husband — her father does not fade ominously from the narrator’s sight. He stands in stark contrast to the internees she witnesses “arrested, handcuffed, and put on a [German] truck, disappearing into the dust on the road” for an unknown fate. Giuseppe Levi comes to embody survival itself.

I dwell so much on Ginzburg’s evocation of her father because I agree with Boyer that “Giuseppe Levi is the hero — lowercase hero — of the book.” But there are other lowercase heroes, too. Lidia, a less forceful presence than her husband, also becomes an indomitable postwar survivor: “‘I’m not right-wing or left-wing! I’m for peace!’ And she’d go out, her stride once again young, smooth, and glorious, her hat in hand, her by now white hair blowing in the wind.” Ginzburg also uses patterns of repetition and accretion to hint at her narrator’s centrality in Family Lexicon, despite her decision to leave “much that concerned [her] directly” out of the book. As Boyer points out, Ginzburg refers to each of her family members and other important figures with “a pat phrase or other characteristic marker” that, in turn, reveals more about the narrator than she is willing to state explicitly. For instance, among those who help Turati — yes, he is still alive in the 1920s — in his eventual escape to France is Ginzburg’s future brother-in-law Adriano Olivetti, scion of the Italian industrialist. By taking part in such a significant political figure’s flight, Adriano assumes heroic attributes: “His eyes were fearful, resolute, and excited. I saw those eyes two or three times again in my life; his eyes took on that look whenever he was helping someone to escape, whenever there was danger, and whenever someone had to be transported to safety.”

Both Adriano and the narrator take part in this excitement, albeit in different ways: he by participating in the escape, and thereby risking his own safety, she by watching him. This episode foreshadows the atmosphere of risk and drama that surrounds the Levi brothers and their friends — including the narrator’s future husband — once they begin participating in the antifascist resistance. That “characteristic marker” reappears in the text when Mario Levi escapes from Italy to Switzerland after being caught with resistance pamphlets and Adriano comes to the Levi family’s aid: he “wore that same expression he’d had when Turati fled, an expression that revealed both his terror and his excitement in those dangerous times.” The repeated words “danger” and “excitement” imply that Adriano enjoys his conspirator’s role, and that the narrator, too, experiences a heightened sense of purpose, of aliveness, in the midst of this shared escape narrative.

This recurring pattern of “pat phrase[s]” evoking Adriano’s eyes in moments of hazard culminates in one of Family Lexicon’s most powerful passages — and, significantly, one of the few times that the narrator depicts herself in any personal danger. It is 1944, in Rome, and Ginzburg’s husband has been arrested by the Germans for publishing an underground newspaper. Adriano arrives to spirit the narrator and her children into hiding, lest they too fall into the Nazis’ hands: “He helped me pack the suitcases and dress the children and we hurried out of there.” This time, our narrator, like Turati and her brother Mario, is at the center of clandestine activity, not just an onlooker, however much she attempts to shift the focus to her rescuer:

For the rest of my life, I will never forget the immense solace I took in seeing Adriano’s very familiar figure, one I’d known since childhood, appear before me that morning after so many hours of being alone and afraid, hours in which I thought about my parents far away in the North and wondered if I’d ever see them again. I will always remember Adriano hunched over as he went from room to room leaning down to pick up clothes and the children’s shoes, his movements full of kindness, compassion, humility, and patience. And when we fled from that place, he wore on his face the expression that he’d had when he came to our apartment for Turati; it was that breathless, terrified, and excited expression he wore whenever he was helping someone to safety.

Adriano offers comfort not only by rescuing the narrator’s brood from danger, but also by being, at least in this moment, the antithesis of Ginzburg’s father, who, she writes in a later essay, “was sick of children and impatient by nature” (“Childhood,” trans. Isabel Quigley). Now Adriano’s empathy, his concern for her and her children’s immediate well-being at a moment when she feels homeless and almost orphaned, is juxtaposed with his “excited expression.” In this moment, he combines the positive qualities of a father and a mother — two very distinct, if not opposed, roles in the Levi household. If Ginzburg had not used what, in the two earlier passages, comes to seem almost like a stock characterization of Adriano the rescuer, she couldn’t have deepened that characterization, as she does here, and in the process offered an oblique portrait of herself as the center of an escape (“we fled from that place”) just as risk-laden — and possibly as historically significant — as Turati’s.

And what of Ginzburg’s husband, whose arrest forces the narrator and her children to flee? She does not even devote a full paragraph to his fate, limiting herself to this terse sentence: “Leone had died in prison, in the German section of the Regina Coeli prison one icy February in Rome during the German occupation.” The narrator wants to dwell as little as possible on his death, and, for that matter, on the fate of herself and her children — only one of whom she identifies by name and gender. (I only learned of Ginzburg’s “virtual destitution following [Leone’s] death in prison after torture, and her need to go into hiding to escape arrest and deportation” from Paul Lewis’s edition of her Complete Short Stories.) True to the promise made in her preface, Ginzburg devotes much more space to her family — even to Adriano, no blood relation — than to her husband, who speaks not one word of dialogue in the novel. In the few references to Leone in Family Lexicon, Ginzburg celebrates him for his empathic silence, a remarkably rare attribute in a book full of compulsive talkers: “He walked slowly with his hands in his pockets, his lips drawn, his brow knit, his dark tortoiseshell glasses resting halfway down his large nose, while he scrutinized everything around him with his black, penetrating eyes.” And a few pages later: “Leone’s capacity for listening was inestimable and inexhaustible. He knew how to devote his attention completely to another’s problems even when he was deeply preoccupied with his own.”

The virtues she singles out in Leone must have been what drew her to him while he was alive; they also stand as an implicit rebuke to her father’s garrulous impatience for everyday stupidity. In his virtual absence from the novel, Leone Ginzburg embodies an alternate form of lowercase heroism. He also exemplifies the very qualities that Natalia Ginzburg, the writer, must summon in order to evoke the Levi family in all their cantankerous tumult. Because she has scrutinized them and listened to them so carefully, lovingly, and unflinchingly, her novel belongs to what she calls the “evidence of a vital core that has ceased to exist but that lives on in its texts” — including not just the figurative “dictionary” shared by her and her siblings, but also Family Lexicon itself — “saved from the fury of the waters, the corrosion of time.”


Eric Gudas is the author of Best Western and Other Poems (Silverfish Review Press, 2010). His work has appeared in The American Poetry ReviewThe Iowa ReviewPoetry FlashRaritan, and elsewhere. He currently teaches in UCLA’s Writing Programs division and at Occidental College. For more information, visit ericgudas.com.

LARB Contributor

Eric Gudas is the author of Best Western and Other Poems (Silverfish Review Press, 2010). His essays and reviews have appeared in Raritan, All About Jazz, Poetry Flash, Senses of Cinema, Reading in Translation, and elsewhere. He contributed the afterword to Natalia Ginzburg’s Family and Borghesia (New York Review Books Classics, 2021). For more information, visit https://linktr.ee/ericgudas.


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