AUGUST 13, 2019
IN A CONTEMPORARY REVIEW of Natalia Ginzburg’s 1947 novella, The Dry Heart, a 24-year-old Italo Calvino endeavored to articulate the simultaneous intimacy and reticence of the writer’s narrative voice. “Hers is not the first-person of lyrical diary keeping,” he wrote, “but rather an externalization in which she participates body and soul.” Straightforward, direct, often avoiding the complexity of the subordinate clause, Ginzburg’s unmistakable style emerged from the need to express herself in succinct, crisp sentences in order to get a word in around the dinner table, as she suggests in her autofictional Family Lexicon (reissued in a new, 2017 translation by NYRB Classics). The “Lexicon” of the title has also been translated as “sayings,” or as another earlier translation put it, Things We Used to Say. Language may be social, necessarily shared. But for Ginzburg it is also personal and intimate. Throughout her career she was interested in the peculiar phrases and particular vocabulary employed among small communities, within families — in how words might prove as durable as blood in constructing a world together. Ginzburg peppers Family Lexicon with scraps of lines from songs in dialect, from poems half-remembered, from opera librettos hummed by her mother, and from phrases (even offensive ones, like the pejorative term translated as “negroisms”) preferred by Giuseppe Levi, the patriarch of her sprawling, bourgeois Italian Jewish family. “If my siblings and I were to find ourselves in a dark cave or among millions of people,” Ginzburg writes, “just one of those phrases or words would immediately allow us to recognize each other.”
The family’s good humor and wry wit, not to mention Giuseppe’s intense desire to distinguish himself from the uncultured rabble, was not able to save the family from its share of suffering under fascism. For alongside the plucky and charming bourgeois dinner table in Family Lexicon, another household story arises, one of racial discrimination and internal exile during World War II. During the war, Ginzburg would flee to the Abruzzi with her first husband, Leone, a writer, editor, and member of the Italian Resistance. Upon the Germans’ arrival, she and her husband would return to Rome, where Leone began to edit a clandestine newspaper. “They arrested him twenty days after our arrival,” she writes in Family Lexicon, “and I never saw him again.”
Such elliptical language is paradigmatic for Ginzburg’s fiction; the phrase “Leone’s death” is mentioned scantly, only several lines later in a brief account of a conversation between Natalia and her mother, back in Florence. In her works, which focus on families, failed marriage, domestic frustrations, and the like, history teeters at the edge, intruding upon, though never explicitly reflected on, her plots. “Domestic life, its frustrations and miseries, occupies the foreground,” writes one reviewer, “the outside world barely discernible at the edges.” Yet Ginzburg’s fiction highlights and thematizes this very division as artificial and constructed. Ginzburg’s reputation within Italy for her portrayals of postwar Italian life relies in large part on her knack for probing continuity amid upheaval. Plus ça change, yes, but also its converse: how jarring it can be when politics or tragedy changes everything, and yet one wakes up the next morning to find that the trains are still running, that one’s in-laws still call, visit, and vex.
This spring, New Directions republished two more of Ginzburg’s novels: The Dry Heart, reissued in its 1952 translation by the late Frances Frenaye, and a 1973 novel, Happiness, as Such, in a new translation by prizewinning writer and translator Minna Zallman Proctor. The one haunting and tightly wrought, the other vigorous, witty, and spirited, both nonetheless are instances of what Rachel Cusk has identified as Ginzburg’s aptitude for “the concept of storytelling from the concept of the self.” Cusk continues, “You come away from [Ginzburg’s fiction] feeling that you know the author profoundly, without having very much idea of who she is.” One might find in this approach a kind of model Cusk’s own Outline trilogy, in which the narrator’s (Cusk’s?) voice finds its way into the style of everyone she talks to, even as she herself remains withholding.
Proctor, who has translated several novels from the Italian, is also the author of a set of interconnected personal essays or “true stories” about her own family, in part about being a daughter and having one: she brings that training to bear in translating the similarly analytic, though perhaps more reticent, Ginzburg. Ginzburg’s style is equally recognizable in both Proctor’s translation and Frenaye’s, even though over half a century separates them. The anti-confessional “externalizations” noted by Calvino find their way into both works, each of which operates through a kind of displacement. Family Lexicon revolves not just around Giuseppe, always bursting with anger, frustration, or glee, but also around the nearly absent presence of the narrator, Natalia herself, whose inner workings of consciousness remain largely opaque. Happiness, as Such, in turn, takes a son, brother, lover, and (possibly) father, Michele, as its own absent core.
Meanwhile, The Dry Heart begins with a gunshot that, however dramatic a debut, is never fully explained throughout Ginzburg’s spare, almost suffocating matter-of-fact account. Like many novels, this is a story of a failed marriage, though here particularly so: “I shot him between the eyes,” the narrator states on the first page, before going out for a coffee at a café. She had met her husband, an older man named Alberto, at a doctor’s house. Though in some ways our narrator has made it, jumping aboard the post-industrialization flow from the stultifying provinces — Maona, where her father is a country doctor, to the big city — her experience of urban modernity is limited to a dingy and depressing boardinghouse. She falls in love with the idea of Alberto more than with the man himself, who, unsurprisingly, turns out not to be a very good husband: the true love of his life is an older woman named Giovanna, married with a child. Alberto regularly leaves on “business trips” to visit Giovanna, packing the same volume of Rilke that he reads to his own wife before bed.
In this novella, the narrator’s imagination never quite serves as a panacea for reality, in large part because that imagination too often comes up short. Frustrated, before her marriage, that she is failing to visualize how Alberto spends his time, while she feels like an open book, “I said to myself that if he asked me I would marry him, and then I would know at every hour of the day where he was and what he was doing.” Even after she kills him, she recognizes, “Of course they’d put me in jail, but I couldn’t exactly imagine how that would be.”
In murdering her husband, she has amputated his freedom but also her own flights of imagination — there are no reasons given for the murder, apart from the dreary excuse of infidelity. In The Dry Heart, however, that very distance between a deed and its justification become a satisfying experiment in unmotivated action. This story is that of many 20th-century women, women whose spheres of opportunity were far vaster than their mothers’, but whose dreams continued to remain stubbornly out of reach. Ginzburg’s wry irony makes of the disjuncture between act and motivation less a problem of narrative than one of a particular subgenre of modern female experience.
At less than a hundred pages, The Dry Heart reads as a brief, intense étude for the themes that would continue to preoccupy Ginzburg for the following decades: family and its quirks and foibles, failed relationships of all kinds, the ways in which history torques its way into domestic life. Happiness, As Such, written over a quarter of a century later, is a different kind of book. Rather than the brutal but restrained throttle of The Dry Heart, this is a warmer, comic, polyglossic novel of letters and dialogue. Unfolding in perspective, it engages multiple voices, returning to the pleasure of dialogue and absurdities of familial glue evident in Family Lexicon. That book’s investment in dialect and the vernacular returns, here, as songs hummed and whistled and snatches of sayings half-recalled snake their way through its pages.
Epistolary in part — the original Italian title is Caro Michele or “Dear Michele” — Happiness, as Such circles around that addressee, the grown son of divorced parents, who early on in the book abandons Italy for Leeds, possibly because of an involvement in radical politics. In Happiness, as Such, typically for Ginzburg, no one presses too hard against this possibility, even following the sober denouement, when Michele finds himself squarely in the midst of fascist/anti-fascist conflict in Bruges. In Italy, Michele leaves behind a depressed, rather passive-aggressive, and increasingly listless mother, Adriana, who needles him into writing back, into returning to Italy, or into visiting with his new American wife for Easter. He writes his sister Angelica, sending her on various errands, including getting rid of a rusted pistol he had stashed under his apartment sink, as well as sending letters to a flighty and eccentric young woman named Mara, who may or may not have borne his child and who now works her way into what’s left of the family. Michele’s friend (and probably lover) Osvaldo steps in to pick up the shards of Michele’s departure and in doing so threads his way into the family fabric himself, checking in on Mara, helping her find a job, visiting Adriana, and renting out Michele’s studio. As he does so, we linger over Michele’s possible relationship with Osvaldo only as much and as far as these correspondents are willing to entertain the notion.
The epistolary novel, at its heart, is a generous form: it shares and apportions its narrative voice among a variety of parties. But for that same reason it can also obscure, occlude. The events of the epistolary novel take place offstage, prior to the moment of writing, as well as in the interstices of the correspondence. These events, located between and behind the letters, are related, reflected on, commented upon, and reacted to, while we forgo the privilege of witnessing them ourselves. This is a particular kind of externalization: the epistolary form invites the intimacy of the confession while refusing another novelistic convention, the ability to enter into a character’s minds and motivations. It was perhaps for this reason that Ginzburg returned to the true province of 18th-century letters several times over the course of her career — in her 1983 The Manzoni Family, an imaginative reconstruction of the 19th-century Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni, as well as in the 1984 novel The City and the House. In Happiness, as Such, however, at times the letters end and a third-person narrator takes over, less establishing authority than adding another voice to the chorus. It’s through that loose epistolarity that Ginzburg modernizes the form.
Because of her female narrators and her focus on the domestic — and perhaps, given the American public’s continued paucity of reading in translation — Ginzburg has recently been compared to Elena Ferrante, or at least noted as newly opportune for reissue or new translation for a public primed on complicated Italian family sagas. As critics have noted, Ginzburg has something of an older voice; in the Guardian, Lara Feigel wrote, “where reading Ferrante can seem like making a new friend, reading Ginzburg is more like finding a mentor.” One can imagine her subjecting Ferrante’s Elena Greco to the wry humor that the first person of the Neapolitan novels never quite permits. Ginzburg is, also often funnier than Ferrante. She is acutely attuned to the maddening frustrations of the company of in-laws: in the voice of the mother in Happiness, as Such, speaking of her sister-in-law when a guest is visiting, she writes, “Matilde then provided the entertainment by talking about French Impressionism. She fanned her face, smoked her pipe, and paced back and forth with her hands in her pockets. I could have killed her.”
The Ferrante novels, however, are explicitly concerned with the garden of forking paths for 20th-century Italian women, either with or without an education. As Proctor herself writes in a review of the second volume of the Neapolitan books, “All of Ferrante’s difficult, brassy, exotically intelligent heroines — from her 1991 debut, L’amore molesto (Troubling Love), to her latest — have fled, are fleeing, or dream of fleeing the slum they were born into and everything that it represents.” Ginzburg was a consummate female intellectual herself: she worked at the Einaudi publishing house that published Calvino and Primo Levi; she translated Proust into Italian; and though a communist, she served a stint in Parliament as an independent in the ’80s. Still, her fiction is less interested in examining intellectual life than in training an intellectual’s eye on characters with more petite aspirations. The men in these novels are amateur thinkers, salving their disappointing lives with literature, philosophy, and art: in The Dry Heart, Alberto sketches and reads Proust, quotes (though usually misquotes) Dante, while in Happiness, as Such, Michele toys with going to sculpture school, and asks his sister to track down his copy of Kant to send to him in Leeds. The female characters eschew even that: Michele’s mother declares that she will spend the morning reading Pascal’s Pensées, but despondently stares out the window instead; the narrator of The Dry Heart complains of teaching Ovid in a cold classroom to 18 girls who “bored me to the point of nausea.” Both remain skeptical of literature’s possibility to provide any kind of solace, disregarding the Madame Bovary conceit of the female heroine who prefers literature to life.
Instead, Ginzburg rigorously limits her scope, exploring the vast realms of the social and the political through a smaller scale — the politics of the family — while refraining even from drawing too many conclusions from that. Between generational differences, genealogical secrets, former and secret lovers, and the desires and limitations related to real and aspirational social milieux, Ginzburg seems to suggest that in the sphere of the family there is always more to tell, and differently. In Happiness, as Such, there is a more robust family saga that might be found between what the characters do and, more importantly, do not, say, just as in The Dry Heart the narrator’s motivations might have laid the groundwork for a Dostoyevskian criminology. Rather than develop those gaps, however, the novels leave them be, suggesting instead that there is more to family life than should be said, or perhaps could.