A Family Lexicon 
by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Jenny McPhee.
NYRB, 224 pp., £9.99, August 2017, 978 1 59017 838 6
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For Italians​ , I’ve found after 33 years in Italy, to belong to a family, a group of friends, a city, a region, a corporation or trade union, a church, a political party, is generally more important than to be morally unimpeachable, or free and independent, or even successful and powerful. The strongest positive emotions come from being instrumental to your family or group, the strongest negative emotions from feelings of abandonment. But the community of reference rarely if ever coincides with the Italian nation; rather it’s one of many competing communities within that potentially hostile whole. And members of the community must be worthy members. Hence aggressive criticism between members is constant and shame a characteristic emotion, whether shame because others are unworthy, hence one is demeaned by one’s group, or shame that one is unworthy oneself, hence reviled by the group. All this in a situation where it’s impossible to distance oneself from the other people involved, or not without a traumatic, perhaps fatal break.

This may seem a strange preamble to a consideration of the work of Natalia Ginzburg, a writer sometimes criticised in Italy for having restricted her comments on the highly influential, privileged and politicised peer group she lived among to accounts of their domestic foibles. But coming back to Ginzburg now, some 25 years after her death, one appreciates that it’s precisely the focus on home that makes her books such a profound commentary on Italian life. One is given, as it were, in a period that extends from fascism right through to the anni di piombo (the so-called years of lead: the late 1960s to the 1980s), the basic domestic tensions that drive the larger public and political dramas outside the frame of her narratives.

Ginzburg was born Natalia Levi in Palermo in 1916. Her father was a Triestine Jew, a biologist and professor (eventually of some fame), her mother a Lombard gentile who made a virtue of cheerful idleness. Last of five siblings (three boys, two girls), Natalia was seven years younger than the fourth child. In 1919 the family moved to Turin where she was kept at home with private tutors until she was 11 for fear that contact with other children might cause illness and so grew up with a sense of being a late and insignificant arrival in a family where everything important had already happened.

Since the Levis attended neither mass nor synagogue and observed no religious practices or festivals, the young Natalia’s acquaintances never extended beyond her siblings and their close friends. And, with her parents coming from different regions, she couldn’t easily establish that local identity so important to Italians. Taken to school once a year to do the state exams, Natalia envied the other children their togetherness and Piedmontese dialect and felt ‘growing in me like a fungus the arrogant and humiliating conviction that I was different and hence alone’. In her early teens, she tried following a kosher diet like her paternal grandmother and simultaneously dreamed, despite her staunchly anti-fascist family, of wearing the uniform of the Piccole italiane, Mussolini’s paramilitary organisation for girls. Judaism and the parade-ground both offered communities one might belong to. Later in life she would refer to herself as a pariah.

From Maja Pflug’s perfunctory if affectionate biography of Ginzburg, it’s evident that Natalia had two strategies for establishing a place for herself in a family where she didn’t dare speak to her choleric father and often found it difficult to get a word in across the dinner table. She turned domestic ineptitude into an art, and was still unable to dress herself or tie her shoes or make her bed into her teens. Considered by all the others as an impiastro, a helpless nuisance, she behaved, her mother complained, ‘as if she had twenty servants’. Later, her novels would never be without a character who plays the ineptitude card, because family is family and no one can be allowed to fall too low.

The other strategy was writing. From earliest infancy Natalia wrote poems almost daily and read them to her brothers and sisters; at the age of eight, she produced a play, Dialogo, which characterised members of her family by the distinctive expressions they used, an idea that would later be the central theme of A Family Lexicon. Her parents and siblings found the play amusing. Writing had become a way for her to belong in the family, even to take possession of it.

Aged 13, Natalia sent a collection of poems to the critic and philosopher Benedetto Croce. He returned them with a kind note but judged them worthless. She switched to stories. The first she felt happy with was ominously entitled ‘An Absence’. One of her older brothers gave it to his friend Leone Ginzburg, who together with Giulio Einaudi, son of a rich property owner, economist and member of the Italian senate, was starting a publishing company. Ginzburg was impressed and sent the story to a magazine. Natalia was barely 17, Leone was 24. Five years later, the couple married. ‘I married her. She writes good stories,’ Ginzburg told Einaudi. Writing had found Natalia a husband and a place in one of Italy’s most influential liberal and intellectual communities. It would be a second family to her for the rest of her life.

Leone Ginzburg’s sense of belonging was hardly less troubled than Natalia’s. Child of his Russian mother’s Italian lover, he spent his early life moving between his Russian family and the now ex-lover’s sister, with whom he lived in Italy throughout the First World War, after which his family, concerned by anti-Semitism in Russia, came to live in Italy. A prodigy, Leone would become a professor of Russian literature and an active conspirator against Mussolini’s regime at a very young age.

While never exactly politically engaged, Natalia’s father and mother offered a safe house on occasion to socialist friends fleeing fascism. In 1934 her father and brothers were arrested and briefly imprisoned for their political sympathies. The father, Giuseppe Levi, was actually pleased with this development: anti-fascism had become an indication of worthiness in the world they moved in. One brother, Mario, eluded his fascist captors by diving into a river and fleeing to Switzerland, then to Paris. Leone, meanwhile, was imprisoned for two years in Civitavecchia, near Rome.

After their marriage in 1938 Leone and Natalia produced three children in four years as if establishing their own family were a matter of some urgency. After war was declared on France and Great Britain in 1940, Leone was sent into internal exile in the Abruzzi; a typically Italian punishment, as it deprived the victim of his community of reference. Natalia followed him with the children and here, in the remote mountain village of Pizzoli, she wrote her first novel, La strada che va in città. In 1943, after the armistice, the two moved to Rome where Leone began organising resistance to the Nazi occupation. Arrested in November, he died in prison the following February after interrogation and torture. In one of her rare written comments on his death Natalia remarked, ‘so he died, and no one was there when Leone died.’ Years later, after Cesare Pavese (her friend and another member of the Einaudi group) committed suicide, she wrote: ‘Pavese killed himself in summer when none of us were in Turin.’ In her novels the lonely death, far from family and friends, is a moment of maximum pathos and social breakdown.

There are special reasons why it’s useful to be aware of Ginzburg’s biography when reading her books, in particular A Family Lexicon, which was published to huge and immediate acclaim in 1963, selling half a million copies and winning Italy’s most important literary prize, the Strega. Italian readers knew Ginzburg’s family story before opening the book; they knew of her close connection with Giulio Einaudi, whose father, Luigi, had been governor of the Bank of Italy from 1945-48 and president of the Republic from 1948 to 1955; they knew of the death of her husband, of her experience of wartime anti-Semitism, her ties with the influential and progressive Olivetti family and again with various historical leaders of the Socialist Party. Hence a family biography from Ginzburg aroused intense expectations, especially since Italy was still deeply divided about its immediate past. The way Ginzburg at once aroused and frustrated those expectations won her extravagant praise in some circles and criticism bordering on contempt in others. Essentially, she says nothing about fascism, the resistance, Jewishness or anti-Semitism, and never remotely considers the public life of the people she writes about, or their political views. Nor does she have much to say, or not explicitly, about herself and her war. The only things intensely evoked are the relationships between the family members who were also, of course, among the first readers of the book. ‘I hope you are not going to bring dishonour on our family,’ her father wrote to her when he heard of her project.

In 1950, having now been baptised into the Catholic Church, Ginzburg married Gabriele Baldini, a professor of English literature. The two children she had with him in 1954 and 1959 were both severely handicapped, but the experience of looking after them never emerges in her writing. In 1958 Baldini became head of the Italian Cultural Institute in London and for the first and only time, Ginzburg lived abroad, for two years, working mainly as a journalist and translator. After a long break from fiction writing, the discovery of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s austerely eccentric, dialogue-driven fiction led her to try her own more experimental novel, Le voci della sera (her seventh), written in London and published in 1961.

The story opens memorably with two pages that seem at first glance like dialogue, each line tagged ‘she said’, but soon we realise only one person is speaking, to another who never replies. ‘Are we never to have the miracle of a word from you?’ the voice eventually asks, at which point her silent interlocutor, who is also the narrator, offers a brief, laconic remark, and we understand that the two are a gossiping mother and her long-suffering daughter, Elsa. In A Family Lexicon Ginzburg remarked that her own mother regularly complained that she wouldn’t darle spago, literally ‘give her string’, or keep the conversational ball rolling.

Elsa then spends fifty pages giving us a detailed history of the De Francisci family who run a large factory that dominates village life. It’s an extended family with complex relationships made still more complex by the ravages of war and, since the De Franciscis are a mix of Jews and gentiles, the race laws. The analogies with the Olivetti family are obvious. After the war, the surviving children have the impression they are living in the aftermath, as pale shadows of their parents.

The novel is the story of Elsa’s attempt to have her clandestine love affair with Tommasino, one of the younger members of the De Francisci family, emerge in the intensely controlling world of their families. But the overwhelming interest of parents and relatives in the marriage arrangements, the choice of house, furniture, bed linen etc for the couple, destroys the fragile relationship and they break off the engagement. As the novel closes Elsa has to undergo the humiliation of listening to her mother speculate on village rumours as to the reason Tommasino broke with her: he was gay, she thinks, he was a drug addict perhaps. Elsa is completely nullified, her personal story absorbed and transformed into folklore. Yet she is the narrator of this process of nullification, and clearly very attached to her mother.

In all Ginzburg’s early novels, perhaps what most strikes the reader is the willingness of family members to hurt and disparage one another, together with their complete powerlessness to shake off family shackles. Since family relationships are sovereign and unbreakable anything can be said, and very likely will be, since at the same time everyone resents the limitations family imposes on them. No one is surprised to be insulted, nobody expects better treatment, a situation that makes it impossible for anyone to develop autonomy or self-esteem. Later, when Ginzburg took the unusual step of asking her own sons to be early readers and critics of what she was writing, she noticed that her eldest would always take pleasure in insulting her work. ‘I think insulting me is one of the pleasures of his life,’ she remarks and adds: ‘Certainly listening to his insults is one of mine.’

Ginzburg acknowledged that while her novels appear to be characterised by a laconic distance and lean realism, nevertheless her characters always turned out to be versions of ‘friends and close relatives’ while ‘the voice who says I’ was always ‘in some obscure and confused way, myself’. In 1963, commenting on the publication of A Family Lexicon, she explained:

Gradually I realised that I loved writing facts and that I wrote more freely writing facts than inventing … The most recent novel I have written is all fact. And yet it is a novel, because it lacks the objectivity of documentary, and because in writing it I didn’t aim for an objective frame in which to be faithful to the facts, but simply sought to bring them back to life, my way, how I wanted.

Back home from England, in her late forties, with her mother now dead and her own children having left home, Ginzburg at last felt free to tackle her conflicted feelings about family head on.

Yet​ the first impression on opening A Family Lexicon is one of infectious vitality, a quality conspicuous by its absence in the novels.

At the dinner table in my father’s home when I was a girl if I, or one of my siblings, knocked a glass onto the tablecloth, or dropped a knife, my father’s voice would thunder: ‘Watch your manners!’

If we used our bread to mop up pasta sauce, he yelled: ‘Don’t lick your plates. Don’t dribble! Don’t slobber!’

For my father dribble and slobber also described modern painting, which he couldn’t stand.

He would say: ‘You have no idea how to behave at the table! I can’t take you lot anywhere.’

There is a translation problem here. In the Italian, paternal repression (‘we lived in a recurring nightmare filled with my father’s sudden outbursts,’ Ginzburg tells us later) is transformed into comedy by the bizarre words her father uses – sbrodeghezzi (‘dribbles’), e potacci (‘messes’) – originating in Triestine dialect and unknown to most Italians. Though Jenny McPhee’s new version of the book is always sprightly and readable, the English version inevitably loses the fun of these and many other odd words and expressions that turn up in the ‘family lexicon’.

Ginzburg goes on to tell hilarious anecdotes of her father’s obsession with the gruelling mountain hikes all family members had to join, his insistence on taking only the most spartan equipment and renouncing any form of comfort. In general, any behaviour not in line with his high, usually masochistic standards was dismissed as roba da negri, literally ‘nigger stuff’ (translated by McPhee as ‘negro stuff’). Anyone from outside the family was an object of suspicion: he feared they might be of ‘questionable character’. The sheer energy of the man is comical, he is clearly well-meaning, but at the same time overbearing, intolerable. ‘He was very harsh in his judgments and thought everyone stupid.’ Her brother Mario loathed the mountains, but her father insisted he went anyway; not to be a good mountain walker was to be unworthy of the family. ‘Sometimes Mario couldn’t get his ski boots on. He raised hell in that basement all by himself, and from upstairs we heard a great racket. He threw everyone’s skis to the ground, hurled bindings, boots and sealskins, tore down ropes, smashed out the bottoms of drawers, kicked chairs, walls, table legs.’

Mother and father meantime are a perfect double act, the mother charmingly gossipy, forever telling the same old family stories, while the father flies into a rage at having to hear them again, but always with the understanding that the pair are inseparable. ‘You’re always going out and having a good time,’ the father complains about the mother’s frequent evenings at the theatre, ‘and leaving me behind.’

‘But every evening you keep yourself closed up in your study,’ my mother said. ‘You don’t pay any attention to me. You don’t keep me company.’

‘What a jackass!’ my father said. ‘You know I’m very busy. I don’t have time to waste with all of you. And besides, I didn’t marry you to keep you company!’

Very soon a core group of anecdotes and speech tics are established, expressions this or that member of the family would always use in certain situations, so that Ginzburg can write, in what is generally considered the book’s central passage:

My parents had five children. We now live in different cities, some of us in foreign countries, and we don’t write to each other often. When we do meet up with one another we can be indifferent or distracted. But for us it takes just one word. It takes one word, one sentence, one of the old ones from our childhood, heard and repeated countless times … If my siblings and I were to find ourselves in a dark cave or among millions of people, just one of those phrases or words would immediately allow us to recognise each other.

The Italian version of this begins: ‘Noi siamo cinque fratelli.’ We are five brothers, except that the Italian fratelli can also include sisters. We are five brothers and sisters. How immediate that is! As in Wordsworth’s ‘We are seven,’ it insists on community and togetherness. That’s what the book is about. Perhaps a more standard English might give: ‘There are five of us, brothers and sisters.’ Or just: ‘There are five of us.’ But to avoid the problem presented by the exclusively masculine ‘brothers’, McPhee transforms the sentence into ‘My parents had five children.’ The first person plural has gone, the present has become the past; intimacy turns cold. Again and again, where this translation runs into trouble, it is in the language’s communication and characterisation of intense belonging. ‘My siblings and I’ we hear later in the passage, to translate the simple ‘noi fratelli’. McPhee uses the expression ‘siblings’ 21 times in the book, losing warmth on every occasion. Nor does her phrasing always help. Following the Italian more carefully, that last sentence would give: ‘Just one of those words or expressions and we would recognise each other, brothers and sisters, in a dark cave, among millions of others.’ Ten fewer words, no ‘if’ clause, no ‘were to’, no ‘find ourselves’, no ‘allow us to’. Ginzburg is very straightforward, and packed with energy.

The family sayings are the glue of belonging and the focus of the book. Born of intense attrition they are perhaps more attractive precisely because the family is long since split up. Now it’s a pleasure to think of them serving as recognition in the kinds of emergency that befell Jewish families twenty years before. There’s a feeling throughout A Family Lexicon that family can be so lovingly evoked because it’s no longer a threat. One can indulge the luxury of missing it. At one point, speaking of her mother’s brother, Silvio, who committed suicide, Ginzburg remarks of her mother: ‘She always spoke joyfully of Silvio, since my mother by nature was happy. She perceived and accepted the good and joyfulness in everything, and elicited the same from everything and everyone, leaving sorrow and evil in the shadows, only scarcely and rarely acknowledging them with a brief sigh.’

Ginzburg’s book is written very much in the spirit of the mother, lingering over everything that generates comedy, revelling above all in the way her parents cancel each other out and the way each child learns how to exploit or get round the parents’ demands. But as the narrative progresses and is obliged to chronicle arrests, deaths, betrayals, war, Ginzburg becomes reticent and elusive, skipping back and forth in time, as if to skirt round or delay the mention of those unpleasant dramas her readers can anyway be assumed to know about. The effect, and it was no doubt much stronger for contemporary Italian readers, is to intensify the pathos.

It’s often said that A Family Lexicon couldn’t have been written without the prior publication of The Garden of Finzi-Continis (1962), in which Giorgio Bassani tells the story of a Jewish family in 1939 who live entirely secluded in their spacious villa and garden, inviting other Jewish families to play tennis with them in a determined denial of the ugly anti-Semitism all around them. These are not claims one can verify, and in fact the two books and the families they describe could hardly be more different. The Finzi-Continis, whose father refuses to engage in Italian life in any way, develop a private language all their own, ‘Finzi-Continiesque’, which others can’t understand. And if their garden contains a huge variety of trees and plants and their library a vast and eclectic collection of books, it is only so that they need never venture out into the world. Ginzburg’s father, on the contrary, was intensely involved in university life, and the family was always part of the wider Italian community. The Levi family lexicon isn’t so much a private language as simply the speech tics, memorable expressions and private jokes that any family might accumulate and laugh over.

Then Ginzburg’s book is written in an extremely colloquial Italian, something quite unusual in the early 1960s and difficult to show when translating into English where the difference between the written and the spoken is not traditionally so great. When I arrived in Italy in 1981 and, knowing little Italian, found Ginzburg one of the easiest authors to read in the original, friends quickly warned me I absolutely mustn’t copy her style which was vulgar and ‘incorrect’. Such criticisms have largely (though not absolutely) fallen away, but the colloquial style suggests that life in the Ginzburg household, linguistically at least, was absolutely in line with the Italian world all around. So that while, reading Bassani, one has the impression that no one could ever really penetrate the Finzi-Contini family, Ginzburg’s book seems to invite us to share her family sayings and make them our own, to the point that, when recognised by strangers after its publication, it was not unusual for Ginzburg to hear them quoting her father’s ‘Non fate sbrodeghezzi!’ to her. Her writing about her family thus gave both her and them a place in the larger, though always dysfunctional, family that is Italy.

Into this lively soap opera of family life other figures are drawn – Filippo Turati, one-time leader of the Socialist Party; Adriano Olivetti, who marries Ginzburg’s sister and helps Ginzburg herself to escape the Nazis in Rome; Giulio Einaudi, the successful publisher; Cesare Pavese, the great novelist and poet; but these well-known figures are given no more space than other friends, tradesmen or servants, and their characteristics are always understood in relation to the Levi family’s concerns. Are they, for example, on the mountain-walking side of the family, or the side that would rather stay at home and talk politics and books? In general each family member’s engagement in the outside world, in terms of work or politics or recreation, is quietly related to their position inside the family. As a rule the way a character dresses gets more attention than his views on fascism.

The one person​ who doesn’t have much personality in the book, critics like to say, making a great virtue of the fact, is the narrator herself. In fact, it’s exactly the last child’s difficulty in finding a role for herself among those who have come before her that conditions her personality. This anxious awareness of an absence where the narrating self should be is Ginzburg’s most effective way of describing herself: she is the family member without a position. And this absence together with the general reticence about unhappiness in the book, prevents the humour and vitality from becoming merely sentimental. As Natalia grows up, however, we begin to get a sense of her closeness to her mother, her impatience with the woman, and again a sense of a child spoiled when she plays the incompetent at home (‘my mistress’, her mother calls her), but fragile and insecure at school, desperately looking for confirmation in her writing. One can see how friendship and eventually love with a dynamic and brilliant young man like Leone Ginzburg, Jewish, intensely engaged in Italian national life and not the least intimidated by her family, must have come as a huge relief.

A Family Lexicon marks a watershed in Ginzburg’s depiction of the family. While the earlier novels have young people oppressed by the family’s extraordinary solidity and inertia, the two later novels, Caro Michele and La città e la casa, use an epistolary form to describe broken families whose separated members struggle to find their way in the world. They are free, but not happy for it.

In 1969 Ginzburg’s second husband died. After publishing mainly journalism and plays throughout the 1970s, in the early 1980s she produced a remarkable study of Italy’s most famous novelist, Alessandro Manzoni, author of The Betrothed (1827), or rather a study of Manzoni’s family. She makes liberal and fascinating use of letters and other archives, and understands Manzoni in terms of his relationships with the other members of his unusual family: he gets no more attention in the book than they do. As always, Ginzburg says nothing about the implications of her work, leaving it for us to understand how profoundly this approach shifts our vision both of Manzoni and his great novel.

La Famiglia Manzoni appeared in 1983. The same year Ginzburg was elected as a member of parliament for the Indipendenti di Sinistra (Leftwing Independents). What this amounted to was being elected thanks to her celebrity by the votes of the Communist Party, but without having to be a member of the party or take the Communist whip. She was, as it were, both in and out. Ginzburg had joined and then left the Communist Party in the past. She wanted to be part of it all but would not be dictated to. In the same way, she argued with her old publisher and friend Giulio Einaudi and took some of her books elsewhere, but never really detached herself from the community that surrounded him.

The last issue Ginzburg raised in Parliament, in 1990, was the curious case of Serena Cruz, a Filipino girl adopted by an Italian family who had already successfully adopted a Filipino boy. Because the family had lied to speed up the adoption process, Italian judges ordered that the girl be removed to an orphanage – this after she had already been with the family for two years. Ginzburg started a campaign to have the decision reversed and wrote a book that amounts to a J’accuse directed at Italian magistrates. Least known of all her works, Serena Cruz o la vera giustizia nevertheless offers a key to much of the writing that came before.

What is a family? A group of people who live together. They form relationships, which may be strong or weak, solid or slippery. It is the place whence the child looks out on the rest of the world. Families can be awful, repressive, obsessive, or cool and uncaring and distracted, or toxic, tainted and maggoty. Very often they are like that. But a child needs one all the same … Maybe he grows up unhappy in his family, he’s ashamed of it, hates it, but it’s an unhappiness memory can feed on … In the future he will go back in his mind to that thick and woody forest. Move a child when he’s young and you damage him. Now he has to look at the world from a new place. The old place and the new place clash. A war starts. And that war may be worse than unhappiness, because in the future, going back to all this upheaval, he won’t be able to track down his childhood.

However happy or unhappy Ginzburg may have been in her childhood, it’s a place she tracks down and reconstructs triumphantly in A Family Lexicon, and very likely, one way and another, in all her other fiction. In doing so she asserts the relational nature of identity, such that her own life and work cannot be understood separately from her Jewishness, her Italianness, and above all from the father who yelled at his children when they complained about wearing stiff hiking boots and the mother who talked and talked and protested bitterly when Natalia wouldn’t keep the ball rolling.

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