Ashes

Nicholas Spice

‘Il Figlio dell’Uomo’, ‘The Son of Man’, an essay by Natalia Ginzburg written in 1946 for the paper Unita, begins: ‘There has been a war and people have seen so many houses reduced to rubble that they no longer feel safe in their own homes which once seemed so quiet and secure. This is something that is incurable and will never be cured no matter how many years go by.’ Thirty-six years went by and in 1982, in Holland, Harry Mulisch published De Aanslag, a novel in which Anton Steenwijk, aged 12, watches his family home, the house he has grown up in, reduced, in a matter of minutes, to rubble, by the action of a couple of German grenades and a flamethrower. Standing around in the dark and the cold, ‘laughing and talking’, members of the Grüne Polizei warm themselves at the fire that is consuming Anton’s world, where only a moment earlier, quiet and secure, he had been playing ludo with his mother and brother before going up to bed. As the house collapses ‘under a fountain of sparks as high as a tower’, Anton hears a burst of machine-gun fire. He never sees his mother and father and brother again.

The Germans shoot Mr and Mrs Steenwijk and their son Peter and burn down their house, because Fake Ploeg, chief inspector of the Haarlem police, has been found dead outside their front door. The Germans also shoot 29 Communists. It is the Communists who have assassinated Ploeg, and the body originally lay outside the Kortewegs’, the house next door, but Mr Korteweg and his daughter crept out and moved it before the police and soldiers arrived.

In Natalia Ginzburg’s novel All Our Yesterdays, first published in Italy in 1952, the Germans shoot Cenzo Rena for much the same reason as they shoot the Steenwijks in The Assault. A German soldier has been found dead in a stream outside the village of Borgo San Costanzo where Cenzo Rena lives, and hostages have been taken. Cenzo Rena thinks that if he says he killed the soldier, the hostages will be set free. His sacrifice is fruitless:

The Germans had freed the hostages they had taken that day but then during the night they had come back and taken some more, two sons of the dressmaker’s and a sister of La Maschiona’s seducer and a shepherd boy of 14 years old, and they had taken them into the mayor’s stable and had poured tins of petrol over the stable and set fire to it ...

  The mayor’s stable was now a heap of ashes, and you still seemed to hear the lowing of the cows and the shrieks of the shepherd boy calling to his mother. No one could understand why the Germans should have burnt down the stable with the cows and the people inside, but perhaps it was only because they had some petrol to throw away.

Human brutality can be casual, but it is the nonchalance of fate that makes pain hardest to bear. The cruelty of Cordelia’s death is completed by the knowledge that it might have been averted. If there had been no messenger to arrive too late, no possibility of reprieve or grounds for sudden hope, the agony would have been somehow less. Inevitability is a source of consolation. To say ‘it had to happen’ is already to begin to acquiesce. Fate is indifferent to such refinements, as Ginzburg and Mulisch know: they place the tragedies they imagine tantalisingly close to the end of the war. Shortly after Cenzo Rena and the hostages are executed, the British arrive in San Costanzo. Anton Steenwijk’s family is destroyed when ‘almost all of Europe had been liberated and was rejoicing, eating, drinking, making love, and beginning to forget the war.’

Natalia Ginzburg doesn’t comment on the play of chance across the destinies of her characters. She simply notes it: how this Jew managed to escape and that one didn’t, how, during a search in a monastery, two are seized ‘running up into the granary’, while two others escape ‘by jumping down from the garden wall’. There is an element of farce in all this hiding and running about, an incongruity which is funny, where laughter is a last resort from horror, a way of rising above it and regaining poise. While the Germans are searching the monastery, Franz, a minor character who is a Jew, hides all night in a cupboard ‘with a big plaster Madonna looking at him’. He starts to pray to the Madonna to save him:

Then all at once he had wanted to laugh at the thought that he, Franz, was all dressed up as a monk and was praying to the Madonna. He had wanted so much to laugh that he had had to cover his mouth with both hands in order not to be heard. And then, little by little, his fear had almost left him.

For many people, the story which has come to represent all such stories is the story of Anne Frank, whose ordeal in hiding in Amsterdam was mocked by a fate that decreed she should be discovered and transported within a few months of liberation. Harry Mulisch treats the plight of the Dutch Jews, and of Jews everywhere at that time, with his own kind of delicate irony, giving the matter a crucial structural importance for his story, but bringing it to the surface only once. This single mention of it is like a chink in a dike: through it the whole unspeakable history floods in. Or again, it is like a tiny window, through which for one short moment we are allowed to peep down upon a vast panorama of brutality and blood.

In one sense, which it would be unfair to disclose to anyone who has not read this book, The Assault takes the Jewish Holocaust as its starting-point. In another, perhaps deeper sense, it grows out of a fascination with chance. Speaking at a party held recently in London to launch his novel, Mulisch referred to the shooting of Fake Ploeg and its immediate consequence as ‘this accident’. He had meant to say ‘incident’ and quickly corrected himself, but the slip was revealing and quite in keeping with the idea from which he said the book originally grew, an idea which came to him in a kind of vision – a vivid mental picture of four detached houses on the side of a canal. Within this image Mulisch discovered the essential elements of his plot and a succinct summary of his most abstract as well as his most domestic themes. Four houses, containing four separate family destinies, and representing four equal chances in the game of life.

Outside one of them – the one where his protagonist would live – the cosmic dice would roll to a standstill. But which should it be? Mulisch decided on the second house from the left. The afterthought which made him have Ploeg shot outside the second house from the right gave him the twist his story needed, an unanswered question to motivate his plot beyond the initial catastrophe. Why did Mr Korteweg and his daughter move Ploeg’s body? And, seeing as they did, why to the left instead of to the right, to the Steenwijks whom they knew, rather than to the Aartses whom no one knew or cared for. Because of this mystery in the events which open the book, and because by the end of it the mystery has been cleared up, The Assault has been spoken of by some – by John Gross, for example – as, on one level, like a detective novel. The resemblance, however, is weak.

Anton Steenwijk does not seek out explanations for what happened on that terrible January night in 1945, they seek him out, unbidden and, consciously at least, unwanted. Anton’s first wish is to forget. Fate, however, won’t let him, and as the years go by, it throws in his path a number of chance encounters with the surviving actors in the drama, who proceed to press upon him their self-justifications and confessions. Anton’s meetings with Mr and Mrs Beumer (who lived in the first house on the left), with Fake Ploeg’s son, with Cor Takes, one of the two Communists who shot Ploeg, and, finally, with Karin Korteweg, Mr Korteweg’s daughter, carry most of the ethical argument of the novel, as well as being the means whereby the original incident is understood. They are necessary vehicles of exposition and meaning, and as such they do not escape seeming slightly staged. It is as though Mulisch has had to make special arrangements for his protagonist to meet these people. The conversations and arguments that ensue are stiffened by the duty they perform, of covering intense narrative, emotional and intellectual ground efficiently and fast. Part of the trouble with these scenes may be that Mulisch just doesn’t write the very best dialogue, but I think the real problem is inherent in the novel’s structure and the very powerful message which that structure is designed to put across. The interests of fiction have deferred here to the purposes of poetry.

The episodes which fill up the second two-thirds of The Assault do not emerge as the unforced stages in a forward-moving plot, for the simple reason that the plot is moving backwards. A great release of dramatic and descriptive energy occurs in the first 60 pages, which establish and then destroy Anton Steenwijk’s childhood world. ‘All the rest,’ as the book acknowledges, ‘is aftermath – the cloud of ash that rises into the stratosphere from the volcano, circles around the earth, and continues to rain down on all its continents for years.’ The final sentence of the novel recalls this image in a context which suggests a far less innocent analogy. Thirty-six years after the incineration of his childhood home, Anton is walking, or rather drifting, through Amsterdam in the middle of a mass demonstration against nuclear weapons. He is pictured ‘dragging his feet a bit, as if each step raised clouds of ashes, although there are no ashes in sight’. It is an effectively rhetorical ending, reminding us that The Assault is about holocausts, burnt offerings, destructions by fire, reducings to rubble, reducings to ash, of things, people, lives, civilisations, and about the rhythmic and sinister return of these catastrophes under cover of collective amnesia.

‘Once the experience of evil has been endured it is never forgotten.’ Natalia Ginzburg’s words could stand as a motto to The Assault, which tells the story of someone who has endured the experience of evil, and cannot forget. Harry Mulisch has hinted that there are autobiographical elements in his novel, but if there are, they are subjected to the same creative transformation as the rest of his material. The result is, palpably and throughout, a fiction, and, if it moves us, it does so through the devices of the imagination – by analogy with the reality it supposedly portrays. Mulisch’s imagination is of a particularly synthesising kind. He elaborates his ideas through a network of related and interpenetrating images, and he is a master of what Ezra Pound dubbed phanopoeia, ‘the throwing of an image on the mind’s retina’. When I remember reading The Assault, I remember watching a film – and in fact it has already been made into one. It is a book to be read at one go. Indeed it resists being put down. Like Rasselas for Joshua Reynolds, The Assault is a book you might read without once raising your eyes and while standing propped up against the mantelpiece.

Natalia Ginzburg’s writing is in every respect different. All Our Yesterdays and Family Sayings will not be read fast. Finishing these books is, appropriately, a matter of weeks or months, not hours. Each is a family history – Family Sayings autobiographical, All Our Yesterdays a novel. The stories they tell, they tell simply, in the past tense and without dramatisation. All Our Yesterdays has no dialogue, only reported speech, and in Family Sayings the exchanges between characters are given as examples of general habits of communication – they are not vehicles for a drama or plot. The structure of these histories is undiscernible, or rather it is simply the structure they have, as if they had been set down without the slightest re-arrangement. They proceed from start to finish on one level, without increase or decrease in pace, every event, both significant and insignificant, trivial and tremendous, receiving equal treatment, equal weight. Narrative phrasing rarely extends over more than a paragraph, and mostly it is confined to single sentences. Ginzburg’s grammar is simple and rhetoric is banished from her style.

At its purest, her writing reads with the intensity of philosophical logic, where every stage is carefully and clearly established before we move on to the next. Yet apart from what her characters indulge in, there is no argument, discourse or commentary in these books. They are not ‘about’ anything. Even the humour and irony that flicker across them appear to be released of themselves by the characters and events, without the author pointing them up.

Family Sayings was first published in Italy in 1963. It is not really an autobiography, since Natalia Ginzburg herself figures in it as only one of the many individuals whose stories she has set out to tell. In the author’s preface she describes the book as ‘the record of my family’. It begins with her childhood in Turin and closes with her second marriage in 1950. Her first husband was Leone Ginzburg, a Russian Jew. He worked in a small anti-fascist publishing house and died in the custody of the Nazis in 1944, after only a short time together with Natalia, which she speaks of elsewhere as an especially happy period in her life. The passage in Family Sayings which treats Leone’s death is typically taciturn:

Leone was running a secret newspaper and was always out of the house. He was arrested 20 days after our arrival, and I never saw him again. I rejoined my mother in Florence. Misfortune always made her feel very cold and she wrapped herself in a shawl. We did not exchange many words about Leone’s death.

All Our Yesterdays is unmistakably the fictional prototype for Family Sayings. It tells the story of a family from a small town in Northern Italy, in the time leading up to the outbreak of war, through to 1945 and liberation. It concentrates on the lives of four children: Concettina, Ippolito, Giustino and Anna. Their father dies early on in the book, their mother before the book begins. Half-way through, attention focuses on the youngest of the family, Anna. At 16 she gets pregnant by her boyfriend Giuma. Giuma abandons her, after giving her the money to have an abortion. War has broken out. Her brother Ippolito shoots himself. She is rescued from all this darkness by Cenzo Rena, an extravagant and eccentric friend of her father’s who turns up out of the blue and offers to marry her on the spot. She accepts, and despite the disapproval of the rest of her family, who are unaware that she is pregnant, she leaves with Cenzo Rena to go and live in his village in the South. The second half of All Our Yesterdays is about their life together there and about Cenzo Rena’s death. This part of the book draws directly on Natalia Ginzburg’s own memories. During the war, she and Leone were sent to live in a village in the Abruzzi, and she describes what it was like there briefly in Family Sayings, as well as in an essay called ‘Winter in the Abruzzi’, one of 11 miscellaneous essays written between 1944 and 1960, and published now for the first time in English as The Little Virtues.

All Our Yesterdays and Family Sayings stand very close on either side of the line that divides fiction from fact. This is a distinction which makes Natalia Ginzburg uneasy (or, at any rate, it used to make her uneasy), as the preface to Family Sayings shows. Every detail in her book is true, she says. She has invented nothing. Nonetheless, we are to read Family Sayings ‘as though it were a novel, that is ... without demanding of it either more or less than what a novel can offer’. The equivocation here points to a dilemma at the heart of Ginzburg’s career as a writer. She distrusts fiction, but knows that, since there can be no direct access to reality, fiction is in a sense all there is. To invent is to lie, but to claim to tell the truth can be a greater lie.

For Natalia Ginzburg the problem of writing is a moral problem and the attempt to be a good writer, as opposed to a wicked or pernicious one, engages her in a fierce internal struggle, where philosophical, emotional and psychological forces meet. Her greatest enemy in this struggle is silence. To begin with, there was the silence induced by war, by suffering on a scale that had struck Europe dumb, an experience of evil and pain that was literally unspeakable. Natalia Ginzburg saw breaking this silence as a duty, to bear witness to the suffering and to establish whether it could again be possible to say something true. But the silence she most deplored was of a different kind and origin. In an essay called ‘Silence’, published in 1951, a year before All Our Yesterdays, she identifies this silence as a characteristic condition of her generation and ‘amongst the strangest and gravest vices of our time’. The essay, however, is too sententious to be illuminating. We must go to the novel to understand more clearly what she means. There, silence is shown to be a failure to speak out about what is inside us, and a failure to find out from others what is inside them. It is associated with darkness, emptiness and death. Silence is an index of the slow gathering of despair in Ippolito. No one troubles to find out why he is silent, and then it is too late: ‘Memories, also, were searched for words that he had spoken. But he had spoken so few words. It seemed impossible now that nobody should have asked for a few more words ...’ After Ippolito’s death, Giustino and Anna cry until ‘they had nothing left inside them but amazement and silence.’ At moments during her secret pregnancy, Anna is able to imagine what it will be like to have a real baby, but she cannot hold onto the idea, ‘and the real baby disappeared with a plunge into darkness, and nothing but fear and silence was left inside her, the baby was again nothing but darkness inside her.’ The relief that Cenzo Rena brings Anna is not so much the relief of being able to keep her baby, but the relief of at last being able to break out of her silence. Cenzo Rena himself is a great and wonderful talker. His capacity and willingness to talk is a symptom of his generosity of spirit, his embracing magnanimity. It is a sign of life. When Cenzo Rena gets ill with typhus and almost dies, he stops talking. Giuma too, the boy who jilts Anna, is a talker. Like so many of the men Ginzburg describes, he is a holder-forth. His boyish utterances may be absurd and self-important, but they express his personality artlessly, and that in itself is good. People, these books of Ginzburg’s declare, are what they say and how they say it. That is what we remember of them when everything else is gone.

The character who has most trouble talking in All Our Yesterdays is Anna. At 14, she is described as ‘a plump girl, pale and indolent’, and Cenzo Rena delights in calling her an ‘insect’, and she is recognisably akin to the author as she presents herself in Family Sayings, where, by virtue of her position as chronicler, her own sayings are not recorded. The strictly limited self-portraiture in these books is fully corroborated by their style, and we leave them with a definite sense of who Natalia Ginzburg is, which is ironic, in view of her evident distaste for talking about herself. Saturnine, self-critical to a fault, perfectionist, fiercely moral: these are the attributes which dominate in her, and they do so with a rod of iron, so that one is left wondering what it is in Natalia Ginzburg that needed such tyrannical government. She gives our speculation most to feed on in an essay called ‘My Vocation’, dated 1949. There she speaks of the ‘grave dangers’ which threaten writers when they write a page. For example: ‘There is the danger of suddenly starting to be flirtatious and of singing.’ She reflects: ‘I always have a crazy desire to sing and I have to be very careful that I don’t.’ She doesn’t say why. But the answer seems to lie two paragraphs back. Her vocation, she says, in a metaphor quite untypical of her style as a novelist, is

a master who is able to beat us till the blood flows, a master who reviles and condemns us. We must swallow our saliva and our tears and grit our teeth and dry the blood from our wounds and serve him. Serve him when he asks. Then he will help us up onto our feet.

No wonder she does not dare to flirt or sing. The figure of the capricious male, father or husband, whose moods the women of the household must humour, whose anger they must placate, and who rewards obedience with flashes of kindness and a guarantee of structure and support, is to be found throughout Natalia Ginzburg’s fiction. Her own father, most obviously, as she describes him in Family Sayings, but also Anna’s father in All Our Yesterdays, and even in a much softened form Cenzo Rena, are versions of the type. And here, grotesquely exaggerated, he turns up again as Ginzburg’s muse, now internalised as a cruel censor of everything she writes. Obedience to this master generates in her, not surprisingly, a fair degree of anger, which she turns upon herself, and which, in the essays, she is apt also to turn upon the world – on her contemporaries and on us. This harshness towards herself and the rest of us is reflected in the burning integrity of her prose style, where every word seems to have been chosen from millions that were found wanting. But it is not redoubled in her treatment of her characters. On the contrary, she does not judge them at all, but cares for them with a compassion which teaches us a far deeper lesson than anything she arraigns us with in her essays. In All Our Yesterdays and Family Sayings Natalia Ginzburg puts into loving practice her dictum, formulated in ‘My Vocation’, that men and women in novels should be neither good nor evil, ‘but funny and a little sad’.

Flirting and singing are not, I should imagine, dangers Amanda Prantera worries herself about much when she sits down to write. Her first novel Strange Loop and now The Cabalist both give the impression that writing amuses her. Her writing certainly amuses me. And it is an amusement which isn’t funny, but stimulating and a little bit unnerving, which gives it edge and means that it lasts beyond the reading of it. Fun, diversion, jeu d’esprit: her books are all these things, but also something more, and in the more lies the reason you can’t altogether shrug them off. Like burrs, they stick.

Very remote they are, too, from Mulisch, and out of sight of Ginzburg, in that they do not address our political and historical awareness, but engage us in games and puzzle-solving, and in so engaging us, play with us. Yet when all is said and done, their subject-matter is nearer to these powerful Continental books than their form (which is what is most noticeable about them) suggests. For their subject-matter is the experience of evil. That is the dark, dank source from which they draw their vitality, and in both books this source is located in moments of horrific brutality witnessed by children.

We do not know what it was that little Martina W. actually saw, but the psychiatrist’s report, which Ludwig, the narrator of Strange Loop, unearths in Sister Lucy’s study in the monastery where Martina is being kept, speaks of the gravest traumas and of ‘irreversible paranoia’. We do know that Martina is Polish and Jewish, and that she was made an orphan in the war. Joseph Kestler, leading actor in The Cabalist, was also an orphan. As a child, he looked on while his parents were ‘imperfectly shot’ and then burned. This experience, he thinks, may have been partly responsible for his becoming a magician. Martina’s experience, we are to suppose, was wholly responsible for her becoming, or imagining she has become, a werewolf.

Is Joseph really a magician? And is Martina really a werewolf? These are the questions which The Cabalist and Strange Loop, respectively, are wholly taken up with answering. In each case, the reader is kept in suspense until very near the end, and a great part of Amanda Prantera’s skill as a writer, as she displays it in these books, lies in managing to keep us guessing. She does this by preventing us from coming to rest in any preferred point of view on the events which unfold. Every time we sit down, as it were, she moves us on. In Strange Loop, she undermines our trust in Ludwig’s judgment, and in The Cabalist she creates a special persona for herself as author (no-nonsense and facetious at the same time) and then uses this to diminish the dignity of the main character, Joseph. But in both cases, she is careful not to overdo it.

Prantera was trained as a philosopher, and it shows. Her novels are about the nature of evidence and the way we assess it. In Strange Loop the sceptic’s position is occupied by Ludwig, who throws himself with unattractive zeal at the task of exposing what he regards as a wicked clerical mystification. In The Cabalist the terms are reversed. Joseph Kestler is convinced that he has perfected the ancient technique of cabala and that he has ‘magical power over animate objects’. But he is dying. Knowing this, he becomes obsessed by the need to find a way of securing his remarkable, but potentially dangerous knowledge for the benefit of posterity. His attempts to satisfy this need involve him in a race not only against time, but against the powers of darkness. Or do they? Is it not rather that Joseph, as the author loves to speculate, is just a muddled and lonely old man? Prantera’s achievement in both these books is ultimately so to engage us in balancing and counterbalancing evidence that we end up by believing there is really something to be decided. When the truth finally comes out, it’s hard not to take it seriously.