Keep the ball rolling
- A Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Jenny McPhee
NYRB, 224 pp, £9.99, August 2017, ISBN 978 1 59017 838 6
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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.