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Natalia Ginzburg’s small worlds

Years of anti-fascist struggle shaped the author's intense portraits of family life in Mussolini’s Italy. Now, her books are undergoing a revival.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

When Natalia Ginzburg was growing up in Turin in the 1920s, she learned that in order to be listened to she had to speak quickly. At the table, her brothers would tell Natalia, the youngest of five by seven years, to be quiet whenever she attempted to talk. She realised she was more likely to be heard if she spoke “in a headlong fashion with the smallest possible number of words”.

The experience informed her work: when she began to write stories as a schoolgirl she finished them with similar haste, she reveals in her 1949 essay “Il mio mestiere” (“My Vocation”). “Perhaps this seems a rather stupid explanation; nevertheless that is how it was.”

This narrative sensibility continued into Ginzburg’s adult writing (11 novels, as well as stories, essay collections and plays). Her style is direct, seemingly simple, and fast-moving. It’s a delight to be carried off into Ginzburg’s rich worlds, where morals are absolute and the characters who teach them are ridiculous; the father in Family Lexicon, based on Ginzburg’s own, relishes calling all five of his children “jackasses”. But to be swept along, you have to pay attention.

While Ginzburg is celebrated in Italy, where before her death in 1991 she won the prestigious Strega and Bagutta prizes, she is less read in the Anglophone world. Now, following the success of Elena Ferrante, another great documenter of Italian home life, Daunt Books in the UK, and New Directions and New York Review Books in the US, are reissuing her many volumes. Zadie Smith, Maggie Nelson, Rachel Cusk and Colm Tóibín count themselves admirers. Sally Rooney made Ginzburg the subject of an essay written by Eileen, a character in Beautiful World, Where Are You? (2021), where the Italian author’s name signifies a certain intellectual chic.

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Family Lexicon is Ginzburg’s best known book. Originally published as Lessico famigliare in 1963, it was first known in English as Family Sayings and then as The Things We Used to Say, before Jenny McPhee’s 2017 translation brought it to a new audience. It is a wildly autobiographical novel – though Ginzburg insists it should be read as fiction – that tells of the raucous, loveable Ginzburg family and the many intellectuals and industrialists who circled it.

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All Our Yesterdays, for which Rooney has written a new introduction, is the latest reissue. The novel is Ginzburg’s third, originally published as Tutti i nostri ieri in 1952. It acts as the precursor to Family Lexicon and, though a masterful book in its own right, it is a clear rehearsal for Ginzburg’s portrait of her own family.

Beginning in 1939, 14 years after Mussolini proclaimed himself Il Duce, it is also a family saga, with a focus on two families living in houses opposite one another in a small northern Italian town. Both are somewhat disjointed, having lost at least one parent, the older children on the cusp of marriage, and others going abroad to study. In among this mayhem there is a lightness to Ginzburg’s exuberant character descriptions. Introducing the members of a family as they sit around the dinner table together, she pauses at one: “then there was a person that you couldn’t quite be sure who he was, he wasn’t a guest because he was wearing slippers”.

Italian fascism – and the families’ resistance to it – is a constant presence, though at first a comic one. The father of Anna, Giustino, Ippolito and Concettina “used to laugh and rub his hands” as he gleefully sat at home writing his memoirs, full of “fiery attacks upon the fascists and the King”. For the next generation it is more dangerous. Ippolito, Emanuele from across the road and Danilo, one of Concettina’s many suitors, meet in private to share political literature, and soon Danilo is imprisoned. Emanuele’s brother Giuma, meanwhile, believes fascism to be “ignorant”, but “it wasn’t worth the trouble of getting oneself put in prison for such an ugly, clumsy thing”. The dividing lines are drawn.

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It isn’t until some way into the novel that a protagonist emerges in Anna, now 16. It is her interior life we inhabit as the families are splintered when Italy enters the war in 1940, and her accidental pregnancy with Giuma’s child that is the catalyst for the second half of the novel. When she confides in Cenzo Rena, a family friend in his forties depicted as something of a rural swashbuckler, dressed in a waterproof that looks like a nightshirt, he suggests they marry and raise the child. They move to his village in the south. There, Anna – still a girl, now a mother – observes the horrifying effects of the war, and later the German occupation, on her small (and still, to her, foreign) community.

Natalia Ginzburg was born Natalia Levi in Palermo, Sicily, in 1916 to a Jewish father, Giuseppe Levi, and a Catholic mother, Lidia Tanzi. When Natalia was small, the family moved so that Giuseppe, a professor of neuroanatomy, could take up a job at the University of Turin, a city that became an industrial hub and a centre of anti-fascist activity. The Levis and their associates – the people who stayed for a handful of nights, retreating to the back of the house when someone knocked at the door – were part of this resistance. As Jews the Levis particularly suffered for it, and Ginzburg’s brothers were regularly in and out of jail for their dissidence.

In 1938, aged 22, Natalia married Leone Ginzburg, a Jewish anti-fascist organiser and a professor of Russian literature, with whom she would have three children. The same year Mussolini enacted Italy’s racial laws, which limited publications by Jewish Italians and prohibited them from holding positions of influence. In 1940 the family were sent into internal exile in the Abruzzo region in the south of the country. Ginzburg moved frequently, often against her will; her displacement is another force on her political stories.

Ginzburg published her first novel The Road to the City in 1942 under the pseudonym “Alessandra Tornimparte”. In Frances Frenaye’s 1949 translation, which was reissued in 2021, the book’s young female narrator is already wary of the horrors of the world. After the fall of Mussolini in 1943 and the German occupation of the country, the Ginzburgs lived in Rome, where Leone organised resistance to the Nazi occupation. In November that year he was arrested. Prison records cite his cause of death as cardiac arrest and acute cholecystitis: the results of torture.

Ginzburg and her family suffered the extremes of fascism. It was apt that she later wrote the introduction to the first Italian edition of The Diary of Anne Frank. But in her fiction she is just as attuned to slighter experiences, particularly the repetitions of domestic life. “There is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer,” Ginzburg wrote in “My Vocation”, in a quote that Rooney uses as the epigraph to Beautiful World, Where Are You?. If Ginzburg was asked to compare herself to other such “small” writers, though, she could not. “I prefer to think that no one has ever been like me, however small, however much a mosquito or a flea of a writer I may be.”

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The author’s mosquito-like tendencies are echoed in her character Anna. In Ginzburg’s coolly repetitious indirect speech Cenzo Rena tells Anna that while “there were certain things that women ought to know, she knew nothing because she had always lived like an insect. She had always lived like an insect in a swarm of other insects.” Later, when Cenzo Rena is ill, he says it would be a “disaster” if he died, “because, when all was said and done, he had never made her turn into a real person at all, when all was said and done she was still just an insect, a little lazy, sad insect in a leaf, he himself had been just a big leaf to her”.

Cenzo Rena’s patronising pronouncement fails to comprehend the power of belonging to a “swarm”: the value of sharing and moving together, with a joint mission. He has already declared that he is no communist, for the most trivial of reasons (“he had a horror of living with anyone and for that reason Communism would never suit him, for he had been told that a large number of people had to live together in the same house”). Anna, who is young yet knows her mind, understands what it is to feel part of a force for change. She remembers sitting round a table with her lively, politically active brothers – even if, like Ginzburg, she was doing more listening than talking.

All Our Yesterdays
Natalia Ginzburg translated by Angus Davidson
Daunt, 304pp, £10.99

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This article appears in the 24 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Inflation Wars