In this summer of our discontent, I’ve been rereading “Family Lexicon,” the autobiographical novel by the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, which was recently reissued by The New York Review of Books, in a new, attentive translation by Jenny McPhee. The book, first published in Italy, in 1963, comes at its subject, which is life itself and what it asks of us, obliquely. In the author’s preface, Ginzburg states, “The places, people and events in this book are real. I haven’t invented a thing, and each time I found myself slipping into my long-held habits as a novelist and made something up, I was quickly compelled to destroy the invention.” In an interview, in 1990, Ginzburg recalled, “Autobiography crept up on me like a wolf.”
At the center of “Family Lexicon” is the author’s father, the scientist Giuseppe Levi, by turn endearing and intolerant, who thinks that all of his children are jackasses. Every summer, he herds them on mountain hikes wearing hobnailed boots, which the author’s mother, Lidia, who detests these excursions, calls “the devil’s idea of fun for his children.” (One is reminded of Virginia Woolf’s portrait of her father, Leslie Stephen, another intermittently enraged mountaineer.) Ginzburg labels her parents as “old-style Socialists,” to whom the rise of Fascism in Italy was an anathema. When her father bangs his glass on the dinner table, Ginzburg writes, “We didn’t know if he was angry at Mussolini, or at Alberto, who hadn’t yet returned home. ‘Thug! Delinquent!’ he said, as Natalina came in with the soup.” Her mother has a lighter nature, and likes to sings the songs that she made up in boarding school: “I’m Don Carlos de Tadrid / And I’m a student from Madrid!” She plays solitaire; if the cards come out, someone will buy her “a nice cottage.” “Nitwitterie!” her father says. The book is littered with the confetti of family life. An uncle is called “The Lunatic,” because he is a psychiatrist; Alberto constantly drubs his mother for two lire. When a sulky teen-aged Natalia comes into the room, her mother says, “Here comes Hurricane Maria!” In the book’s preface, Ginzburg explains, “These phrases are our Latin, the dictionary of our past, they’re like Egyptian or Assyro-Babylonian hieroglyphics. . . . Whenever one of us says ‘Most eminent Signor Lipmann’ . . . we immediately hear my father’s impatient voice ringing in in our ears: ‘Enough of that story! I’ve heard it far too many times already.’ ”
The American writer Grace Paley, whose work resembles Ginzburg’s (Eugenio Montale wrote, about “Family Lexicon,” that Ginzburg has an allegiance to “the continuous base of gossip,” which Paley shares), often told her students that every story was really two stories: the one on the surface, and the one running underneath. The climax was when the two stories collided. For Ginzburg, the second story underscoring the first is the dark coruscation of history: the role her family played in the anti-Fascist movement in Italy, and the fate of those closest to them during the German occupation. It is perhaps best to say straight off that the book is a masterpiece. By the time Ginzburg wrote “Family Lexicon,” she had written six terse, exceptionally lucid novels whose subject was often how carelessness can sunder ties of affection. “The Little Virtues,” a collection of essays that range from a portrait of her friend, the poet Cesare Pavese, to a sendup of food in London (Ginzburg can be very, very funny), reads as if it were written by a steady hand holding a diamond to glass. She had also translated Proust into Italian. Her plays included “I Married You for the Fun of It,” written for the Italian actress Adriana Asti, and “The Advertisement,” which opened in London, at the Old Vic, in 1968, with Joan Plowright in the leading role. In “Silence,” the poet Marianne Moore, no stranger to emotional astringency, wrote, “The deepest feeling always shows itself . . . / not in silence, but restraint.” The lines might be an entry into Ginzburg’s work, in which banter, slammed doors, and imprecations—the periodic table of family life—are preserved and rendered with detached, vigilant precision.
Ginzburg was born in Palermo in 1916, the fifth and youngest child of Giuseppe Levi, an Italian Jew, from Trieste, and Lidia Tanzi, a Catholic, from Florence. When she was a small child, the family moved to Turin, when her father, who specialized in the ganglia of the nervous system, took up a post at the University of Turin. (Three of Levi’s laboratory assistants would go on to win Nobel Prizes in medicine and physiology.) The family apartment was a meeting place for Italian poets, painters, intellectuals, and industrialists. Like many youngest children, Natalia found it hard to get a word in edgewise; later, she credited her clear, economical prose style to this noisy obstacle. An introverted child, she read widely, picking long novels off the shelves, and often inventing and inserting a character like herself into the narrative: a Maisie who recorded the foibles of the adults around her.
Her childhood was full of comings and goings. As she writes, her brothers Gino, Alberto, and Mario leave home; her father can’t stand it when they marry. (When her elder sister, Paola, marries Adriano Olivetti, her father flies into a rage because he is too rich.) “New star rising,” her father says, when his children mention a new friend. Her elder brothers return and whisper among themselves. One morning, at breakfast, she is introduced to a Signor Paolo Ferrari, who looks exactly like the anti-Fascist Filippo Turati, who had visited. “Don’t ever tell anyone I was here,” he whispers. In an incident that became known as the Ponte Tresa affair, in 1934, her brother Mario is apprehended bringing anti-Fascist literature into Italy; he escapes by jumping into the river and swimming to safety in Switzerland. Her brother Gino and her father are also jailed. Ginzburg writes, “My mother was constantly wringing her hands and saying in a tone of combined happiness, pride, and terror, ‘In the water with his overcoat on!’ ”
Natalia grows up and falls in love with a friend of her brother Alberto’s, Leone Ginzburg. Born in Odessa in 1909, Ginzburg, who was Jewish, left Ukraine with his mother and sister as a child and grew up in Turin. In his twenties, Ginzburg taught Russian languages and literature at the University of Turin and, with Giulio Einaudi, founded the publisher Einaudi Editions, in 1933. Around the time of the Ponte Tresa affair, when Mussolini demanded an oath of loyalty from the faculty to the Fascist regime, Ginzburg refused and lost his position. Natalia and Leone were married in 1938, the year Italy’s racial laws were enacted; these rules limited Jewish publications, restricted freedom of travel, stripped assets owned by Italian Jews, and prohibited them from holding positions of influence. In 1940, Leone was sent into internal exile, in the Abruzzi region. Natalia followed with their two small children. While in exile, Leone continued, clandestinely, to work as an editor at Einaudi and to edit a newspaper, L’Italia Libera, that was the organ of the secret democratic resistance party. In 1942, Natalia Ginzburg’s first novel, “The Road to the City,” was published by Einaudi, under a pseudonym.
After the fall of Mussolini, in 1943, Leone returned to Rome, and Natalia stayed in the Abruzzi. Shortly afterward, when the village was invaded by Germans, a neighbor said that Natalia was a cousin who had lost her papers; she and the children got on a German truck that took them to Rome, where they hid themselves in the city. In November, 1943, Leone Ginzburg was arrested by the German police and interred in the Regina Coeli prison, on the Via della Lungara, in Trastevere, a short walk from the Ponte Sisto. Three weeks later, he died as a result of beatings and torture, at the hands of the German police. According to prison documents, the cause of death was cardiac arrest and acute cholecystitis, a bacterial infection of the gallbladder, which is often a result of extreme trauma and multiple bodily injuries.
It is characteristic of Ginzburg’s prose, in both “Family Lexicon” and an earlier essay, “Winter in the Abruzzi,” that the descriptions of this period and its immediate aftermath focus on everyday life. In the Abruzzi, the house is drafty, and the stove is hard to light. When she cooks the local mutton, it tastes terrible, but a local girl turns it into delicious meatballs. The villagers are incredulous when she takes the children out for walks in cold weather. Her mornings are taken up with fastening buttons and peeling oranges. For a few hours in the afternoon, someone else cares for the children, and she has a bit of time to read and write. In “Family Lexicon,” there is only one direct reference to Leone’s death; it is after the war, in the office of Einaudi, in Rome: “On the wall in his office the publisher had hung a portrait of Leone: his hat slightly at an angle, his eyeglasses low on his nose, his thick black hair, his deeply dimpled cheeks, his feminine hands. Leone had died in prison, in the German section of the Regina Coeli prison one icy February in Rome during the German occupation.”
There is something of Beckett in Ginzburg’s prose; of Chekhov, whom she greatly admired; and of Shakespeare’s late plays, in which tragedy most often occurs offstage. It is one of life’s mysteries that what makes tragedy both bearable and unbearable is the same thing—that life goes on. After their father’s disappearance and death, the Ginzburg children were hidden in the country with their grandmother, Lidia. For protection, they were given her last name. The historian Carlo Ginzburg, the eldest child, remembers the name “Carlo Tanzi” written on the flyleaf of a book he was reading, called “The Happiest Child in the World.” By the end of the war, Lidia’s gay face is etched in sorrow. But she puts out the cards for solitaire, sings her songs, and exclaims, when Natalia’s daughter, Alessandra, a sulky teen-ager, objects to going to school, “Here comes Hurricane Maria!” The other night, a friend reminded me of Brecht’s answer to the question of whether there will be singing in dark times: “Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.”
Throughout her career, Ginzburg was concerned with the fable of family life. In her late, magisterial epistolary novel, “The Manzoni Family,” about the life of the nineteenth-century writer Alessandro Manzoni, we hear the family voice unspooling over the course of a century. As an editor, she was particularly attentive to children in peril. In 1954, at Einaudi, where she worked for many years after the war, she wrote the preface for the first Italian edition of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” (In 1947, Ginzburg had turned down the manuscript of Primo Levi’s “If This Is a Man,” which documents his experience at Auschwitz; it may have been simply unbearable to her then.) In later years, she edited and translated, from the French, “The Story of Peuw, a Cambodian Girl,” an account of life under the Khmer Rouge, and wrote extensively about the case of Serena Cruz, a Filipino orphan whose adoption by an Italian family was invalidated by an Italian court. Ginzburg died in 1991 in Rome.
I first came to Ginzburg’s work when my brother’s Italian teacher, a Roman friend of Ginzburg’s, gave it to me to read. I was just married, and did not yet have any children, a time that is almost lost to me; even the many years they all lived in the house crackles like a radio whose station I have trouble finding. My copies of “Family Lexicon” and “The Little Virtues” have sat on my desk for almost thirty years. There is one sentence from an essay about child rearing that I’ve kept with me, as one would fold a fortune into a wallet for safekeeping: “It is our job to be in the next room, but not the same room.”
Rereading Ginzburg again, I wonder now if that is true of us, too. In a post a few weeks ago on this Web site, Jia Tolentino noted that after an Internet heyday, the time has passed for a certain kind of “ultra-confessional” essay, usually by women. Ginzburg’s work is the opposite of this kind of writing. (The title of the collection of conversations with Ginzburg, published in English, is “It’s Hard to Talk About Yourself.”) In an interview, in 2003, in what could serve as an epigraph for his mother’s work, Carlo Ginzburg remarked, “Specific linguistic forms are related to specific forms of truth. . . . Every literary form forces us to discover one thing and ignore something else.”
“Lessico Famigliare” was first published in English as “Family Sayings,” in a translation by D. M. Low, in 1967; a second English edition, “The Things We Used to Say,” appeared in 1997, translated by Judith Woolf. (Both of these titles seem to me a bit closer to the intent of the original.) An achievement of this new translation, another thirty years on, is to introduce a generation familiar with Elena Ferrante’s Naples stories to Ginzburg’s incomparable oeuvre. Another is to remind us that a family, and perhaps a nation, is knit together by what we have in common; that the meaning of our jokes and puns and stories—George Washington and the cherry tree, the truths we hold to be self-evident, “the eminent Signor Lipmann,” that time mother danced on the table—are what make us who and what we are.
*This article was published in The New Yorker on June 22, 2017.