Italian novelist, essayist, playwright, and translator, Natalia Ginzburg (née Levi; 1916-1991) was famous for her portraits of family life and for her spare style.
Natalia Ginzburg was born in Palermo in 1916, the daughter of Guiseppe Levi, a prominent anatomy professor. She grew up in Turin where she married the translator and anti-Fascist leader Leone Ginzburg. During the early years of World War II she and her family lived in forced residence in the mountainous Abruzzi region. (Her father and two brothers were arrested by the Fascists; one brother escaped.) In 1943 Ginzburg, her husband, and three children moved to Rome where he was soon arrested for editing an underground newspaper and tortured to death by the Nazis. After his death she returned to Turin where she worked as an editor with the famous Einaudi publishing house and wrote. In 1950 she married Gabriele Baldini, a musicologist and professor of English literature (who died in 1969).
Although Ginzburg was a playwright ("I Married You for Fun") and a translator (Proust and Flaubert), she was best known for her autobiography, her fiction, and her essays. Among her novels (dates are for English translations) are The Road to the City (1949), All Our Yesterdays (1956), A Light for Fools (1957), Voices in the Evening (1963), No Way (1974), and The City and the House (1985).
Ginzburg's favorite theme was families. In one of her best-loved works, Family Sayings (1963), she offered glimpses into her own childhood and family life. As the youngest of five children, she was always being told to be quiet. Her need to say things in a hurry if she was to be heard at all perhaps helped form her telegraphic style, she once remarked. In The Manzoni Family (1983) she wrote a history of the family of writer Alessandro Manzoni, whose The Betrothed ranks as one of the classics of Italian and world literature. Ginzburg intended her history, based on Manzoni family letters, "to be read as a novel—a novel, however, in which nothing is invented."
Her novel Voices in the Evening is another example of her concern with family. In the story, Elsa, a young unmarried woman, recounts the tragedies, loves, and social entanglements of an unnamed north Italian village from the days of Fascism through to the postwar era. As the title suggests, we hear the voices of the lovers, Tommasino and Elsa, and of their families, but sometimes so briefly, so minimally, that they seem faint, distant, as if we were overhearing snatches of conversation in the evening.
With great patience and precision, Ginzburg records the day-to-day concerns of her characters' lives: what to eat, who was invited to the party, what the bus schedule is, whether or not the new young doctor is competent. Yet Ginzburg's story also has its ironies. Home, hearth, family circle, the "little things" so dear to the author, so seemingly safe and desirable, can also be lethal. If Tommasino marries Elsa, he will join her family's domestic circle and that intimacy will destroy him, he fears. Already he has begun to drive his thoughts "underground," to "bury" them, so that when he is with Elsa "we say things of no account." Ginzburg's relentless piling on of carefully selected detail after detail, with all the dispassion of a reporter, gives this novel an extraordinary ring of truth.
True to her concern for families and children, Ginzburg published Serena Cruz or True Justice (1990), a book of her reflections about the widely disputed and publicized adoption case of a little Filipino girl in Italy.
Ginzburg's simplicity, her integrity, her passion for truth, and her concern for family come through best in her essays collected in The Little Virtues (1962). In "The Son of Man" she explained how the experiences of Fascism and World War II scarred her and her generation. The horrors of homelessness, the fears of seeing loved ones snatched in the night, as she experienced with Leone Ginzburg, continue to haunt her. Her rage erupts against an earlier generation that allowed Fascism to come to power and to thrive on a world of lies: "We cannot lie in our books and we cannot lie in any of the things that we do. And perhaps this is the one good thing that has come out of the war. Not to lie and not to allow others to lie to us." In "Silence" she discussed one of the "strangest and gravest vices of our time," our inability to communicate meaningfully with each other, and some of the reasons for "this bitter fruit of our sick times."
No matter what she wrote—fiction, essays, history, autobiography—her style was spare and lean. She wrote "through clenched teeth, as it were, giving away as little as possible," an exasperated American reviewer once commented. Ginzburg's images are so few that when they appear, they blaze like shooting stars on a summer night. Yet her intent was certainly not "to give away as little as possible." Her aim was concreteness and, above all, truth and integrity.
Her style reflects these concerns. Her sentences, her words are so few and so carefully chosen that we feel she would not release a single one unless she was convinced of its artistic and moral truth. Yet, unlike some of the American minimalists, there is nothing fragmented or indeterminate about her fiction. She was an old fashioned storyteller who believed in clearly defined plots. Reading Ginzburg's novels is like going to an exhibit of drawings. It's exciting to study the lines, to appreciate her draftsmanship. If "writing is a struggle against silence," as Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes once wrote, then Ginzburg's art lies in knowing where and how to break that silence.
Ginzburg's work also teaches us "the little virtues" that she describes in her essays. The great themes, the great truths, she tells us, can be found at home, in our family lives, in the familiar day to day, in a world that we all know. In the little virtues we'll find the great ones, she tells us. All we have to do is look.
In 1983 Ginzburg was elected to the Italian Parliament, and served one term. She lived near the Pantheon in old (central) Rome, until she died of cancer on October 7, 1991.
Further Reading on Natalia Levi Ginzburg
English translations of Natalia Ginzburg's works are reviewed regularly in major newspapers such as The New York Times, Washington Post, and New York Review of Books, which occasionally also publish extracts. For interviews in English see Laura Furman, "An Interview with Natalia Ginzburg," Southwest Review (Winter 1987), and Mary Gordon, "Surviving History," The New York Times Magazine (March 25, 1990). Anne Marie O'Healy, "Natalia Ginzburg and the Family," Canadian Journal of Italian Studies (1986) deals with Ginzburg's interest in families.
Additional Biography Sources
Ginzburg, Natalia, Family sayings, Manchester: Carcanet, 1984, 1967.
Ginzburg, Natalia, Family sayings, New York: Seaver Books: Distributed by H. Holt, 1986, 1967.
Ginzburg, Natalia, Family sayings, New York: Arcade Pub., 1989, 1967.