Review: Jean McGarry on Natalia Ginzburg

The Italian novelist Natalia Ginzburg may be an acquired taste. Her abrupt style and rough handling of her subjects and characters can seem perverse: the painful, often tragic events she recounts would seem to call for pathos, or the distance of irony. Instead, in her twelve works of fiction, the author unfailingly serves her material “straight up; no chaser.” For this reader, though, Ginzburg’s fierce childhood memoir, Family Sayings, when encountered about thirty years ago, was nothing less than a revelation. After the brisk introduction to her family, including a portrait of father picked out in acid, I couldn’t read her novels fast enough. She is an original, no doubt, and partly by virtue of her sharpness, the peculiarly direct and needlelike precision of her prose.

I recently reread two novels, The Dry Heart and Happiness, as Such, freshly translated and retitled (Ginzburg has had many English translators). These novels fall at the very beginning (1947) and the solid middle (1973) of her career. With the exception of an early UK edition of Happiness, as Such (there entitled Dear Michael), all the translations are good, and by that I mean they all sound like Ginzburg. The critic D. S. Mirsky once opined that his contemporary Chekhov was translated readily because his prose was “colorless and lacking individuality … He had no feeling for words.” MIrsky might have said the same about Ginzburg, if his criterion was a style that seems like no style, offering a smooth passage into any other language.

Unlike Italo Calvino, Ginsberg’s contemporary, who midcareer radically altered his method, turning away from realism to treat the agonies of Italy in war, and after, by floating the material in fantasy, Ginzburg’s steely prose is immutable across the three decades of her writing. Her twelve books: novels, stories, essays, and a biography of the Manzoni family, are rendered by a hand so steady, so much her own, that part of the pleasure of reading them is the sense that one is somehow enjoying an ongoing relationship with the author, and learning from her how to resist the comfort of self deception. What a friend she would have been!

The Dry Heart starts out with a bang, as a neglected and betrayed wife shoots her husband between the eyes. What follows is the bleak history of a short marriage between a sophisticated mama’s boy and a lonely teacher, fresh from the country. Beautifully rendered, there’s not a ray of hope in this account. Compared to the freshets of joy to be found in Ginzburg’s Happiness as Such (written 30 years later), it must be said that Ginzburg mellowed as a writer.

Happiness as Such is composed of letters exchanged by a mother, Adriana (along with sisters and friends), with her artist son, Michele, who has suddenly absconded to England. (The previous translation went by the literal version of the original title, Caro Michele/Dear Michael; Happiness, as Such is already saying too much.) Adriana’s letters are the longest, and have a frankness of utterance that imparts facts, the truth, but ventures no further—no emphasis, no quibbling, no pieties, no false pride or humility, no flattery. Here, in a letter to her son about his deceased father and her ex-husband that appears about a third of the way through the novel, is a sample of the Ginzburg touch:

Your father’s death hit me very hard. I feel much more alone now. He didn’t support me because he didn’t care about me … You were the only person he cared about.

The letter continues in the same vein:

Your father and I were never happy together. Even if we had been briefly and occasionally happy, everything got sullied, ripped up, and destroyed. But people don’t love each other only for happy memories. At a certain point in your life, you realize that you just love the memories.

And a bit farther on:

One time at Villa Borghese we were playing Blind Fly with you on the grass and I tripped and fell and he cleaned the mud off my dress with his handkerchief. He was on his knees cleaning off the mud. I looked down on his long black curls and I could tell that there wasn’t even a shadow of hatred between us anymore. That was a happy moment. Happiness made out of nothing, because I knew that even if my relationship with your father wasn’t about hatred anymore it was still made of something sad and cowardly. But I remember the sunset, beautiful pink clouds over the city, and for the first time in a long time I was almost serene, almost happy.

The way Ginzburg uses the resources of language is all her own. There’s no metaphoric flourish, no manipulation of tempo and syntax to create excitement; there is simply the juxtaposition of conflicting feeling in simple statements that miraculously add up rather than confuse. This quality is consistent across the letters, in spite of vocal and personality differences. The novel takes place mostly in 1970 and covers a little over a year at a time of violent youth protest in Italy—Michele, an artist, is drawn to that movement, and is eventually identified by his enemies and assassinated.

The novel doesn’t aim itself at this startling outcome, except, perhaps, in the Italian title, and the fact that Michele receives most of the letters. Michele’s old friend Osvaldo occupies a unique place in the narrative, as the person who befriends nearly everyone in Michele’s life, and does all in his power to aid and support, in ways that are utterly self-effacing, heroic, sensitive, and subtle. Osvaldo’s letter is the novel’s last, written from England, where he goes to trace his friend’s final steps.

During the German occupation of Italy, Ginzburg, her husband Leone, and their children were forced from their home and for nearly two years lived a hand-to-mouth existence in the rural south. Returning to Rome, Leone, a partisan, was captured, tortured, and murdered. Was this loss and unimaginable suffering the fire from which the author emerged with such a passion for truth? Perhaps so, but it’s the rare writer who, over a long career, never loses sight of this aim.

Newly released books by Natalia Ginzburg

New Directions
The Dry Heart, translated by Frances Frenaye, Preface by Italo Calvino
Happiness, as Such, translated by Minna Proctor
Arcade
The City and the House, translated by Dick Davis, forward by Cynthia Zarin
All Our Yesterdays, translated by Angus Davidson, forward by Peg Boyers
The Little Virtues (essays), translated by Dick Davis, forward by Belle Boggs
The Manzoni Family (August), translated by Marie Evans, forward by Tim Parks
New York Review Books
Family Lexicon (formerly Family Sayings), translated by Jenny McPhee, afterword by Peg Boyers

Image: Natalia Ginzburg (center), with her editor Giulio Einaudi

Jean McGarry is the author of nine books of fiction, most recently the short-story collection No Harm Done and the novel Ocean State.

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