In Voices in the Evening, Natalia Ginzburg’s 1961 novel concerning, among other things, an ill-fated love affair, our protagonist, Elsa, describes the lovers’ twice-weekly assignations:
‘We always did the same things: we changed the book at the “Selecta” library, bought some oatcakes, bought also for my mother fifteen centimetres of black grosgrain.’
Over the course of the affair, it seems, Elsa’s mother ends up with a large number of rather short pieces of ribbon. This might sound like too-fine a point, but it illustrates a technique Ginzburg uses time and again in her writing: she presents an incident or utterance both as a regular occurrence – ‘we always did the same things’; and as what must be a specific, one-off moment: buying a short piece of ribbon. This doesn’t create a contradiction necessarily, but through repeated use, it builds a tension into the narrative, the reader pulled between comprehending each of these moments as something general or something specific.
Ginzburg’s most famous book, Family Lexicon, is built from these tensions. A memoir, or autobiographical novel, it is a history of Ginzburg’s liberal and left-wing family and friends, as they negotiate the rise and fall of fascism before and after the Second World War. Focussing, as the title suggests, on the family’s argot – its origins in their shared experiences and memories, and the greater meanings each phrase or neologism has – Ginzburg describes the scenes in which a character utters the word or phrase both as a specific moment and one of many such moments. Her father regularly wakes in the middle of the night to yell at her mother about his worries, and describes his offspring as ‘jackasses’ and their activities as ‘nitwitteries’, Ginzburg sliding effortlessly between the generalised – ‘My father would then take offence. “What a jackass!” he’d say’ – and the specific: ‘“I’m worried about Alberto!” he said waking up in the night.’
Ginzburg’s brevity is often cited as her trademark – but I think it is the combination of her concision and this ‘generalised specificity’ that characterises her work. It is through this technique that, in Family Lexicon, Ginzburg creates a portrait built from many layers, from glimpses and shades of colours, rather than a history told in a linear fashion – despite carrying us from the 1930s of her childhood to the 1950s of her young adulthood.
Her brevity is most evident in her earliest published fiction: the novellas, The Road to the City and The Dry Heart, which I reviewed for the European Literature Network’s online #RivetingReviews in 2021. In my review of The Dry Heart, I describe Ginzburg’s simplicity as a puzzle she sets the reader: how to move past the clearly presented, naked facts of the story? The Dry Heart tells the tale of a woman who kills her husband after their child dies in infancy; but beyond that it is an exploration of the destructive effects of the imagination. And in The Road to the City, I see in a seventeen-year-old’s journey from rural abjection to a comfortable existence a tale of socioeconomics, examining the limited routes out of the confines of gender and poverty.
In the essay ‘My Vocation’, part of the collection, The Little Virtues, Ginzburg discusses her career to the date of writing (1949), and cites a Damascene moment, when she realised her inclination towards simplicity was a problem. Seeing a ‘greenish resplendent’ mirror conveyed along a street by handcart, she pocketed the image, ready to use later; but rather than use it, she found the memory of it moved something in her about her approach to fiction:
‘I always concentrated on grey, squalid people and things, I sought out a contemptible kind of reality lacking in glory … [a] taste I had at the time for finding minute details, an avid mean desire for little things … The mirror on the handcart seemed to offer me new possibilities, perhaps the ability to look at a more glorious and splendid kind of reality which did not require minute descriptions and cleverly noticed details but which could be conveyed in one resplendent, felicitous image.’
She goes on to describe her propensity to mark each of her characters ‘with some grotesque detail’ as part of the ‘irony and nastiness’ that she needed to write like a man; at the time she ‘had a horror of anyone realising from what I wrote that I was a woman’. But then she has children, and undergoes a great struggle between motherhood and her vocation, which ends in her writing her first novel:
‘Now I no longer wanted to write like a man, because I had had children and I thought I knew a great many things about tomato sauce and even if I didn’t put them into my story it helped my vocation that I knew them.’
This seems to me to be the point at which Ginzburg starts to develop her characteristic style. She claims to eschew her focus on ‘minute descriptions’, but in fact she now uses them to expand rather than diminish her characters. Each utterance, each event she describes, presents with two sides: its specific moment and its general meaning, elevating her simplicity from ‘contemptible’ to ‘ resplendent and felicitous’.
In a much later novel, Happiness as Such, first published in 1973, we see Ginzburg’s characteristic style at work on a narrative level. At least half the book is written as letters, each of which acts as the kind of brief utterance we see in Family Lexicon – both specific to the plot and chronology of the book, but also with a generalised message about the family at the novel’s centre. Michele has left Rome for a life in England; whether he’s done so to escape fatherhood, his entanglement with terrorists or his own ailing father, is unclear. His mother and sisters write to him, and he replies – with Ginzburgian brevity. But the most intriguing character is Mara – his one-time girlfriend and mother of a child who may or may not be his. Moving from friend to acquaintance to random stranger, with her baby in tow, Mara seems to take advantage of everyone she meets, argues with them and moves on, bemoaning her misfortune, apparently unaware of her ingratitude and ruthlessness. One acquaintance, who’s taken her in as a maid, writes to Michele’s sister, Angelica:
‘Mara has too many problems to dedicate herself to housework, which requires patience, constancy and goodwill. But neither I nor my husband have the heart to turn her out onto the street.’
We sense that this particular instance is part of a greater pattern that began long before the book started and will continue long after it’s over.
I believe that Ginzburg’s technique, as I’ve described it, goes a long way to explaining her renewed popularity in the past few years – between them, New York Review of Books and Daunt Books have published nine of her books since 2017. Many of us drilled in, and fans of, Lish/Carveresque ‘show don’t tell’, ‘keep it simple stupid’ creative writing will lap up the powerful brevity; but for me it is the development of this simplicity into a ‘glorious and splendid kind of reality’, through a technique I’m not sure I’ve witnessed in any other author, that makes Natalia Ginzburg a leading light of twentieth-century Italian writing.
Reviewed by West Camel
VOICES IN THE EVENING by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by D. M. Low, published by Daunt Books (2019)
FAMILY LEXICON by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Jenny McPhee, published by Daunt Books (2018)
THE ROAD TO THE CITY by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Frances Frenaye, published by Daunt Books (2021)
THE DRY HEART by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Frances Frenaye, published by Daunt Books (2021)
THE LITTLE VIRTUES by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Dick Davis, published by Daunt Books (2018)
HAPPINESS AS SUCH by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Minna Zallman Proctor, published by Daunt Books (2019)
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West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015, and is currently working for Orenda Books. He has written two novels, Attend and Fall. He is the editor of the Riveter magazine and the #RivetingReviews for the European Literature Network.n.
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