Mentioned in this article:
A Place to Live
and other selected essays
Chosen and Translated
by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
Seven Stories Press, 238 pp., $24/£16
is a category of writers in Italy classified as "Untouchables".
Their works are sacred, above negative criticism, especially by
literary critics. Not only is negative criticism of their global
work forbidden, but also each individual product they pen enjoys
near total immunity.
At the top of the
Untouchables list was doubtless Alberto Moravia, who could boast
of nearly universal positive critique: as one critical critic wrote,
99.0% for, 0.01% against. Other Untouchables have been Leonardo
Sciascia, Nobel poet Eugenio Montale, and Italo Calvino. Now deceased,
these Untouchables have largely retained their immunity until today.
complain that they can find no negative opinions of the Untouchables.
No faults. No bad books. No debate about them. Montale was universally
recognized as a great poet, but, one wonders, is it possible that
he never wrote a bad poem? Or Moravia, or Sciascia, a bad book?
Strangely, critics have overlooked what legions of Italian readers
still say about Moravia: "I liked his Racconti Romani
61 stories published in one volume in 1954but he didnt
write a good book in the last 30 years of his life."
Guido Almansi, puts Natalia Ginzburgpronounced Natalíain
this small group and wonders why critics never questioned her inclusion
in the prestigious Meridiano
Collection of Mondadori Editore
beside Thomas Mann, Kafka, Joyce, Ezra Pound and Proust. His conclusion
is that she is an Untouchable.
"I read that
article and it irritated me," Mrs. Ginzburg told me in an interview
not long before her death in Rome in 1991. "I dont know
what the term Untouchables means. It sounds like a journalistic
invention. Critics have certainly canned some of my works and, on
the other hand, I myself have written articles about a lack of serious
literary criticism in Italy.
In an essay of 1970
included in her collection, Mai Devi Domandarmi
in English under the title of Never Must You Ask Me
Joseph, London, 1973] she compared the role of the real critic"of
clear, steady, inexorable and pure judgment"with the
role of a father like that heroic, powerful, domineering figure
described in her autobiographical Lessico Famigliare [Family
"We need a critic who knows us [me] and is implacable
in pointing out our [my] mistakes and who reveals what we are [I
am]." But at the time I interviewed her she no longer cared
what critics said about her works, claiming she anyway wrote for
only three or four people.
The father image
remained a dominant factor in Ginzburgs life as a person and
a writer. In Lessico Famigliare
, she describes how her father,
Giuseppe Levi, physician, scientist, professor and author of scientific
the life of the family and their friends.
His angry and bellowing figure is always before her. "He thundered
against my indolence. I felt a holy terror of him: his frowning
brow, lined cheeks, curly eyebrows and grim red hair." The
young girl, wife and widow of two husbands, and writer, felt terror
of him. And guilt. She felt guilty for everything she did or did
not do that caused him displeasure. "In my childhood I knew
no sadness," she once wrote, "only fear."
I met Natalia Ginzburg the first
time when she opened the door to her apartment in the Historic
Center of Rome. She was immediately familiar and very sympathetic.
I later thought it was her voicesoft and hesitating, above
all, pureas pure as her writings. Her apartment in a 17th
century palazzo was the opposite of what she and her second husband,
the professor of English literature, Gabriele Baldini, were searching
for when they settled in Rome. She had wanted a house like the
family house in Turin, with garden, trees, bushes and pond. But
when she first saw the apartment overlooking the Pantheon and
Piazza Navona it was home for forty more years. Books, paintings,
cats and maids wandering around the huge salon or up and down
creaking stairs, from time to time dusting ineffectually, combined
to create an atmosphere of negligent disorder. Mrs. Ginzburgs
only household concern the Saturday morning I spent with her was
to ask a maid if she had bought bananas. To me she admitted in
an aside that she simply has no ability to command.
Having just finished
Lessico Famigliare, I sensed there the presence of the
old Turin households of her generation and the figure of Father
Levi. As Ms. Schwartz wisely points in her introduction to the
collection of essays in A Place To Live, a reading of Ginzburgs
Lessico Famigliare [Family Sayings, the title
I also prefer, or, The Things We Used To Say] is indispensable
to grasp the background that formed the writer. Parades of important
people passed through the lives of the Turin Levis: from the founders
of Italian Socialism, Anna Kuliscioff and Filippo Turati, to Adriano
Olivettilater her brother-n-lawwho made of a typewriter
factory a modern industrial giant. What writer has not typed on
Olivettis machines at one time or another? Artists and academics,
writers and industrialists, and militant anti-fascists frequented
the eccentric family unlike any other in Turin.
When I asked her
about a survey among European writers as to why they writeto
which Italo Calvino had answered, "I write because Im
searching for a better book than the last one I wrote"Ginzburg
said, "They didnt ask me, but I wouldnt have
had much to say. I write because I have to and because I cant
do anything else. Its my profession. My vocation."
I found it peculiar
that she seldom exploited in her writing the important people
she had known, first at home, then in the Einaudi Publishing House,
started up by her first husband, Leone Ginzburg, a Russian Jew
from Odessa who immigrated with his parents to Italy. She met
and worked with a generation of Italian writers including Cesare
Paveseunder-rated abroadItalo Calvino, Primo Levi
(no relationship with Natalias family), and Mario Soldati,
another giant writer too little known abroad.
In a flurry of
movement of people, ideas and eccentricities in ebullient, aristocratic
Turin, Natalia instead always wanted to be more like "normal
people." Perhaps that explains her fascination with two women
writers, Ivy Compton Burnet and Emily Dickinson, who led uninteresting
lives while their imaginative worlds were intense. Natalia Ginzburg
lived in big cities and knew many people, but she wrote about
mild, middle class characters, who achieve little, are more or
less good, but are far from heroic.
She however believes
that she did use her life in her work. "I have had a life
of misfortunes, rather than drama and action. I havent traveled
but I saw the same things my generation sawfascism and war.
Above all, I have suffered. My first husband was arrested, tortured
and killed in prison by fascist police.
Italian writers of the second part of the 20th century one must
always keep in mind the role of twenty years of fascism and World
War II. However, if Natalia Ginzburg was anti-fascist, as were
most writers then, and if she quite naturally belonged for a time
to the Communist Party, she was always a most apolitical person
and the least dogmatic of writers in a country where writers are
expected to have opinions on everything.
TO ROME, TO ROME
The Ginzburgs came to Rome before the post-war movement
that brought many of Italys intellectuals to the capital.
The fascist regime had interned the couple in a village in the
Abruzzi mountains near Rome. Leone Ginzburg and Natalia were everything
fascism was not. They came clandestinely to Rome to edit an anti-fascist
newspaper, until Leone was arrested and murdered in a Rome jail.
It was natural that Natalia settle in Rome after the war, where
she joined the Communist Party and wrote books, essays, plays
and newspaper articles, and subsequently remarried.
no longer even like Rome, I have stayed here, linked by memories,
seeing only a few friends and my children. Since I dont
like traveling, I sit here at home, thinking and smoking,"
she said, lighting another cigarette and unsuccessfully trying
to coax one of her Siamese cats to lie quietly on her lap.
Her reality is
however different from her words. In the 1980s she was elected
to Parliament as an Independent and went to sessions three days
a week, as she said, "trying to develop a political culture,"
since she tended to view politics from her apolitical dimension.
She said her parliamentary experience was more useful to her than
to the political world, which she was supposed to serve.
is I simply cannot speak. I prefer to observe events, reflect
on them, and then relate them in writing. I could never say how
a country should be governed. Though I am still a Communistthey
are the best our country has to offerI left the party years
ago simply because I should never belong to any party."
Cinema is something
else. It is an old love. Her mother went every day in Turin and
dragged Natalia along so that it became part of her life. "Until
recently," she said, "when the cinema degenerated. Now
I go to Parliament." She especially loves Fellini, all of
whose films she has seen many times. Her reflections about Fellini
do not resemble standard cinema critique; hers are unique as is
all her writing. She wrote a subjective article about Amarcord
long after the initial hullabaloo had settled. After a mild introduction
to say it seemed useless to try to add to what had been written
about the film, she wrote the most moving, penetrating essay ever
written about Fellinis masterpiece.
seemed to me a happy event," she began in a typical Ginzburg
opening. "Happy events are so unusual. It seems to me Fellinis
best film, and also one of the best films ever made. Perhaps it
is not useless to speak of a happy event. The spectator is asked
only to look. Fellini talks the language of images and they must
first be looked at and later understood. And he proceeds to show
us the truth. Of what snow or fog are really like. Or what the
melancholy of anti-fascists under fascism was really like."
She liked Amarcord
because it centered on a family of losers, people who feel wonder
and surprise and live on dreams, in opposition to the priests
and teachers on the side of power. She loved the language of images,
which sprinkle her books, concocted, she said, at the moment of
writing, in places where other writers use adjectives.
Natalia Ginzburg was born in 1916 in Palermo, grew up in Turin,
and lived her adult life in Rome. In ebullient, aristocratic Turin,
she claimed, she did nothing but take hot baths, lie on the floor
in the mornings eating breadall the things her father despised
and roared aboutand then feeling guilty.
she repeated, "I sit on this couch in Rome and chain smoke
and watch the cats and the indolent maids wandering around the
Turin was childhood
and youth. Her familys being "nothing" was a way
of life. They were "nothing" in religion. Neither rich
nor poor, they were excluded from both worlds. Anti-fascists,
they were excluded from mainstream life. They had no fatherland;
her father called the King an idiot. Because of her fathers
fear of germs, she studied at home. No fashions for her because
Father ridiculed such idiocies. She belonged nowhere. That nonbelonging
became a way of life too: If she was born, grew up and lived in
apparent mainstream intellectual life, she never felt like a member
of the closed club of Italian intellectuals.
Even though she
liked to quote writer Mario Soldatis "You dont
choose your friends," she disagrees: "We choose some,
some are chosen for us, and fate chooses others."
At a Turin party,
the much older Soldati heard about her stories, read them, and
later sent her her first telegram: he thought they were good.
Her first literary steps and her first steps outside the family
were in Turin. She published her first story at 18, married Leone
Ginzburg in 1938, and published her first novel in 1942La
Strada Che Va In Cittá [The Road to the City]under
the pseudonym of Alessandra Tornimparte. At wars end she
returned to Turin a widow with three children, and again worked
at Einaudi Editore.
Cesare Pavese was the driving force of the publishing house, leading
the battle against the contorted pre-war literary style. He was
the major influence on Italo Calvino, who actually changed Italian
literature with his clear limpid language. Calvinos early
Le Fiabe Italiane [Italian Fables] was so beautiful that
children today learn to write from it.
"I too believed
that the pre-war literary language was the enemy of literature
and that we had to find a new language intelligible to everyone.
I simplified my language, shortened my sentences, and constructed
my language based on spoken Italian. I wanted a concise clear
style, and since I wrote slowly I searched for speed and a fast-moving
style. Above all, I wanted to be understood and was never tempted
by fantastic or surrealistic writing. I try to capture the reader
immediately, to enter into communication with him, and not bore
him. I dont consider myself an intellectual, nor my writing
an intellectual act. Though writing is hard work, its also
an act of inspiration, which I find in daily lifedaily life
projected on the past."
THE CHICKENS PLOT
In her essay, "The Chickens Plot" included in
Never Must You Ask Me, (unfortunately not in the present
collection) Ginzburg describes her early fascination for the fabler
Tommaso Catani, who in his frightening stories never bothered
with happy endings: they terrified children and made them suffer
over their heroes. In the Turin atmosphere of eccentricity those
were positive images for the future writer; her own literary images
regularly reflect a preference for madness. Catani was not cruel,
Ginzburg once wrote; he was honest and imaginative. "His
cats and chickens went mad, drank poison, became crippled and
blind, and fell off rocks."
said she would walk a mile to see Paolo Poli, a Tuscan cabaretist
and female impersonator, on stage surrounded by boys dressed as
women, women dressed as men, gypsy dances, babies born in wine
shops, wives betrayed and buried alive, amid which Poli, perhaps
dressed as a Cardinal, suddenly sings the old fascist song, Giovinezza
in a way that made him the opposite of fascism. There is always
a streak of madness in her: as her mother says in Lessico Famigliare
when father and brother Gino are released from jail: "And
now back to the boredom of everyday life."
humble, timid, discreet, unobtrusive, self-deprecating, yet Ginzburg
asks herself about Emily Dickinson: " How can you recognize
genius and greatness in a spinster dressed in white out for a
walk with her dog? She would seem ridiculous and we dont
like the ridiculous, we [I] like madness. Madness doesnt
whisper, it shouts, and it wears bright colors and unexpected
told me that she fears boredombeing bored or boring others.
Fear of boredom is a very Italian concept.
Father Levi in
Lessico Famigliare is one of the few heroic figures in
Ginzburgs writing; and he is the most eccentric and mad.
The writers life seemed to be a reflection of his eccentricityfrom
her rebellion against his benevolent dictatorship to the hero
worship of his image: the girl in Turin on her tummy on the floor
eating bread to the woman chain smoking on the couch in Rome.
Getting up mornings at 4 a.m. as he did, going to Parliament instead
of the cinema, subscribing each year to the opera just to hear
two arias, one each from Lohengrin and Don Carlos,
walking a mile to hear a female impersonator.
And then feeling
guilty for her extravagances.
knowing why, she saidguilty when she was writing, and guilty
when not writingtherefore in a hurry to reach a conclusion.
Finishing seemed to be the goal. She felt guilty all her life,
a nameless and unmotivated guilt. She felt guilty for wrongs done
to others in ways she had forgotten. A mixture of guilt, anguish
Moravia is right that man must feel desperate," she said.
"Im thus a pessimist, with moments of hope."
The reader will
search in vain for such self-analysis in her fiction; it is only
a faint glimmer in her autobiographical writings. But it permeates
her brilliant essays. Though some writers ask to what extent writers
should engage in self-analysis, Natalia Ginzburg admitted that
her essay "Portrait of a Writer" [originally in Never
Must You Ask Me and included in the present collection, A
Place To Live] is self-analysis. "I wrote it for myself.
It is a confession, even if written in the third person."
In her confession
she speaks of herself as the tired writer whose imagination is
dead, who in fact never had much imagination, who has realized
he was meant to tell things that happened to him or others rather
than invent. "Compared with telling the truth, invention
seems to him like playing with a basket of kittens, whereas telling
the truth is like being involved with tigers. He once loved invention
as he now loves the truth. But his love for invention was meager
and cold and gave him back nothing but cold greedy images. But
now when he tries to tell the truth he loses himself gazing at
its violence and immensity. Is then writing a duty or a pleasure?
Stupid! It was neither. In the best of moments, to him, it was
and is just living on this earth."
After hours of
cigarettes and coffee and cats and the useless bustling about
of the maids, Mrs. Ginzburg summed up: "I wanted to say that
the best of men feel a gulf between themselves and the victors
in power. For me this is the malaise of the epoch. Im on
the side of the losers. I know that I would far prefer to be killed
than to kill."
English readers must thank Lynne
Sharon Schwartz, Seven Stories Press for adding this volume of
the best of Italian letters of the 20th century to
our storehouse of culture, as well as the Perugia Italian Language
School for introducing Natalia Ginzburg to its studentswhere
also Ms. Schwartz first read Ginzburgs essays. The selections
from three collections of Ginzburg essays included in this volume
reflect well the writers deceptively simple language, her
sense of duty to her writing "craft" as she herself
calls it, her sensibility and thirst for truth, and her love for
the "essay." Ms. Schwartzs excellent selections
stress the significance of her home city of Turin, of fascism,
anti-fascism, and the war on this writer who, without the necessity
of the Untouchable classification, was already widely recognized
in her lifetime, especially by other writers.