Natalia Ginzburg

Monday, August 21, 2006

Natalia Ginzburg

“When I write stories I am like someone who is in her own country, walking along streets that she has known since she was a child, between walls and trees that are hers.”

“Today, as never before, the fates of men are so intimately linked to one another that a disaster for one is a disaster for everybody.”

"As soon as we see our dreams betrayed we realize that the intensest joys of our life have nothing to do with reality, and we are consumed with regret for the time when they glowed within us. And in this succession of hopes and regrets our life slips by."

An Invisible Government
by Natalia Ginzburg

I’ve always found it rather strange that after an election, nearly all the party newspapers proclaim victory even if they’ve been defeated. If I were a party leader, I would proclaim the truth in big red letters. If we had suffered a major defeat, the headline in my paper would read: “Major Defeat for Our Party.” I can’t see why every party newspaper instead finds it necessary to display exultant, triumphant headlines after each election. The few exceptions after the recent elections were remarkable indeed.

It will be pointed out that this is unimportant, since people read the voting returns and learn how things turned out in any case. It will also be pointed out that newspapers, whether partisan or non-partisan, carry far more murky and lethal lies. That is true. The triumphant headlines have become a convention, like the conventional hellos and goodbyes of a social call. People expect them and pay no attention. True enough. But if I were a party chief and my party had lost, I would go around shouting it from the rooftops. For in politics as elsewhere, the truth is salutary and invigorating.

It has been explained to me many times that the rules and procedures of politics are totally different from those of ordinary human life. It’s been explained that political power operates by delicate, subtle mechanisms that are highly sensitive and comprehensible maybe only to those who control them and can peer into their depths. The desire for truth, indeed any customary expectation of the human mind, has about as much weight on the machinery of political power as a swarm of gnats.

There are people who understand nothing of politics. I am one of them. There aren’t many such people, in fact there may be very few, since almost everyone manages to master a handful of essential notions that permit them to understand the terms and structures of politics. Certain people, however, not only understand nothing of politics but are incapable of thinking politically. They are even less able to express themselves in political terms. I am one of those. The people who do understand politics cannot begin to conceive of what we, the ones who understand nothing, are all about. So I want to explain, since after all, I know.

Thinking and expressing oneself politically means thinking and expressing oneself with a specific purpose in mind. Such a purpose might be aboveboard or corrupt; its ultimate goal might serve justice or oppression. Those who understand nothing of politics, on the other hand, think and express themselves without any goal whatsoever. It may be that their only goal is to explore and express their genuine thoughts. To the politically minded, such a goal seems pointless. And at times it seems utterly pointless to those who understand nothing of politics, too, which makes them despair. However, speaking their minds is the single thing in the world that they know how to do. At other times, they hope that what they say may strike a responsive chord in others. This is nothing like a specific goal, merely a stray hope.

When those who understand nothing about politics venture to speak of it, they either lapse into confusion and abstraction or talk nonsense. So it is more than likely that what I’m writing here is a string of nonsense. Still, I must confess that despite understanding nothing of politics, I nonetheless often feel an overpowering temptation to speak of it.

Beyond politics, there are countless other things about which I know and understand nothing, such as economics, or chemistry, or the natural sciences, or the exact sciences. But my lack of understanding of those subjects doesn’t disturb me. I get along fine without them. They proceed far from my life and almost never cross my mind. Understanding nothing of politics, on the contrary, feels like a serious disability. It pains and embarrasses me. People I’ve confided in tell me it’s simply laziness and resistance on my part. I am aware of being very lazy, and yet I have the sense that my utter failure to understand politics is not a question of laziness so much as a real disability.

When I was young, I thought that some time or other I would read books in order to gain some understanding and background in politics. After a while I noted that whenever I opened those books, my mind would dart away like a hare. And so I have never read a single line of them. I also noted, after a while, that all the novels and other books I had ever read were read without any fixed purpose.Even though I understand nothing of politics, political events do occasionally arouse my hatred and indignation or approval and passion. But these events don’t strike me as part of any coherent, lucid, and harmonious pattern; they always seem like fragments or splinters or bits of driftwood I’m clinging to like someone left floundering in a river at flood tide.

One of the very few political ideas within my grasp, perhaps the only one, I acquired when I was seven years old. It was explained to me what socialism was; that is, I was told it meant equal distribution of goods and equal rights for all. It struck me as something that had to be achieved right away. I found it strange that it hadn’t already been achieved. I remember the exact time and place where I heard these words, which were self-evident and crucial. To this day they still have the power to kindle a kind of flame in me. To this day I marvel that that state of affairs, namely, equal distribution of goods and equal rights, has not been achieved, and is apparently so complex and difficult to achieve.

When I have to vote, I follow emotional impulses; my inclinations are entirely of an emotional nature, as if I had to shake hands with a political party or kiss it on both cheeks. This is definitely not the proper way to vote. I know that. Each time, I’m given instructions, and each time, I cast them to the winds and instinctively follow only irrational affections and affinities. I find myself unable to vote for any party with resignation; I have to love the party I’m voting for. When I go to vote, that single rudimentary political idea that I possess, equal distribution of goods and equal rights for all people, flares up. I want to find out with absolute certainty who supports that, but since the explanations I get are conflicting and garbled, I end up voting blindly and emotionally.

People I know and trust have often told me that if equal rights and equal distribution of goods were attained, I would lose a part of my freedom, I wouldn’t write any more, and I would be terribly unhappy. This is because equal rights and equal distribution of goods don’t fall like manna from heaven but require a number of strategic and terrifying protections. In fact I, too, think that if I couldn’t write any more I would be very unhappy and might throw myself under a train. But I also think that our personal happiness or unhappiness should not determine our political choices. What works quite well for us personally may not work at all well for others. We want a better world, but it could be that this better world has no place for us. And yet, it is conceivable to regard our own personal destiny with some detachment. I don’t know if this kind of reasoning is political, that is, the kind of reasoning political people would accept. It is the reasoning of those who are desperate. I don’t know if there is a place in politics for the desperate. I imagine not.
Then again, maybe governments never run smoothly. Some, at any rate, are overthrown. The government I myself would want would be totally bland, insubstantial, invisible, a government so airy and invisible that we could forget all about it, not even notice that it exists. Under such a government, everyone would live well, everyone would have his rightful place and role and his rightful share of benefits and freedom. Granted, a government of this kind doesn’t exist in nature; nowhere are there any visible traces of it. In every existing government we find clamour, abuses of power, newspapers with triumphant, lying headlines, lies of every kind in public life. This being the case, someone like me, who understands nothing of politics, is compelled to think about politics and despair of ever understanding it, is compelled to envision something entirely different.

In truth, the airy, light, insubstantial and invisible government I envision might be a weak government, and in politics, weakness apparently has no chance at all of survival. It would be a weak government because in politics strength is noisy, intrusive, huge, and bloodthirsty. It would be a government without money or weapons, founded solely on a few values that are precious to the spirit, such as justice, truth, and liberty. But the word “truth” is seldom used in politics, and the justification offered for its absence is the nature of those very delicate, fragile, and sensitive mechanisms at the core of political life, which demand the most specialized and highly refined precautions. As for liberty and justice, we are told that for the time being they must be protected by weapons, police, and prisons; we are told it is essential to protect them by force, and meanwhile we have this irrepressible craving for weakness.

We are told that in the distant future, maybe after centuries of weapons and prisons, all will be well at last; there will be enough space and liberty for everyone. At last, we’ll no longer need to think in terms of nation-states, of masses of people and of governments, but only of our distinctive and solitary condition as human beings. But no one believes in the future any more. Years ago, we could believe in it; the music of tomorrow, authentic and intoxicating, rang in our ears. Then all at once the future collapsed before our very eyes. So while we long for a better world, we can’t project our longings to centuries from now. We don’t have centuries to wait any more, and even if we did, we have lost the will and the imagination to grasp what shape they might take. Right now we stubbornly love the present; we find ourselves bound by hoops of love to a time that gives no sign of loving us in return.
June, 1972

—Translated from the Italian by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1990), one of the most renowned and distinctive voices in postwar Italian literature, was revered for her inimitable style and her unforgettable depiction of private lives in a disrupted social landscape. A prolific novelist, dramatist, and essayist, she is best known in this country for her novels All Our Yesterdays, The City and the House, and Voices in the Evening, and her autobiographical work The Things We Used to Say. The essays here are taken from A Place to Live: Selected Essays of Natalia Ginzburg, published by Seven Stories Press and translated by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

Friday, August 04, 2006

Natalia Ginzburg née Levi

Born July 14, 1916, Palermo, Italy
Died Oct. 7, 1991, Rome

Italian author who dealt unsentimentally with family relationships in her writings. Ginzburg was the widow of the Italian literary figure and patriot Leone Ginzburg, who operated a publishing house for a time, was arrested for antifascist activities, and died in prison in 1944. (She later remarried.)

Her literary career began with the publication of short stories in the Florentine periodical Solaria. Her first novella, La strada che va in città (1942; The Road to the City), is the story of a young peasant girl who, lured by the excitement of the city, is seduced by and marries a man she does not love. A second novella, È stato così (1947; “The Dry Heart,” in The Road to the City), also deals with an unhappy marriage; the heroine, a former teacher, explains the circumstances that impelled her to murder her husband. In Tutti i nostri ieri (1952; U.K. title, Dead Yesterdays; U.S. title, A Light for Fools), Ginzburg portrayed the crises of the Italian younger generation during the fascist period. Lessico famigliare (1963; Family Sayings) is a novelistic memoir of her upbringing and career. Ginzburg's novels of the 1970s and '80s pessimistically explore the dissolution of family ties in modern society.

She also wrote several dramas, notable among which are Ti ho sposato per allegria (performed 1966; I Married You for the Fun of It) and L'inserzione (performed 1968; The Advertisement); several collections of critical essays, including Mai devi domandarmi (1970; Never Must You Ask Me); and a biography of the poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni, La famiglia Manzoni (1983). Ginzburg was a member of the Italian Parliament from 1983 in affiliation with the (left-wing) Left Independence Party.

"When I write stories I am like someone who is in her own country, walking along streets that she has known since she was a child, between walls and trees that are hers."
"Today, as never before, the fates of men are so intimately linked to one another that a disaster for one is a disaster for everybody."

"Children should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know".

"Every day silence harvests its victims. Silence is a mortal illness".

""As soon as we see our dreams betrayed we realize that the intensest joys of our life have nothing to do with reality, and we are consumed with regret for the time when they glowed within us. And in this succession of hopes and regrets our life slips by."

Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1991), influential Italian novelist, whose work explores family relationships, especially the roles of women within them, against a wider social background. Ginzburg was born Natalia Levi in Palermo, Sicily. In 1936 she married antifascist activist Leone Ginzburg, whom she had met while working at the Rome publishing company Einaudi, of which he was a founder. From 1940 to 1943 Ginzburg was with her husband in Abruzzi, a region southeast of Rome, where he was in internal exile, sent by the Italian fascist regime (1923-1943) . Her first novel, La strada che va in città was written in Abruzzi and published under the pen name Alessandra Tournimparte in 1944, the same year that her husband was executed in Rome. The novel was translated into English under Ginzburg's own name as The Road to the City in 1949 and was republished in Italian under her own name in 1975.
After World War II (1939-1945), Ginzburg returned to Einaudi as an editor and in 1950 married Gabriele Baldini, a professor of English literature. From 1959 to 1962 she was in charge of the Italian Institute of Culture in London. Ginzburg was elected to the Italian Parliament as a member of a small left-wing party in 1983.

There 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.
Literary historians 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–the 61 stories published in one volume in 1954–but he didn’t write a good book in the last 30 years of his life."

Literary historian, Guido Almansi, puts Natalia Ginzburg–pronounced Natalía–in 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 don’t 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, [published in English under the title of Never Must You Ask Me, Michael 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 Sayings]. "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 Ginzburg’s life as a person and a writer. In Lessico Famigliare, she describes how her father, Giuseppe Levi, physician, scientist, professor and author of scientific works, conditioned 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."

Natalia Ginzburg, arguably the most important woman writer of postwar Italy, always spoke of herself with irrepressible modesty. Yet the woman who claimed she "never managed to climb up mountains" in fact wrote the history of twentieth-century Italy with her sparse and captivating prose, chronicling Fascism, war, and the Nazi occupation as well as the intimacies of family life.Ginzburg's marriage to Leone Ginzburg, who met his death at the hands of the Nazis for his anti-Fascists activities, and her work for the Einaudi publishing house placed her squarely in the center of Italian political and cultural life.
But whether writing about the Turin of her childhood, the Abruzzi countryside, where her family was interned during World War II, or contemporary Rome, Ginzburg never shied away from the traumas of history-even if she approached them only indirectly, through the mundane details and catastrophes of personal life.Intensely reserved, Ginzburg said that she "crept toward autobiography stealthily like a wolf." But she did openly discuss her life and her work in an extraordinary series of interviews for Italian radio in 1990.
Never before published in English, It's Hard to Talk about Yourself presents a vivid portrait of Ginzburg in her own words on the forces that shaped her remarkable life-politics, publishing, literature, and family. This fluid translation will join Ginzburg's autobiography, Family Sayings, as one of the most important records of her life and, as the editors write in their preface, "the last, unexpected, original book by Natalia Ginzburg."

Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1991) - Original surname Levi

Italian novelist, essayist, translator and playwright, who has written of her unconventional family and its opposition in Turin to Fascist oppression. Ginzburg's novels are a mixture of reminiscence, observation, and invention. Much of her fiction is written in the first person in a plain style, and constructed almost entirely of dialogue.

"A un certo punto della vita, tutto quello su cui posiamo gli occhi per la prima volta ei è estraneo. Lo guardiamo da turisti con intresse ma freddamente. Appartiene agli altri." (from La città e la casa, 1984)

Natalia Ginsburg was born in Palermo into a middle-class family, Jewish from her father's side, who was professor of anatomy, and Catholic, from her mother's side. However, Ginzburg was brought up an atheist, and this separated her from other children. In 1919 her father accepted a professorship at the University of Turin, where Ginzburg grew up in a cultural milieu. The Levi household became a meeting place for many intellectuals who opposed Benito Mussolini. "... my father was an old-style Socialist, but, well, he had no idea how to oppose Fascism," said Ginzburg in an interview later. After her brother Mario escaped to Switzerland, her father was arrested for some weeks.

Ginzburg studied at the University of Turin (1935). In 1938 she married the editor and political activist Leone Ginzburg; they had three children. Leone Ginzburg, born in Odessa, was a brilliant Slavist and he helped introduce Russian literature into Italy. In 1933 he refused to swear an oath of allegiance to Fascism, and could not continue his career as a teacher. On account of Leone's anti-Fascist activities the Ginzburgs spent some years in "confinement" in a village in the Abruzzi, but went then into hiding to Rome and Florence. Leone Ginzburg was arrested again, and he died after torture in the Regina Coeli prison in 1944. After Allied Liberation Ginzburg returned to Rome.

Ginzburg started her career as a writer publishing short stories in the distinguished Florentine periodical Solaria. Ginzburg's first 'real' story, 'Un'assenza', appeared in Solaria when she was seventeen. The story centers on an unhappy, anguished individual who suffers from boredom. Ginzburg's first novella, LA STRADA CHE VA IN CITTÁ (1942) was published under the pseudonym Alessandra Tornimparti. It was followed in 1947 by È STATO COSÌ, which depicted as in her previous work an unhappy marriage. TUTTI I NOSTRI IERI (1952) was a story of two families, one rich, one not. Through their intertwined histories Ginzberg portrays a generation that lived through Fascism, war, the German invasion, resistance, and the Allied victory. LE VOCI DELLA SERA (1961) was set in Piedmont around the time of World War II. The humorous, autobiographical LESSICO FAMIGLIARE (1963) was an account of Ginzburg's childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood through the "family lexicon", words and phrases of the various members of her family.

In 1944 Ginzburg worked as an editorial consultant for the new publishing house of Giulio Einaudi in Rome and from 1945 to 1949 in Turin. The publishing house introduced such writers as Cesare Pavese, Elio Vittorini and, a little later, Elsa Morante and Italo Calvino. In 1950 she married Gabriele Baldini, a professor of English literature at the university of Rome; he died in 1969. She lived from the 1950s mostly in Rome, where she worked in publishing. From 1959 to 1961 she lived in London.

Ginzburg was elected to the Italian Parliament in 1983 as an independent left-wing deputy. Ginzburg has published memoirs, several dramas, essays, translations from such authors as Marcel Proust and Flaubert, and a biography of the poet and essayist Alessandro Manzoni, which reveals the failure of the great author as a father. - She died of cancer on October 7, 1991.
In her earliest writings Ginzburg consciously rejected any autobiographical style or elements, which she saw as characteristic of what she called 'feminine' writing. She soon discovered that it was through writing her personal experiences in a fictionalized form that she succeeded best in expressing herself. Many of her works rely on memories of her childhood and youth in Turin. Recurrent characters are frustrated intellectuals and women living static lives.

"Too many descriptions; I can't bear descriptions in novels," Ginzburg stated in the novel LA CITTÀ E LA CASA (1984, The City and the Housen). As an essayist Ginzburg has explored a wide variety of subjects from current movies to books and art, and from pedagogy to morals and individual rights. "At the center of our life is the question of human relations," she crystallized in one essay. Ginzburg's style is sparse, melancholic, but relieved by occasional flashes of humor. Her major collections were LE PICCOLE VIRTÚ (1962), MAI DEVI DOMANDARMI (1970) and VITA IMMAGIRIA (1974). In 'Il mio mestiere' (1949) she wrote: 'I prefer to think that no one has ever been like me, however small, however much mosquito or a flea of a winter I might be.'
For further reading: Maternal Desire: Natalia Ginzburg's Mothers, Daughters, and Sisters by Teresa Picarazzi (2002); Natalia Ginzburg: A Biography by Maja Pflug (2001); Natalia Ginzburg: A Voice of the Twentieth Century, ed. by Angela M. Jeannet (2000); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, vol. 2, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Natalia Ginzburg by Giancarlo Borri (1999); Natalia Ginsburg: Human Relationships in a Changing World by Allan Bullock (1991); Invito alla lettura di Natalia Ginzburg by E. Clementelli (1972); Le voci della sera by S. Pacifici (1971); A Guide to Contemporary Italian Literature by S. Pacifici (1962) - Note: Natalia Ginzburg's son Carlo (1939-) became a professor of modern history at the University of Bologna. He has published books on sixteenth-century religious radicalism and witchcraft. His first major work was The Night Battles (1966). Other works include Il nicodemismo (1970), The Cheese and the Worms (1976), and The Enigma of Piero (1981)

Selected works:

LA STRADA CHE VA IN CITTÀ, 1942 (as Alessandra Tornimparti) - The Road to the City
È STATO COSI, 1947 - The Dry Heart
TUTTI NOSTRI IERI, 1952 - A Light for Fools / All Our Yesterdays
LA MADRE, 1957
LE VOCI DELLA SERA, 1961 - Voices in the Evening
LE PICCOLE VIRTÚ, 1962 - The Little Virtues
LESSICO FAMIGLIARE, 1963 - Family Sayings
TI HO SPOSATO PER ALLEGRIA, 1966 - I Married You for the Fun of It
L'INSERZIONE, 1968 - The Advertisement
MAI DEVI DOMANDARMI, 1970 - Never Must Ask Me
CARO MICHELE, 1973 - No Way
VITA IMMAGINARIA, 1974 - Never Must You Ask Me
FAMIGLIA, 1977 - Family
LA FAMIGLIA MANZONI, 1983 - The Manzoni Family
LA CITTÀ E LA CASA, 1984 - The City and the House - Kotina ystävyys
L'INTERVISTA, 1988 - Haastattelu
SERENA CRUZ, O LA VERA GIUSTICA, 1990 - Serena Cruz, or True Justice
The Road to the City: Two Novellas, 1990
É DIFFICILE PARLARE DI SÉ, 1999 - It's Hard to Talk about Yourself (ed. by Cesare Garboli and Lisa Ginzburg, trans. by Louise Quirke)
A Place to Live: And Other Selected Essays, 2002 (trans. by Lynn Sharon Schwartz)