Children, war and ketchup: Natalia Ginzburg writes about it all in sharp pen

In her great essay My Profession, in which the Italian Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1991) chronicles her development as a writer up to that point, she says that at first she wanted to write like a man: important weapons because at that time I wanted it terribly, I was terrified if My writing led me to believe that I was a woman. Later, she didn’t like it anymore, ‘because I had children and thought I knew too much about ketchup, and though I didn’t put that into the story, it served my profession: in a mysterious and mysterious way it also served my profession.

The voice that finally becomes is not necessarily masculine or feminine, if that can be defined at all—it is essentially her own, original, private, without the weight of ideas about how it should and shouldn’t be. Published in 1962 and now translated for the first time (by Jan van der Haar). Small virtues, of which “my profession” is a part, “masculine” irony turned into amusing sobriety. There may have been an undertone of meanness in her sharp and often witty characterizations. Babies and ketchup have been given a place as earthly, everyday objects from which life is built. She connects them to the dark and elusive processes that also define her existence: fascism, war, and the death of her first husband. Ginzburg writes tersely without becoming aloof or cynical, sometimes melancholic but never sentimental, in a style as if she is being followed closely. She herself seeks an explanation for this in “My Profession” (which is about the “gray and languid people and things” that populated her stories at the beginning, about the influence of personal happiness and unhappiness on writing, about the balance she finally finds between imagination and memory, between sympathy and an excessive interest in her characters) With the older brothers who were making her shut her mouth. “So I used to say things very quickly, quickly and in as few words as possible, always with the fear that others would talk to each other again and stop listening to me.”

Also read this interview: Conversation with Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg

Big brothers

Born in 1916 as Natalia Levi, she grew up in Turin, where her father was a professor and their home was a meeting place for left-wing intellectuals. In 1938 she married university lecturer and writer Leon Ginzburg, with whom she had three children and lived in exile for a few years for his anti-fascist activism, after which he was tortured to death by the Nazis in 1944. Besides her childhood with these older brothers, she must have These events also affected her no-nonsense manner: as if she had no time for nonsense, after what she had been through. It had to be written, and the children had to be brought up. The fact that she also writes about the latter, children and parenting, without seeming to take notice of any prejudices (certainly prevalent at the time) about “female subjects” is also refreshing and up-to-date. That very direct and unique voice still makes you want to read Ginzburg more than thirty years after her death, which explains the resurgence of interest in her work. After previous translations in the 1980s and 1990s, the novel was published in 2019 All of our yesterdays (1952) was reissued the next year Family Lexicon (1963) and Dear Michelle (1973) reappearing. And so now Small virtues: Eleven autobiographical essays, written between 1944 and 1962, of which six are of a melancholy character, and the following five are more gritty and moral in nature.

The editorial titled Winter in the Abruzzo was deeply poignant, an impression of life in the remote village in southern Italy where Ginzburg and her family spent their exile. She wrote that there were only two seasons: a hot, clear summer causing diarrhea, and a “snowy and windy” winter in which the elderly would die of pneumonia. He envisioned the residents as striking figures, like the school janitor who spits in her eye and walks around in bandages to collect compensation. Or the seamstress that divides the world into people who comb their hair and people who don’t.

Also read Vivian Gornick about Ginzburg: “People of my generation yearn for a contented life.”

deeper layer

It was the best time of her life, as she concludes in the last paragraph – after she suddenly and almost fleetingly announces that her husband died in prison a few months after they left Abruzzo. Then this sentence: “In the face of the horror of his solitary death, with the terrifying prospects that led to his death, I wonder if this might have happened to us, who bought oranges from Giro and went for a walk in the snow.” With which you relate the everyday, the tangible in a poignant way to the irrevocable and almost unimaginable. On the passage of time: She also describes the feeling you can have when you look back at a past period and see yourself as an outsider, simply because at that time you were ignorant of life-changing events in the future.

The best pieces in the collection are those in which Ginzburg writes clearly on recognizable matters, with concrete details that appeal to the imagination, and at the same time tap into a deeper layer. Like “Son of Man,” about how her generation, which saw houses crumble during war and therefore no longer “believed” in table lamps and vases, has a radically different attitude to life than previous generations. or “Portrait of a Friend”: about Cesare Pavese, how he was “thrifty and careful in his greetings,” for example, and how he lived “as a teenager”—and his self-chosen death.

On the other hand, “Silence” lacks Ginzburg’s signature clarity, and thus seems like a missed opportunity: What exactly do you mean by “silence” when you call it one of the “worst habits of our time”? Superficiality, as it seems, suggests falsehood, hypocrisy? shock suppression? How (and why) you should free yourself from “silence” remains ambiguous. Likewise, the last pages of Human Relations (which are somewhat reminiscent in the form of Annie Ernault much later, the years) is a bit blurry, though that doesn’t detract much from the rest of the piece.

You quickly forgive Ginzburg anyway, in part because this voice is not only original, but often has something surprisingly cheerful in it; It is difficult to imagine that she wrote “Broken Shoes” only a year and a half after Leon’s death. Perhaps she was able to do this because, as she reflects in “My Trade,” she did not want to accuse fate of ill will, “for having given me three children and my trade.”

Leave a Comment