Natalia Ginzburg’s autobiography, Family Sayings (published in Italy in 1963 as Lessico famigliare), is activated by the sound of voices. The voice that she hears and records are those of her family, speaking from a repertoire of phrases, tag lines, remarks—sayings applied to an unpredictable variety of circumstances, often wonderfully incongruous, always untainted by sentimentality. Ginzburg writes of the bond which the sayings of her childhood immediately restore among her sister, her brothers, and herself:When we meet we can be indifferent. But one word, one phrase is enough, one of those ancient phrases, heard and repeated an infinite number of times in our childhood. We have only to say, “We did not come to Bergamo for a picnic,” or “What does sulphuric acid pong of?” for us to pick up in a moment our old intimacy and our childhood and youth, linked indissolubly with these words and phrases. These phrases are our Latin, the vocabulary of our days gone by, our Egyptian hieroglyphics or Babylonian symbols. They are the evidence of a vital nucleus which has ceased to exist, but which survives in its texts salvaged from the fury of the waters and the corrosion of time.
During Ginzburg’s early childhood and adolescence—that is, the period between World War I and World War II—the Levi household was filled with table talk, poetry reading, theatricals, political argument, made-up songs, “little jokes”—tag lines and evocative phrases settled on friends and absent family, out-of-tune singing, explosions of male temper, and mighty arguments between her brothers, ending in fights into which her slight, scholarly, dictatorial father hurled himself.
Revealing itself through Ginzburg’s account of all of this exchange of words and blows and attempts at common shelter against solitude is an unmistakable restraint, amounting at times to a kind of foreboding. To a great extent, this impression comes from Ginzburg’s spare, curiously repetitive prose and from her unwillingness to be a visible “character” within her autobiography. Characteristic of her writing, in which the reader catches a hint of the distancing and the senilità of Alberto Moravia, is a kind of self-protectiveness. This quality in her writing may also be attributed to her growing up in a household where, as Ginzburg says of that of a friend, temper and scolding did not banish love but nevertheless “made the house feel vaguely uneasy, noisy and messy.” Moreover, foreboding enters Ginzburg’s account of her family because their history intersects in a direct way with the most fateful period of modern Italian history. Although her family generally continued its routine life as middle-class intellectuals and professionals during most of the 1920’s and 1930’s, they were aware of the growing power of the Fascists throughout this time. There is no serious European novel of this period over which the shadow of Fascism does not fall. Natalia Ginzburg was aged six when Benito Mussolini seized power; she was not more than this when the Socialist statesman Filippo Turati was harbored in her house and helped by her future brother-in-law and his friends to escape to Corsica. The year she turned twenty-two, the “racial solution” began in Italy.
The first disruptive figure of authority in her life, however, was the important Italian histologist Professor Levi, her father. The early chapters of Family Sayings are shaded by Professor Levi’s black moods. They resound with his inability to control either his temper or his voice level. In the streets, at home, and at faculty gatherings he yells politically dangerous and socially tactless remarks. He demands of his children, from whom he expects little but disappointment: “Don’t make messes and slops.” Each of them, and his wife as well, is frequently told: “What an ass you are!”
Levi’s bullying appears to have resulted from an oversized sense of responsibility—an anxiety of responsibility. He is gentle with sick children and friends but goes back to bullying them as soon as they are well. He frets in his sleep and wakes his wife to worry her about his children’s grades, their friends, their marriages, their children. “They will give him rickets,” he shouts at his wife, Lydia, about their first, perfectly healthy grandchild. “They don’t put him in the sun. They should put him in the sun.”
Levi fades from the book as Ginzburg grows older, the memories of his domination softened by her evident admiration of his foolhardly political assertiveness and of the eccentric figure he often cuts. Called upon after the war to give a political speech as a member of the Popular Front, he addresses his stupefied audience for twenty minutes with remarks limited solely to the subject of science. No doubt such affectionate, amused vignettes of her father are a way both of disarming and of embracing him, yet they do...