Study Guide

Natalia Ginzburg

Natalia Ginzburg Essay - Ginzburg, Natalia (Short Story Criticism)

Ginzburg, Natalia (Short Story Criticism)

Introduction

Natalia Ginzburg 1916–-1991

(Has also written under the pseudonym of Alessandra Tournimparte) Italian novelist, short story writer, critic, essayist, biographer, autobiographer, journalist, and dramatist.

The following entry presents an overview of Ginzburg's short fiction career through 2000.

A major Italian author of the post-World War II era, Ginzburg explores the challenges of maintaining interpersonal relationships in contemporary society in her short fiction. Writing in reserved, understated prose, she often utilizes small but significant details to develop the crises of her characters. Her early stories depict individuals whose ambitions are stifled by marriage and familial restrictions, while her later writings explore problems caused by the disintegration of the family unit.

Biographical Information

Ginzburg was born on July 14, 1916, in Palermo, Italy. At the age of three, her family moved to Turin when her father, a university professor, was appointed chair of the anatomy department at the University of Turin. In 1935 she enrolled in the university, but she never completed her studies. She married anti-Fascist activist Leone Ginzburg in 1938; two years into their marriage, he was arrested for subversive activities and imprisoned in the town of Pizzoli. In 1940 she moved to Pizzoli with their two children. After Leone's release from prison in July 1943, he moved his family to Rome. In November 1943 he was arrested again, this time for editing the anti-Fascist newspaper L'Italia libera. On February 5, 1944, he died of torture wounds while in prison. For the next two years, Natalia and her children hid in Rome. After the end of the war, she moved back to Turin to work as a translator and editor for the publishing firm Einaudi. During this time she became acquainted with several major Italian authors, such as Italo Calvino, Cesare Pavese, and Elio Vittorini. In 1952 she moved back to Rome and became a professor of literature at Magistero, a prominent teachers' college. She wrote articles and reviews for periodicals and published novellas, novels, and plays. She was very active in politics during her life, and in 1983 she was elected deputy to the Italian parliament. Ginzburg died of cancer on October 7, 1991.

Major Works

Ginzburg's stories focus on marriage, domestic life, and the breakdown of the traditional Italian family in the post-World War II era. Several of her early novellas and short stories present a bleak, yet often humorous, view of domestic life. For example, Valentino (1951) concerns a promising young man who disappoints his family by marrying an unattractive but wealthy woman. In “Mio marito” (1941) a woman's husband commits suicide after his mistress dies in childbirth. In the novella Sagittario (1957; Sagittarius), a young woman describes her mother's unhappy life and her sister's loveless marriage; in the end, the narrator's mother is cheated and robbed by a friend and her sister dies in childbirth. Famiglia (1977; Family) concerns the deterioration of a loveless marriage in which both husband and wife are unfaithful to one another. While Ginzburg's early works portray the family as a source of personal suppression, they also emphasize its importance as a stabilizing social force. Her later writings decry the effects of divorce and the growing alienation between generations.

Critical Reception

Ginzburg's simple, spare style of writing has impressed critics, while her intimate explorations of domestic life have been praised for their authenticity and concern for traditional values. Moreover, commentators have commended the use of humor, irony, and detail in her work and further describe her style as laconic, subdued, and direct. Stylistically, reviewers have noted Ginzburg's use of a first-person narrator in her stories. The characterization of women and children has been another area of critical study, and there have been several feminist interpretations of her plays, fiction, and essays. In general, commentators view Ginzburg's prose work as a perceptive reflection of social and historical events in Italy during the tumultuous years during and after World War II. Her minimalist style and compassionate evocation of the frustrated lives of her protagonists have elicited comparisons to the works of Anton Chekhov.

Principal Works

La strada che va in città [The Road to the City] 1942; enlarged as La strada che va in città, e altri racconti (novella) 1945

È stato così [The Dry Heart] (novella) 1947

*Valentino [Two Novellas: Valentino and Sagittarius] (novellas) 1957

Le voci della sera [Voices in the Evening] (novellas) 1961

Cinque romanzi brevi [Five Short Novels] (novellas) 1964

Famiglia [Two Novellas: Family and Borghesia; also translated as Family: Two Novellas] (novellas) 1977

Opere, raccolte e ordinate dall'autore 2 vols. (novellas, memoir, essays, dramas) 1986-1987

Tutti i nostri ieri [A Light of Fools; also translated as Dead Yesterdays and All Our Yesterdays] (novel) 1952

Le piccole virtú [The Little Virtues] (essays) 1962

Lessico famigliare [Family Sayings] (memoir) 1963

L'inserzione [The Advertisement] (play) 1965

Fragnola e panna (play) 1966

Ti ho sposato per allegria e altre commedie (plays) 1966

La segretaria (play) 1967

Mai devi domandarmi [Never Must You Ask Me] (essays) 1970

Teresa (play) 1970

Caro Michele [No Way; also translated as Dear Michael] (novel) 1973

Paese di mare e altre commedie (plays) 1973

Vita immaginaria (essays) 1974

La famiglia Manzoni [The Manzoni Family] (biography) 1983

La città e la casa [The City and the House] (novel) 1984

Serena Cruz o la vera giustizia (essays) 1990

Teatro (dramas) 1990

E difficile parlare di sé [It's Hard to Talk about Yourself] (interviews) 1999

A Place to Live, and Other Selected Essays of Natalia Ginzburg (essays) 2002

*The novella Valentino was published separately in 1951.

†This work is comprised of the novellas Borghesia and Familigia.

Criticism

Clotilde Soave Bowe (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Bowe, Clotilde Soave. “The Narrative Strategy of Natalia Ginzburg.” The Modern Language Review 68 (1973): 788-95.

[In the following essay, Bowe investigates the function of the first-person narrator in Ginzburg's short fiction.]

‘In realtà chi scrive non ha diritto di chiedere, per la sua opera, nulla a nessuno.’

—N. Ginzburg

With the publication of Mai devi domandarmi (Milan, 1970) the enigma of Natalia Ginzburg's literary personality as it presents itself to critic and reader has come no closer to a solution. The book was a collection of thirty-one pieces in prose (four of which had not previously been published in periodicals or newspapers) which only served to confirm the impression of a diffident, fugitive writer who has at different times condemned every feature of her narrative (reliance on memory, frankness and simplicity of tone) and seemingly placed herself outside the reach of critical discussion. In essay after essay of Mai devi domandarmi, we have a celebrated novelist stripping down her own intellect in the characteristic succession of flat, functional sentences which caused Pavese to call her style a ‘lagna’ and invite the reader to feel superior and at the same time unaccountably ignored. Placidly, yet with considerable evocative skill, she recalls the little girl who could not tell the time when she was eleven, who was terrified of her father and ashamed of her mother, incapable of doing athletic exercises, incompetent at arithmetic and clumsy at writing. The young woman in her first job is no better; she saw a pathological laziness and incompetence in herself: ‘La mia costante preoccupazione era che non venisse scoperta la mia grande pigrizia, e la mia assoluta assenza di idee’ (p. 43), and here the accumulation of emphatic adjectives is unusual for a writer who habitually understates her case. Contentedly she cites her eldest son's judgement that she is ‘una scrittrice dolciastra e sentimentale’, and that her recent writing for the theatre is ‘da dormire in piedi’ (pp. 232, 234). In another essay she admits that she is merely afraid of being bored at the theatre, while at the opera she is always uncertain whether she should watch or listen, and consequently fails to do either. As for politics, which is surely a testing-block for a number of subtly developed characters in her fiction, we find the writer tumbling over herself to put the record straight: ‘L'unica cosa che so con assoluta certezza, è che di politica io non ne capisco niente … Se mi chiedessero come vorrei che fosse governato un paese, in coscienza non saprei rispondere. I miei pensieri politici sono quanto mai rozzi, imbrogliati, elementari, confusi’ (p. 151). By 1968, Natalia Ginzburg feels that she is becoming old and pointless, entering the grey crowd ‘… le cui vicende non potranno accendere né la nostra curiosità, né la nostra immaginazione’ (p. 30). The whole article on old age from which this latter statement is taken is perhaps the most deliberate and amusing depistamento in the book, for it provides an analogue of the blurring between subject and manner which is too easily transacted in order to dismiss her novels.1 In other words, we finish reading a plot dealing with an unfortunate love affair between a grey, unstriking woman and a grey, unsuccessful man, and the book may then remain in our memory as ill-defined and unsatisfying because it has depicted the twilight world of fractured relationships and unheroic encounters only too exactly: it has borrowed the language and atmosphere of the effect which it aimed to produce. Ginzburg sets out, like Flaubert in Madame Bovary, to reproduce the colour grey and will always run the risk of being accounted a failure because she succeeds in depicting greyness absolutely. Unless we are prepared to approach her fiction from this angle and dismiss most of the elegant red herrings in the preface to Cinque romanzi brevi and the essay “Il mio mestiere” about the admissibility or no of autobiographical material and the legitimacy of the novel of pura memoria, we risk ending up at the bottom of the blind alley to which Ginzburg is happy to consign all her readers except ‘four or five ideal interlocutors’.2

There is an initial soporific effect in all Ginzburg's fiction: its delimitation of the fictional territory to the family. The plots of her main novels and stories all involve one or more family units into which the reverberations of political and historical events in the exterior world are filtered through by reportage of its members as they return centripetally from outside. The reader is thus at once presented with a context that is familiar and undisturbing. No surprise or alarm is elicited by the fictional setting; what is required from the reader is a genteel curiosity. In order to accentuate this impression of routine reality staged inside the walls of a family domicile, Ginzburg adopts the strategy of inserting a first-person narrator into the household so that every event in the novel is related from the limited emotional viewpoint and intellectual involvement of the particular family member conducting the story. The narrator who is providing this io interno is not necessarily the most impressive or attractive member of the household, so that the spectator-reader often faces an entirely plausible but defective or even neurotic interpretation of the events which he is witnessing. This further contributes to the illusion that it is the author herself who is expressing a limited and partial view of the world.

In her first short story, “Un'assenza” (1933),3 written when she was only seventeen, Ginzburg adopts the authorial strategy of making her protagonist a man, and sees the simple story of his wife leaving him to go to San Remo, and his own rejection of suicide in order to call on a prostitute, all from the man's point of view. But in her second narrative, “Casa al mare” (1937), the male protagonist becomes a narrator speaking and recalling events in the first person. Already the writer is uncompromisingly entangled in the emotional stance of the protagonist who has the internal vantage point on events and is simultaneously (but not retrospectively) conducting the narrative. In Ginzburg's next story, “Mio marito” (1941), the first-person narrative is shifted for the first time to a female figure emotionally involved in the events described, and this, with one or two exceptions, will remain Ginzburg's standard procedure in the remainder of her published work, except, of course, the plays. The canonical subject matter with its disintegrating marriages, infidelity by one or both partners and concluding suicide is also established by “Mio marito,” and developed along set lines which will recur with varying degrees of expansion and ornamentation in Ginzburg's subsequent novels. Here we have the standard situation in germ: a young woman marries, without initially being in love. The couple have children. The husband cannot renounce a sexual infatuation with a peasant girl, and the narrator becomes gradually more devoted to him as their relationship breaks down. When the peasant girl dies bearing his child, the husband promptly takes his life, and the story, in characteristic Ginzburgian fashion, seems to stop dead, killed off by the elimination of one corner in the emotional triangle.

Ginzburg's fourth published short story, “La madre” (1948), is narrated in the third person, but from the point of view of two small boys with a widowed mother who goes out at night and seems to their childish imagination slimmer and younger than the mothers of their school companions. This woman is constantly referred to without a name, as la madre, like the baby born to the protagonist in È stato così, who dies of meningitis in a hotel at San Remo and appears as la bambina throughout this novel. In the already quoted prefazione Ginzburg declares that she had such a horror of surnames that she could never use them fluently until her last novel Le voci della sera, but it is also noticeable that a character's Christian name is usually held back until it is necessary as a device for labelling the speaker or distinguishing between the four or five children in a family who form Ginzburg's average narrative cast. Her characters' names are never fully integrated emotional components of their personality; they are functional tickets for recognition. The story “La madre” ends with the little boys' mother swallowing poison in a hotel room. Thus suicide again occurs as a resolution to a love intrigue. This time the emotional triangle has a closed corner in that the husband (Eugenio) has already died at the time of the story, but the squalid and lonely setting for the suicide will recur in a number of later novels. In fact, as one moves on to Ginzburg's longer fiction, one can see that there is no qualitative difference between short story and novel as such. The novels seem to differ from the short stories, which have a standard cast of three characters, merely by being longer and expanding this cast to between twelve and twenty, each involved in their own variation on the same unhappy love relationship or disintegrating marriage. Concerning her first novel, La strada che va in città (1942), Ginzburg commented later that when she had finished writing the book, she counted the characters and found out that there were twelve: ‘Dodici! Mi sembrarono molti’.4 Here the plot revolves around another triangle, which consists of Delia (the first-person narrator), Giulio, the doctor's son, who makes her pregnant, and Nini, a distant cousin who becomes increasingly fond of Delia. By the time Delia is safely married and in hospital after the birth of Giulio's child, Nini is living alone in a rented room, drinking heavily and neglecting his health. In fact his death amounts to a suicide and again closes the plot: each of the sections in the story presents a character in the grip of solitude, which Ginzburg presents as the necessary condition of existence even after people are entangled in the permutations of love relationships. Delia is alone and isolated when she is sent to a remote village to conceal her pregnancy, and she is isolated again after the marriage when she fails to respond to her husband's pride in the child. Nini meanwhile slides to his death in the solitude of a filthy rented room: one critic comments: ‘è già avviato … in questo lungo racconto, il motivo ricorrente poi in tutta l'opera della scrittrice: la lunga desolata solitudine delle sue donne radicate in una vita mediocre, nel ripiegamento muto e passivo su se stesse, alla ricerca continua di un sostegno per vivere’,5 and there was a general impression that the writer had already produced a definitive style: precise, compact and moving along with a rhythm closely matching daily life. She seemed never to indulge in expressions that were superfluous to the plot.

Ginzburg's second novel, È stato così (1946-7), re-opens the same question of merged style and content and operates a fresh dissection of the amorous triangle. The story consists of a long monologue which is almost completely bereft of commas (Ginzburg later explained that commas are like steps, and steps cost effort, and she was so depressed at the time of composition that she wanted to eliminate all sense of physical effort).6 This is Ginzburg's strategy for conveying the protagonist's total recall of her failed marriage with Alberto, who refused to give up an eleven years old...

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Alison Clark (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Clark, Alison. “Negative Insight: A Study of Narrative Perspective in Three Stories by Natalia Ginzburg.” In Altro Polo: A Volume of Italian Studies, edited by Silvio Trambaiolo and Nerida Newbigin, pp. 181-92. Sydney: University of Sydney, 1978.

[In the following essay, Clark discusses Ginzburg's use of narrative voice in her stories “La madre,” Valentino, and Sagittario.]

Negative insight may well appear to be an uninstructive paradox. The term represents an attempt to encompass the contradictory impressions I receive from the works of Natalia Ginzburg, a writer I greatly admire. With reference to three stories, “La madre” (1948),...

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Anne-Marie O'Healy (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: O'Healy, Anne-Marie. “Natalia Ginzburg and the Family.” Canadian Journal of Italian Studies 9, no. 32 (1986): 21-36.

[In the following essay, O'Healy discusses the theme of family in Ginzburg's work.]

Natalia Ginzburg has been described by Cesare Garboli as “la scrittrice più femminile e meno femminista che esista.”1 If we accept the traditional assumption that one of the typical characteristics of women writers is an absorbing preoccupation with family relationships, then Garboli's statement about the strikingly “female” quality of the author's work can be accepted. With regard to the more complex and controversial question of feminism,...

(The entire section is 5260 words.)

Alan Bullock (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Bullock, Alan. “Some Thoughts on Internal and External Monologue in the Writings of Natalia Ginzburg.” In Moving in Measure: Essays in Honour of Brian Moloney, edited by Judith Bryce and Doug Thompson, pp. 229-42. North Yorkshire: Hull University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Bullock traces Ginzburg's use of internal and external monologue in her work.]

In 1963 Natalia Ginzburg was interviewed for the magazine L'Europeo by the well-known journalist Oriana Fallaci, whose report appeared in print on 14 July of that year under the title ‘Parole in famiglia’. In it Ginzburg describes how she emerged from a period of creative impotence or...

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Kakutani, Michiko (review date 17 April 1990)

SOURCE: Kakutani, Michiko. “Two Italian Heroines Torn by Loyalties.” The New York Times (17 April 1990): C17.

[In the following positive review, Kakutani describes Ginzburg's writing style in The Road to the City as rhythmic, economical, and, ultimately, translucent.]

Like many of Natalia Ginzburg's other heroines, the narrators of these two luminous novellas [collected in The Road to the City] are articulate women torn between family loyalties and their own yearnings for independence—avid yet dispassionate observers of life around them. Both leave the stultifying provinces for the big city. Both enter into ill-advised marriages out of need instead...

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Corinna del Greco Lobner (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Lobner, Corinna del Greco. “A Lexicon for Both Sexes: Natalia Ginzburg and the Family Saga.” In Contemporary Women Writers in Italy: A Modern Renaissance, edited by Santo L. Aricò, pp. 27-42. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Lobner explores Ginzburg's representation of gender and familial roles in her fiction.]

Natalia Levi Ginzburg is a writer who demands absolute honesty. Her rejection of literary commonplaces and her refusal to subordinate the reality of life to fictional truth compel the reader to take a serious look at daily rituals conceived and enacted in the name of family unity. Ginzburg's outlook hides a...

(The entire section is 6981 words.)

Giuliana Sanguinetti Katz (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Katz, Giuliana Sanguinetti. “Sagittarius: A Psychoanalytic Reading.” In Natalia Ginzburg: A Voice of the Twentieth Century, edited by Angela M. Jeannet and Giuliana Sanguinetti Katz, pp. 122-52. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Katz offers a psychoanalytic interpretation of Sagittarius and asserts that the novella is a story about the difficulties women experience in developing a sense of individual identity.]

The short novel Sagittarius has often played the part of the unwanted child among Ginzburg's books. It was bitterly criticized by the author herself in the introduction she wrote to the 1964...

(The entire section is 12924 words.)