Natalia Ginzburg Essay - Ginzburg, Natalia (Vol. 5)

Ginzburg, Natalia (Vol. 5)

Ginzburg, Natalia 1916–

Ms Ginzburg, an Italian novelist, short story writer, and autobiographer, employs a straightforward prose language characterized by deceptive simplicity.

Natalia Ginzburg's entrancing characters [in No Way] are a group of Romans who could be right out of Chekhov…. All of [their] relationships are assembled by Natalia Ginzburg through a brilliantly defined series of epistolary connections that have the intricacy and the fragility of an ant city. The wit is mordant and comes directly out of paradox. The keynote is struck by [one character] when he comments on [another's] life style. "One can't understand it," he says. "And yet one can understand it very well." (p. 14)

Martin Levin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 1, 1974.

Natalia Ginzburg, in Italy accepted as one of the foremost writers to emerge after the war—one whose work, in fact, is partly engendered by the trauma of war—is hardly a household word here in America. And that is our loss, because Ginzburg's is a unique voice, pure and unmistakable. The contours of her sentences linger in the ear like phrases from great music, familiar, basic truths. Her characters, sad, thwarted, often drab types, are memorable in the manner of people one knew very long ago….

[Her] two books of remarkable essays [are] like nothing I know being written in English today: in incredibly simple language, they combine an adolescent ingenuousness with the ripe sagacity of a woman who has endured the isolation of growing up Jewish in Turin, the war, the loss of a loved husband to German persecution, and the aftermath. (p. 26)

No Way … deserves to be read and relished. It should become a part of our permanent memory because it is about the things we cannot afford to ignore…. (p. 27)

Lynne Sharon Schwartz, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), September 14, 1974.

In "No Way" … [Natalia Ginzburg] creates a marvellous and saddening world in the scope of a hundred and sixty pages. This is, in a sense, the world of the Finzi-Continis: though her family and its circle are not Jewish, they are a group of bourgeois confronted by events beyond their control and floundering in despond and apathy. The time is the early seventies, when in Italy money still buys privilege and mobility but no insulation from the unease of the times….

Signora Ginzburg has been compared to Chekhov, and, indeed, her characters are failed and sweet, like his. But their situation is worse: Chekhov's rural petty gentry were at least rooted—chained, if you will—to the land and to the whole codex of Russianness; Ginzburg's rootless Romans can find nothing to believe in. (pp. 185-86)

[Their] maddening vagueness, [an] unwillingness to commit oneself to any relationship, to any ideal, is the true theme of the book. Even the most admirable character, Oswald, a bookseller, is a walking ambiguity, a presumed bisexual who cannot bring himself to maintain a relationship with either man or woman but abases himself—to gather credit in the Heaven he cannot possibly believe in—by running the most menial errands for the acquaintances who take constant advantages of him. He is Ford Madox Ford's good soldier without a cause. (p. 186)

What makes this book so wonderful—magical, even—is that we are never bored by the imprisoned pacings and abortive flights of its people. They all become real and individual and fascinating through the technical gifts of the author. In a short compass, with the most rudimentary of tools (the epistolary form, an utter minimum of stage-setting and description, and language as spare and declarative as Hemingway's), she creates a whole society of irretrievably lost dreams….

"No Way" is a novel of the curdling of aspirations and the enfeebling of powers among those who heretofore held sway. Its quality lies in its reportorial accuracy, in its fine, warm, rueful equanimity, in its balance in the face of toppling worlds. It is a most remarkable book. (p. 188)

L. E. Sissman, in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), October 21, 1974.

No Way is a very short novel, bare and bleak as bones. Its ominous English title is appropriate enough for its mood, except for the easy current slanginess of that phrase, mouthed by so many of us now on trivial occasions. In Natalia Ginzburg's Italian it was simply Caro Michele ["Dear Michael"] (1973), the form of salutation in the letters that tell much of the story.

This story is quite ordinary, the author seems to want us to take the people as ordinary, and yet to me they appear entirely out of the ordinary, different from any society I have ever known. Not that it is news to any of us that life can be depressing, but to live in a state of such daily depression as we have in No Way seems not to be living at all. These people are in one way like people in a stupid novel, where it is depressing to think the author supposed such creatures could exist or that they would be interesting if they did. But Natalia Ginzburg is far from stupid and the novel is far from depressing to read. Perhaps it is as she has one of her characters say, "One of the rare pleasures in life is to compare the descriptions of others with our fantasies and then with the reality."…

What seems so very odd and appalling—not beyond the reach of our fantasies, to be sure, but of an extremity certainly beyond our everyday experience—is the way these people talk to one another and the way they write their letters. Of course we have been familiar in literature for a generation with the emptiness and despair of a good many outré characters, but here we must suppose that if we were Romans, reasonably good bourgeois folk, these would be our friends and neighbors, all of them….

Their lengthy and expository correspondence seems no more unlikely than that of other epistolary novels, and perhaps Italians are given to writing such deadpan missives to one another, just as they used to talk loudly all the time in Italian, wave their arms, wear pointy shoes, and roll their eyes in that hysterical, futile, and charming manner. It is the bleak, flat recognition of the emptiness of themselves and of the others that goes beyond the stoic wastes into some other region I do not know. I feel sure it is not supposed to be funny. (p. 39)

Perhaps we are to imagine for [the characters], out of her clarity and out of our mercy, feelings deeper than those they claim for themselves—or perhaps we are simply not to condemn them for living in this frozen despair. For the knowing despair, neither witty, defiant, bitter, nor surprised, seems not to be caused by … death … or by their own deadly loneliness. It is a kind of weather they live in as though there were no other and no getting out of it. There are no evil people here, no really bad deeds done that might require mercy. So I suppose this is simply Natalia Ginzburg's Italy.

It was not always like this. An earlier novel by Natalia Ginzburg, A Light for Fools (… 1957), dealing with an earlier period, makes the time of Mussolini and of the Second World War a brave era. Here there were villains and heroes aplenty, fiery characters, peasants and gentry, and real adventures. The essential elements, though, are similar, all but that fatal atmosphere. (pp. 39-40)

A Light for Fools is a marvelous tale, full of the most distinct characters and manners, shaped with the knowledge of how children are born and grow up and then die or get old. (In No Way, the mother says, "They have never been young, so how can they grow old.") There is absolutely no moral dithering at all. The Germans are quite simply the Germans, and nobody has to wonder if he should blame himself for what the Germans did. The Germans did what Germans do. The peasants want to kill Germans, "any dirty blackguard of a German." That view of good and evil is old-fashioned, healthy, intelligent, and perhaps quite behind us now. It was a great pleasure to come upon this novel, and upon No Way, and I intend to find the other books of Natalia Ginzburg too. (p. 40)

John Thompson, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), January 23, 1975.