Ginzburg, Natalia 1916–
Ginzburg is an Italian novelist, short story writer, essayist, dramatist, and translator. In work that is characterized by simple vocabulary and unadorned prose style, Ginzburg creates powerful and deeply moving fiction, deceptive in its simplicity and subtlety. (See also CLC, Vol. 5.)
Because of her immature urge to be a Russian or some kind of foreign writer, [Natalia Ginzburg's] early work is curiously abstract; the setting is placeless and timeless and the characters have no surnames. As it develops her fiction becomes gradually more specific and personal and the same time less fictitious; she moves from imitations of Chekhov to a fiction that is indistinguishable from autobiography. Yet from the beginning all her narrative is recounted by the same voice. The voice is feminine and fundamentally that of the author, even though it is attributed in the early fiction to narrators very different from Natalia Ginzburg and simultaneously expressive of these characters. The voice plays over and defines the surface of the narrative, and breaking through to this surface, interwoven with it, are the voices of other characters who are soon perceived as recurring from one story to the next, in a kind of modal counterpoint. Almost without exception her writing is about families. There is a recurrent note of ending; families are fragile things, dispersed by war and deteriorating of their own accord through death, through marriage, through the desire of the children for freedom…. She is particularly a specialist on relations between parents and children, on the affections that hold them together and are at the same time balanced by the antagonisms and struggles that hold them apart, and on the complicated, ambivalent, quasi-sexual and yet chaste relations between brother and sister. In her narrative the family is neither a happy nor an unhappy institution. It simply is, and the people in it are sometimes happy and sometimes unhappy. When the narrating voice is happy it is frequently humorous, and when it is unhappy it regards the situation with irony. In place of Italian lamenting or Jewish lamenting there is a kind of French and existentialist pessimism of acceptance. (pp. 87-8)
[A] perky and slightly rebellious stoicism is the ethical thread of all of Natalia Ginzburg's work…. The tribal toughness is assertive and cranky in the male, resilient, intuitive, and conceding in the female. The family is presented totally without sentimentalism. Like a pride of lions they are held together by powerful biological forces, yet each is wary and self-contained, skeptical of the others, ironic of the father's claim to dominance but conceding to power after the first ritual scratches. The family forms through marriage and birth, consolidates, then gradually disintegrates. Commonly the narrator is a semi-spectator in this process; particularly in Valentino, Sagittario, and Lessico familiare she takes only a peripheral part in the drama and her primary function is...
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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…. [Regarding her article on old age], 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. (pp. 788-89)
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….
Already [in her second published story, Casa al mare], 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. (p. 789)
[In the preface to Cinque romanzi brevi] 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…. 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 [her recurrent themes of] unhappy love … or disintegrating marriage…. [With her first novel] 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 superflous to the plot. (pp. 790-91)
[Ginzburg's second novel È stato cosí] consists of a long monologue which is almost completely bereft of commas...
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There is little point in saying what happens to Natalia Ginzburg's characters, so haphazard does it appear. Everything happens, and nothing—or nearly nothing. So it has been in all her writing over the past thirty years, memoirs as well as fiction. The style never varies, nor do the characters; nor does the treatment she gives them (though the social world they move in has changed drastically). Birth and death, love, relationships, separations, the large matters of personal life, are given the same amount of space on the page, the same weight in the telling, as the supposed trifles….
Is she a comic writer? Well, Lessico famigliare is one of the most memorably funny books about family life...
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