All Our Yesterdays

by Natalia Ginzburg

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Themes and Meanings

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In Natalia Ginzburg’s fiction, the family and its relationships determine the parameters of the action. Domestic experience is the source of her inspiration, as it is the starting point of all human development. This novel, however, which draws on Ginzburg’s own experience of the time she spent in the Abruzzi, where her husband was a political prisoner, has a historical dimension rare in her fiction. Her essential theme is the impact of history on private lives, the way public events have of intruding on personal existence and shattering the illusions of security and complacency. Every gesture seems politically determined, including the father’s devotion to his anti-Fascist memoirs and the example he hands down to his son and friends, who establish their own anti-Fascist cell. Later, each member will offer a precise response to the war, beginning with Ippolito, whose suicide as a protest against the collapse of liberal Europe makes him the first war casualty. Anna’s pregnancy coincides with Ippolito’s death and the advance of Nazism. Her giving birth is, in context, an unconscious challenge to the atmosphere of violence and death and a vote of confidence in a future that will outlast the war. Her marriage to Cenzo Rena will open her eyes, and those of the reader, to the southern experience of which she was largely unaware, and ally her to a liberal reformer and the ideals of social engagement. Apolitical as she is, Anna cannot go unmarked by this experience and its tragedy.

The historical backdrop and the southern theme set All Our Yesterdays apart from the body of Ginzburg’s fiction. Reading it, one is reminded of Carlo Levi’s landmark work, Cristo si e fermato a Eboli (1945; Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year, 1947), which set out to catalog all aspects of the problems of southern Italy in specifically sociological terms. Through the prism of personal observation, the reader sees a previously unknown world, one foreign to most Italian readers in 1952. The view includes now-familiar images of economic and human misery: the sick and semisavage children, and the perpetuation of the cycle of poverty, reflected in the unchanging round of the seasons. There is constant friction between the authorities and the peasants who visit Cenzo Rena’s house. The reader is also made aware that forces are astir in the South which will dismantle the old feudal order that Fascism did nothing to dispel; these forces are represented by Cenzo Rena’s careful instructions to the peasant Giovanni, whom he sees as the instrument of future local reform. The young men who join the resistance are fighting not only against an inhuman dictatorship but also for a complete revision of the country’s priorities, beginning with the battle to turn the South into a civilized place. In Cenzo Rena the reader can discover a new Italian. Ginzburg portrays him with sympathetic humor as a flawed human being, but one who cheerfully shoulders his responsibilities. He is active rather than passive, hopeful rather than fatalistic, and is as capable of arousing people such as Anna and Giustino out of their torpor on the private level as he is of stirring a community out of its historical resignation.

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