Last Updated September 6, 2023.
Family Sayings is a semi-autobiographical novel written by Italian author Natalia Ginzburg. Released in 1963, the book was highly acclaimed by critics and won the Strega Prize (Italy’s most prestigious literary award) the same year of its release.
As suggested by the book's title, family sayings play an important role in this work. The author uses them to shape and add dimension to the narrative, an approach that has been praised by literary critics. For example, a review of Family Sayings in The Times Literary Supplement stated that
It seems to give biography a new dimension, new possibilities, and the tired old form of the family chronicle an aspect that is entirely new. Natalia Ginzburg is a brilliant eccentric, almost certainly Italy’s best woman writer.
While the book is a novel, Ginzburg has noted that she made strong attempts to be true to how events actually occurred in real life through her writing style. For example, she stated,
The places, people and events in this book are real. I haven’t invented a thing, and each time I found myself slipping into my long-held habits as a novelist and made something up, I was quickly compelled to destroy the invention.
Family Sayings focuses largely on Ginzburg’s family, particularly their experiences within the period of Fascism in Italy and then in the early post-war era. One of the book’s central characters is Ginzburg’s father, the scientist Giuseppe Levi. Levi is a complex character, capable of being tender and harsh with his children. Both Ginzburg’s mother and father were ideologically opposed to the rise of Fascism due to their socialist beliefs.
Ginzburg’s mother is depicted as having a less intense personality than her husband, possessing a tendency to sing her own made-up songs and crack jokes. Despite light elements such as these, Family Sayings also covers dark territory. Her family played a role in fighting against Fascism in Italy, and this fight didn't come without costs.
For example, Ginzburg eventually fell in love with a family friend, Leone Ginzburg, and they later married. Leone, a Jewish academic, refused to profess his loyalty to Mussolini’s regime. This led him to lose his position at the University of Turin. The same year of their marriage, racial laws were enacted in Italy that profoundly negatively impacted the freedom of Jewish people. For example, Italian Jews were not allowed to hold influential positions, their ability to travel was limited, and strict rules around Jewish publications were enforced.
Eventually, in 1940, Leone was exiled to the Abruzzi region. In secret, Leone continued to fight against Fascism, and in 1942, Ginzburg’s first novel was published under a pseudonym. Sadly, after returning to Rome in 1943 after the fall of Mussolini, Leone was arrested by German police. He died three months later; he had been beaten and tortured by the police.