Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In the preface to this autobiographical/biographical work, the author makes an unusual request of her readers. While the events depicted are true and the individuals are real, Natalia Ginzburg asks that the book be read as a novel. In her reasoning, she cites the treachery of memory and records that come from a single point of view. Yet this personal family portrait, which begins with Ginzburg’s remembrances of her solitary childhood and ends in 1950 after her second marriage, is more an autobiography than a novel. While following a generally linear time line, the author moves back and forth between historical events—the rise of fascism, World War II and the German occupation of Italy, and the privations of the postwar years—and her family memories. Stories about Ginzburg’s parents and details of daily life are woven together with vignettes about relatives, friends, socialist and antifascist activists, and servants. Characters are called by their true names and, as in life, appear and disappear without regard for the conventions of a fictional plot.

The book opens at the family dinner table, as the author’s stormy, impatient father thunders his disapproval of his children’s table manners. The author’s parents, Giu-seppe and Lydia Levi, and their five children, of which Natalia was the youngest, were socialists and, after Italian dictator Benito Mussolini took power, antifascists.

Her family members knew many political leaders in...

(The entire section is 554 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Though the author clearly separated herself from the women’s movement in Italy, Ginzburg’s fiction has often focused on the skewed power dynamics of the family. Several of her early works condemn traditional families and feature women who are alienated and bored by their passive roles, with familial expectations for achievement reserved only for sons. This portrait of her own family, however, which won Italy’s prestigious Strega Prize, varies in tone from her early fiction.

Like Virginia Woolf in To The Lighthouse (1927), Ginzburg provides an uncensored look at the daily workings of an intellectual, bourgeois family and the perils of a childhood under patriarchy. She offers her father’s raging criticisms of anyone who did not agree with him and his contempt for what he saw as his wife’s frivolous tastes and interests. She also writes that he favored her eldest brother and that, while he worried about his sons’ futures, Levi dismissed concern for the two girls because their path was clear: They would end up married.

Yet, Ginzburg fails to acknowledge the pain of the parental injustices to which she was victim. Her attitude toward traditional family life, even toward her tyrannical father, is subtly affectionate and nostalgic. Her patriarchal family is shown as offering stability and a type of strength in its rigidity and unchanging values, which create a refuge and connection in times of turmoil. Most important, while Ginzburg shows that Giuseppe Levi’s despotism and austerity caused fear and resentment and eventually rebellion in his children, just as the Italians eventually revolted against fascism, she fails to comment on the contradiction between her father’s passionate opposition to Mussolini and his habit of acting the dictator in his own home. Moreover, her mother, despite her nostalgia for her days as a schoolgirl, is content in her domestic role.

Perhaps Ginzburg’s reticence to vilify the traditional family is a reaction to the cultural climate when the book was published. The 1960’s was a period of social protest against traditional values, particularly by the growing women’s movement. Perhaps because of her affection for her family, as seen in hindsight, she could not accept a blanket condemnation of its values. Family Sayings can be seen as her personal attempt to reconcile both the love and the pain in her family memories.

Family Sayings

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Natalia Ginzburg’s autobiography, Family Sayings (published in Italy in 1963 as Lessico famigliare), is activated by the sound of voices. The voice that she hears and records are those of her family, speaking from a repertoire of phrases, tag lines, remarks—sayings applied to an unpredictable variety of circumstances, often wonderfully incongruous, always untainted by sentimentality. Ginzburg writes of the bond which the sayings of her childhood immediately restore among her sister, her brothers, and herself:When we meet we can be indifferent. But one word, one phrase is enough, one of those ancient phrases, heard and repeated an infinite number of times in our childhood. We have only to say, “We did not come to Bergamo for a picnic,” or “What does sulphuric acid pong of?” for us to pick up in a moment our old intimacy and our childhood and youth, linked indissolubly with these words and phrases. These phrases are our Latin, the vocabulary of our days gone by, our Egyptian hieroglyphics or Babylonian symbols. They are the evidence of a vital nucleus which has ceased to exist, but which survives in its texts salvaged from the fury of the waters and the corrosion of time.

During Ginzburg’s early childhood and adolescence—that is, the period between World War I and World War II—the Levi household was filled with table talk, poetry reading, theatricals, political argument, made-up songs, “little jokes”—tag lines and evocative phrases settled on friends and absent family, out-of-tune singing, explosions of male temper, and mighty arguments between her brothers, ending in fights into which her slight, scholarly, dictatorial father hurled himself.

Revealing itself through Ginzburg’s account of all of this exchange of words and blows and attempts at common shelter against solitude is an unmistakable restraint, amounting at times to a kind of foreboding. To a great extent, this impression comes from Ginzburg’s spare, curiously repetitive prose and from her unwillingness to be a visible “character” within her autobiography. Characteristic of her writing, in which the reader catches a hint of the distancing and the senilità of Alberto Moravia, is a kind of self-protectiveness. This quality in her writing may also be attributed to her growing up in a household where, as Ginzburg says of that of a friend, temper and scolding did not banish love but nevertheless “made the house feel vaguely uneasy, noisy and messy.” Moreover, foreboding enters Ginzburg’s account of her family because their history intersects in a direct way with the most fateful period of modern Italian history. Although her family generally continued its routine life as middle-class intellectuals and professionals during most of the 1920’s and 1930’s, they were aware of the growing power of the Fascists throughout this time. There is no serious European novel of this period over which the shadow of Fascism does not fall. Natalia Ginzburg was aged six when Benito Mussolini seized power; she was not more than this when the Socialist statesman Filippo Turati was harbored in her house and helped by her future brother-in-law and his friends to escape to Corsica. The year she turned twenty-two, the “racial solution” began in Italy.

The first disruptive figure of authority in her life, however, was the important Italian histologist Professor Levi, her father. The early chapters of Family Sayings are shaded by Professor Levi’s black moods. They resound with his inability to control either his temper or his voice level. In the streets, at home, and at faculty gatherings he yells politically dangerous and socially tactless remarks. He demands of his children, from whom he expects little but disappointment: “Don’t make messes and slops.” Each of them, and his wife as well, is frequently told: “What an ass you are!”

Levi’s bullying appears to have resulted from an oversized sense of responsibility—an anxiety of responsibility. He is gentle with sick children and friends but goes back to bullying them as soon as they are well. He frets in his sleep and wakes his wife to worry her about his children’s grades, their friends, their marriages, their children. “They will give him rickets,” he shouts at his wife, Lydia, about their first, perfectly healthy grandchild. “They don’t put him in the sun. They should put him in the sun.”

Levi fades from the book as Ginzburg grows older, the memories of his domination softened by her evident admiration of his foolhardly political assertiveness and of the eccentric figure he often cuts. Called upon after the war to give a political speech as a member of the Popular Front, he addresses his stupefied audience for twenty minutes with remarks limited solely to the subject of science. No doubt such affectionate, amused vignettes of her father are a way both of disarming and of embracing him, yet they do...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Amoia, Alba della Fazia. Women on the Italian Literary Scene: A Panorama. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1992. A critical survey of the works of nineteenth and twentieth century Italian women writers, including Family Sayings. Includes a chronology marking the years between 1846 and 1991 when various women writers were born and dates of significant publications. Also offers a bibliography of primary and secondary sources, as well as a comprehensive index.

Aricó, Santo L., ed. Contemporary Women Writers in Italy: A Modern Renaissance. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990. A collection of essays on twelve Italian women writers active after the 1940’s. The chapter on Ginzburg examines her critique of the societal rules that shape family and other human relationships. Contains a bibliography of works in Italian and in English on Italian women authors in general, as well as individual writers.

Books and Bookmen. August, 1984, p. 33.

Bullock, Alan. Natalia Ginzburg: Human Relationships in a Changing World. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. A book-length study of Ginzburg’s work. Includes a chronology of events in Ginzburg’s life, a bibliography of primary and secondary sources in both English and Italian, and a detailed index.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI, December 7, 1984, p. B12.

The Guardian Weekly. CXXXI, July 22, 1984, p. 22.

The Observer. June 17, 1984, p. 23.

O’Healy, Anne-Marie. “Natalia Ginzburg and the Family.” Canadian Journal of Italian Studies 9, no. 32 (1986): 21-36. Suggests that all the novels before Family Sayings were pessimistic about family life, while those published later express a profound nostalgia for the patriarchal family structure.

Salmagundi, no. 96 (Fall, 1992). This issue contains a special section on Ginzburg, which includes an interview with the author and three essays: one on Ginzburg’s philosophical stance, another discussing her fictional portrayals of gender roles, and the last on the nature of the family in her works. The latter essay places Family Sayings in the context of her other work on the topic of family relations.