Analysis

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Italian author, social activist, and political leader Natalia Levi Ginzberg was born in 1916 in Palermo, on the Italian island of Sicily, and grew up in the industrial northern Italian city of Turin, where her family became involved in an important anti-Fascist resistance movement.

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Her novel Family Sayings (Lessico Familiare was the original Italian title) won the Strega literary prize in 1963, and a newer translation by Jenny McPhee (2017) presents the title as Family Lexicon. McPhee’s translation has been critically acclaimed for the brilliant rendering into English of a great variety of wordplay, not only in Italian but in two different regional dialects included in the original work.

Hailed as a masterfully written work that is akin in some ways to modernist James Joyce’s reimaginings of childhood, Family Sayings is both a memoir and a novel. In her “Avvertenzia” (warning) at the beginning of the work, Ginzberg writes, “Even though the story is real, one should read it as if it were a novel, and therefore not demand of it any more or less than a novel can offer.”

The youngest of five children born to Jewish-Italian biology professor Giuseppe Levi and wife Lidia Tanzi (born a Catholic Italian), Natalia was raised with her siblings in a secular household that became a hub of cultural and intellectual life. With the rise of the Fascist regime, Italian Jews faced great threats and dangers. The Italian Racial Laws of 1938 cost her father his job, and Ginzberg was forced to use a pseudonym for some time, as Jews were not permitted to have their work published.

Ginzberg’s writing style is neither sentimental nor embellished. The people in her life story are revealed by what they have to say and by the strong connections they make among themselves though a whirlwind of words: parental admonishments, jokes, puns, doggerel, and anecdotes from long-past events. Even expressive sounds that describe moments and experiences play a part in this web of memory and connection.

Ginzburg’s first husband, Leone Ginzburg, receives only a cursory mention in the work. A Jewish-Italian literary scholar, writer, and anti-Fascist resistance activist, Leone Ginzburg bravely took on the underground printing of anti-Fascist literature. He was tortured to death at the age of thirty-four, leaving Natalia a widow with three young children. Elsewhere, she describes him as a quiet man with a special gift for listening deeply, even when he had many troubles of his own. Her omission of detail about Leone Ginzburg suggests yet another theme of Family Sayings: that silence can be just as powerful as words.

Form and Content

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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 both movements and played their own important parts in this period of Italian history. During Ginzburg’s childhood, the family harbored outlawed socialist leader Filippo Turati during his escape from fascist Italy; the author’s brother Mario escaped to France after nearly being arrested for smuggling antifascist literature from Switzerland; her father and two of her brothers were arrested and temporarily jailed as Mario’s suspected collaborators; and her Jewish father fled to Belgium to avoid anti-Semitic persecution, returning only to go into hiding until Germany’s surrender. Ginzburg also knew many prominent Italian publishers and writers, many who worked against fascism, including poet and novelist Cesare Pavese.

In 1938, the author was married to Leone Ginzburg, a Russian Jew. Though many Jews were fleeing Italy, the couple chose to stay. When her husband was exiled by the fascist government to a small village because of his religion and his antifascist activities, the author and their two children joined him. After Mussolini’s fall, her husband returned to German-occupied Rome and began an underground anti-Nazi newspaper. Arrested by the Germans, he later died in prison.

During this time, the author’s sister, Paola, who liked parties and fashionable clothes, married Adriano Olivetti, heir to one of Italy’s largest manufacturing fortunes (they divorced after the war). Mario, while in hiding in France, married and divorced the artist Amadeo Modigliani’s daughter; he remarried and never returned to Italy. Alberto, after his release from prison, became a doctor.

After the war ended, the elder Levis, Ginzburg, and her children moved back to Turin, where she was hired by a publishing firm to translate novels, and she continued to write her own. In a moving portrait of Pavese, who worked for the same publishing firm, she tells of his suicide. In 1950, Ginzburg married again and moved to Rome. The book ends with her parents arguing as they retell yet another family story.

Context

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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

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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 not cancel the unhappiness that his rages caused her mother and, surely, the young Natalia herself—the child her beloved mother claimed never “unwound.”

In Giuseppe and Lydia Levi, one is reminded of Virginia Woolf’s parents, Leslie and Julia Stephen—or, at any rate, of Woolf’s portraits of them in Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse (1927). Although Lydia is more robust and more enduring than Mrs. Ramsay, both mothers are drawn with a loving intensity and need by their youngest daughters, and within the maelstrom of households where paternal scientific rationality and strict discipline provoke frustration and rebellion in children, especially sons, both women provide a shelter of emotional predictability and support.

Family Sayings is, with Ginzburg’s characteristic understatement, both a domestic lexicon and a record of the courageous entry of a family into the troubled national life of Italy. In both respects, it concerns the unifying power of language, yet it is a book in which only one person’s words—those of Natalia’s mother—consistently have the power to sing. Only in the mouth of Lydia Levi (and occasionally in that of Adriano Olivetti, Natalia’s brother-in-law) do words truly escape self-consciousness and self-caricature. Giuseppe Levi ruins his stories by bursting in upon them with loud snorts of laughter, and he has little use for stories he has heard before. For his wife, in contrast, stories are natural, unhurried, infinitely repeatable ways of savoring family lore. Her stories reflect her own wonderfully skewed sense of humor, a kind of humor which through her stories and her own often-repeated remarks is handed on to her children. Of the mountains where Professor Levi insists on installing his family for summers of much-hated skiing, climbing, and abstinence from the delicious local cream, Signora Levi exclaims with characteristic incongruity: “The mountains! What a hole!”

Lydia Levi is the only non-Jewish person beloved by her husband’s mother. Although believed by her daughter to be lazy, she has a vibrant curiosity and, before marrying Giuseppe, had been a student in the medical faculty in Florence. Countries exist for her because of a few people she knows in them; after the war, when she can no longer be sure that her friends outside Italy are alive and responding to events in their homelands, her geography becomes confused. Along with certainty of the existence of unseen friends vanishes their power to transform “distant countries into something homely, ordinary and cheerful, to make the whole world a town or street which she could go down in a moment in her thoughts, in the steps of those few familiar reassuring names.” The apparent wholeness of Signora Levi’s Europe as a familiar network of old squares, marketplaces, metro stations, churches, piazzas, blocks of flats, and green parks—a seemingly inevitable and reliable backdrop to European bourgeois life—had been shaken in 1914-1917; in the decade from the mid-1930’s to the mid-1940’s it was permanently dislodged and scattered. As Natalia Ginzburg writes: “After the war the world seemed vast, unknowable and boundless.”

With the exception of her first husband, Leone, all of Ginzburg’s immediate family survived the war. Their survival resulted largely from the Italians’ reluctance—and, in many cases, outright refusal—to allow Jews to be taken, particularly by the Germans, who, even as they fled up the peninsula from the Allies, carried out the Nazi policy of Jewish deportation and murder that Italy had never put into effect. The local people in the Abruzzi village where Natalia, Leone, and their three small children had been in internal exile, and from which Leone had managed to return to Rome to do anti-Fascist work, came to Natalia’s rescue. Claiming that Natalia was a relative and a Neopolitan refugee whose papers had been lost, the proprietress of the local inn succeeded in arranging for her and the children to be taken to Rome—and to Leone—in a German lorry. Ginzburg remembers their kindness when she speaks of her family’s life with the people of the Abruzzi, whom she would normally never have known, as “the best time” of her life.

The last chapters of Family Sayings provide a coda to the book, extending Ginzburg’s family even further beyond the Levi household—to a group of editors and writers with whom she worked after the war. This group had been associated with Leone, who was beaten to death in a Fascist prison. Working among these people, most of them former anti-Fascist activists employed by the Turin publishing house of Einaudi, helped Ginzburg avoid the lassitude, the paralysis of will and hope, the sense of a monotonous seriality of events and experiences that characterize much of postwar Italian writing and, for that matter, much of prewar writing in Fascist Italy—especially that of Moravia.

Of Leone, the reader comes to know relatively little—aside from Natalia’s great love for him and the disabling pain which she still experiences in speaking of him even after so many years. He was considered extremely intelligent, likely to be a distinguished Italian statesman after the war; he died, she writes, during the German Occupation “in the German wing of the Regina Coeli prison in Rome, one icy February.” One word of this sentence conveys her grief, which, after nearly a quarter of a century and a second, happy marriage, appears indissoluble, beyond articulation in more than a fragmentary phrase or revealing word.

Ginzburg’s Family Sayings is at once an untraditional autobiography and an especially fitting one for a writer. In it, she clearly is testing words for their ability to support, as well as to convey, memory and value. Near the conclusion of her book, she writes of the indiscriminate rush to words by Italians after the war and of the disillusionment that set in when words proved more resistant to the reality of the postwar period than had been expected by new poets and novelists joyfully liberated from Fascist distortions of language.The mistake was the belief that everything could be transmuted into poetry and language, which meant that ultimately there was a revulsion from poetry and language, so strong that it carried with it true poetry and a true use of language. We had to go back to choosing words, examining them in order to see whether they were true or false, to see if they had true roots or only the transitory roots of the common illusion.

The vibrancy of Ginzburg’s observations; her intense feelings for her family—if made less ambivalent by time; her unqualified love for her mother and for friends; and her sharp attention to the details of house, office, dress—the precisions of object and change by which one expresses and relocates himself: All of these are means by which Natalia Ginzburg sidesteps illusion. Her book is disquieting in that it re-creates a childhood shadowed by self-doubt and tightly wound silences and an adulthood in which the national agenda calling for a “racial solution” was followed, after an all-too-brief sense of liberation, by debilitation and disillusionment. Set in this book against the words and slogans of rage, temper, propaganda, and slippery imprecision, however, are the life-giving, life-preserving sayings of her family which seem almost instinctively to get things right.

Bibliography

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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.

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