Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Presence of Politics in Daily Life
As a child and young woman, Ginzburg’s life is overshadowed by the looming presence of the fascist regime in Italy. Within her household, politics is interwoven seamlessly with familial life. Political discussions are common at the dinner table, and even petty conflicts between family members are portrayed as political affairs in their focus on debate and discourse. A sense of danger, which stems from anti-Semitic forces both within and outside Italy, persists throughout the novel. This danger is emphasized by the daring and at times foolhardy political expressions of Ginzburg’s father, expressions which are made publicly and which seem sure to provoke response from the fascists in Italy. The family’s daring opposition to the fascist state is further borne out by their practical support of Italian socialist Filippo Turati, whom Mussolini has deemed a criminal.
One’s Parents as Complex and Nuanced Figures
Natalia Ginzburg’s mother and father are established as foils to one another; while Ginzburg remembers them fondly, an outside observer may come to view them with somewhat mixed emotions. Her father is a problematic figure, given to aggressive and sometimes spiteful admonishment of his children—behavior which is born of his apparent fear that they will never amount to anything. Nonetheless, Ginzburg is careful to portray the more gentle side of his character, as in, for instance, the way he responds with genuine care to sick or injured children, only to resume his barrage of them as soon as they have recovered. Ginzburg also expresses admiration for his political courage as a Jew in a nation influenced by the Nazi regime. Her mother, by contrast, is shown as emotionally stable and dependable, both steely (as she needed to be to endure her husband’s rages) and a source of comfort for her daughter. She has a sharp intellectual curiosity, as is shown by the way she makes use of language to record a vibrant family history. However, she is very much a woman of the Old World, and Ginzburg hints that in the years after the war, the world becomes too big for her to manage.
Language’s Capacity to Represent Individual Experience
Language, above all, defines Ginzburg’s memories of childhood. Much as memory tends to be fragmented, her recollections of her family’s lexical habits is not comprised of complete sentences but of random sayings and idioms which evoke for her and her siblings a sense of nostalgia and comfort. Her mother acts as a storyteller, a record-keeper of family history who has the gift of speaking with flowing and musical prose. Other members of her family, such as her father and certain of her siblings, employ different lexical fields, as of politics and science, though their words lack the specific poetic energy her mother possesses. Ginzburg’s request to her readers in the preface hat they read her autobiography like a novel is exemplified by the language she employs—which in its often emotive and sometimes fantastical tone fits more easily with the conventions of fiction than with those of reality.