Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 743
Natalia Ginzburg is, after Elsa Morante, Italy’s most famous twentieth century woman writer. She was born in Palermo, where her father, Carlo Levi, was a professor of biology. Her family moved to Turin when she was three years old, when Levi was transferred to the university there. Ginzburg remained in Turin through her childhood and adolescence. The child of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, Lidia Tanzi, Ginzburg was reared in a thoroughly Roman Catholic country without religious training or affiliation. An important consequence of this ambiguous status and the Fascist persecution of Jews in her youth was, according to Ginzburg, a lifelong sense of social isolation.
Ginzburg’s first story was “Un’assenza” (an absence), published in 1933, when she was seventeen. The subject, as in most of Ginzburg’s works, is the tragic failure of human relationships, especially relationships between men and women. This story appeared in the avant-garde Florentine journal Solaria in 1934, before her marriage in 1938 to Leone Ginzburg, a professor of Russian literature and an ardent anti-Fascist who had come to Italy in his childhood. From 1940 to 1943 the couple was in compulsory residence in a district of the Abruzzi. In 1943 Leone Ginzburg was arrested in Rome when working on a clandestine press and was turned over to the Germans; he died a year later in the prison infirmary.
Ginzburg’s first novel, The Road to the City appeared under the name “Alessandra Tornimparte” (since she was still in compulsory residence) and was published by Einaudi, a Turin firm for which she worked as an editorial consultant after her husband’s death in order to support her three children. Though she married Gabriele Baldini, a professor of English literature at the University of Rome, in 1950 and lived with him until his death nineteen years later, she proudly continued to use the Jewish name of her first husband. After the war she championed family rights through her forceful if unsystematic political career.
The Dry Heart, published in 1947, a stirring portrayal of the disintegration of a marriage, established both Ginzburg’s popular and critical reputation. In this novel and in The Road to the City, the author’s deceptively simple style (which became her trademark) is already apparent, as are her frequent use of autobiographical themes and her lavish attention to seemingly insignificant details of life. Through these details (including speech patterns and revealing phrases) she subtly delineates character. Many of her stories are constructed almost entirely of dialogue and are devoid of overt action. These techniques were derived originally from her reading of Ivy Compton-Burnett and Ernest Hemingway.
In A Light for Fools, Ginzburg’s longest novel, she attempts to reconstruct the story of her generation and its experience with Fascism, the war, and the Resistance. Voices in the Evening continues this scheme, concentrating on a family of leftist factory owners in Piedmont. This novel was followed by Family Sayings, an autobiographical narrative that earned the prestigious Strega Prize in 1964. Ginzburg believed that she attained her greatest freedom as a writer with this book. As the title suggests, it is through the repeated words and phrases of the various members of her family that the recollections of her childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood flowed back into her consciousness. Yet Family Sayings is more than a personal tale; it is a saga of Italian society between the wars.
With subtlety and economy Ginzburg develops the relationships between her characters through letters in No Way. She portrays the loneliness and fragility of individuals whom fate has thwarted yet who still yearn for fulfillment. Famiglia (family) is a volume of two novellas whose titles, Famiglia and Borghesia (bourgeoisie), reflect Ginzburg’s central themes. These are stories of middle-aged characters whose lives, hopes, and ambitions disintegrate as time runs out.
Ginzburg’s reserved, controlled, and simple style continued to impress critics, first through her fiction and later through her plays, and many found her techniques reminiscent of Anton Chekhov’s. Some critics maintain that she is at her best when dealing with detail, especially the detail that brings children and adolescents to vivid life. Yet others have criticized her characters for being “flat” and lacking substance. Though not to every reader’s taste, Ginzburg left an important legacy. Apart from her stylistic finesse, she is most valued for her chronicle of the joys and sorrows of family life, during a period when the treasured Italian family seemed to be in a process of disintegration.
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