Natalia Ginzburg

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Ginzburg, Natalia 1916–

Ginzburg is an Italian novelist, short story writer, essayist, dramatist, and translator. In work that is characterized by simple vocabulary and unadorned prose style, Ginzburg creates powerful and deeply moving fiction, deceptive in its simplicity and subtlety. (See also CLC, Vol. 5.)

Donald Heiney

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Because of her immature urge to be a Russian or some kind of foreign writer, [Natalia Ginzburg's] early work is curiously abstract; the setting is placeless and timeless and the characters have no surnames. As it develops her fiction becomes gradually more specific and personal and the same time less fictitious; she moves from imitations of Chekhov to a fiction that is indistinguishable from autobiography. Yet from the beginning all her narrative is recounted by the same voice. The voice is feminine and fundamentally that of the author, even though it is attributed in the early fiction to narrators very different from Natalia Ginzburg and simultaneously expressive of these characters. The voice plays over and defines the surface of the narrative, and breaking through to this surface, interwoven with it, are the voices of other characters who are soon perceived as recurring from one story to the next, in a kind of modal counterpoint. Almost without exception her writing is about families. There is a recurrent note of ending; families are fragile things, dispersed by war and deteriorating of their own accord through death, through marriage, through the desire of the children for freedom…. She is particularly a specialist on relations between parents and children, on the affections that hold them together and are at the same time balanced by the antagonisms and struggles that hold them apart, and on the complicated, ambivalent, quasi-sexual and yet chaste relations between brother and sister. In her narrative the family is neither a happy nor an unhappy institution. It simply is, and the people in it are sometimes happy and sometimes unhappy. When the narrating voice is happy it is frequently humorous, and when it is unhappy it regards the situation with irony. In place of Italian lamenting or Jewish lamenting there is a kind of French and existentialist pessimism of acceptance. (pp. 87-8)

[A] perky and slightly rebellious stoicism is the ethical thread of all of Natalia Ginzburg's work…. The tribal toughness is assertive and cranky in the male, resilient, intuitive, and conceding in the female. The family is presented totally without sentimentalism. Like a pride of lions they are held together by powerful biological forces, yet each is wary and self-contained, skeptical of the others, ironic of the father's claim to dominance but conceding to power after the first ritual scratches. The family forms through marriage and birth, consolidates, then gradually disintegrates. Commonly the narrator is a semi-spectator in this process; particularly in Valentino, Sagittario, and Lessico familiare she takes only a peripheral part in the drama and her primary function is to record the voices of others. Natalia Ginzburg only reluctantly writes about herself, even in the book that purports to be a kind of autobiography…. Ginzburg has no pretensions to … [Flaubertian] objectivity; with a quite cheerful humility she confines herself to the small scale of her own knowledge and observation. She is a kind of compassionate tape-recorder, and one that filters language so as to allow only a subtly chosen pattern of assonances to arrive at the ear of the listener.

The voices of the family resemble each other and yet are distinctive. (pp. 88-9)

È Stato cosí, an early short novel, begins with a pistol-shot in the manner of Simenon. Natalia Ginzburg gropes for a manner and tentatively takes up the roman-policier

(This entire section contains 1105 words.)

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roman-policier, but soon falls into the voice that threads its way through her work from its earliest stories…. Her work is full of … insignificant details that are [significant because they contribute to the mood]. The story-telling consciousness is easily distracted; when its eye falls on something of a curious shape, or even the most ordinary of objects, it often loses the thread or seems to. (p. 90)

The naivete of the story-telling voice in [È stato cosí] and in La strada che va in città, dating from 1946–47 and 1941 respectively, develops into a kind of sibylline and oblique simplicity in Tutti i nostri ieri (1952) and Lessico familiare (1963), without losing either its freshness of diction or its fundamental innocence. One of the more intricate aspects of her work is the relation of this voice to the sub-voices of the secondary characters…. At other times and particularly in Le voci della sera (1961) a kind of dixit device is used, borrowed with a perceptible suggestion of tongue-in-cheek from the epic. Characteristic remarks, made not at any particular time but simply typical of the character and embedded in the family consciousness, are presented in a kind of litany punctuated with dice [he says] or diceva [she says]…. (pp. 90-1)

A somewhat more intricate dialogue form is a kind of erlebte Rede in which the primary narrating voice, while retaining its own timbre and its particular irony towards events and characters, descends to assume at least partially the rhythm and speech-pattern of the character whose remarks are reported…. The whole narrative oeuvre of Natalia Ginzburg, seemingly so rich in character, actually resides in the consciousness of [a] single narrator, the possessor not only of a keen auditory memory but of an extraordinary and flexible talent for mimicry.

The dixit device is not the only Homeric borrowing in Natalia Ginzburg. There is a suggestion of the epic manner as well in [the] way of dipping downward into the voice of a character and then rising again to regard the flow of narrative with detachment…. The world of her body of narrative is a feminine world. It is a world in which tea-pots and the making of babies are important but politics, business, and war are not; or, more precisely, in which politics, business, and war are recognized as affecting the destinies of all, but not susceptible of feminine control, and therefore viewed with a combination of indifference and irony that rescues the narrating ego from total impotence. To be ironic about a power over one's destiny is no longer to be totally in the control of that power. The narrating consciousness takes refuge in a world of trivia, but the trivia are in some way elevated to the archetypal. Furniture, family quarrels, broken engagements, bicycles, the way of washing windows: the tiny details, massed together and linking one by one, begin finally to form vague metaphysical shapes. The dominant shape that emerges, subsuming and strengthening the others, is a recognition of the tragic sense of life, a pessimism relieved by good humor…. The obscure force that holds together brother and sister, part jealousy and part affection, a hatred at its roots, is a persistence that transcends politics. (pp. 91-3)

Donald Heiney, "Natalia Ginzburg: The Fabric of Voices," in The Iowa Review (copyright © 1970, by The University of Iowa), Vol. 1, No. 4 (Fall, 1970), pp. 87-93.

Clotilde Soave Bowe

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In essay after essay of Mai devi domandarmi, we have a celebrated novelist stripping down her own intellect in the characteristic succession of flat, functional sentences which caused Pavese to call her style a 'lagna' and invite the reader to feel superior and at the same time unaccountably ignored…. [Regarding her article on old age], we finish reading a plot dealing with an unfortunate love affair between a grey, unstriking woman and a grey, unsuccessful man, and the book may then remain in our memory as ill-defined and unsatisfying because it has depicted the twilight world of fractured relationships and unheroic encounters only too exactly: it has borrowed the language and atmosphere of the effect which it aimed to produce. Ginzburg sets out, like Flaubert in Madame Bovary, to reproduce the colour grey and will always run the risk of being accounted a failure because she succeeds in depicting greyness absolutely. (pp. 788-89)

There is an initial soporific effect in all Ginzburg's fiction: its delimitation of the fictional territory to the family. The plots of her main novels and stories all involve one or more family units into which the reverberations of political and historical events in the exterior world are filtered through by reportage of its members as they return centripetally from outside. The reader is thus at once presented with a context that is familiar and undisturbing. No surprise or alarm is elicited by the fictional setting; what is required from the reader is a genteel curiosity. In order to accentuate this impression of routine reality staged inside the walls of a family domicile, Ginzburg adopts the strategy of inserting a first-person narrator into the household so that every event in the novel is related from the limited emotional viewpoint and intellectual involvement of the particular family member conducting the story. The narrator who is providing this io interno is not necessarily the most impressive or attractive member of the household, so that the spectator-reader often faces an entirely plausible but defective or even neurotic interpretation of the events which he is witnessing. This further contributes to the illusion that it is the author herself who is expressing a limited and partial view of the world….

Already [in her second published story, Casa al mare], the writer is uncompromisingly entangled in the emotional stance of the protagonist who has the internal vantage point on events and is simultaneously but not retrospectively conducting the narrative. In Ginzburg's next story, Mio marito (1941), the first-person narrative is shifted for the first time to a female figure emotionally involved in the events described, and this, with one or two exceptions, will remain Ginzburg's standard procedure in the remainder of her published work, except, of course, the plays. The canonical subject matter with its disintegrating marriages, infidelity by one or both partners and concluding suicide is also established by Mio marito, and developed along set lines which will recur with varying degrees of expansion and ornamentation in Ginzburg's subsequent novels. (p. 789)

[In the preface to Cinque romanzi brevi] Ginzburg declares that she had such a horror of surnames that she could never use them fluently until her last novel Le voci della sera, but it is also noticeable that a character's Christian name is usually held back until it is necessary as a device for labelling the speaker or distinguishing between the four or five children in a family who form Ginzburg's average narrative cast. Her characters' names are never fully integrated emotional components of their personality; they are functional tickets for recognition…. In fact, as one moves on to Ginzburg's longer fiction, one can see that there is no qualitative difference between short story and novel as such. The novels seem to differ from the short stories, which have a standard cast of three characters, merely by being longer and expanding this cast to between twelve and twenty, each involved in their own variation on [her recurrent themes of] unhappy love … or disintegrating marriage…. [With her first novel] there was a general impression that the writer had already produced a definitive style: precise, compact and moving along with a rhythm closely matching daily life. She seemed never to indulge in expressions that were superflous to the plot. (pp. 790-91)

[Ginzburg's second novel È stato cosí] consists of a long monologue which is almost completely bereft of commas (Ginzburg later explained that commas are like steps, and steps cost effort, and she was so depressed at the time of composition that she wanted to eliminate all sense of physical effort)…. The manner of the novel is lax, off-hand and grey, a formal orchestration of monotony and hopelessness…. (p. 791)

[The resolution of the plot of Valentino] by a suicide and two parallel domestic arrangements in isolation is the most artificial of Ginzburg's negative statements on life in a closed fictional circuit. All the characters return to a position inferior to the point from which they started out. Each is shifted through an emotional crisis for which he has insufficient strength of will, and the 'greyness' of their final predicament is too explicitly stated…. The tone of [the] final tableau … is close to a pulp fotoromanzo, and indeed it is hard to avoid the impression that the writer has dismissed this particular plot with a somewhat facile conclusion.

Tutti i nostri ieri (… 1952), is the longest of Ginzburg's novels. The book has a maturity and fluency which makes it, together with Lessico famigliare (… 1963), one of the writer's greatest achievements. Its success seems in part a function of its unusual length, which offers the writer scope for a fuller deployment of the intricate inter-relationships of two separately defined family units. The division of the book into two main parts (town/North, country/South) gives it, a much improved structural balance when compared to her previous fiction, where the narrative leaps between urban sophistication and rough countryside can seem sudden and arbitrary. The first part shows the vicissitudes of two quintessentially bourgeois families who live on opposite sides of the same street in an unnamed Northern town. Although for once events are not narrated in the first person, the key character is a younger sister in the less wealthy of the two families, Anna, and the movement of the narrative has the same rhythm as her own adolescent awakening and involvement in the situation which surrounds her. In the early pages of the first part we find a kind of childish filter applied to everyday occurrences, and this distorted perspective by the internal narrator can again be seen as Ginzburg's most sensitive narrative device…. Clearly the device places a kind of natural limit on the collective insight which is permissible in a given situation…. Yet the girl/woman's privileged view of her elder sister Concettina allows the author to present a masterly refinement of the characteristic female, vain and mediocre, which has so far dominated her fiction without being given a fixative portrait. In relation to Concettina, Anna is in a position to hear half-understood gossip at table or the crying behind a locked bedroom door; she witnesses Concettina's gloom in front of a new dress or a bathroom mirror and the continuous politics of fidanzamento as played out by a selfish elder sister. Hence the cumulative picture becomes irresistibly credible…. (pp. 792-93)

[Cenzo Rena] is an inspired fictional creation for Ginzburg: here is the character who can swing the novel's setting to the country and the South…. In fact, Cenzo Rena is a village intellectual and rich man somewhere in Puglia, takes a positive attitude to social problems, and shows a real understanding of political issues in their context…. Thus he provides Ginzburg's fiction with an authentic left-wing engagé figure, and his decision to take the blame for a German soldier accidentally killed in his house—tantamount to an act of suicide—rounds off the second part of the novel with a politically motivated sacrifice which is all the more plausible by being the exact counterpart to the depressive suicide that resolves Ginzburg's story line elsewhere.

This is the only novel, in fact, which ends on a positive note, creating a rift in the otherwise uniformly grey curtain which falls over the Ginzburgian family. The style is misleadingly flat and placid for a story ending in violence and war. Ginzburg is not so much banishing horror or macabre tones from her account as naturalizing them to the point where they lose their power to shock or surprise the reader, who is under the general narcotic of the casual juxtaposition of chatty inconsequentiality and family disaster. The elemental moments of birth or death are thus cut down to the status of a visit or a meal or a new hat…. Still, in Tutti nostri ieri, Ginzburg cannot resist her functional motif of a character's death in isolation…. The novel, in fact, is constructed to include the whole range of Ginsburg's recurring motifs: Giuma's seduction of Anna, Anna's marriage to Cenzo Rena, at first one of convenience, later developing into love, Ippolito's suicide, the nanny's lonely death in a pensione, and the obsessive preoccupation with holidays, clothes and motor car of a prosperous bourgeoisie. But the strength of Tutti i nostri ieri lies both in the working out of Ginzburg's central themes and a sustained combinative interest in the infinite possible permutations of the siblings in two large households. Her attention is focused not on why people do things, but on how they act. New women or girl characters are invariably described by the clothes they wear (colour, fashion, cut, material), and several men in Ginzburg's fiction are presented with a ciuffo or piumacchio of hair, which in subsequent scenes they straighten or throw back from the forehead. This perfunctory characterization, deliberately close to caricature, throws an unusually large part of the reader's attention on to the transactions of the cast, the old unfashionable plot line. (pp. 793-94).

Sagittario is a short, static study in petit-bourgeois femininity…. The resolution of the story is the same pointless solitude that awaits the main characters in Valentino….

[Le voci della sera] is a return to the extended family saga of Tutti i nostri ieri. (p. 794)

[The plot] seems loose and tenuous, and the strength of the novel lies entirely in the texture of shifting fragments of conversation, sketches of past events, reports, juxtaposed blocks of dialogue which recall the particular timbre of a person's voice or the favourite phrases in their everyday vocabulary….

[The ingredients of Lessico famigliare] are those of a journal intime, coolly exhibited to the public, unadorned autobiography where there is no narrative re-invention of the well-known figures or historical events which occur in the text. Her previous narrative family settings finally merge into the author's own family when she was a child, and the internal first-person narrator becomes, as seemed increasingly likely, none other than the author herself. But the self-portrait of a clumsy girl with inferiority complexes is partly the projection of a retrospective literary persona for herself. It strengthens the image of a writer who with perverse humility wishes to appear shocked and surprised at her own success.

Ginzburg, therefore, passes herself off as a product of chance and culture rather than art. (p. 795)

Clotilde Soave Bowe, "The Narrative Strategy of Natalia Ginzburg," in The Modern Language Review (© Modern Humanities Research Association 1973), October, 1973, pp. 788-95.

Isabel Quigly

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There is little point in saying what happens to Natalia Ginzburg's characters, so haphazard does it appear. Everything happens, and nothing—or nearly nothing. So it has been in all her writing over the past thirty years, memoirs as well as fiction. The style never varies, nor do the characters; nor does the treatment she gives them (though the social world they move in has changed drastically). Birth and death, love, relationships, separations, the large matters of personal life, are given the same amount of space on the page, the same weight in the telling, as the supposed trifles….

Is she a comic writer? Well, Lessico famigliare is one of the most memorably funny books about family life in Italy or anywhere else. Yet sad, too, her characters … doomed to an everlasting melancholy that has little to do with circumstances or even, in a sense, with unhappiness; a sort of low-spiritedness, a sense of fatality, a weather of greyness lit by very occasional moments of tender remembrance and longing, as relationships, mostly unsatisfactory, are lit by impulses of warmth, affection and loyalty directed towards the unlikeliest people. Flicked rather than buffeted not so much by fate as by their own limitations, these people centrally set in a shifting society—always bourgeois, always familiar to their creator, who never strays from the world she knows so well—take on an emblematic character; if only as symbols of the inconsistency of their world and its eternal, eternally altering relationships.

Famiglia consists of two novelle, one called "Famiglia", the other "Borghesia" (the two main Ginzburg themes). Both end with the main character's death through illness in hospital, both reflect the changing attitudes in Italy to things like marital breakups and illegitimacy, and both have a roundabout action in which people behave with a sort of consistent unpredictability, an illogicality with no central thread except something like selfhood; not selfishness but a stolid integrity (of sorts) which is hard to classify but brilliantly portrayed. They don't communicate much with one another except in flashes of sympathy, moments of calm and sudden awareness of affection, need, even sweetness. They live from moment to moment, perched precariously on mood.

They are not described very closely, yet the flat phrases used about them take on an extraordinary vividness: an anorak, a hairstyle, a way of walking, why are they memorable, and seemingly familiar? Signora Ginzburg goes beyond social realism, realistic though, in a baffling sort of way, her characters are. They are what Forster envisaged as umbrella-owners, and behind them is the bourgeois certainty of never quite being lost or totally poor….

Isabel Quigly, "The Low in Spirit," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Time Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), June 2, 1978, p. 607.

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