May 2013

Mary Mann

An Attempt

What is Left Unsaid: On Natalia Ginzburg

Natalia Ginzburg didn't begin her writing career with essays; instead she "crept towards autobiography stealthily, like a wolf." She started with fiction, and her first short stories -- which she began publishing at seventeen -- were as impersonal as possible. They were set in nameless towns without defining features, starring characters who lacked surnames. All of the narrators were men.

This was in Mussolini's Italy, where women were expected to get married, have children and do little else -- it was their job to make more Italians. In this context it's not surprising that her writing would be so vague. As she explained in the 1949 essay "My Vocation," "at that time I wanted terribly to write like a man and I had a horror of anyone realizing from what I wrote that I was a woman."

So what changed in the decade between Ginzburg's first vague and dreamlike short story, "I Bambini," and the frank practicality of "My Vocation"? Everything.

In 1938, at the age of twenty-two, Natalia Levi married Russian-born Leone Ginzburg, seven years her senior. Together they worked on behalf of the anti-Fascist movement, and ended up having to serve a three-year internal exile in the Italian province of Abruzzi. Ginzburg raised their three babies in exile, giving her very little time or energy to write. Once Mussolini was defeated, the family escaped and hid in Rome while World War II raged around them. In 1943 Leone was captured by police and tortured to death. The Ginzburgs had been married five years.

Ginzburg, still wary of over-sharing even in her autobiographical work, very rarely tells this story. When she does, in the essay "Winter in the Abruzzi" (published a year after Leone's death), it is in a flat, even tone. As a heartbroken and homeless mother of three, it's no wonder that her voice was measured and detached -- she had to keep it together. She doesn't go into detail on the big things: death, fear, devastation. She doesn't even name Leone. Instead, in order to achieve some clarity, she turns her focus onto the small details: "I ask myself if this happened to us -- to us, who bought oranges at Giro's and went for walks in the snow."

Ginzburg's intense focus on prosaic details becomes more pronounced as the years go on, as does her habit of only alluding to larger events in passing. For example, she admits that she "once resorted to psychoanalysis," in "My Psychoanalysis," but she never says what brought her there. The world "resorted" implies desperation -- the last resort -- but the essay simply describes with some humor her interactions with Dr. B (curly-haired, bow-tied) in the "sweltering, dusty... black summer" of 1946 -- the summer after the end of World War II.

But if Ginzburg and Dr. B talk about the war, or about her husband's death, she doesn't share it with us. Instead, she tells him that she's always felt inadequate because she can't fold blankets properly, so he brings out a blanket with the intent of curing her. "To be obliging I said that I had mastered it," writes Ginzburg, "but it wasn't true, because even now I find it difficult to fold blankets evenly."

This is a small anxiety, and a very feminine one at the time -- a fear of being an inadequate homemaker. In the summer of '46, Ginzburg was living in Rome, working at a publishing house, and sharing a room with a friend while her children stayed with her parents in Turin. But she doesn't tell us any of this in "My Psychoanalysis." Instead, she confesses her blanket-folding anxiety, tells the reader that it was a "black" summer and that she "resorted" to psychoanalysis, and casually mentions a dream about her daughter who she "hadn't seen in months." In this way, she shows the "truth by allowing it to be seen hiding" (Anne Carson, Nox).

The formation of this distinctive close-to-the-hip Ginzburgian style was one thing that came out of widowhood and war. Another major change was the shift in voice: Ginzburg was not only writing from the perspective of a woman -- something she hadn't done as a younger writer -- but from her own perspective.

This was a very big deal. In 1949 Ginzburg could probably count the female essayists she'd heard of on one hand, and chief among them might have been Virginia Woolf, whose A Room of One's Own, decrying the amount of female writers in the literary canon, had been published in 1929 -- only four years before Ginzburg would publish her first short story. For Ginzburg to value her own experience as a woman enough to write autobiographically. That took guts.

Where did Ginzburg's newfound confidence come from? Well, she had survived exile, fascism, heartache, and war. She had also built a life for her children out of very little, living with family members and getting a job at Einaudi (the publishing house which would eventually handle her first novel).

Yet she very rarely talks about these struggles and accomplishments in her work, perhaps out of fear that they would be construed either as self-pitying (many of her peers in Italy were dealing with similar things), or as bragging. Instead she cites something else as the pivotal force in her work: motherhood.

"Now I no longer wanted to write like a man," she writes in "My Vocation," "because I had had children and I thought I knew a great many things about tomato sauce and even if I didn't put them into my story it helped my vocation that I knew them."

This gives one pause. Family has always been a complicated subject for writers and artists. Maurice Sendak, in an interview with The Believer, said: "If you're an artist, you should not have children." Yet Barbara Kingsolver wrote her first book while pregnant and many other writers didn't begin to write until they had kids. Balancing family and creative pursuits is especially complicated for women, as they do the work of carrying and giving birth to the children, and often take on the bulk of the childcare. Motherhood as a writing tool is certainly not prescriptive. Perhaps it comes down to temperament -- just as Virginia Woolf wrote that Jane Austen's prose was better than Charlotte Brontė's because the constraints of a nineteenth century woman's life chafed her less, so Ginzburg clearly found motherhood and writing to be compatible and even mutually sustaining, while other writers certainly have not. For her temperament, exercising confidence in small things, like sauce-making, helped her develop those muscles for big things: writing autobiographically.

It's a good thing she did, because Ginzburg does autobiography extremely well; she's funny, poignant, and imminently likable -- all of which are much harder than she makes them seem. In "A Place to Live," for example, Ginzburg embarks on the unremarkable task of finding an apartment in Rome with her second husband -- Gabriele Baldini, who she married in 1950 -- and the search is a comedy of errors. He wants to live high up in an apartment building, where he can see balconies and rooftops; she wants to live on a ground floor where she can have a garden. Their in-laws find fault with every apartment they like, while Ginzburg's kids just think they're crazy. The apartment hunt stretches on for months.

The title alone holds hidden depths: this is not just an apartment they seek, this is a place to live -- a hugely meaningful concept for Ginzburg, who'd lived in exile for three years with her first husband, and after his death had shuffled from a convent to an aunt's house to her parent's house to a rented apartment with Baldini. After so much rootlessness, the idea of finding a place to live must have been unbearably exciting, but also terrifying. What if it didn't live up to expectations?

"I had dug a little burrow for myself in that [rented] apartment, a burrow where I could hide out like a sick dog when I was sad, drinking my tears, licking my wounds. It was as comfortable as an old shoe. Why move?" Ginzburg asks, when they still haven't found an apartment after a long hunt, when it seems like they'll never find a place to live. "Could it be... that I didn't want to live in any of them, any one at all, because what I really hated wasn't the apartments but myself?"

It's a very emotional question, and Ginzburg doesn't linger there or conjecture as to why she feels this way. She doesn't even stay on the point, but moves easily back into her comic tone, ending the piece with a new apartment and a laugh. She provides only the briefest hints of current sadness and past tragedy, which leaves the reader feeling that a privilege has been bestowed, rather than pity asked for.

Ginzburg's peers in Italy may or may not have known her personal story, but they would have lived through fascism and World War II along with her, and many had similar experiences of displacement. This essay would have felt familiar to them. But one does not have to have lived through a war. Because its cause is vague, we can imagine that her grief is no different than our own, and the essay is just as heartening to a twenty-first century America who is planning a move. It helps that her theme is broad: even across geographic and generational divides, home is still an elusive concept.

Being about relationships, the essay "Him and I" also translates, and ages, well. Ginzburg structured "Him and I" as one long list of comparisons between herself and her second husband, Baldini. She never names either of them, but by the time it was printed (1962) she was well known, having published a bevy of short stories, essays and novels and even won the Veillon International Prize for her fiction.

The comparisons she lists are by and large cute: Baldini and Ginzburg like different foods, they have different passions, they keep house differently. He is loud and extroverted, whereas she likes a quiet house, and generally doesn't go to events unless he drags her out.

But in this essay her characteristic subtlety leaves room for misunderstanding -- a Google search reveals a bevy of blog posts and undergraduate essays citing "He and I" as a cry for help from a repressed woman. "I don't know how to drive," says Ginzburg in a line that has damned Baldini in the eyes of these reviewers. "If I suggest that I should get a license too he disagrees. He says I would never manage it. I think he likes me to be dependent on him for some things."

This ambiguity -- is he repressing her, is he not -- is the danger of Ginzburg's spare style. Her self-portrayal in the essay is that of an indecisive and somewhat meek woman, and since she doesn't give us her background or tell the reader about her success, it's not completely unreasonable to conclude that Baldini is a controlling husband. And it wouldn't be a huge surprise, in that time and in that place, if he was.

Except... well, the very existence of this essay making fun of Baldini is proof against his need or ability to control Ginzburg. By the time "He and I" was published, Ginzburg was more successful than he was, which is pretty astonishing considering that Italian women didn't have the right to vote until she was twenty-nine. She would go on to win more awards for her writing and even serve in the Italian government. Baldini may have been kind of a pain to live with sometimes ("His clothes are always covered in stains... He keeps the radio on all day..."), but the most prolific stage of Ginzburg's career began when she married him.

True to form, Ginzburg doesn't tell us anything substantial about the state of their relationship. We have to read between the lines, and it's what is left unsaid that tells us the most. When she writes about the fights they have, both of them yelling and her inevitable tears, her happiness slips in through a crack: "...in the middle of my tears and his rage I am extremely calm. I never cry when I am really unhappy."

Ginzburg writes "through clenched teeth... giving away as little as possible," wrote Gabriele Annan in a 1985 New York Review of Books. It's rare for autobiography to be so subtle, so unforthcoming, and it can be frustrating at times. The most complete portrait of Ginzburg is contained in a book-length interview, the aptly named It's Hard to Talk About Yourself, and even this is full of holes. It's hard for her to talk about herself, but, as a writer, it's even harder when she doesn't control the narrative. So the interviewers bring in guests, including Ginzburg's friend the Italian critic Cesare Garboli. He first came across her writing right after World War II and was immediately struck by her stoicism: "The suffering of someone who doesn't feel suddenly different about the world."

He's right. None of her essays are fit material for a movie. She would not have been invited on Oprah. She didn't have a sudden epiphany or a shattering breakdown, and she wasn't able to run away and start a new, glorious life in an exotic locale. For a suddenly single mom in a ravaged country, there was still grocery shopping to be done, cuts to be bandaged, songs to be sung in order to make children fall asleep. "I shall take my children in hand," writes Ginzburg decisively in "Worn-Out Shoes" (1945), "and overcome the temptation to let my life go to pieces." Grief had to be felt, but only in rare spare moments. The same is true in her writing, where grief slips in, around the oranges and the tomato sauce and the old ladies with hand warmers, infusing everything else with the mystery of what is unsaid.