September 2013

Walter Biggins


A Writer of Silences: Reading Natalia Ginzburg

Natalia Ginzburg lived through a lot before she turned fifty -- World War II in an anti-fascist Italian-Jewish family; her first husband's torture and murder by Mussolini's forces; the rise of modern Italian literature, in which she played a big role, as a writer and editor; and the ennui and weariness of a country and a continent in postwar recession and moral depression. You would think she would have lots to write about, and indeed she does. Most of what she has to say, though, is said through silences, gaps in the record, sly omissions, and whispered asides.

It's not just her. In The Little Virtues, in a characteristic essay called "Silence," she gets at the societal issue:

Everyone looks in his own way for something that will cure the silence, the feeling of guilt, the feeling of panic. Some people travel. In their anxiety to see new countries and new people there is the hope that they will leave behind their own obscure ghosts; there is the secret hope that somewhere on the earth they will find the one person who could talk to them. Some people get drunk in order to forget their own obscure ghosts, and to talk. And then there are all the things people do so that they do not have to talk: some people spend their evenings stretched out in the cinema with a woman beside them to whom, in this way, they don't have to talk; some people learn how to play bridge; some people make love, which can also be done without talking. Usually they say they are doing these things to kill time; in fact they do them to kill the silence.

Postwar Italy remains hushed and hesitant, altogether too quiet, in Ginzburg's eyes. Whether in The Little Virtues (an essay collection) or Family Sayings (a memoir), originally published a year apart in the early 1960s and brought back by Arcade Publishing, Ginzburg aims to break that silence.

Well, sort of. She goes about making noise in a funny way -- and she's a deeply funny writer, full of slapstick observations and conversational zingers. Rather than making political screeds in defense of her ardent leftism, or blazing impassioned swaths through Catholic morality, Ginzburg instead uses understatement, indirection, and a careful, wry vagueness to get at hard truths. In Family Sayings, a memoir in which Ginzburg seems oddly absent, she describes the office in which she worked directly after the war:

The Publisher had a portrait of Leone [Ginzburg's husband] on the wall in his room, with his head bent a little to one side, his spectacles halfway down his nose, a thick mane of black hair, deep dimples in his cheeks, and his feminine hands. During the German occupation Leone had died in the German wing of the Regina Coeli prison in Rome, one icy February.

The paragraph strikes at the heart for a number of reasons: One, she offers a loving physical description of someone, in a memoir that largely eschews concrete details about people's appearances; two, this is the first we've heard of his death in this book; and three, she doesn't dwell on point two much at all.

Ginzburg, as memoirist, prefers to record events of her family, to the extent that she's damn near absent in her own story. Her obstreperous father and timid mother, her fistfighting brothers Mario and Alberto, and Ginzburg's parade of ornery, feisty friends all loom larger in Family Sayings than Ginzburg does. Except, of course, that this isn't quite true. Yes, it's true that Ginzburg's physical presence often seems removed from her narrative but this ends up emphasizing her rare exclamations as resonant shocks. (The word "shit," for instance, appears exactly once in Family Sayings, and it packs the stench and wallop that's intended.) Ginzburg makes herself felt through her voice, conversational and witty and quietly emotive. Her voice resonates so strongly than half-remembered observations of what she might have done, worn, or said seem beside the point.

So, it makes a weird kind of sense that Ginzburg hides herself, often, in the first-person plural. The editorial "we" surfaces in half the essays in The Little Virtues, especially in those pieces ("Human Relationships," "Silence," the magnificent and open-hearted title essay) that seem to be drawn most directly from her particular experience. She -- a specific and idiosyncratic presence in Italy, both because of her politics (leftism) and her religion (Judaism) -- aspires to be universal, to speak for all of Italy, but in a shy way.

She succeeds. Her conversational prose masks deep insights into human behavior and political folly. In fact, she masks her intense love of her family, husband, children, and friends by describing them mostly in negative terms. She doesn't even spare herself. The first paragraph of Family Sayings goes like this:

When I was a little girl at home, if one of us children upset a glass at table or dropped a knife, my father's voice bellowed: "Behave yourself!" If we soaked our bread in the gravy, he cried out, "Don't lick the plates, don't make messes and slops."

Her family is a mess and a slop, a muddle of imperfections. Everyone, family or not, whines incessantly in Family Sayings. In "Winter in the Abruzzi" and "England: Eulogy and Lament," both from The Little Virtues, Ginzburg spends much of her time complaining about these places in which she lives. In "He and I," a portrait of her relationship with her second husband, her spouse comes across as an argumentative heel (much like her father in Family Sayings) and she an indecisive milquetoast (much like her mother in the memoir). Complaint becomes her default mode.

Within all the complaint and humorous self-deprecation, though, lies a delicate charm. For all the negativity, there's a vividness to her observations about fashion, dialect, repartee, and all the small things that make up a life. The causes for complaint become balms, sources of little joy upon reflection, when life gets hard. In her miniature prose paintings, the smudges become undistinguishable from the straight lines. That winter of hardship in the Abruzzi is infused with melancholy when we realize, at the essay's end, that Ginzburg and her first husband were there because they were in hiding from the fascists. When we note that it's the last winter Ginzburg spent with her husband before his death, the character flaws of those around her seem more and more like lovable quirks. "Winter in the Abruzzi" ends thusly: "But that was the best time of my life, and only now that it has gone from me forever -- only now do I realize it."

Sometimes, the appeal beneath the flaws seems like it should be hard to see in Ginzburg's nonfiction. But they're not. Ginzburg's voice is somehow negative without being mean or unloving. She doesn't telegraph how one should react to the complaints. Instead, she just presents them in the same flat, wry manner that she details moments of grace and beauty.

When I had trouble comprehending how she made this work so effortlessly (well, it looks effortless, anyway), I kept flashing back to one of my favorite movie scenes. In Spike Lee's 25th Hour, a drug dealer (Edward Norton) has been convicted and is about to head into a long prison stint; the movie records his final free day and night, lived in the aura of New York City just after 9/11. He's furious and terrified, mostly at himself, partly at a terror-stricken city that must have felt the same as Ginzburg's Turin after the war. He's been holding down the rage all throughout the film. Finally, in the restroom of a bar, he stares down himself in the mirror and goes into a vicious, prolonged, oddly beautiful rant about everything he fucking hates about fucking New York City. Every ethnicity, every stereotype, every neighborhood and inflection comes under fire, as Lee's camera shows a parade of these NYC folk in action.

Fuck the Puerto Ricans. twenty to a car, swelling up the welfare rolls, worst fuckin' parade in the city. And don't even get me started on the Dominicans, because they make the Puerto Ricans look good.

Fuck the Bensonhurst Italians with their pomaded hair, their nylon warm-up suits, and their St. Anthony medallions. Swinging their Jason Giambi Louisville Slugger baseball bats, trying to audition for The Sopranos.

Fuck the Upper East Side wives with their Hermés scarves and their fifty-dollar Balducci artichokes. Overfed faces getting pulled and lifted and stretched, all taut and shiny. You're not fooling anybody, sweetheart!

Fuck the uptown brothers. They never pass the ball, they don't want to play defense, they take five steps on every layup to the hoop. And then they want to turn around and blame everything on the white man. Slavery ended one hundred and thirty seven years ago. Move the fuck on!

At first, it seems an avalanche of racism and spite. Gradually, though, as Lee flashes back to Norton's face, we see the tears welling in the man's eyes. The color-drenched snippets of NYC people start to look less acidic and more benign, and maybe even holy. Each freshly observed detail makes the stereotype look more interesting, more specific, more true to life, more worthy of saving. New York might be more than full of fuckups but they are Norton's (and Lee's) fuckups, and they're a part of him and helped make up who he is and how he gets through the world. Ginzburg's Turin and Ginzburg's family are hers, warts and idiocies and all.

The 25th Hour monologue is a lurid, bravura setpiece. Ginzburg believes in grand gestures, too. For all the lack of "little virtues" in her people, Ginzburg's people often stand for big things, even when that's hard. Leone Ginzburg got killed because he opposed Mussolini publicly, even editing journals and newspapers condemning Il Duce. Ginzburg's parents lose friends over their politics, and even flee the country. Her brother Mario, a smuggler who gets caught by the fascists, goes full-on Hollywood: He plunges, overcoat and all, into an ice-cold river bordering Switzerland and swims to political asylum. Time and time again in The Little Virtues and Family Sayings, Ginzburg's people perform bold acts of bravery, even with their little flaws.

Indeed, "The Little Virtues" argues against them:

As far as the education of children is concerned I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; nor shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one's neighbor and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.

That's not the voice of an idealist but of a woman who, by the time that piece appeared in 1960, had suffered through her first husband's death and the raising of three young children on her own. In a seemingly demure way, Ginzburg's little essays (none more than twenty pages, several less than eight) take on big things, often in a universal "we" tense that encompasses us all. For all the pinpointing of nagging quirks of Family Sayings, the book is also a revealing, large-scale portrait of a country under siege. She's a writer of grand gestures -- they're just done in a niggling, furtive way.

Family Sayings by Natalia Ginzburg
Arcade Publishing
ISBN: 978-1611457964
184 pages

The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg
Arcade Publishing
ISBN: 978-1611457971
184 pages