October 2013

Daniel Shvartsman


The Outsider and the Truth: Margherita Sarfatti and Natalia Ginzburg

Two dilemmas confront the outsider: what is my relationship to the inside, and what is my relationship to the truth. Those on the inside don't have to worry about the first question, and the truth for an insider is self-evident, or in other words, the insider creates the truth. Those on the outside are defined by their answer to the first question, and confronted with the second question, since they have to work actively to claim "truth," in whatever form they can find it.

Wartime, turmoil, and social change intensify and at the same time untie these knots. The dilemma starts to cut, but at the same time it opens space, and the range of choices, responses, and answers to the questions widens and crystallizes. The answers outsiders find to those questions in periods of duress grow and crystallize in similar proportion, making of them heroes and villains in a way ordinary outsiders can only imagine. These choices also magnify our differences, remind us that each is his own man or woman, even when robbed of power or left with only the most unappealing options.

Two writers in wartime Italy, distantly related, Jews, women, and each at times politically rebellious: Margherita Sarfatti and Natalia Ginzburg were both faced with these dilemmas: what is my relationship to the inside, and what is my relationship to truth? The two women left terribly accomplished lives behind them, with long bibliographies, periods of fame and renown, and each a lifetime devoted to the world of arts in some way. And yet, their lives and legacies are markedly different.

The differences emerge from many sources, of course; there's something artificial about grouping these two women together at all. Still, if you'll allow the juxtaposition, I'd argue that the most interesting and most definitive source is the way the two writers found answers to these two dilemmas, the way they approached the inside and the way they approached the truth.

It's easy, and dangerous, to look back from history's vantage point and say that one woman chose well and one did not, and that made all the difference. I can't claim to avoid this smugness entirely. But let's say instead that their different choices led them to different paths, different heights, and different depths. Those different paths began from a similar juncture, a similar recurring fork in the road, from the same questions asked over and over again. And the way they answered these questions may yet offer a model for outsiders to come.


A half-century after her death, Margherita Sarfatti's life looks to have been a pastiche of clichés and stereotypes. She was the little rich girl who aspired to be a socialist revolutionary, the intelligent feminist who fell in love with a boorish chauvinist, the influential woman behind the throne, the stingy Jew, the assimilating Jew who is never accepted in her new skin, and the dispossessed woman of power and culture with a tin ear to her own failings. In light of those broad strokes, Sarfatti's uniqueness seems to rest only in her overall combination and not her original aspects. This is a reductive statement, and ignores the fact that Sarfatti regularly and constantly forged that combination. For better or worse.

Sarfatti was born in Venice in 1880. Her father was a wealthy and well-connected business man -- his financial and political support played a vital part in Pope Pius X's rise to the papacy, and Margherita's family was rich enough to move out of the Venice Ghetto when she was fourteen, into a Gothic palace no less.

As part of this privileged upbringing, Margherita was afforded a rich education. Three separate private tutors taught her history, arts, languages, and literature. She took the work of John Ruskin -- of Stones of Venice fame -- to heart, finding his emphasis on the "moral function of art" to ring especially true. It was largely Ruskin's influence that led Sarfatti to champion a somewhat contradictory love of both modern art and classic, moral values in art.

Ruskin's influence was also a key factor in Margherita's flight to the left. The dirty streets of Venice's poor parts and a mysterious romance with a middle-aged Socialist professor pushed her definitively leftward. Still fifteen, she wrote an article for a Socialist publication in Turin about a poor girl's suffering. It infuriated her father, also a conservative city politician. Local Socialists, on hearing about the high-profile new member in their party, dubbed her the "Red Virgin."

Her fervor endured. Margherita married when she was eighteen, converted her husband to the cause, continued pursuing journalism and art, gave birth to two children, and moved the family to Milan when she was twenty-two. The industrial capital of turn of the century Italy offered the Sarfattis intellectual, political, and social opportunities. Margherita spent much of the next decade advancing her journalistic career -- eventually attaining a position as art critic at Avanti!, the Socialist Party's newspaper -- and ingratiating herself into the major socialist circles. She especially worked to fit in with Anna Kuliscioff, whose salon was considered the premier Socialist and intellectual gathering in the city.

At the same time, the contradictions inherent in Margherita's way of life endured. There was money: she and her husband had it and didn't care to hide it. In Phillip Cannistaro and Brian Sullivan's biography of Sarfatti, Il Duce's Other Woman (from which most of this essay's biographical information is sourced) we find an anecdote wherein Margherita is showing off a new piece of jewelry to Kuliscioff's daughter; Kuliscioff, annoyed, says, "Yes, dear, certainly... it justifies the wages of the workers... truly, very beautiful."

There was her approach to art. On the one hand, Sarfatti was there at the beginning of the Futurist movement, as well as an early defender of it. Her husband was one of the lawyers who successfully defended Filippo Marinetti, the Futurist movement's founder, against obscenity charges. Margherita would champion modernism throughout her life, whether from her lofty post as art critic of Avanti! or later as part of the Fascist regime. But at the same time, she detested abstraction and truly bold innovation, demanding that art serve clear moral values. Her money also got in the way of her relationships with Futurist artists, who resented their dependence on her patronage.

And then there was the chief contradiction and fervor of her life, Mussolini. Il Duce came on the scene in 1912, a fervent but somewhat bumbling country bumpkin socialist with revolutionary desire and a limited grasp on theory. He stormed to the editorship of Avanti! after winning an inner party struggle over the response to the government's invasion of Libya. Margherita, seeing his potential and his charisma, quickly fell in with him both romantically and intellectually, providing him a literary and sociopolitical syllabus and, often, cash to support his various efforts and bastard children.

World War I marked the first major turning point in their relationship: Mussolini left the Socialist party over his nationalist stance during the war, and the Sarfattis were among the few to support him throughout (per the biography, Cesare Sarfatti was either an unwitting or an unconcerned cuckold). Mussolini suffered casualties during his service, and the Sarfattis' oldest son died. The shared grief was enough to drive Margherita and Benito firmly into each other's arms.

Together, they helped launch Fascism in 1919, Mussolini giving one of his most famous speeches, and Margherita in attendance before, during, and after. The movement's birth was accompanied by violence as the initial Fascists attacked Avanti!'s offices. Margherita didn't ignore or denounce the violence; she embraced it, thanking God: "For our dead, we will make a counterattack." As the government silently acquiesced, Mussolini and company bullied their way to the Parliament and eventually to power in 1922.

Margherita's influence peaked during the first six or so years of Mussolini's reign. After her husband's death, she moved to Rome, continued her close relationship with Mussolini, and became the Fascist authority on the arts, which is to say the Italian authority. She launched Novecento, an inchoate movement that in many ways resembled Fascism in its lack of definition. Sarfatti called it a "work of revision and synthesis of analytical elements... a collective ideal around which to converge, a line and a style, to art, to life, to the moral, aesthetic, and spiritual needs of our time." Essentially, it was a pretentious form of socialist realism.

During the same period, Sarfatti committed her greatest sin against truth. She wrote Dux, her infamous biography of Mussolini (translated contemporaneously, in a slightly more candid edition, as The Life of Benito Mussolini.) The book was a piece of naked propaganda, a justification of Mussolini and Fascism at their respective heights. It was also a bestseller, awarding Margherita's pecuniary and social ambitions. It confirmed her reign as, in Alma Mahler's memorable phrase, "the uncrowned queen of Italy."

Her reign did not last long. Even at her peak, Sarfatti had to deal with slings and barbs from foes on both sides of the artistic front -- stodgy conservatives who wanted a return to nineteenth century realism and futurists who still urged for abstraction and freedom. Various rivals within the regime also bubbled up and elbowed her out of the way. And ultimately, Mussolini fell out of love, or grew tired of her, or otherwise decided he didn't need her influence, and so she fell out of favor.

This loss of favor left Margherita largely powerless as Mussolini grew closer to Hitler and aligned Italy's laws with Hitler's anti-Semitism. Margherita, no longer able to publish articles and rarely afforded an audience with Mussolini, however remained well-connected and rich, and so got out of the country in 1938. She fled to Paris and then Europe for Uruguay at the outbreak of the Second World War.

One of her last levers over Mussolini that aided her escape was their shared past. She floated rumors about the memoir she planned to write about his true nature. While in exile she revisited the idea several times, thinking she could both set the record straight and make money, but each time pulling away worried that Mussolini might retaliate against her family still in Italy, most especially her daughter. After Mussolini's death she at last wrote the memoir; it was poorly timed to win attention, and her fascist past tainted her more than she realized. A Buenos Aires newspaper printed it, and that was it. She eventually returned to Italy to live out her life as, by all reports, a somewhat stereotypical Jewish grandmother.

My Fault: Mussolini As I Knew Him is just now being released. Edited by Sullivan, the book is an informative but somewhat curious publication. It's exhaustively annotated, and in addition to an introduction and a lengthy epilogue, Sullivan includes commentary at the end of each chapter. While Sarfatti's writing and memory perhaps requires significant context and correction, the result is stilted and hampers Sarfatti's case: for My Fault is something of a confession to the jury, a plea for clemency. Though the balance tips positively toward Sarfatti's writing in the back half of the book, it at times feels like a welcome addendum to Il Duce's Other Woman rather than an independent work.

Sarfatti ostensibly meant to set the record straight, about Mussolini, Fascism, and her role in all of it. She spends much time revising the heroic image of Il Duce that she helped build in Dux and elsewhere. She describes Mussolini's superstitious nature, his hypocritical views of Jews, and, coyly, his lifelong syphilis affliction. She also makes sure to settle scores with rivals for Mussolini's attention, whether Fascists who got the upper hand over her or lovers who reached Mussolini before or after she did.

The book is revealing in its way. Not because Sarfatti confronts her role in constructing Fascism or supporting, but conversely because she can't face the truth. She shows faint signs of contrition over trusting Mussolini and over what Fascism became, but never expresses regret over specific acts. "We faced only two possible choices," she writes of post-WWI Italy, "immediate bloody anarchy with all the horrors of civil war or the birth of a strong government that would seize every opportunity to become a dictatorship. To this day I still don't believe that the majority of the people were wrong when they instinctively selected the second possibility." The violence that came with it was unpleasant, but only as a threat to "the appearance of my ideal: Fascism."

Her difficulty admitting the truth is understandable. She was just far enough removed from power not to have blood on her hands, and just close enough that she couldn't admit fault. Sarfatti had a hard time realizing, for example, that her American friends liked her in spite of her Fascist ties and background, not because of them. She sees herself as a victim of history, forgetting how much she was involved in making that history (or how much better off she was than many others).

But there are moments of culpability, specific acts that show the compromises she made in her life. A small crisis stands out: the Italian Zionist movement held a congress in 1928, its first in eight years. Mussolini, concerned about any political movement that might detract from Italian nationalism and his power, published several unsigned articles questioning whether Italian Jews were loyal to Italy. Margherita, whose deceased husband had been president of Milan's Zionist chapter, acted swiftly. She wrote an anonymous article asserting Italian Jews had nothing to do with Zionism, and worked to bully the Zionists into shutting up about Palestine in any form. It worked well enough; Mussolini backed off his implied threat to ban the Zionists. (The story reached Albert Einstein, who viewed Sarfatti's work as an act of benevolence toward Italian Jews and visited her to thank her.)

Shortly after that, Margherita and her surviving family converted to Catholicism, her attempt to seal her insider status. The attempt failed, of course, as she ended up cast out from the inside. Reading about her, I was reminded of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. In Vittorio De Sica's movie, a family of rich Jews lives on a massive, secluded estate. They almost never leave the grounds, where a well-stocked library, several ornate buildings, and a tennis court offer all the comfort they need. "They're not like us," another Jewish character says, "it's almost like they're not Jews." And yet, the Finzi-Continis are rounded up and taken away, as Jewish as the rest of them.

The Finzi-Continis were rich outsiders who ignored the inside, whereas Sarfatti was a rich outsider who worked her way in. Sarfatti's end wasn't quite as grim; she lived another fifteen years in Italy in great comfort, free to travel and spend time with her family. Still, in a time of war and turmoil, the inside and the truth came to bear on Sarfatti as it did in the movie. Sarfatti strove to get inside -- not a comment Sarfatti's assimilation, mind you, but on her desire to be close to power -- and was cast out in the end, an end that left her unable to confront truth. It's understandable, a classic story even. But it's still sad.


Natalia Ginzburg's life was certainly sad as well. She outlived two husbands, survived the War in distinctly less cozy means, and struggled to outgrow her reputation as a minor writer. Her novels are tersely written, flat, crackling works populated with brutal people and brutal events and devoid of heroes. She was a perpetual outsider, even when she became known as Italy's best living novelist, even when she entered the parliament. Her approach was also to avoid or even ignore the inside. But even the quickest scan of her writing makes it evident that Ginzburg dealt primarily in the truth.

Ginzburg was born in Palermo in 1916. Her father, Giuseppe Levi, was an anatomy professor and Sarfatti's cousin. The family moved to Turin and joined in with anti-fascist circles; before long, her Catholic mother Lidia became friends with Kuliscioff. Ginzburg studied at home until secondary school, and then studied literature in university without finishing her degree.

Turmoil was part of Ginzburg's life from the beginning. She married Leone Ginzburg, a Russian Jew and prominent anti-fascist, in 1938. They had three kids over the next five years, even as the Fascist government interned Leone. In his second spell in captivity, the Fascists tortured and killed him. Ginzburg and her children survived the war.

During the war Ginzburg also launched her writing career, in a way, publishing The Road to the City in 1942 under a pseudonym to circumvent anti-Semitic restrictions. After the war, she worked at Einaudi Publishing house where Leone had once worked, continuing to steep herself in the country's intellectual climate. In 1950, she married Gabriele Baldini, a professor of English literature, living with him until his death in 1969. Both their children were born handicapped; the son died at the age of one.

Ginzburg's writing covered a wide range of genres: essays, plays, biography, stories, and novels. She was initially considered a minor writer, one focused on "women's issues," such as the family. This was a conscious stance -- "I write about families because that is where everything starts, where the germs grow," she said -- and eventually won her credit, if only through her persistence. Reading the blurbs on the English translations of her books in the 1970s is instructive: "Italy's foremost woman writer... one of its finest writers of any kind," says one, but another acknowledges that "The prime contenders for Calvino's title (as Italy's best novelist) are Alberto Moravia and Natalia Ginzburg."

While analyzing Ginzburg's fiction through an autobiographical lens offers limited value on the scale of individual works, it doesn't take much imagination to see how her surroundings affected her overall outlook. Her writing, always centered on families though not always on the war, is unsparing and pitiless. Many of her characters are noble, but few truly worthy of admiration, and those that are often meet a sad end. Her work is often compared to Chekhov, a shorthand way of saying she wrote sad stories that were well-crafted but sparse. It's a fair comparison; something of Chekhov's "Grasshopper" pervades her work, the sense that life is decidedly unfair and will kill us not by spectacular gestures but by dripping dreariness.

"We're all bored. Why, I wonder?"

"Because life is boring," she said, pushing away her plate. "There's not much to do about it. Nothing gives one a kick for very long."

Ginzburg's characters reach that conclusion five pages into Road to the City. Her first novella, published in translation under that name with another novella, sets the path for much of her life's work. Delia, the narrator, is something of a twit, a middle-class country girl who dreams of moving to the city to buy the latest dresses and shoes. She toys with Nini, a distant relative who grew up with her and falls in love with her, unsure how she feels for him. Meanwhile, she cavorts with the doctor's son, who doesn't really like her but knocks her up all the same.

Each relationship embodies Clausewitz's line that war is just policy by other means. "My mother talked all the time, but I never answered," Delia says early on. "I'll go with her as long as it suits me," says Delia's brother about the widow he is seeing, Nini's former flame, "and then I'll leave her cold the way he did. When she hasn't any makeup on she shows her years. And she's always complaining about something." When Delia finally gives birth, she delegates all maternal responsibilities to her maid and calls her baby ugly as sin. Even Nini, the closest thing to a kind character, has to use cruelty as a shield. "It makes me angry to see you cry," he tells Delia when he visits her in her pregnancy-induced seclusion. "I know you don't really care. You cry like that, but what does it really matter?"

Ginzburg's skill keeps this nullifying dynamic readable. Her style is to put everything to the foreground. Her work feels real, never researched. Her curt, matter of fact presentation reminded me of Jose Saramago's, except without the annoying use of punctuation. Her most Chekhovian moment, if we want to pin it down, may be when death enters the story. "When someone's dead it's all very easy to imagine things," Delia's sister tells her. "He took ill and died, that's all. You can't do anything about it and there's no sense in embroidering explanations." Life's greatest tragedy is that it isn't one.

Lest there be any doubt that this was a one-off pose, the other novella in the book, Dry Heart, begins thusly:

'Tell me the truth,' I said.

'What truth?' he echoed. He was making a rapid sketch in his notebook and now he showed me what it was: a long, long train with a big cloud of black smoke swirling over it and himself leaning out of a window to wave a handkerchief.

I shot him between the eyes.

Family, written near the end of Ginzburg's career, serves as a bookend to Road to the City. This also contains two novellas, and this also contains one story about an unfortunate couple and one story about an unfortunate female lead. The thirty-plus years that separate the two works allow for a new note in Ginzburg's approach though, one of resignation. Family remains at the center, but not just the nuclear family; instead she explores the unusual ways in which people can come together. It's not a hopeful collection, but instead of cruelty, her characters embody weakness and impotence. And yet they endure.

The title story is of Carmine and Ivana, former lovers who remain closer to each other than to anybody else. Both have children, though Ivana remains unmarried. The story opens in medias res, except it's a mundane scene, Carmine and Ivana and their children having a sundae after watching a movie. Ginzburg delves into their lives together and apart, into the deaths they overcame, into Carmine's disappointing marriage and disappointing affair, and into their complacent but real bond. A few days later, on his deathbed, Carmine says "that, now, thinking back on that Sunday [at the café], it seemed like a very nice day, and yet, he had not noticed it at the time, because there was nothing wonderful about going to see a bad film, nor about sitting in a café, ordering ice-creams and waiting for the evening to come." He recalls the baby he and Ivana had, who died young, and they recall their past. "'But I've never felt we were wrong to leave one another,' said Carmine. 'No, I've never thought so either,' said Ivana."

The other story, Borghesia, is about a widow who suddenly becomes a cat owner and who ties the people in her life together. It's almost breezy, almost recalls Grace Paley, Ginzburg's natural American counterpart. But even if less harsh, Ginzburg's take on the family is a heavy one. On her mother's deathbed, the widow's daughter tries to tell her about her lover leaving her, but cannot. Her two daughters with the lover still bore her ex-husband's name, "because Aldo had not yet denied paternity. In the hallway of her mother's flat, the kittens, with their wide brown ears and sharp pointed faces, were sitting waiting in the gravest possible silence." Such is as cheery as Ginzburg could get.

Ginzburg's most fruitful period came in the 50s and 60s. Voices in the Evening, published in 1961, represents formal innovation but a similar ethos. Here again the family is central, the De Franciscis, whose father Old Balotta (little ball) owns the town's factory. History enters this novel -- Balotta is a communist, the orphan his family takes in who eventually takes over the factory is a Fascist, and the war interrupts all of their lives -- but it's just one thread that helps illustrate the characters. Voices has a background, but it is a skewed one, or a fuzzy one, a move towards pointillism after Ginzburg's earlier cubist works. Here scenes and dialogue run together, and Ginzburg dips into the characters' past only to jolt us back to the main story.

Nobody is any happier here. The narrator, not a member of the family and only revealed near the end as a central character, is nevertheless quickly revealed to be a disappointment to her mother. Balotta's children pursue marriage, but as a last resort or a failed endeavor. His oldest, Gemmina, professes her love to Nebbia -- his nickname, meaning "mist," with his real name and relationship to the family never explained. "I believe, Nebbia, I am in love with you," she tells him one night, bursting into tears. "I am sorry," he responds. She leaves the country eventually. The oldest son, Vincenzo, "also had married without love. He had thought she was a healthy, honest girl." That marriage eventually fails from silence and lovelessness. The politics continue to reinforce this truth: Balotta's communist daughter eventually marries the ex-Fascist; the fascists kill Nebbia, leaving his wife and two children behind.

The youngest son, Tommasino, an astute observer of his family's luck, disavows marriage, telling his companion Elsa, the narrator, "Yet [little in the way of love] is all I can give you. I cannot give you more. I am not a romantic. I have a solitary nature. I stand alone." Nevertheless, he is backed into a marriage proposal, one that leads to a loss of his freedom. "I could not look my soul in the face any more," he tells Elsa after their engagement. "To avoid hearing my soul cry aloud, I turned my back on it and walked away from it." It shouldn't be a surprise to hear that this relationship did not end well. So it goes for Ginzburg.

The closest to an exception is All Our Yesterdays, published in 1952. This is Ginzburg's epic and maybe her finest work. Again a family narrative, this novel explicitly deals with Italy's history, watching ordinary Anna as she, her family, and the neighboring rich family survive World War II, though not all in one piece. It's Ginzburg's most historical work and also her most psychological. It's also, in a sense, her most hopeful.

That doesn't make it a sunny story. The novel stretches from 1939 to 1944 and follows Our first event of consequence is that Anna's father, a fervent anti-Fascist, burns the memoirs he had given up his job to write, the memoirs that would have served as his vindication. He dies on the next page. Ginzburg maintains the mix of politics, history, and familial woes throughout. Suicide, Nazis, the plight of Jews, air raids, and liberation are all more present here than in Ginzburg's other fiction, but they meld with the typical strange or unconsummated relationships, the sudden marriages and abandoned children, the disappointment of life and getting on with it anyway.

All Our Yesterdays is quintessential Ginzburg, even with its unusual topicality. Her "everything in the foreground" style remains here. As I was reading Ginzburg's books, I was also rereading Kundera's essays on the novel, The Curtain and Testaments Betrayed. He's big on the importance of formal innovation in the novel (and small on mentioning innovational women novelists -- I don't believe he mentions one across the two books). Thinking about Ginzburg and whether her works could count as "formally innovative," I came back again to that style: everything in the foreground, shorn of needless accessories, plain but powerful. And of course, for all that formal innovation may matter, it matters as a way to raise the content to the reader's attention. The power of Ginzburg's content is never in doubt. And that content is imbued with truth.


I didn't unearth any evidence of it, but it seems likely Sarfatti and Ginzburg at least knew of one another. Sarfatti was notorious during the Fascist era, for better or worse; meanwhile, Ginzburg's mother once appealed to Sarfatti on behalf of Ginzburg's brother. There's also the Kuliscioff connection. A next step would be to see if Sarfatti ever commented on Ginzburg's rise to prominence before her death, whether in letters or in her memoir, Acqua Passata (which hasn't been translated into English), though it's perhaps unlikely.

And while I undertook to set an easy contrast between how Sarfatti and Ginzburg approached the inside and the truth, there are also some surprising coincidences between the two. Ginzburg, too, converted to Catholicism, for example, and eventually served in Parliament. But even these coincidences highlight their differences. Ginzburg's conversion, for example, appears solely born out of conviction, as she viewed Jesus as the epitome of a persecuted Jew. She also maintained her connection to her Jewish roots, saying, "You never lose your sense of connection with those who died in the camps." She served in Parliament only for four years as a Communist, but was uncomfortable with party politics. She wrote off the experience, saying, "I prefer to observe events, reflect on them, and then relate them in writing. I could never say how a country should be governed."

Though the two were of different generations, their lives were shaped by the same history and by the same questions. Sarfatti cast her lot with the inside, hoping to have a hand in shaping history. Ginzburg made a determined choice to avoid that role. Sarfatti could not face the truth, while Ginzburg could not avoid it. Both left a sizable mark on their countries, more than the average outsider could hope for. But their answers to those dilemmas, more than anything else, explain why those marks were so different.