The Little Virtues
During the past year Carcanet Press has reprinted two of Natalia Ginzburg’s novels. All Our Yesterdays first appeared in Italian in 1952 and in English in 1956. Family Sayings was published in Italy in 1963 and in translation in 1967. Now comes The Little Virtues, a collection of essays written between 1944 and 1962. It makes a useful gloss to the novels which, for all their sober realism, are somewhat inscrutable in intention, written through clenched teeth, as it were, giving away as little as possible. Ginzburg is the least garrulous of writers.
Most realist fiction has its feet in psychology or sociology. Ginzburg despises these ways of interpreting life, bringing them on like clowns, only when she is out to entertain. Her comedy plays on psychological and sociological problems. She is particularly funny about adolescent malaise and bourgeois social anxiety, mocking the first and even the second with affection; it is only social pretension that turns her humor savage. But all this is merely a sideshow. She interprets behavior in order to judge it. She judges with understanding and pity, but her understanding and pity are metaphysical, not the social worker’s or analyst’. In fact, the essay “Silence” (1951) in The Little Virtues can be read as an attack on psychoanalysis. Silence, she says, is the vice of our age; it “should be called by its true name”—which is not, presumably, lack of communication or alienation.
The things they tell those of us who go to be psychoanalysed are of no use to us because they do not take our moral responsibility—which is the only choice permitted us in life—into account….
We have been advised to defend ourselves from despair with egotism. But egotism has never solved despair. And we are too used to calling our soul’s vices illnesses….
Silence must be faced and judged from a moral standpoint. Because silence, like acedia and like luxury, is a sin.
From the two reprinted novels—both autobiographical—one gets the impression that among the seven deadly sins, acedia is the one Natalia Ginzburg understands best, her own besetting sin. It may even account for her unmistakable tone of voice, for she is one of those writers whose voice is immediately recognizable, even in translation. It has a dying fall, a dry cool despondency, which goes with her personality as she describes it: inept, disorganized, dejected, shy, lazy, withdrawn, she is held together, it seems, only by her obedience to truth and moral rightness. It sounds a bleak combination, and it is; but there is also something irresistibly appealing about the struggle from weakness toward goodness, especially when she looks at her younger self with a kind of comical deprecation as though it were a baby toad in the palm of her hand.
All Our Yesterdays, with only a few actual characters and events transposed, seems about as autobiographical as a novel can be until you get to Family Sayings. This belongs to a genre …