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a dry cool despondency, which goes with her personality as she describes it: inept, disorganized, dejected, shy, lazy, withdrawn, she is held together, it seems, only by her obedience to truth and moral rightness.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 all of its own, a sort of autobiographical “faction” in reverse. Faction is facts with extra tension, drama, and emotion pumped in. Ginzburg scrupulously siphons them out, like the blood from a rhesus negative baby. So there is an apparent bloodlessness, a grayness deliberately chosen in the cause of total veracity. Not in the early part of the book with its engagingly funny accounts of family idiosyncracies and where affection manages to worm its way past the writer’s guard. But as the story gets grimmer with the spread of Fascism, the outbreak of war, and natural and unnatural deaths among family and friends, so emotion is more and more rigorously suppressed until by the aftermath of the war the stony evenness of tone and tempo begins to anaesthetize you. Sometimes it feels almost like boredom. But when you put the book down you realize that under the anaesthetic you have sustained a trauma. The shock of truth, perhaps.

The most important events in Ginzburg’s life, her two marriages, the birth of her children, her first husband’s death in prison after torture by the Germans—all these turning points are casually dropped into the story as faits accomplis, mostly after they have happened. Well-known intellectuals and public figures have their appearance, habits, tastes, and opinions described; among them are Cesare Pavese, Enrico Fermi, members of the Olivetti family, and Ginzburg’s employer, the anti-Fascist publisher Giulio Einaudi. But they remain on the sidelines, like acquaintances in a memoir, not worked into the structure. Not that there seems to be much structure: the story goes from one layer of the past to another with no dates, and the reader has to work out the chronology for himself. Why does the jacket tell us this book “asks to be read as fiction, though the author, one of Italy’s finest novelists, admits that it is autobiographical in a very strict sense”? Can fiction be a fiction to cloak her failure to reach an impossible level of truthfulness? “The worst misfortune that has happened to us today,” she once wrote, “is that it has become so difficult to tell the victims from the oppressors in the events that happen…. Truth seems to leap from one point to another, to slip away and wriggle into the dark like a fish or a mouse.”


Natalia Ginzburg was born in 1916. Family Sayings describes how she grew up in Turin, where her father, Giuseppe Levi, was professor of anatomy at the university. An assimilated, upper-middle-class agnostic Jew, he was a socialist with many friends later involved in anti-Fascist politics. His endearing non-Jewish wife was a staunch socialist too, but incongruously, dottily bourgeois in her habits and standards. As sunny and inconsequential as her husband was bearish and predictable, she was devoted to literature and the arts and obsessed with clothes. The family was beset by dressmakers—grand ones with irresistible shop windows full of things to be copied, and humbler ones who settled in the sewing room to do the copying and let out the children’s winter coats. Few things ever fitted perfectly.

There were three boys and two girls, Natalia being the youngest by a big gap. Professor Levi was given to choleric bouts of worry about their schoolwork and careers; otherwise he ignored them to concentrate on science, politics, and mountaineering. Snorting, banging, and stamping, he poured scorn on anyone who did not share his opinions and tastes in every respect. “Don’t make an ass of yourself,” he would yell at the children, especially if they showed signs of wanting to get married. The domestic atmosphere is curiously familiar from English academic memoirs like Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece or Sarah Coulton’s Father: low living and high thinking, economical meals, dowdy clothes, and compulsory Spartan holidays with lots of strenuous walks (and, in the Levis’ case, forcible skiing on decrepit skis). The female interest in culture was reduced to the status of counterculture. Professor Levi despised the arts and frowned on his wife’s outings to theaters and concerts. He acknowledged a duty to tear through museums abroad at top speed, but modern art was “daubing and dishwater,” while Proust “must have been a cad.” Still Natalia learned from her sister to worship Proust, and later translated Du côté de chez Swann into Italian. Like Proust, she is much concerned with memory and memories.

Her second brother, Mario, was caught smuggling anti-Fascist leaflets across the Swiss border. He managed to escape and eventually settled among other Italian exiles in Paris. Meanwhile Professor Levi and the eldest brother, Gino, were arrested. Signora Levi rushed to Rome to pull strings. She was successful. The professor came home quite soon, “very pleased with himself for having been in prison.” Gino was released shortly after. Signora Levi’s relief was tempered with disappointment: “So now it is back to the ordinary boring life.” The Levis glowed when it was the youngest brother, Alberto’s, turn for prison, because he had been arrested with “the cultural people”—Pavese, Einaudi, and the painter and writer Carlo Levi (no relation). “They felt that Alberto [who cared only for football] had suddenly become a worthwhile member of society.” The reactions show the family’s imperturbable adherance to possibly irrelevant standards—an absurd but noble stance.

Come to think of it, noble absurdity or absurd nobility is a Ginzburg specialty, probably hereditary. It is not a Quixotic rushing out so much as a nonchalant staying put with one’s values, be they intellectual, moral, or sartorial.

Among those arrested with Mario was his Russian friend Leone Ginzburg. “What is Mario up to with that man Ginzburg?” Professor Levi had wanted to know. “He is a very cultivated, intelligent man, who does very fine translations from Russian,” said Signora Levi.

“But he is very ugly,” said my father. “We know Jews are all ugly.”

“And what about you?” said my mother. “Aren’t you a Jew?”

“Well, yes, I am ugly too,” said my father.

Ginzburg was sent to a penitentiary, and when he came out Natalia married him.

She was barely out of school and found managing a household with a servant an unbearable worry. Soon there were more serious ones. The Ginzburgs’ passports were confiscated. They were prisoners in Italy, cut off from Mario and the other exiles. “Paris was over there, not so far away, I used to think as I walked down the Corso Francia. I really thought of Paris as being just at the end of the Corso Francia, the other side of the mountains, behind that veil of blue mist. In reality we were separated from Paris by a vast chasm.” Professor Levi lost his chair because he was Jewish, and accepted an appointment in Liège. “What a hole,” Signora Levi said and returned home as fast as she could. Her husband stayed in Belgium until the Germans occupied it. He managed to return to Turin just in time for the bombing. Whenever the king visited the city, Leone would be put in prison for a few days. “‘The King’s a devil of a nuisance!’ said my mother. ‘I wish he would stay at home a bit more.”‘


Then Italy entered the war and the Ginzburgs and their two small sons (born casually between the lines of the narrative) were sent into forced residence in the Abruzzi, where they had a daughter. Professor Levi wrote urging them to wash the children “as much as possible, since we were in a primitive village, lacking any standards of hygiene.”

At the news of Mussolini’s fall, Leone rushed to Rome. “Then came the brief exultation and delirious joy of the armistice; and then, two days later, the Germans.” Leone sent for Natalia because it was now too dangerous to stay in the village, where the Jewish exiles were known. With her children, she hitched a ride to Rome on a German army lorry whose driver had been persuaded she was a Neapolitan returning home. Leone was running an underground newspaper. Three weeks after Natalia’s arrival he was arrested, leaving her alone and terrified in a strange city. She never saw him again. Eventually her childhood friend and brother-in-law Adriano Olivetti came to take her into hiding: “I shall always remember his back bending to gather up our belongings scattered about the rooms—the children’s shoes for instance—and his good, humble and compassionate movements.”

The last thirty pages sum up what happened after the war. The professor and his wife had aged. Signora Levi’s

geography was all confused after the war. She could no longer think calmly of Grassi or Polikar [prewar friends in Germany and Spain]. They had had the power to transform distant countries into something homely, ordinary and cheerful, to make the whole world a town or street which she could go down in a moment in her thoughts, in the steps of those few familiar reassuring names.

After the war the world seemed vast, unknowable and boundless. However, my mother went back to living in the world as best she could, happily, for she had a happy nature.

She even bought a red dress to go to her own dearly loved mother’s funeral, although she had intended to buy a black one. “What could I do? My mama could not bear black clothes, and she would be very happy to see me in this lovely red dress!”

A general depression of spirits followed the immediate postwar euphoria. The survivors were more or less happy according to their temperaments. Pavese committed suicide. Paola and Adriano Olivetti divorced. Alberto, now a family doctor, was depressed by his depressing, indolent wife, ate too much, and got fat. Natalia herself married again and moved to Rome where her second husband was a professor of English at the university. (They spent time in England: she wrote two grim little essays about it which can be found in The Little Virtues.) She minded parting from her friends at Einaudi. No new colleagues would ever be able to replace them. “‘But in Rome you must learn to darn,’ my mother said. ‘Or else you must find a woman who is good at darning. Find a dressmaker who will come to the house.”‘ Her father also had instructions for her: “Mind you go at once to see Adele…. Woe betide you if you don’t. I don’t want you to make an ass of yourself. Apart from Gino, you lot all make asses of yourselves with people.”

The book ends with the two old Levis peaceably boring one another with their childhood reminiscences. Each has heard the other’s many times before and knows exactly how they will be phrased. They are part of the compendium of Family Sayings. The Italian title, Lessico Famigliare, unlike the English, does not suggest that the sayings are proverbial or wise. It just means a dictionary of family expressions—though it could also mean a dictionary for family use. Either way, the sayings stand for the people who used them; in reality or in memory, they are what is left at the end of a life, the solid sediment at the bottom, however much it has been shaken up.

Superficially, the earlier All Our Yesterdays seems more pulled together, with more plot, structure, and overt purpose. It is a Bildungsroman with Natalia’s alter ego, Anna, learning how to break out of the “silence” of her adolescence and “connect.” She learns through harrowing experiences. At fifteen she becomes pregnant by a schoolboy who abandons her. She is rescued from her predicament by a friend of her dead father’s, an eccentric, middle-aged philanthropist who marries her and takes her to his home in the deep south—a culture shock for her—where he champions the peasants against the landwoners. When the Germans march in he dies a martyr’s death, giving himself up to be executed in another man’s place.

After the war Anna returns north with her child and finds an intimacy she had never known before with her surviving brother and her dead brother’s friend:

And they laughed a little and were very friendly together, the three of them. Anna, Emanuele and Giustino; and they were pleased to be together, the three of them, thinking of all those who were dead, and of the long war and the sorrow and noise and confusion, and of the long, difficult life which they saw in front of them now, full of all the things they did not know how to do.

The elegiac ending seems to carry in it some kind of good resolution, which gives it a faint upbeat. Ten years later, in Family Sayings, what minimal optimism there was has so shrunk that it could be expressed in Pushkin’s lines:

Habit to us is given from above.

It is a substitute for happiness.

Another ten years on, in Dear Michael,* the melancholy has grown impenetrable, with the most sympathetic character concluding: “One gets used to anything when there is nothing left.” On the other hand, this pitch-black tragi-comedy has a formal perfection which comes as a surprise after the deliberate randomness of the other novels. Perhaps one should interpret that as a determination not to let go.

This Issue

November 7, 1985