Natalia Ginzburg (née Levi), one of the most distinguished writers of modern Italy, was born in Palermo in 1916 and died in 1991. During the 1920s and 1930s, as Fascism was taking hold, the family and the circle of intellectuals and artists with which they were connected were actively anti-Fascist. In 1938 she married the scholar Leone Ginzburg. They spent the early war years in political exile in Abruzzi, during which time Ginzburg wrote her first novel, La strada che va in città, published in 1942 under a pseudonym because of the racial laws limiting the rights of Jews. When they returned to Rome in 1944, Leone Ginzburg was arrested and died at the hands of the Fascists. Natalia Ginzburg went on to publish numerous novels, plays, and essays, as well as to found, with a group of fellow writers, the Italian publishing house Einaudi. The following memoir, written in 1944, appears in A Place to Live and Other Selected Essays of Natalia Ginzburg, published this month by Seven Stories Press.
Deus nobis haec otia fecit. *
In the Abruzzi there are just two seasons: summer and winter. Spring is snowy and windy like winter, and autumn is hot and clear like summer. Summer begins in June and ends in November. Gone are the long sun-baked days on the low, parched hills, the yellow dust of the streets and the children’s dysentery; winter sets in. People stop living in the streets; barefoot children disappear from the church steps. In the village I speak of, nearly all the men would vanish after the last harvests, going off to work in Terni, in Sulmona, in Rome. It was a village of bricklayers, and a number of the houses were elegantly built, with terraces and balustrades like small villas, so when you entered it was startling to find huge dark kitchens with prosciutti hanging from the ceiling, and vast, dreary, empty rooms. The kitchen fires would be lit; there were various kinds of fires—big ones made of oak logs, fires of leaves and branches, and fires made of dry twigs picked up one by one along the road. It was easy to distinguish the poor from the rich by their fires, easier than judging by the houses and the people, or their clothing and shoes, which were more or less the same for everyone.
When I first came to the village, all the faces seemed the same to me; the women, rich and poor, young and old, all looked alike. Nearly all had missing teeth: the women down there lose their teeth at thirty, from hard work and poor nutrition as well as from the strains of childbirth and nursing babies that come one after the other relentlessly. But soon, little by little, I could single out Vincenzina da Secondina, Annunziata da Addolorata, and I started visiting all the houses and warming…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.