The Driest Eye

The Dry Heart

by Natalia Ginzburg, translated from the Italian by Frances Frenaye
New Directions, 88 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Happiness, as Such

by Natalia Ginzburg, translated from the Italian by Minna Zallman Proctor
New Directions, 162 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Family Lexicon

by Natalia Ginzburg, translated from the Italian by Jenny McPhee, with an afterword by Peg Boyers
New York Review Books, 221 pp., $14.95 (paper)
Natalia Ginzburg, Rome
Effigie/Bridgeman Images
Natalia Ginzburg, Rome, circa 1985

Natalia Ginzburg published her first novella, I Bandini, in 1934, when she was eighteen. Three years later she completed the first Italian translation of Marcel Proust’s Du côté de chez Swann. Over the course of her seventy-five years—during which she also worked as an editor at the Einaudi publishing house, brought up the four of her five children who survived infancy, served as a member of Parliament, and involved herself in humanitarian causes, including support for Palestinian children—she wrote novels, novellas, plays, short stories, columns, and essays. She was, in short, a born writer, and someone deeply engaged with the world she lived in.

If that world had been different, maybe the sparkling vivacity of her writing would have been uncomplicated by a menacing undertow of violence. But her father, Giuseppe Levi, was, as his surname made clear, Jewish, and her reasonably genteel middle-class family was left-wing. And as Fascism gradually engulfed Italy, Ginzburg and her family were increasingly beset, she herself most tragically.

These three books are very different, and each has its own translator, but Ginzburg is unmistakable. Her observations are swift and exact, usually irradiated by an unruly and often satirical humor. The instrument with which she writes is fine, wonderfully flexible and keen, and the quality of her attention is singular. The voice is pure and unmannered, both entrancing and alarming, elegantly streamlined by the authority of a powerful intelligence.

Her work is so consistently surprising that reading it is something like being confronted with a brilliant child, innocent in the sense of being uncorrupted by habit, instruction, or propriety. Ginzburg wastes no time, and the narratives can zoom around destabilizing hairpin turns. And yet the violence at the heart of each of these books is obdurate—immovable and unassimilable.

The novella The Dry Heart, published in Italian in 1947 as È stato così, is the earliest of these three books, and interestingly, perhaps, given the year, has no overt political content. Here’s how it begins:

“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.

He had asked me to give him something hot in a thermos bottle to take with him on his trip. I went into the kitchen, made some tea, put milk and sugar in it, screwed the top on tight, and went back into his study. It was then that he showed me the sketch, and I took the revolver out of his desk drawer and shot him between the eyes. But for a long time already I had known that…

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