Despite her fame in her homeland, Natalia Ginzburg was until recently little known in the United States. For decades, critics have considered her Italy’s finest female novelist, essayist, and playwright of the second half of the twentieth century. Yet it seems that only her country’s recent turn to the far right has enticed New York publishers to take an interest, with a slew of new English-language editions.
In 2017, New York Review Books brought out a highly praised translation of Family Lexicon, which is to be followed by two sets of lesser-known Ginzburg novellas next year. On June 25, New Directions published Happiness, as Such, a tragicomic novel about a young man fleeing the country because of his political activism, and on August 13, Arcade will reissue The Manzoni Family: A Novel, a biography of the nineteenth-century romantic Alessandro Manzoni, author of the classic The Betrothed.
Ginzburg’s emotional and physical narrative landscape stands in stark contrast to that of today’s highest-profile Italian novelist, Elena Ferrante (a pseudonym), by most accounts born in 1943. Ferrante’s best-selling Neapolitan Novels quartet has been translated into many languages and turned into an ongoing HBO series. Her main characters are two working-class girls coming of age in a poverty-stricken Naples neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s, marked by profound misogyny and violence.
Born in Palermo in 1916, Ginzburg’s coming-of-age stories instead draw on her own middle-class antifascist background in interwar Turin. In The Son of Man she clearly delineates her generation’s experience from both her parents’ generation and those that came afterwards. “We shall not get over this war. It is useless to try. We shall never be people who go peacefully about their business, who think and study and manage their lives quietly. Something has happened to our houses. Something has happened to us. We shall never be at peace again.” Hers was an oeuvre proper to a generation forever marked by fascism and World War II.
A Family Lexicon
Ginzburg’s most famous works — Family Lexicon, The Little Virtues, and All Our Yesterdays — often deal with family life during Mussolini’s two-decade rule and its tumultuous aftermath. As her friend from those years Vittorio Foa recalled in an extensive Radio Tre retrospective in 1990, later turned into a book, “When I read Natalia’s novels there is an extraordinarily strong relationship between the continuity of daily life, with its tiny details, its tediousness, its little unhappinesses — and the tragic interruptions . . . even when she doesn’t talk about it, we feel the presence of Turin, the Abruzzi, Rome. There is at once a background of daily life and a tragic background.”
This was evident in her Family Lexicon — winner of the 1963 Strega Prize — both a novel and a memoir told through the eyes of the young Natalia Ginzburg (née Levi). The Levi family is boisterous, eccentric, well educated, and contentious. They all remain antifascists and Socialists even as many around them accommodate their lives to Mussolini for financial convenience.
The youngest sibling of five, Natalia constantly struggles to get a word in edgewise and admits that she speaks in terse sentences so as not to bore her three much older brothers and fashion-conscious sister, who marries another antifascist, Adriano Olivetti — scion of the Olivetti typewriter company. Natalia’s father, Giuseppe, is a well-respected Jewish biology professor at the University of Turin. He is despotic, opinionated, and deeply pessimistic. Lidia, his wife, is a free-spirited, Proust-reading storyteller often singing librettos and rhymes at the family dinner table, amusing her five children and their many friends. Brought up by a prominent Catholic Socialist lawyer, she often keeps her scowling husband psychologically afloat. “I’m going to see if fascism is still on its feet,” she’d sing on her way to the greengrocer. “I’m going to see if they’ve toppled Mussolini.” “Nitwittery,” Giovanni would thunder.
But despite these humorous absurdities, the Levis often put themselves in grave personal danger to protect others. In 1926, two years after Unitary Socialist Party (PSU) leader Giacomo Matteotti was brutally murdered by Mussolini’s men, the ten-year-old Natalia encountered “the grand old man of Socialism” Filippo Turati (Socialist Party co-founder and a close friend of her maternal grandfather) hiding out in their large family apartment. “He was as big as a bear with a round graybeard,” warning her not to “tell anyone I was here.” Soon afterward, the elderly Turati would be driven to safety in Paris by Carlo Rosselli, youthful founder-leader of the antifascist movement Justice and Liberty (GL)
Giustizia e Libertà
In 1934, Natalia’s middle brother, Mario — also a GL member — became “notorious” for hurling himself into Lake Lugano when Mussolini’s police tried to arrest him and a companion in the town of Ponte Tresa. “In the water with his overcoat on,” cried his mother, Lidia. As a result, his father and older brother, Gino, were arrested as accomplices and held for a number of days in a Turin prison. These events and others led to a roundup of many GL members in that city. As author Alexander Stille describes, on May 15, 1935, “More than fifty people were arrested in Turin and abut two hundred homes were searched for compromising material.” Stille points out that GL operatives collected information about fascist economic and military policy, about working conditions, unauthorized factory strikes, and peasant uprisings.
Many GL members came from the professional classes, and families like the Levis. “Rumors of mass arrests swept quickly through the Turinese upper-middle-class families of lawyers, businessmen, doctors and professors . . . The waiting room and the police station turned into a kind of social club for wives, mothers and girlfriends of prisoners,” adds Stille. Most GL prisoners were released after a few days but Vittorio Foa, Natalia Ginzburg’s friend, and a well-known GL activist, spent eight traumatic years in prison. She would come to view her father and his friends as “old fashioned Socialists,” as she told Radio Tre. “There’s nothing we can do, we can’t get out of this now,” her father intoned. After the passing of the antisemitic racial laws in 1938, banning Jews from jobs in public institutions, Giuseppe Levi lost his professorship in Italy and luckily was hired to teach in Belgium.
But in 1937, Mussolini’s men brutally murdered Carlo Rosselli along with his brother Nello on a quiet country road in France. The following year, Leone Ginzburg — a native of Odessa, literary critic, and professor of Russian literature — was stripped of his Italian citizenship after an earlier refusal to sign an oath to Mussolini, costing him his teaching job. While Carlo Rosselli famously came from a rich, well-connected Florentine family, this was not the case of Leone Ginzburg, a special target of the fascist secret police, the OVRA.
Leone Ginzburg, who married Natalia in 1938, was perhaps the GL activist best known to the OVRA. In 1936 he was released from Civitavecchia Penitentiary. “His coat was too small and his tattered hat sat slightly askew on top of his black hair,” wrote Natalia in Family Lexicon. “He walked slowly with his hands in his pockets, his lips down, his brow knit, his tortoise shell glasses resting halfway down his large nose with his black, penetrating eyes.”
He met with Giulio Einaudi, who had started a small publishing house back in 1933. Together they decided to revitalize that company, Einaudi editore, and publish those who were fighting against Mussolini. That company would become famous in the postwar period for its talented trove of new Italian voices.
In the Resistance period the largest antifascist party, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) was, however, anything but sympathetic to GL and its troubles. It considered the movement founded by Rosselli elitist, non-Marxist, and thoroughly bourgeois. “For Rosselli,” writes Stanislao G. Pugliese, author of Carlo Rosselli: Socialist Heretic and Antifascist Exile, “the task of GL was nothing less than reconciling the political and social potential of the Russian Revolution with the scientific humanistic, liberal legacy of the West . . . Rosselli had had an obsession with renewing socialism, with trying to find some way out of the impotence of international socialism . . . Rosselli was especially impatient with the insipid socialism of [French socialist prime minister] Leon Blum and willing to break the taboo of pacifism . . . nor was he in favor of state socialism.” Instead, Rosselli had called for a “strategy of a permanent, adversarial, and confrontational stance versus the state.”
“The PCI, with good cause,” Pugliese writes, “perceived GL as its most serious competitor for the allegiance of young, active antifascists. The two groups were the most vital, innovative, and well-organized of the exiled, and underground antifascist organizations. . . . For the PCI, GL was ‘an agency of Italian capitalism . . . anticommunist organization . . . that seeks to trick the workers and separate them from the Communist Party.’” And for all the profound sacrifices made by GL members, the movement did not attract a mass following, like the PCI. GL would morph into the Action Party, which only lasted until 1947 after disappointing results in the first postwar elections. Still, Pugliese writes, “their ideals were kept alive by many independent intellectuals of the Left, ideas first broached by Rosselli in the 1930s.”
The life of Natalia Ginzburg had indeed been irretrievably influenced by GL’s notorious reputation with Mussolini’s OVRA. In her writing she mentioned it only briefly: “We got married, Leone and I.” Two years after their wedding, in 1940 Leone Ginzburg was sentenced to confino (internal exile) in the impoverished village of Pizzoli, in the Abruzzi. Natalia, with their two small children, would soon join him. A third child was born in Pizzoli, where they lived for the next three years.
In her writing on the Abruzzi there is no hint of antisemitism — indeed, local peasants seemed fascinated by the Ginzburgs, and after Leone’s death, one woman in particular, the daughter of the people who ran the local hotel, did everything to help Natalia and her children escape.
“We got to know many people in the village who would come to see Leone and get him to write letters for them . . . we would spend the evenings in the kitchen of Hotel Vittoria which was much more welcoming than ours. We would sit by the fire, we didn’t talk politics because it wasn’t allowed . . . there was the police headquarters nearby . . . the village had taken us into their hearts, but I don’t think they thought we were anti-fascists. They thought we were Jews. They didn’t ask questions. ”
Leone worked on the Action Party’s underground newspaper, L’Italia Libera, known as the paper of the democratic resistance, and corresponded with Einaudi about the publishing house. In 1942, it would publish Natalia’s first novel, The Road to the City. After the fall of Mussolini on July 25, 1943, Leone left for Rome, but just six weeks later the Germans took back control of the city. In November 1943, he was picked up and sent to the Regina Coeli prison where he was subjected to brutal beatings and torture by the Nazis. He died on February 5, 1944.
Taking Sides With the Victims
In Winter in the Abruzzi, a renowned short story that Natalia wrote in the fall of 1944, she explained “Faced with the horror of his solitary death, and faced with the anguish which proceeded his death, I ask myself [how] this could have happened to we who bought oranges at Giro’s [a village store in Pizzoli] and went for walks in the snow.” The epilogue of her famous poem “Memory,” dedicated to Leone, could not have been bleaker. “But the gate that would be opened at night will be shut forever; and your youth is gone, the fire is out, the house is empty.” Natalia was now a twenty-eight-year-old widow with three small children. She would write little else about Leone for many years, until she published Family Lexicon in 1963.
Having moved back to Rome to support her family, Natalia went to work as a translator and editor at Einaudi. It would soon relocate to Turin, where her parents lived with her children. Many of the staff there were old friends. “There was a sense of union, of solidarity, at the beginning,” she wrote, “there was a very strong sense that things were starting up again.” As she wrote later in My Vocation, her work and her children brought her through this horrific period, and she wrote emphatically, “I couldn’t have done it without my mother.” She would go onto remarry in the 1950s, but friends and colleagues would always describe her as austere. She would eventually leave her editor/translator role at Einaudi, but the firm became famous for its roster of talent, including Cesare Pavese, Elsa Morante, Carlo Levi, and Fernand Braudel, among many other writers.
“The Einaudi of those days doesn’t exist anymore,” remarked Giulio Einaudi in the Radio Tre interview. “The fact is, there was an editorial group all with different ideologies — Communists, orthodox Marxists, less-orthodox Marxists, Socialists … let’s not forget that the cultural origins of the publishing house evolved around the Action Party … but everything we published was always discussed by everyone in meetings. And when there was a disagreement, it went to a vote, and when the majority opposed printing a book, it didn’t get published.”
In her plays and novels after the war, she wrote about the deep cynicism which, she felt, separated her generation from the previous one. In 1972, after the massacre of eleven Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, Ginzburg wrote a deeply controversial essay called “Universal Pity.” In it, she supported the Palestinian cause, writing, “I know very few things about myself, but I do know with absolute certainty that I don’t want to be on the side of those who use arms, money and culture to oppress farmers and shepherds.”
In response to this text she was attacked by many Israelis, and while her novels have been popular in Israel in spite of this, her essays have not been translated into Hebrew. On November 8, 2016, her eldest son, celebrated historian Carlo Ginzburg, gave the major address at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute honoring Natalia Ginzburg’s work as a world-renowned writer. “We are moved and touched by this event,” he said. “It was not a gray area for her. In the end, her answer was to take sides with the victim.”