A World Filled with Echoes: On Natalia Ginzburg’s “The Little Virtues”

By Andrew Martino

There are books that become a part of us in profound and magical ways. Books that become companions, whether in childhood or in adulthood, and that leave a trace of its magic on our souls. For those of us who read voraciously, most books are forgotten, or at best, leave only a fraction of their residue behind and we move on to other books, other experiences. I suspect that even for the serious reader, those readers who read books three or four times, if not more, most of the books we read throughout a lifetime are forgotten. So why is it that other books, other characters and scenes, stay with us when others don’t? Who can say why a book speaks to us, why an author’s style resonates with us while others are forgotten. Perhaps it’s the intimacy we feel while reading certain authors, the connections we make between author and text to our own experiences. For me, Natalia Ginzburg is one of those voices that struck a chord that continues to vibrate within me. Reading Ginzburg goes far beyond the pleasurable. It’s as if her writing comes to us from somewhere far below the surface, revealing what is inherently human.

Ginzburg is experiencing a renaissance in English translation. New editions of her work through publishers like New Directions and the New York Review Books, as well as a marvelous new translation of Lessico famigliare by Jenny McPhee and published by NYRB in 2017 offer a new generation of readers an opportunity to experience her writing, and those of us who’ve read her in the past are becoming reacquainted. I first came to Ginzburg not through her fiction, but through her essays. The Little Virtues was my entry point. I read the collection like one reads a novel, from the first page to the last. I became beguiled by her voice. It quickly became one of the books that has stayed with me and has become a constant companion. I currently own three editions: a paperback copy in Italian, a first English edition translated by Dick Davis and published in 1985 by Seaver Books, and a heavily underlined and annotated paperback of the English translation which occupies a permanent space on my nightstand.

First Published by Einaudi in 1962, The Little Virtues (Le piccole virtú) is a collection of previously published essays Ginzburg had written between 1944 and 1962. The collection is broken into two parts. All of the essays are relatively short, thus constituting digestible pieces of wisdom and insight into the human condition that are as penetrating as any long-form essay. The essays collected here represent a writer’s vision of the world and her place in it. Some of the essays are personal (“Winter in Abruzzi,” “Worn-Out Shoes,” “He and I,”), some more philosophical, (“Human Relations,” and “The Little Virtues”). Still others offer practical insights into the craft of writing (“My Vocation”), and thoughtful, if sometimes harsh, observations of place (“England: Eulogy and Lament,” and “La Maison Volpé”). Davis’ translation faithfully follows the style and tone of the Italian. Perhaps this is why we have not had a new English translation.

Through The Little Virtues readers come to know Ginzburg in a way that her fiction more carefully conceals. Although we may say that all of her writing draws upon her own biography, not all of her writing is biographical. The essays contained in The Little Virtues do reveal what is essential about the writer Natalia Ginzburg and the world she inhabited.

The title essay, which concludes the collection, is a mediation on the education of children. It is here that she informs us that “As far as the education of children is concerned I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones” (121). It’s confusing at first, because the reader’s natural instinct is to surmise that the little virtues are the ones Ginzburg will defend. The little virtues are, after all, what she has titled the collection. But what is the difference between little and great virtues? “The little virtues also arise from our deepest instincts, from a defensive instinct; but in them reason speaks, holds forth, displays its arguments as the brilliant advocate of self-preservation” (122). Reason and self-preservation are just two concepts which stick out to this reader. These are also synonymous with the well-traveled path, with the safer route. On the other hand, the great virtues are those which come with the most risk, but also promise the greatest reward: “The great virtues well up from an instinct in which reason does not speak, and instinct that seems to be difficult to name. And the best of us is in that silent instinct, and not in our defensive instinct which harangues, holds forth and displays its arguments with reason’s voice” (122). Ginzburg is stating that with risk we come closest to experiencing life. The great virtues, those that can contain the little virtues, allow us to feel, to exist in the most complete fashion.

She concludes the essay arguing that the true education we must strive to instill in our children, in all children, is a love of life. Out of that love of life a child will be better equipped to discover his or her true vocation. It’s not, therefore, the vocation that makes the life, but the life that leads to the vocation. This is further demonstrated by the essay “My Vocation,” where Ginzburg discusses, without the presumption of self-analysis, her vocation as a writer.

My vocation is to write and I have known this for a long time. I hope I won’t be misunderstood; I know nothing about the value of the things I am able to write. I know that writing is my vocation. When I sit down to write I feel extraordinarily at ease, and I move in an element which, it seems to me, I know extraordinarily well; I use tools that are familiar to me and they fit snuggly in my hands. (69)

We must be allowed to daydream, to wander, to err into life. Without that errancy we risk a living in a sterile world of mass-produced ideas. Yet, this is counter-productive to the way we conduct our lives today, and to how we conducted our lives for the last millennia. Ginzburg’s overall argument is nothing less than a call to re-think thinking itself.

In “The Son of Man” we get a rare, almost cynically minded essay. Here Ginzburg comes closest to giving into bitterness, “We shall never be at peace again” (64). But the act of writing itself serves to give testimony, not a bitter rebuke. “Human Relationships” is the most abstract and philosophical of the essays in the collection. This essay goes through the stages of life and demonstrates a kind of circular logic to that life. Our human relationships are also what makes us human and what, in a resonant way, becomes the dominate virtue for Ginzburg. When we fail at human relationships we fail at life. “The problem of our relationships with other human beings lies at the center of our life” (95).

For me the essay that I have come back to more than any other is “Portrait of a Friend,” her piece on the life and suicide of Cesare Pavese. Written in 1957, the essay is a heartbreaking work of staggering beauty and honesty, a sentiment further intensified by Ginzburg’s spatial and temporal distance from the city and the events she is recalling. Pavese is one of the most tragic of our twentieth-century poets: alone, unlucky in love, unable to appreciate the companionship he brought to his small circle of friends and the influence of his work as a writer, editor, and translator.

She begins by describing the nature of Turin: “The city’s essential nature is melancholy; the river loses itself in the distance and disappears in a horizon of violet mists which make you think of sunsets at midday, and at any moment you can breathe in the same dark, industrial smell of soot, and hear the whistle of the trains” (16). This detail is essential because she then goes into the melancholy nature of Pavese, drawing for her readers a direct connection between the city and the man. Turin is Italy’s moodiest city, and one that meant very much to Pavese. Ginzburg gives us the best description of Pavese I have ever encountered:

Stubborn and solitary our friend walked with his long thread throughout the city; he hid himself away in remote, smoky cafés where he would immediately slip off his coat and hat but keep on the pale, ugly scarf that was carelessly flung about his neck; he twisted strands of his long brown hair around his fingers and then, quick as lightning, pushed the strands back. He filled page after page with his quick, broad handwriting, crossing out furiously as he went. (17)

Whenever I read Pavese, which is quite often, this is the image I have in my mind. Ginzburg’s essay on him is a gift to us, as well as a testament to her friend. That friendship, and its tragic end would resurface again in 1963 in the pages of Family Lexicon (Lessico famigliare).

Ginzburg’s writing is never sentimental, never wayward and loose. Instead, she pierces through the fabric standing between the world as spectacle and the life we live inside our own heads. In other words, she shows us how to think, how to see in a world replete with distractions. She also shows us the dangers of a life when lived unbalanced. Consider these words from “Silence:” “There are two kinds of silence; silence with oneself and silence with others. Both kinds make us suffer equally” (91). Her style more closely resembles Pavese’s (and that of Camus) than it does Calvino’s. Ginzburg composed these essays long before the advent of social media and the Internet, yet reading these essays today gives us just as much valuable insight into life in the twenty-first century as it does the twentieth. Human nature really hasn’t changed all that much since these essays were first published, and yet it’s also become irrevocably altered by a reality that is increasingly virtual.

Perhaps more than any other book of Ginzburg’s, The Little Virtues contains what is essential about its writer. It should be required reading for anyone wishing to know about writing, about a woman’s life under Fascism, about loss and gain, about our relationships to others, and above all about life. Despite the tragedies in her life, her work shows us that ultimately life is worth living, that those tragedies and hardships are just as important as our successes and loves. It is not accidental, and surely exemplary that she ends the collection with the phrase, “perché l’amore alla vita genera amore all vita,” or in Davis’ English translation, “because love of life begets a love of life.”

Andrew Martino is Dean of the Glenda Chatham & Robert G. Clarke Honors College at Salisbury University where he is also professor of English. He has published on Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, and Luigi Pirandello, among others. He is a regular reviewer for World Literature Today, and is currently finishing a manuscript on Paul Bowles. 

This essay is part of our special issue “Reading Natalia Ginzburg.”

Works Cited

Ginzburg, Natalia. Family Lexicon. Translated by Jenny McPhee. New York Review Books, 2017.

Ginzburg, Natalia. The Little Virtues. Translated by Dick Davis. New York: Arcade, 1985. E-book.

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