Forging the Female Voice out of the Ruins of History: Reading Natalia Ginzburg

By Katrin Wehling-Giorgi

In recent years, partly abetted by the phenomenal global and transmedial success of Elena Ferrante’s works, Natalia Ginzburg’s novels and short stories have undergone a major revival and rediscovery, leading to a number of (re-)translations and increasing attention by a new transnational readership.[1] As a translator herself (of Proust, Vercors, Flaubert, among others) and one of the protagonists of an increasingly international post-war publishing culture, and as someone whose life was intimately interweaved with the events of twentieth-century Italian history, the attention Ginzburg is garnering outside of Italy thirty years after her death is long overdue.

Re-reading her works in the midst of this devastating pandemic, I can newly relate to the rawness that stands out amidst the everyday in her writings, to the acute presence of trauma in the face of personal and collective hardship, and to the material constraints of family commitments in the intellectual and practical life of women that she relates so compellingly. What emerges from Ginzburg’s negotiation of the ordinary and an underlying profound acquaintance with trauma and marginality, in fact, provides a “new template for the female voice,”[2] a voice from the past that is uniquely relevant to our present times.

Despite the author’s initial resistance to autobiography as a genre closely associated with women’s writing (“I had a sacred horror of autobiography,” Preface to Cinque romanzi brevi, 8)1All translations of Ginzburg’s texts unless otherwise indicated are mine. and her persistent attempts to detach her own persona from the narrative perspective, Ginzburg’s voice is deeply entrenched with the rise of fascism, the atrocities and persecutions of the Second World War and its aftermath in Italy: “I was formed by the war because that was what happened to me.”[3] Scholars have often commented on how she situates herself at the edges of historical events that are played out elsewhere.[4] Her first novel, The Road to the City, was published in 1942 under a pseudonym owing to the racial laws at the time, and it was composed while the family was in confino (internal exile) in Abruzzo, Southern Italy. In fact, Ginzburg forges her narrative voice out of a form of real and existential exile, both as a Jew and as a woman operating in what was still a deeply patriarchal culture (“I am infused with patriarchy”),[5] as well as the youngest of five children.

Her works are built on the rubble of a society that is scarred by the atrocities of a war that saw her husband die at the hands of the fascist regime. Like her contemporary Elsa Morante, who ascribes the disenfranchised victims of war ([Jewish] women, children and animals) a new centrality in her 1974 masterpiece History: A Novel, Ginzburg’s texts similarly challenge hierarchies by providing a fresh glance on (hi)stories told from the margins, putting the major figures and events of the Italian intelligentsia on a par with family members and domestic dramas, played out against the backdrop of fascist and post-war Italy.

In an enthusiastic review of Morante’s novel, Ginzburg provides a unique insight into her own poetics, conveyed by a narrative perspective that negotiates the universal in the minutiae of everyday life:

the narrating self is present [in the text], but it surfaces only occasionally, in the space of a few lines. However, the narrating self in History: A Novel is of utmost importance; it does not inhere any limits, but it is the point from which the world is contemplated. The latter is both elevated and subterranean, equipped with a gaze that sees the infinite extension of the horizon and the deepest, tiniest furrows and crevices of the ground. [6]

Ginzburg particularly admires how Morante’s discrete use of the third person narrator provides a comprehensive worldview that remains deeply affected but unencumbered by the experience of grief (“it is the voice of who has lived through deserts of desperation”). The near-absent and predominantly first-person narrator in Ginzburg’s works has an even less incumbent presence in the texts, though it similarly engenders the author’s Weltanschauung by founding the daily workings of the real on the precarious footing of marginality and trauma.

The events at the centre of Ginzburg’s narrative are dictated by the smallest and seemingly frivolous events of everyday life, a poetics of the real that defines the majority of her works. Yet, what underlies her portrayals of (dysfunctional) societal ties and domestic strife is the gravitas of a life lived and suffered. As she reflects in the essay “My Vocation”: “I got to know grief very well – a real, irremediable and incurable grief that shattered my life […]. Only my vocation remained unchanged […] – the tools were still the same but the way I used them had altered” (The Little Virtues, 67). The scholar of trauma studies Cathy Caruth posits trauma as an emotional shock which, “in its unexpectedness or horror, cannot be placed within the schemes of prior knowledge,”[7] giving rise to a crisis of temporality (since it can only be known belatedly) and representation that is intrinsically relevant for literature. In Ginzburg’s works, the experience of trauma translates into such moments of breakage that often lurk beneath the façade of the objects that clutter bourgeois life, as she recounts in “The Son of Man”: “Once the experience of evil has been endured it is never forgotten. […] Behind the peaceful little vases of flowers, behind the teapots and carpets and waxed floors there is the other true face of a house – the hideous face of a house that has been reduced to rubble” (The Little Virtues, 49-50).

And it is precisely this “hideous face” that ominously peeks through a seemingly ordinary façade in Ginzburg’s narrative. The beautiful essay “Winter in the Abruzzi” that chronicles the three-year period she and her family spent in Pizzoli, the site of her husband Leone’s confino of which the narrator preserves fond memories, abruptly ends on the traumatic note of his death in prison under the fascists: “Faced with the horror of his solitary death, and faced with the anguish which preceded his death, I ask myself if this happened to us – to us, who bought oranges at Giro’s and went for walks in the snow” (The Little Virtues, 8). The rituals marked by material objects and everyday events like the family’s regular walks in the snow are exposed in their precariousness as the author’s hopes for a happy, peaceful future are forever shattered.

The technique of interweaving traumatic memory and the everyday is similarly applied in Family Lexicon (1963), where the wartime defeat of France is recounted in tandem with the proleptic premonition of Cesare Pavese’s suicide, all coupled with the ordinary ritual of eating cherries: “That spring Pavese often arrived at our place eating cherries. He loved the first cherries, the ones that were small and watery, and he’d say they ‘tasted like heaven.’ […] For me, the fall of France would forever be associated with those cherries which, when Pavese arrived, he made us all try, pulling them one by one from his pocket with his parsimonious and grumpy hand” (Family Lexicon, 133).

Despite her sustained efforts to erase her narrative presence, Ginzburg is profoundly invested in her writings. As she puts it in “The Son of Man,” “we are close to the truth of things. This is the only good the war has given us” (The Little Virtues, 50). The result is a hybrid blend of novelistic elements and memoir in her texts in which “everything is invented, but with autobiography exiting through the door and entering through the window” (È difficile parlare di sé, 72), forged together with the highly fallible tool of memory. Ginzburg reveals herself as a significant precursor not only to the contemporary trend of autofiction that counts Ferrante and Knausgård as two of its most prominent exponents,[8] but her way of defining the enunciating subject through its relations with the other(s) mirrors contemporary feminist philosopher Adriana Cavarero’s relational theory of the subject: “the identity of the self, crystallized in the story, is totally constituted by the relations of her appearance to others in the world” (Cavarero, Relating Narratives, 36). Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon is in fact a “‘relational’ autobiography” (Marotti, ‘Filial Discourses’, 77) in which the subject defines itself in rapport with or often in opposition to the other, ultimately resulting in a palimpsestic construction of (female) selfhood that captures the individual in its plurality of voices.

Built on the precarious ruins of history, Ginzburg’s unique narrative self indeed provides an unassumingly powerful alternative to the omniscient, male-authored account of historical events. In providing an uncertain, oblique gaze on the world whilst preserving an underlying sense of resilience, her voice is uniquely relevant in negotiating the calamities of past and present times.

Katrin Wehling-Giorgi is Associate Professor of Italian Studies at Durham University, UK. She has published widely on European modernism and twentieth-century and contemporary women’s writing including Elsa Morante, Goliarda Sapienza, Alice Sebold and Elena Ferrante. She is the author of Gadda and Beckett: Subjectivity, Storytelling and Fracture (Oxford: Legenda, 2014), and the co-editor of Goliarda Sapienza in Context: Intertextual Relationships with Italian and European Literature (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2016) and of the Special Journal Issue Elena Ferrante in a Global Context (Modern Language Notes, 136.1, forthcoming 2021).

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

[1] See e.g. Lara Feigel, “Border Crossing: How Translated Fiction can open up the World,” The Guardian, 23 November 2019,

[2] Rachel Cusk, Introduction to The Little Virtues.

[3]Surviving History,” New York Times Magazine, 25 March 1990.

[4] See e.g. Sharon Wood, Italian Women’s Writing 1860-1994, 135.

[5] Natalia Ginzburg, “Donne e uomini,” in La Stampa, 10 December 1977.

[6] Natalia Ginzburg, “I personaggi di Elsa: Appunti su ‘La Storia’,” in Corriere della sera, 21 July 1974.

[7] C. Caruth, Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1995, p. 153.

[8] For a detailed discussion of autofiction in Knausgård, Ferrante and beyond, see Olivia Santovetti’s forthcoming essay ‘Künstlerroman of “late modernity”: Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet’. 

Works Cited

Caruth, Cathy. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1995.

Cavarero, Adriana. Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood. Translated by Paul A. Kottman. London; New York, Routledge, 2000.

Ginzburg, Natalia. The Road to the City. Translated by Frances Frenaye. London, Daunt Books Publishing, 2021 [1942] (forthcoming).Cinque romanzi brevi. Turin, Einaudi, 1964.

Ginzburg, Natalia. È difficile parlare di sé. Turin, Einaudi, 1999.

Ginzburg, Natalia. The Little Virtues. Translated by Dick Davis. London, Daunt Books Publishing, 2018 [1962].

Ginzburg, Natalia. Family Lexicon. Translated by Jenny McPhee. New York, New York Review Books, 2017 [1963].

Marotti, Maria. ‘Filial Discourses: Feminism and Femininity in Italian Women’s Autobiography’, in Feminine Feminists: Cultural Practices in Italy, ed. by G. Miceli Jeffries, Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

Morante, Elsa. History: A Novel. Translated by William Weaver. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1977 [1974].

Santovetti, Olivia. ‘Künstlerroman of “late modernity”: Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet’ in Special Issue on ‘Elena Ferrante in a Global Context’, ed. by T. de Rogatis, S. Milkova and K. Wehling-Giorgi, Modern Language Notes, vol. 136.1.

Wood, Sharon. Italian Women’s Writing 1860-1994. Manchester; New York, Manchester University Press, 1993.

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