“History’s Inexorable Demands”: An Excerpt from Sandra Petrignani’s “La corsara”

As part of our special issue “Reading Natalia Ginzburg,” we are featuring an excerpt from the English translation of Sandra Petrignani’s biography of Natalia Ginzburg, La corsara. Ritratto di Natalia Ginzburg (Neri Pozza 2019). The passages excerpted here are from chapter six, “History’s Inexorable Demands,” and are published with Sandra Petrignani’s permission and courtesy of the translator, Minna Zallman Proctor.

The excerpt recounts how Natalia met her future husband, Leone Ginzburg, and outlines the milieu of Turin intellectuals she frequented. An interview with Sandra Petrignani about writing La corsara is part of this special issue on Natalia Ginzburg as well.

Stiliana Milkova, editor

History’s Inexorable Demands

The Levi family was on the first floor again in their new, “short and oldish” house on Corso Re Umberto 28. They had a street entrance, which delighted Lidia because she could come and go without climbing any stairs. Natalia, who was her last child still living at home, wouldn’t “give her an inch”—and was increasingly shut off into her own world of rebellious adolescence. She was individuating herself against her mother and older sister. While they loved elegance, Natalia preferred masculine styles. She acted manly and coarse, wore unshapely shoes and an old trench coat. When it rained, she refused to take an umbrella and got wet, like a little bird. She wasn’t minimally interested in her parents’ concerns, or their conversations—she just didn’t care. She hardly talked at meals and then would race to her bedroom to be alone, to write or meditate on her “vertiginous thoughts” about the truth of creation, and, as she later wrote in her essay “Human Relations,” “that monstrous, inexplicable species, the opposite sex.”[*]

She started smoking—a habit she’d have for the rest of her life—but bought cheap cigarettes, because she was committed to poverty. She wanted to train for her destiny and that of the workers and the disadvantaged. The class into which she was born was starting to bore her, with its bourgeois salons, the books borrowed from the Women’s Pro Cultura Circle library, her mother’s Russian lessons with the sister of that Ginzburg man, Mario’s friend—who everyone talked about, saying, Oh, how intelligent. But he was ugly. Her father used to say it all the time. He was “very ugly.”

When Natalia, barely seventeen, finally met Leone in real life, in her living room, he had been preceded by so much gossip that he had a halo of superiority about him. In Family Lexicon, Lidia responds to criticism of her future son-in-law’s looks in the following manner: “He’s so cultured, intelligent; he translates from Russian and does such beautiful work.”[†] That’s what everyone in Turin was saying. Natalia’s brother, Beppino, on the other hand was predictably more damning: “He’s the next young star!” Which was the same thing he always said whenever someone new arrived on the scene.

Leone Ginzburg had been in the spotlight since he was a student, sitting behind a desk in the Liceo D’Azeglio, where he was in the same class as Giorgio Agosti and Norberto Bobbio. Together they would go on to join the Partito d’Azione (Action Party). In another section, students of the legendary professor, Agusto Monti (an adherent of the antifascist, Piero Gobetti), included his friends Cesare Pavese, Vittorio Foa, Massimo Mila, and Giancarlo Pajetta. When Monti first met Leone, he perceived that he was a great intellectual and humanitarian and got him involved in running the school library, which was where all the brightest students gathered to talk and exchange ideas. Mila nicknamed the group, “the brotherhood.”

Massimo Ottolenghi remembers it all very clearly: “It’s true Leone was ugly, but he was exceptional. He and Emanuele Artom—another heroic man who suffered unspeakable torture and was killed by the Germans in 1944—they were the only ugly ones. Everyone else in the Resistance was gorgeous! Leone was hairy, and so pale. He had a thick beard and enormous black eyebrows that connected over his nose. I was six years younger and I worshipped him. …Him and Foa, Antonicelli, Mila. I was one of the ones professor Augusto Monti referred to as “Communists in braje curte”—short pants. We were younger. We figured out who the antifascists were at school and we wanted to be part of the group. But we just spied on them and they got irritated.


The great romance between Leone and Natalia started quietly. In July 1933, Nat showed her brother, Mario, the story she had just finished writing. It was titled “Un’assenza” (“An Absence”), and it was the first story she wrote that she felt truly happy with. Mario said, “Give me that story. I want to show Benedetto Croce!”—he’d claimed that the eminent philosopher was in Turin for a visit. Natalia was skeptical but curious and followed her brother into the living to meet “this Benedetto Croce.”

“It turned out to be Ginzburg, a dark, ugly man,” she would recall many years later in a famous interview with Oriana Fallaci.[‡] “Ginzburg told me that he liked the story and would send it to the journal Solaria, which was published in Florence. And he did send it, and that’s how I met this man Ginzburg, who was twenty-four, but so serious and scowling that he seemed older.”

She was a shy girl in the throes of teenage rebellion, waiting on her Prince Charming who, in her imagination, looked much different than this Ginzburg character, who, for his part, seemed to quite admire her. But she was in love with someone else, the “right person,” who didn’t love her back—like the character Giuma in All Our Yesterdays. It never occurred to her that the right person could ever be Leone Ginzburg.

Leone liked pretty women and they liked him back. He was an easy conversationalist despite a slight stutter he knew how to control. He was warm, outgoing, a good listener. “His ability to listen was unmatched and boundless” says Natalia in Family Lexicon, “and he knew how to be deeply attentive to other people, even when he was terribly distracted by his own concerns.” He liked to attend salons where art and revolution were discussed, like the ones Barbara Allason hosted, or Paola Lombroso Carrara, who started Il Corriere dei piccoli, for young readers. Leone was popular and sought out for his good conversation on a range of topics, from serious to frivolous.

He left an impression on Battistina (“Tina”) Pizzardo—Pavese’s “husky voiced woman.” Tina was a militant antifascist, card-carrying member of the PCI (Italian communist party) and jailed for a year in 1927, on charges of subversion. She was a promising mathematician who had worked with Natalia’s father—though she stopped because of his temper. In her posthumous book, Senza pensarci due volte (“Don’t Think Twice”), she wrote: Leone is a man, “with whom you could talk about anything, which hat to wear, or philosopher and politics, your soucis d’argent and your lovers. About your childhood, your family, what you’re reading, everything.” Because “he was the most intelligent, but also the best, the most brotherly, the kindest among new people.” With rare perspicacity, says Tina, he looked into her heart: “You like to keep slaves,” he said about her complicated love affairs. “You treat men with great compassion, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are your slaves.”

They were neighbors in Turin and often in the evening “after his many commitments, as a doctor might patiently describe his rounds,” he’d come up to visit. “Midnight would be long past, but he could sit there and talk for another two hours. The next day Signora Vera would call to plead with me—what am I saying? she ordered me—not to keep her son out that late.”

What did Leone and Tina, the troublemaker, discuss? Politics, of course. He tried “to redirect my communist heresy toward Giustizia e Libertà” and he made an astute argument, crafting it so that Tina would arrive at the conclusion on her own, convinced it was the only way to resolve whatever was haunting her. He spoke also a great deal about himself, “about his lovers, his friends, but he never named names,” even though she could tell who he was talking about. It was Leone who introduced her to Pavese, with disastrous consequences. Pavese fell crazily and miserably in love.

Leone’s jovial gallantry aside, he was also a tireless intellectual. While still in liceo he translated Taras Bulba and Anna Karenina for the Slavic publishing house. He collaborated with Pavese on the innovative publishing project Biblioteca Europea of Franco Antonicelli, and he worked on many journals, from La Cultura to Baretti, contributing both literary and political writing. His distinctly cultural interests did not make his political commitment less radical. Deep down he was a fighter and a revolutionary, prepared to accept for himself and for others, even those closest to him, the dramatic consequences of his choices. In December 1932, he had earned a teaching certificate in Russian Literature. Only a year later, in January of 1934, the regime started requiring its teachers to make an oath of loyalty to Fascism. Leone refused to bow, and so gave up a prestigious university career.”

As early as 1931, Leone displayed a stubborn determination. In an article he wrote for the journal Pagaso, he said: “History makes inexorable demands on us, that much, we must recognize with ardent clarity.”

Excerpt from La corsara by Sandra Petrignani, translated from Italian by Minna Zallman Proctor.

[*] “Human Relations” quotations taken from Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s translation in A Place to Live.

[†]. Natalia Ginzburg. Family Lexicon. Translated by Jenny McPhee, New York Review Books, 2017, 83

[‡] The interview was originally published in Europeo in 1963, then later collected in Oriana Fallaci’s book, Gli antipatici (“The Unpleasant Ones”).

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