In 1963, Natalia Ginzburg’s seminal, miraculous, autobiographical novel, Lessico famigliare (Family Lexicon), came out in Italy and was an instant hit—selling over 86,000 copies that first year and going into five reprints. Then ten years passed before Caro Michele (Happiness, As Such). The decade-long gap between novels is not the result of an artistic crisis or writer’s block—because Ginzburg published scores of essays and newspaper articles during this time—but rather a creative diversion into theater. Ginzburg wrote eight plays during the late 1960s, early 1970s—collected ultimately under the merciless title of one of those plays, Ti ho sposato per allegria (I Married You for Fun). It’s a relevant trajectory, when you consider that while Family Lexicon is a novel about language; Happiness, as Such is a novel of voices—a performance in some important sense, that investigates, the way a dramatic work does, the primacy of what’s said over what’s narrated.
A predominantly epistolary novel, interspersed with dialogue-heavy scenes, Happiness, As Such is an illustration of how very much character can be derived through what people say, and how people write. For the translator, thus, finding those voices as they emerge through the exquisitely sui generis voice of Natalia Ginzburg is the mandate—the challenge and the pleasure.
The Italian title, Caro Michele, translates “Dear Michele”—the opening of a letter, in this case, a letter to Michele, who is the vortex around which the novel swirls. In the opening chapters, it is revealed that Michele has recently fled Italy for England, with the clothes on his back and barely a passport, in order to avoid the police who are investigating his radical politics. His absence and fate are both central and a backdrop. The story really belongs to the people he left behind in Rome—his mother and two sisters, his ailing father, an ex-girlfriend and her newborn, and his loyal friend, Osvaldo. Because of her comparable age and bearing, it is difficult not to superimpose Ginzburg herself, with that signature restraint, at once fierce and droll, onto the character of the matriarch, Adriana. Early in the book, Adriana writes to her son, trying to comprehend and rationalize his sudden flight
He said you turned up at his house early in the morning. And, according to him, this idea of yours to go and study sculpture in London was something you’d been contemplating for a while. Because you’re sick of painting those owls. I understand that. I’m writing to you at this address Osvaldo gave me even though he says it’s temporary. The fact that Osvaldo knows the elderly lady who’s giving you a room reassures me a little, a very little. It’s not as if I haven’t figured out that you’re running away. I’m not a fool. I’m pleading with you to please answer right away. Explain what you’re running away from, or who. Osvaldo was not very helpful on this point. Either he didn’t want to tell me or he didn’t know. (31)
Translators often exchange process notes—who races through a messy, first draft; who sturdily perfects as they go; who puts off research to the bitter end, littering their manuscripts with “[TKTK].” I’m a fast, messy first-draft person. I research and turn into proper English on the second draft. Then, on the subsequent draft, I set aside the original and find my text’s “English voice.” I often think of this step as acting. I try to assume the author’s aspect. To play Natalia Ginzburg, I put on a cardigan, ignore my hair, pretend my pens are cigarettes. I read aloud, furrowing my brow and shaking my head sternly. The mission is to find an English-language Ginzburg voice, her humor, her deadpan, her way of parsing the world and how people in it relate to each other, her unshowy intelligence, and that persistent, tantalizing undercurrent of sadness. It gets trickier, but no less fascinating, when I have to act the part of a Ginzburg character, like Mara, the quirky, ex-girlfriend who has zero filter between her heart and tongue:
While we were having sex, I thought to myself that I didn’t care so much for Peppino because I’ve never really liked younger men. I only fall in love with older men who seem full of weird secrets and despair, like the pelican. Younger men are fun and make me feel happy, but also sorry for them because they seem foolish and lost, like me, and I feel as if I’m all alone but much happier. (184)
To find Mara’s voice, I wear the Ginzburg costume (because she’s the writer), but pretend there are curlers in my hair and a silk kimono slung over the back of my chair (because Mara’s the character). In these moments, there are two voices to find in the text—one controlling and one expressive—and then emulate them together as one.
In the introduction to her translation of Madame Bovary, Ginzburg wrote that “To translate is to serve:”
To be both a horse and an ant. Minding the risk of being too much horse or too much ant. Either will ruin a text. The words must look like a running horse; the slowness unseen. Words born in contemplation can’t drag or feel dead—they must be impulsive, alive, fresh. Translation is an irreconcilable contradiction … Horse and ant, master and servant, all together, and thus the writer comes to see herself in translation, laid bare, and utterly redesigned.
In Ginzburg’s formulation, the ant is the labor, the literal conversion of language from one to another. It’s comprehending and apprehending all that can be comprehended and apprehended in the original—the entire machinery of meaning, conveyed through word choice, grammar, syntax, punctuation (all the implied, but missing, commas, colons, and question marks in Caro Michele). The horse, “impulsive, alive, fresh,” is the performance, the gesture that makes speech, movement, psychology and behavior out of marks on a page. The horse is the actor on the stage, the actor who gives voice to the text.
I’ve never seen a Ginzburg play produced. I worry that if I did, I might not like it. I worry that I’ve never seen one because maybe they aren’t good. That if they were, they would have had a longer, more international, more successful life. That the great Elsa Morante was right to ferociously criticize Ginzburg’s playwrighting diversion as “fatuous, silly, syrupy, affected.” (But Morante disliked theater generally, despite a predilection for personal drama. She threatened to end the long friendship with Ginzburg because of how much she disliked theater generally, and Ginzburg’s plays particularly.) Ginzburg, however, was following a creative impulse. She wanted to “solve the problem of the first person,” what she saw as the schism between a single character’s voice and the omniscient narrator of great novels (Petrignani, 304). Every character in a play is a kind of first person, and yet at the same time, there is no real first person—no single, dominant perspective; no controlling narrator. Likewise, an epistolary novel.
There is, of course, an irreconcilable contradiction in all of this repositioning of writer, narrator, and character; one that translation lays bare. All of the words, no matter which character’s mouth utters them, are Ginzburg’s words. When Ginzburg writes Mara or Adriana, she’s wearing a costume, acting a part, pretending to speak in the voice of a character she pretended existed. The translator extends the metaphysics of all these voices, bringing another layer of costume and pretending. Bringing yet another voice to the stage. A voice that at once reveals the author, and, for better or worse, utterly redesigns her.
Minna Zallman Proctor is the author, most recently, of Landslide: True Stories (Catapult, 2017) and translator of Natalia Ginzburg’s Happiness, As Such (New Directions, 2019), which was shortlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. She is the Editor of The Literary Review and teaches creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Ginzburg, Natalia. Happiness, As Such. London: Daunt Books Publishing, 2019.
Petrignani, Sandra. La corsara: Ritratto di Natalia Ginzburg. Vicenza: Neri Pozza, 2018.
This essay is part of our special issue “Reading Natalia Ginzburg.”