Italo Calvino, “Natalia Ginzburg or the Possibilities of the Bourgeois Novel”

By Italo Calvino

Translated from Italian by Stiliana Milkova and Eric Gudas

Translators’ Introduction

Natalia Ginzburg and Italo Calvino met in Turin in 1946, at the publishing house Einaudi where she was working as an editor and he would soon join the editorial staff. They became close friends and admired each other’s writing. In 1961, Calvino thought so highly of Ginzburg’s latest novel, Voices in the Evening (Le voci della sera), that he was instrumental in having it nominated for that year’s Strega Prize, Italy’s most prestigious award for literature. Le voci della sera was officially nominated by Alberto Moravia and Elio Vittorini, but it was Calvino who advocated for Ginzburg and who delivered this essay, “Natalia Ginzburg or the Possibilities of the Bourgeois Novel,” at a gathering of Strega nominees at Rome’s Cinema Fiammetta on June 23, 1961. (That year’s prize was ultimately awarded to Raffaele La Capria’s Ferito a morte or Mortal Wound.) 

Calvino’s essay, published here for the first time in English translation, and as part of our special issue “Reading Natalia Ginzburg,” offers a concise yet illuminating view of Ginzburg’s pared-down poetics. It argues for her singular narrative style identifying some of its key components, which included Ginzburg’s new-found fascination with dialogue as a means of exposition and with the cadences of everyday speech. Ginzburg’s experimentation with the shifting registers of spoken language would flower in her novel-cum-memoir, Family Lexicon (Lessico famigliare), which was awarded the Strega Prize in 1963, and which subsequently became a classic of Italian literature.

Stiliana Milkova and Eric Gudas

Natalia Ginzburg or the Possibilities of the Bourgeois Novel

At one point, the two main characters in Natalia Ginzburg’s Voices in the Evening (Le voci della sera, 1961) say something that perfectly captures the novel’s real subject and style: “We have buried our thoughts.” Voices in the Evening is a story about people who try to bury their thoughts, who have come to identify with their own words and gestures, and who end up trapped in the grip of absurdity and pain.

Natalia Ginzburg always narrates in the first person. And the first person of Voices in the Evening resembles many of the protagonists who say “I” in her previous novels and stories—young women passive to the point of seeming a bit obtuse, accustomed to being on the margins, designated victims of the egotism of others. But Ginzburg’s first person is more than a narrative strategy—it’s her means of expressing a relationship with the world, a direct relationship, never psychologized, never intellectualized, never lyricized. Exactly the opposite, in short, of how narratives usually employ the first person as a lyrical, psychological, or intellectual device. Natalia expresses her lyricism in the cadences and in the texture of her stories, she constructs psychology through actions, and never comments or interprets in an intellectual way even though her stories unfold almost entirely in the milieu of intellectuals.

In this novel, the negative and despondent characterization of the narrator who says “I” is taken to an extreme: she is a woman who never tells us anything about herself, about her hopes and disappointments; moreover, this woman who has buried her thoughts shows us a man who has buried his thoughts too, a man who seems incapable of expressing his dissatisfaction and distrust. Using dialogue as narration, Natalia Ginzburg recounts the story of two silences that overlap, that seek to converge, that clash.

The daughter’s obsessive relationship with her mother is not afforded even a line of commentary, not even an adjective. Only the mother’s monotonous empty chatter to which the daughter never replies, except to specify some annoying detail of minimal importance, runs through the book, from beginning to end, punctuated by the repetitions of “she said” which perform the precise yet casual function of marking a cadence of repetition and tedium. The protagonist narrates with arduous discretion the story of her ill-born love and her unsuitable engagement—and the slim, stripped-down lines of her chronicle show us a tangle of contradictions and unspoken fears better than any psychological analysis, a tangle of wrongdoing, selfishness, and innocence even if she never raises her voice to judge. As Elio Vittorini puts it, it is this “double and affectionate protest” that gives Voices in the Evening “its sense of something new.” Vittorini explains: “I mean the protest against the sad bleakness of ‘becoming a family’ and simultaneously against the bleakness of not becoming a family, refusing to become a family: a protest that is doubly affectionate, because of the way in which it unfolds between Tommasino and the narrator, from the very moment of the unexpected revelation about what unites them.”

This book arrives after a few years of Ginzburg’s silence and it’s natural to ask if she has changed. No. If there’s an author faithful to herself, even to an extreme, it is Natalia. But many of her characteristics come into view more clearly today. Because Natalia’s strengths as a writer have deepened—certainly—but also because literature itself changes and Natalia’s presence in Italian literature appears as unequalled, valuable, and rich in lessons as ever.

We didn’t remember, for example, that underneath her sadness there is so much sense of humour, barely perceptible, impassive. We can detect so many nuances in Natalia’s approach, in her way of writing simple, elementary sentences that nonetheless manage to contain a relationship with the outside world made of affection, dismay, irony, the recognition of the limitations of the self and everyone else, the repetitions of gestures, of hours, of life’s flux, of an ever-possible and ever-fleeting happiness.  

The secret of Natalia’s simplicity is this: the voice that says “I” always deals with people she considers superior to her, situations that seem too complex for her capacities, and the linguistic and conceptual means she uses to represent them are always a little below what is required. And from this discrepancy poetic tension is born. Poetry has always worked this way: to make the sea pass through a funnel; to decide on a limited number of expressive devices and seek to express with them something extremely complex. Literature nowadays tends to forget about the funnel: we believe that we can write everything, we believe that the sea can be expressed and communicated as such, and instead neither sea nor anything is communicated, only words. 

Natalia does not write words: she always names things. When she says “veil,” it’s a veil, when she says “shoe,” it’s a shoe. She is one of the very few people today who still believe in things, and therefore on her pages we constantly come across objects, distinct and separate, as if imprinted onto the fabric of human stories. Natalia has the same heart-rending passion for concreteness that animated Henri Rousseau. When Natalia introduces a character through an inventory of clothes and physical features, she doesn’t share Balzac’s and Flaubert’s conviction that their descriptions could touch the bottom of reality; rather she partakes of the anxious diligence of Henri Rousseau, who finishes the fat waistcoats and striped trousers in his portraits with the conviction that he can seize something solid from the wind of non-existence—a wind which, even now, reduces the world to a tabula rasa. These external signs function not to depict the character, but rather to convey a feeling of closeness and compassion. At times a gesture, an intonation is sufficient for Natalia to describe a character, or perhaps the effects of a character on others. In this novel, for example, there is a minor character whom everyone deems stupid and obnoxious, who is a fascist at that, and who always says banal or inappropriate things—and nonetheless, the reader recognizes that he is a very good person, honest, generous, and unhappy. The writer has not made even the slightest effort to influence our attitude towards this character: she has led us to judge him bit by bit, just as it happens in real life.

For Natalia this pleasure of reproducing on paper the process through which we come close to knowing our fellow creatures coincides with her love for family stories. She delights in inventing stories about the unraveling of emotions and bonds and tempers and likes and dislikes and resentments and loves that underlies the stories of real families, and about what is always predictable and what is always random, what is habitual in the family and what is individually unique in bringing up children, generation after generation.

This short, 150-page novel contains enough characters, events, and years for a long family saga. But we shouldn’t assume that for Natalia writing stories about families is the same as it was in the 19th century, even if her most revered teachers were Tolstoy and Chekhov, and even if in spirit she is closest to Jane Austen. The secure world of the family that 19th-century narrators represented as a natural reality can now be recalled with nostalgia mixed with ferocity, like certain family groups depicted by Henri Rousseau. Writers or painters who, on account of the primitive stubbornness of their expressive means, are labelled “naïf” are in fact neither ingenuous nor flowery: they are above all determined, fierce, dumbfounded, and desperate. 

Such is the light in the familial pictures Natalia draws. And this was the case in her long novel of a few years ago, All Our Yesterdays (1952), and in her new novel, Voices in the Evening, which is more beautiful than the earlier one because all the elements of the other are forged here with more rigor and compactness, irony and affection, and with a shade of sadness that touches us without overpowering us.

Public history, politics, the war years are also present, albeit fleetingly. Natalia would consider herself an author who does not allow these themes to enter her stories, for her stories rely on close-ups of what is private, of domestic interiors. And nonetheless, these themes are an inseparable part of our lives and for Natalia they are components of her love for the concrete particulars, as connotations of the world of adults and strong characters that the eyes of her marginalized protagonists always seek to decipher. And I would say that in Voices in the Evening the color of the passing years is captured with a truth that none of those—or better, none of us—who are directly committed to this dimension of reality has managed to accomplish.

From the somewhat abstract indeterminacy of the characters and settings in her first novels, Natalia has now achieved a definition of setting that is entirely hers and that creates successfully a poetic image for everyone. We could simply say that Natalia—now that she has lived away from Piedmont for ten years—has embraced her Piedmontese identity. But this wouldn’t be saying much, because the depiction of local reality in Italy usually—no matter how we look at it—takes a naturalistic turn. Instead, this novel’s never-named Piedmont is not portrayed in a naturalistic manner, but rather through the completely internal means of discretion and morality, figuration and emphasis.

The same pertains to her language as well: in this book we see a certain propensity for dialect and slang as never before. But the way in which Natalia chooses, singles out, and fills out these terms is anything but naturalistic.

Eugenio Montale wrote about this book: “Among Italian writers today there is no one else who has managed to shift the tone of literary language without ever falling into the literal transcription of speech.” It seems to me that Montale here has diagnosed one of the most serious plights of contemporary Italian narrative: the literary “tape recording” of people’s banal speech. It’s a plight which has affected almost all Italian novels set among the bourgeoisie: countless pages dedicated to recreating the ways people talk, the common expressions of ordinary conversation, but one never knows to what extent the writers’ intention is to satirize, to produce a historic documentation of customs, or to create an atmosphere of metaphysical vanity. All these practices say one thing: that the writer is too wrapped up in the world he or she narrates, taking it too seriously. To record, day after day, the changing customs or fashion or conversation is indubitably a useful operation of social self-awareness; but fortunately, it is no longer the occupation of literature, because today we have available to us more suitable instruments for doing that—we have weekly news magazines interested precisely in this dimension of reality, we have comic actors who excel at imitating the ways people talk, we have costume drama. Literature begins where we go beyond love and hate for humankind. Literature begins when we no longer care about recording customs, when quotidian vulgarity does not reach us anymore and we hear only the music flowing in the background, under all the words and all the gestures. Montale uses a musical metaphor for Natalia’s writing: “everything is sustained”—he says—“by the continuous bass line of gossip, of chit-chat.” I am compelled to emphasize the fact that Natalia is interested in this gray, monotonous, sad music of people’s speech.

In a panel discussion of this book at the Einaudi Bookstore, I argued that Natalia’s bourgeois Piedmont is “a world of lay people, clean, slender, serious, always slightly boring, with useful jobs: an Italian society that never appears in literature perhaps because it does not exist, and yet it’s the only one with which we manage to find a connection that’s neither annoying nor unfamiliar.” Alberto Moravia disagreed, saying that the bourgeoisie depicted in this novel—not any less than the bourgeoisie present in much of modern narrative—is doomed, working only towards its own destruction, an alienated humanity unaware of its own alienation and therefore guilty and depraved. Montale’s is a moral and historical reading that, it seems to me, does not contradict my point: I intended to highlight a particular mode of representation and a particular relationship with the represented world: that is, a bluntness (secchezza) of style and taste very unusual in our literature.

In Italy it is ever more difficult to write books that depict our own times without coming into contact with a limp, damp, and spongy reality. This is not the case for Natalia. Natalia inscribes the chronicle of humanity with a polite ferocity, but her ferocity is exercised upon a world with which we are able to maintain a stark relationship of disinterested condemnation, of familiarity without guilt. It’s an ideal relationship, in a class by itself.

“Natalia Ginzburg o le possibilità del romanzo borghese” by Italo Calvino. Copyright © 1961 by Italo Calvino, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.

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