Natalia Ginzburg’s Speech Acts: The Female Voice as a Form of Resistance

By Serena Todesco

“And so memories of our own past constantly crop up in the things we write, our own voice constantly echoes there and we are unable to silence it”

Natalia Ginzburg, “My Vocation,” The Little Virtues

Whenever I listen to Natalia Ginzburg’s voice, it seems that the fleshly dimension of her words is specifically addressing me and, in doing so, carves out a series of reality layers, integrating those generally provided by the reading of her texts. Far from being a form of escapism, this listening practice is—as I have learned from Ernesto De Martino—a way of regaining a sense of presence in a time of crisis that negates the humanity of culture (De Martino, 1948; Farnetti and Stewart, 2012). Becoming a listener, as well as a reader of writers, has perhaps rescued my identity as a reader from its temporary demise, as a newly found physiological relationship with the world of words has been made possible. These brief meditations would require a deeper and more informed critical analysis; still, the main goal here is to give form to a personal “diary” in which listening to the writer’s voice has enhanced my experience as a reader.


Forced to witness and carry the burden imposed by the numerous traumas that affected her life—the Second World War and the fear of Nazi anti-Jewish violent repression, the hardships of three years of exile (1940-1943), the death of her husband Leone, killed in prison by the fascists in 1944—Natalia Ginzburg used her voice as a form of resistance, like many other writers of her generation, and her public engagement progressively increased in time.[1] In Ginzburg’s mind, the act of saying equals stating the truth, as Sandra Petrignani observes in her intense biographical book La corsara: “She was sixteen, seventeen years old when she wrote her first declaration of poetics, something she will faithfully believe in for her whole life: ‘Telling the truth. Only by telling the truth can a work of art be born’” (my translation, Petrignani, 2018) Against a power, such as fascism, which persistently silenced human uniqueness and freedom of expression, the writer’s voice—in this case a female, often isolated voice—is the primal and perhaps most significant instrument of reading against the grain of everyday reality.

Ginzburg herself confessed in a 1990 radio interview, and later in her essay “My Vocation” (Il mio mestiere, 1962) that, as a child, she would prefer to remain quite silent and would endeavour to write as fast and as concisely as she could, for fear of not being listened to, or of being ignored by her family.

If I reconstruct my life, my remote childhood, I think this depends on the fact that I had older brothers and…I was the youngest of five siblings, they were older than me and would always tell me to shut up when I spoke, they would tell me to shut up. So, I thought that…I had figured that I should say things really fast and very…and with very few words because…because otherwise they would have not listened to me. I would write and they would rummage through…my drawers, these siblings of mine, they would read what I had written and would laugh, and sneer…And then it would seem to me that I was doing something that…Just like this, made them laugh, made them laugh. (my translation and my emphasis)

Here, Ginzburg stresses the words “shut up,” “very few words,” “sneer” with a higher voice, by assigning them a highly rhythmic, almost musical tone. When reading Family Lexicon (Lessico famigliare), one visualizes how the child Natalia would indeed have to fight to be heard on a daily basis, while living in a household full of overlapping sounds (visitors constantly coming in, a mother gaily singing opera arias, a cantankerous father scolding his children). In the same radio interview, Ginzburg adds how she would generally not deem herself an educated person (“io non sono colta”), and explains that in her family home (she actually says “in casa di mio padre,” “in my father’s house”), literature was highly despised, to the point that she would feel ashamed every time she would try to write something, because it seemed to her like a shallow activity (“qualcosa di fatuo”). Literature was, in fact, a silenced matter to which her voice grew accustomed only with time, and through a series of personal hardships. Still, from a very young age, writing became the first form of voicing her own self.[2]

The timbre of Ginzburg’s voice was extremely tranquil, non-emphatic, in musical terms perhaps definable as andante moderato, with interspersed moments of allegretto. Petrignani insightfully stated: “She had a beautiful voice that didn’t grow old, a serious voice with an inner music that would light up and immediately switch off, still resonating inside my ears” (my translation). If I attempt to describe it myself, my profession as a translator would push me to say that Natalia’s speech even contained some auditory traces of French, a language she loved and masterfully translated. I would also say that her voice was made up of slowly uttered syllables, elongated and/or stressed final vowels, intense pauses of silence, barely perceivable brushes of different regional accents coming together to enrich her not excessive Turinese cantilena, along with a regular tendency to vocally round up sentences with filler words. Sometimes her train of thought would self-correct, rewind on a concept and adjust it, with a slight stutter. Her speech expressed a certain level of reticence and, at the same time, wittily insisted on concepts uttered just a moment earlier, without any rhetoric.

There are several radio interviews where Ginzburg condensed her life and work, sharing with her listeners precious recollections of her autobiography, social relations and experiences. It suffices to mention the interview she gave to Paolo Milano in 1963, right after Family Lexicon came out, or the last, long and detailed interview she gave in May 1990 to Marino Sinibaldi, cultural journalist and currently managing director of Radio3. This long conversation-confession, divided in four parts, was eventually collected in È difficile parlare di sé (1999), edited by Cesare Garboli and Lisa Ginzburg, Natalia’s granddaughter. [3] The title of this book is not surprisingly pointing at the reticence of the writer’s attitude towards public communication, along with a subtle sense of inadequacy. The fact of feeling inadequate was also partly reflected in a well-known statement, recurring in many TV and radio interviews, in which Ginzburg says how, at first, she had wished to write like a man, rather than like a woman (“Non volevo essere attaccaticcia e sentimentale,” “I didn’t want to be trashy and sentimental,” È difficile parlare di sè, 29) [4], and had privileged a cold, impersonal style. The initial lack of confidence in a more openly female perspective had eventually changed, as soon as her voice—both oral and written—entered different phases of experimentation.

Ginzburg had already spoken on Radio3 back in 1988, when she featured in the program “Senza Video,” hosted by Italian critic and scholar Elisabetta Mondello. When asked about the origin of her stories, whether the inspiration comes from an idea, a character or a definite plot, Ginzburg answered:

So, I can say how I start…How it occurs to me. I spend several years without writing anything. Then I have a feeling that something buzzes inside my head…Umm, generally…Or it is a single line of dialogue, or a place in…It insists inside my head, a place…Umm, generally I believe that…The place is important, that is, I have to know where to place the people whose story I wish to tell, whose story I am thinking of narrating. (my translation, “Omaggio a Natalia Ginzburg,” 2016)

A verbatim transcription can only partially render Ginzburg’s distinctive voice, in which emotions appear carefully tuned, and much remains concealed. Her phonetic uniqueness has always reminded me of a wind instrument—possibly a bassoon—that is being graciously tuned for the umpteenth time, without the least hurry in its pace. Her vocal singularity was able to sustain the semantic weight of her words through a specifically soothing, peculiar cadenza. The overall impression is that her words would come out as a solid body of oral objects, defined by pauses, breath, rhythm.

If I had to look for Italian terms to define it, I would say Ginzburg’s spoken voice would often sound umbratile and dimessa, although both terms are usually charged with a negative connotation. The absolute lack of any flamboyancy in her speech also recalls what was stated by Ernesto Ferrero, her long-time friend and Einaudi collaborator, who would recall Natalia’s modest and shy appearance, her fashion style reminding him of a “suora laica” (“secular nun,” Ferrero).

The adjective umbratile (from the Latin “umbra,” shadow) indicates an aloof person, somebody who privileges solitude in his/her life. A person who is umbratile generally stands aside, it is a personality that escapes light, that tends to subtract a clarity of sight. At the same time, the adjective dimesso stands for someone who appears shabby, wearing tattered or worn clothes. However, the umbratile and dimessa nature of Ginzburg’s voice runs counter to these definitions. It is precisely this apparent “shabbiness” and diffused tranquillity that defines her personality as a writer of carefully condensed ethics.

The significance of Natalia’s voice as a core part of her inner world and poetics is certainly paralleled by a number of textual instances. This is undoubtedly the case with an autobiographical novel such as Family Lexicon (1963) where the co-existence and interactions of words and phrases constitute a crucial poetic component, not just a mere aesthetic detail. Ginzburg’s pages often feature a distinct vocal and oral quality, even when they do not contain direct dialogues; indeed, the phenomenal relationality among the characters’ voices becomes itself a narrative space of figuration as well as action. The centrality of the lexicon Natalia scatters throughout her novel powerfully speaks of a versatile relationship between individual subjects and their world. Her pages are crowded with voices that, similar to a fabric, compose the texture—the trama, the weft—of each page. The common association between Ginzburg’s poetics and the conceptualization of her personal lessico is, I believe, very much sustained by the latent symbolic-material nature of her speech, which is at once granular and smooth.

As one reflects upon the speech phenomenology given by all of Ginzburg’s narrating voices, the spectre of her reality acquires and maintains a sound, ergo a bodily quality that informs the empirical representability of her world. Her writings are imbued by acoustic acts, filled with vocalized utterances resonating in the reader’s mind. It is no wonder that her most famous novel opens with one of many speech acts that introduces a wondrous gathering of memories:

At the dinner table in my father’s home when I was a girl if I, or one of my siblings, knocked a glass over on the tablecloth or dropped a knife, my father’s voice would thunder, “Watch your manners [malagrazie]!” (Family Lexicon, 10)

The English translation does not fully retrieve the powerfully dialectal, quicksilver quality of the term malagrazie which may be rendered as “bad grace,” an act of rudeness revealing a person’s bad manners. On the other hand, the translator’s choice of the verb “thunder” literally and effectively renders Giuseppe Levi’s voice, which will resound again and again throughout the novel, as many will recall. The overall impression of Family Lexicon is highly auditory and signifies the deeply theatrical quality of Ginzburg’s writing. Giuseppe’s sudden and violent vocione animates the household, along with the invectives or musical insertions of Natalia’s mother Lidia (“What a dump of a house! How vile a place is Saint-Jacque-d’Ajas!,” Family Lexicon, 15), or the myriad of phrases, invented verses and nicknames used and shared by Ginzburg’s siblings and circle of friends.[5]

But for us it takes just one word. It takes one word, one sentence, one of the old ones from our childhood, heard and repeated countless times. All it takes is for one of us to say “We haven’t come to Bergamo on a military campaign,” or “Sulfuric acid stinks of fart,” and we immediately fall back into our old relationships, our childhood, our youth, all inextricably linked to those words and phrases.[6]

In identifying the connection between the phatic use of each characters’ vocal utterances as a narrative element and the wise clarity of Ginzburg’s writing, the interplay of voices and their distinct theatrical quality crucially allows her human experience to connect past memories with the here and now. Apparently, the main narrating voice conceals herself, adopting her well-known reticence in order to let the other members of her family take the main stage. In fact, this strategy allows Ginzburg to permeate with her own voice the entire narrative while avoiding a superior, bird-eye perspective.

The plurality of voices becomes part of the Ginzburg’s poetics inasmuch as it textually marks the complex multitude of deeply entangled family relations, as well as the desire to creatively account for an entire generation of people whose memory must be kept alive. Not surprisingly, the insertion of recurring phrases uttered by the numerous characters in Family Lexicon—Giulio Einaudi, Cesare Pavese, Adriano Olivetti, but also Giuseppe Levi’s fellow scientists, such as biologist Tullio Terni and physiologist Amedeo Herlitzka (called “Lopez” in the novel)—empowers the novel with a unique documentary quality. The other face of the coin is silence, which acquires a specific textual function, just like spoken words: thus, as Melissa Coburn suggests, the choice of not dedicating practically any detailed description of her relationship with her first husband Leone Ginzburg in Family Lexicon stands for the intention of protecting “the sacredness of this relationship from the greedy curiosity of the reader” (82)

Against the violence of fascism that had been persistently silencing individual voices and their freedom of thought, as Joan Acocella notes, a “stellar postwar generation” of writers and intellectuals reacted with both spoken and written words. Along with other authors between 1910s and 1920s (Italo Calvino, Cesare Pavese, Alberto Moravia, Carlo Levi, Elsa Morante, Anna Maria Ortese, to name but a few), Natalia’s spoken words and written texts were crucial in forming the conscience of readers, as they dynamically opposed that looming sense of human vulnerability succumbed to the power of a dictatorship.[7] Her creative practice, informed by a solid antifascist culture and a constant self-interrogation on social and political matters, aimed at rescuing individual and collective memories, and may be seen as a complex form of ethical thought, characterised by what Cesare Garboli labelled “intelligenza fisiologica” or “physiological intelligence” (quoted in Baldini, 123), Ginzburg’s sensitivity is confirmed by both her voice and body language, as confirmed by her (albeit rare) public interventions on both radio and television programs. Just like a close reading of her novels and essays, these extra-textual elements may be reconsidered to integrate a critical analysis of her body of works.

Serena Todesco is a literary translator who works with English, Italian, and Croatian, and an independent researcher in Italian literature and gender studies. She investigates specifically the issues of identity, (self) subjectivation and otherness of the Italian South, and is interested in examining the relationships between philosophies of sexual difference, motherhood and society. She is the author of the monograph Tracce a margine (Pungitopo 2017) dedicated to questions of genre and gender in the contemporary Sicilian historical novel. Serena lives between Zagreb and Sicily.

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

[1] The latest example of this ongoing commitment was her defence of Serena Cruz, a little Philippine girl who had been illegally adopted in 1989 by a family from. Ginzburg defended the adoptive parents, and judged their eventual condemnation as a fatal mistake, going against the child’s well-being. See Natalia Ginzburg, Serena Cruz o la vera giustizia, Turin: Einaudi, 1990.

[2] At the same time, her initial reticence to speak in public partly ceased after the publishing of Lessico famigliare, when Ginzburg featured on some TV programs (such as “L’approdo settimanale di lettere e arti,” 1963). Also, during the 1980s, her presence on national radio cultural programs became more frequent. Many of these archive materials have been reproposed on the Italian TV RAI channels in 2016, to celebrate Ginzburg’s centenary. See for instance “La voce di Natalia,” broadcasted on Rai2 and available here.

[3] Some fragments from Sinibaldi’s interviews are contained in a Memoradio-Radio3 podcast entitled “Paesaggio con figure – Antologia” (2016).

[4] On Ginzburg’s fear of writing too much like a woman, see also “My Vocation” in The Little Virtues.

[5] I would add that it is extremely interesting to listen to a female voice performatively narrating the novel. The example that comes to mind is the abridged audio version of Lessico famigliare broadcasted on Radio3 in 2016, on the occasion of Ginzburg’s centenary, and read by renowned Italian actress Anna Bonaiuto, whose vocal variations manage to render the wonderfully vivid scenes of the novel. See here.

[6] Family Lexicon, 23.

[7] Italian literary culture would not have been the same without the vivid presence of writers on the radio, and later on television. Their testimonies constitute a precious archive that sheds a unique light over 20th-century Italian culture and society. Particularly, the role of the radio should undergo a careful consideration, as it allowed a closer and more continuous form of relationship between the writers and their audience. For instance, among the best and most original documents left by Carlo Levi undoubtedly are his radio conversations (Levi, 2003).

Works Cited

Acocella, Joan. “Rediscovering Natalia Ginzburg.” New Yorker, 29th July 2019,

Baldini, Alessio. “Affrontare la sorte morale: letteratura ed emozioni in Tutti i nostri ieri di Natalia Ginzburg.” Moderna. Semestrale di teoria e critica della letteratura, XVII (2), pp. 121-141.

Coburn, Melissa. Race and Narrative in Italian Women’s Writing since Unification. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2013.

De Martino, Ernesto. Il mondo magico. Prolegomeni a una storia del magismo [1948]. Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 1973.

Farnetti, Tobia and Charles Stewart. “An introduction to Crisis of presence and religious integration by Ernesto de Martino,” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2 (2), 2012, pp. 431-433.

Ferrero, Ernesto. Natalia Ginzburg, Wikiradio, Radio3, 8th October 2013 (personal podcast archive).

Garboli, Cesare and Lisa Ginzburg, editors, È difficile parlare di sè. Conversazione a più voci Condotta da Marino Sinibaldi. Turin: Einaudi, 1999.

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

Ginzburg, Natalia. “My Vocation” in The Little Virtues. Translated by Dick Davis. Arcade Publishing, 1985.

Ginzburg, Natalia. Serena Cruz o la vera giustizia. Turin: Einaudi, 1990.

Levi, Carlo, Un dolente amore per la vita. Conversazioni radiofoniche e interviste, edited by Luigi M. Lombardi Satriani and Letizia Bindi. Bari: Donzelli, 2003.

“Natalia Ginzburg, la famiglia, la memoria, la scrittura.” La grande radio, Radio3. 8th October 2010 (personal podcast archive).

Lessico familiare,” read by Anna Bonaiuto. Ad alta voce, Radio3. August 2016.

Omaggio a Natalia Ginzburg.” La grande radio. Radio3. 5th July 2016, .

Paesaggio con figure – Antologia.” Originally broadcasted on 5th July 2016.

Petrignani, Sandra, La corsara. Ritratto di Natalia Ginzburg. Vicenza: Neri Pozza, 2018, e-book.

Leave a Reply