On Female Genius: A Conversation with Italian Writer and Ginzburg Biographer Sandra Petrignani

Translators’ Introduction

Sandra Petrignani is an acclaimed Italian writer and journalist, the author of many novels, collections of short stories, and volumes of non-fiction, including a biography of Marguerite Duras and a biography of Natalia Ginzburg, La corsara. Ritratto di Natalia Ginzburg (Neri Pozza, 2018). In her biography of Natalia Ginzburg, Sandra Petrignani draws on her extensive research as well as on the entirety of Ginzburg’s writing—her novels, novellas, short stories, and significant body of non-fiction. Petrignani reads and analyzes a vast number of literary and cultural texts, traveling to all the places and addresses where Ginzburg lived, and conversing with her relatives, friends, and acquaintances.

Petrignani’s project recalls Julia Kristeva’s trilogy dedicated to three women of genius—Hannah Arendt, Melanie Klein, and Colette. Petrignani smoothly combines a skillful historical reconstruction of the writer’s time with an intimate gaze, constantly entering Ginzburg’s life story in order to extract the distilled significance of her existence both as a woman and an artist. The result is a narrative full of different voices, objects, and places that come alive.

We both read La corsara in Italian and we were interested in how Petrignani’s biography of Ginzburg enriches the existing approaches to Ginzburg’s writing and to her person by adding the perspective of a female reader and a woman writer. We also wanted to find out more about how Petrignani’s research and writing have deepened her understanding of Ginzburg’s complexity and shaped her biography.

In addition to this interview with Sandra Petrignani, the special issue “Reading Natalia Ginzburg features an excerpt from Minna Zallman Proctor’s English translation of La corsara (The Renegade. Natalia Ginzburg, Her Life and Writing). 

Stiliana Milkova and Serena Todesco

SERENA and STILIANA: Your biography of Natalia Ginzburg, La corsara. Ritratto di Natalia Ginzburg (Neri Pozza 2018) paints a profound and carefully researched picture of the writer’s life and works, through the lens of a woman reader and woman writer. What was it like for you to write about Natalia Ginzburg as a woman reader and writer, especially when Ginzburg criticism in Italy is so male dominated? And when Ginzburg herself asserted that she, as you write in La corsara, “always felt the need for a man’s perspective on her artistic decisions, a kind of paternal protection, or perhaps a reassuring approval?” (our translation). 

Sandra Petrignani. Photo by Pasquale Comegna.

SANDRA PETRIGNANI: Natalia grew up and then worked in contexts dominated by strong male figures whose culture and charisma intimidated even other men as well. In fact, it is rather surprising to see how she was able to assert herself without renouncing her fundamental shyness and (apparent) insecurity. But I understand that she felt the need for constant approval. On the other hand, when she didn’t have this approval (I am thinking primarily about her relationship with her son Carlo who was often critical of his mother’s writing and her positions), she still did things her own way. She had a strong character which helped her confront and overcome terrible losses. As far as my female perspective is concerned, the focus shouldn’t be on the gender of the scholars who study Ginzburg, but rather on the fact that unfortunately, it is primarily female scholars who turn their scholarly attention to women writers. I am thinking of Julia Kristeva’s magnificent work on female genius. It’s crucial that she highlighted precisely the female genius, because so many critics and writers have shamelessly and arrogantly denied it. In my book Female Lexicon (Lessico femminile, Laterza, 2019) I give some striking examples. 

SERENA and STILIANA:  Your biography of Natalia Ginzburg adds many layers and nuances to a figure canonized for her straight-forward style, for her “dryness” or “bluntness” (secchezza), as Calvino writes in his essay on Le voci della sera, and for focusing on the family as the center of her narratives. She is widely read in schools in Italy and assigned to students of Italian language abroad. What are the hidden aspects of Ginzburg’s writing that may have been overlooked because of her reputation as a straight-forward, simple, and even school-appropriate writer? How can we go beyond this reputation today? 

SANDRA PETRIGNANI: I believe she is a far more complex writer than she appears. For example, her great, often bitter irony—a characteristic traditionally considered unfeminine—is central to her works. The structure of her novels, besides their subject matter, is complex, modern, brusque as a gunshot. It is the opposite of Morante’s prose which is expansive and loaded, and completely devoid of irony. Natalia is never baroque, she never says a word in excess, she gets to the center of things with sentences whose simplicity dismantles the entire literary tradition. Her novels are in fact anti-novels, and today we all know where the novel has ended up. She uses autobiography without going too far, always standing apart. In a most elegant way. And we see that the most interesting authors today are heading exactly in this direction, using inventively biography and autobiography. 

SERENA and STILIANA: In works such as La scrittrice abita qui (A Woman Writer Lives Here), Marguerite (a biography of Marguerite Duras),  Addio a Roma (Farewell to Rome), as well as in Ginzburg’s biography, you pay a great deal of attention to places that have been both inhabited and lived. However, you also enrich your reconstruction of Ginzburg’s life with meditations that are solely literary, you re-read some excerpts with care and even add value to her essays which are usually less known. Ginzburg’s texts, as it were, have themselves become places through your material restoration of them. Has writing this book changed your way of reading this author?

SANDRA PETRIGNANI: It has definitely helped me deepen my understanding of her. I reached the conclusions that I explained earlier—I completely abandoned the traditional approach to Ginzburg as a writer for a female readership, a writer of small things connected with the family. Then I realized that behind her humility there was a powerful woman. A unique case in the history of Italian publishing in the 20th century. And she deployed her power with exceptional facility, and, it must be said, with some clientelist tendencies as well. 

SERENA and STILIANA: Do you see your own voice inserted in the narrative? 

SANDRA PETRIGNANI: I am not a literary critic, I am a writer who looks for non-novelistic ways of expression. Certainly, my voice is there but I haven’t superimposed my voice onto Natalia Ginzburg’s. I wrote a book about her in my own way, a book which a traditional biographer wouldn’t have written. One of the reasons is that I have personally met many of the characters I cite, beginning with the protagonist herself, and this—even if I don’t state it explicitly—can be felt. 

SERENA and STILIANA: What is your favorite work by Ginzburg? And which work of hers do you think Anglophone readers must read? 

SANDRA PETRIGNANI: Like Calvino, I have a genuine passion for Voices in the Evening. But I am certain that her most important book is The Manzoni Family which is based on letters and documents—a really interesting approach to writing a novel which is also a biography and, surreptitiously, also a bit of an autobiography. I believe that foreign readers could greatly appreciate both the novel in itself and its narrative about Alessandro Manzoni, the author of the The Betrothed (I promessi sposi)—a book with a mythical status in Italy. 

SERENA and STILIANA: Thank you so much. We hope to read La corsara in English soon! 

SANDRA PETRIGNANI: The English translation by Minna Zallman Proctor is underway thanks to the Bridge Book Award which La corsara won in 2018 and which funded its translation in English.

Translated from Italian by Stiliana Milkova and Serena Todesco

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