Natalia Ginzburg’s essays require no explication. The opposite of hermetic, they are startlingly direct, forthright, and thorough. They leave readers stunned with recognition, fixed on the inexorable paths the sentences have cleared. The limpid ease of the language seems at odds with the author’s pungent accounts of the labor and struggle the writing demanded. But of course she struggled: it is no small task to write so simply yet have each page radiant with allusion, brimming with what has grown between the lines.
The essays show a sensibility laid bare. Apart from the impeccable style, a nakedness of thought and emotion—of the contours and dynamics of thought and emotion—is their most arresting quality. Ginzburg delivers the genesis, the embryonic growth, and the full flowering of an idea or sensation as if it were a rare and gleaming mutation from the ordinary. But a reader may want a few facts as well.
Born in 1916, Ginzburg grew up in Turin in a large and volatile family closely connected to prominent intellectuals and artists; their domestic life is unforgettably portrayed in her 1963 autobiographical novel, Family Sayings (recently reissued under the less apt title, The Things We Used to Say). The tempestuous father who appears in several of the essays was a professor of anatomy and a non-observant Jew. During the 1920s and ’30s, as fascism was taking hold, the family and its circle were actively anti-fascist, and the sense of alienation and combativeness Ginzburg knew in her youth pervades her essays and many novels. She began writing as a child, as she relates with her customary wry self-scrutiny in “My Craft” and “Fantasy Life,” and published her first story at seventeen.
In 1938 she married Leone Ginzburg (their early days together are memorably sketched in “Human Relations”). During their years of political exile in the village poignantly described in “Winter in the Abruzzi,” Ginzburg wrote her first novel, The Road to the City (published in 1942 under a pseudonym because of the racial laws proscribing the rights of Jews). After their return to Rome, Leone Ginzburg was arrested and died in prison at the hands of the fascists in 1944. Left on her own with three children, Ginzburg lived first in Rome, in the state of mind evoked in “My Psychoanalysis” and “Laziness,” then returned to Turin and continued working with the group of writers who formed Einaudi, soon to become Italy’s most distinguished publishing house. In 1950 she married Gabriele Baldini, a professor of English literature, and lived with him in Rome until his death in 1969. (It was through Baldini’s work that she spent time in England and came to write “The Great Lady,” about her discovery of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels.)
Ginzburg’s death in 1991 was the occasion for an outpouring of critical praise and affectionate personal reminiscence in the Italian press. In her native country she has long been recognized as one of its greatest twentieth-century writers, and the most eloquent, incisive, and provocative chronicler of the war years and the postwar ambience (notably in All Our Yesterdays and Voices in the Evening). Mostly what she provoked was love and allegiance, but there was occasional exasperation at the outspoken, intransigent quality of her thought and moral judgments (precisely what I find most endearing). The critic Enzo Siciliano, while expressing awe for Ginzburg’s “grasping things without any intellectual filters,” also notes that this “very peremptory and direct way of presenting her ideas” could alienate readers accustomed to a more temperate mode of argument.
Despite the disingenuously modest stance of several of the essays (“I don’t know anything about politics,” for example, as the opening of the astute “An Invisible Government”), hers was a life spent at the center of Italian culture; she even served for one term in Parliament. She enjoyed a close circle of literary friends whose work she did not hesitate to criticize sternly when she saw fit—Alberto Moravia, for one, or Giulio Einaudi, as evidenced in “No Fairies, No Wizards.”
Though the trauma and grief of Leone Ginzburg’s death colored her life and work forever, Ginzburg remained unremittingly dedicated to her craft and to speaking out against injustice and equivocation. Her novels and plays focus on large moral issues as played out ruefully, often with tragicomic results, in the lives of individual characters. But the essays are where she speaks in her most candid voice. It is the intimate yet elusive tone of that voice, along with the challenge of trying to hear it in English, that has long intrigued me.
I first encountered her work back in the 1960s, during a crash course in intermediate Italian at the Università per stranieri (University for Foreigners) in Perugia. The professor believed in instant immersion and set us to reading Ginzburg’s essays because of their extremely simple, straightforward language (although the simple passages are punctuated with sudden bursts of syntactical convolution). I was delighted, first, that I could understand them with my rudimentary Italian. I found their author magisterial and wise but accessible, full of indignation, sly wit, homely details. As I read on and learned more about her, I realized that the surface lucidity concealed a complex, passionate mind, fully invested in every sentence. Out of the banalities of daily life, she was weaving a web of moral and philosophical subtlety and paradox.
The pleasure of her contradictions seduced me, as well as the rigor of her thinking: a stubborn, unsparing gaze informed by vast compassion; humor that flashed forth brilliantly and unexpectedly—in a writer whose favorite subjects were contemporary anomie, moral failure, and war and its grievous aftermath; above all, the elaborations that turned up like sinuous detours, after the trusting traveler has been expecting a straight, easy road. At some point on this mesmerizing journey it is apparent that we’ve been led into darker and denser territory than we bargained for. Ginzburg forces us to examine the smallest and largest aspects of our lives with a daunting yet energizing scrutiny. By the end of each essay layered with subversive thought and feeling, we have to marvel at how she has managed to bring us so far, and so fast.
I began translating her essays those many years ago, not only as a way to learn Italian but as an inspiration for my own writing, and as a way to keep that heartbreaking, uncompromising voice close by. It happened, back then, that a friend arranged for me to meet Ginzburg in the apartment described in “A Place to Live.” I didn’t know what I would say, but couldn’t resist the chance to be in the same room with the writer who so entranced me; even her suffering, I regret to say, gave her a kind of glamor in my eyes. The meeting was not a great success. We drank tea in a darkish living room. She sat very straight; she wore dark clothes; she was austere, unsmiling, civil but not helpful. She seemed puzzled about what I wanted of her, which was reasonable, seeing as I myself didn’t quite know. We talked for a constrained hour and I was glad when it was over. Afterwards I thought there must be a way to talk to a famous author that I had yet to learn. I did learn, that day, that the author we love on the page is not the same person we meet in a living room. Nevertheless, the austerity and unwavering sense of self were the embodiment of what I had found in her books.
Some years later I reviewed her novel No Way (Caro Michele in the Italian edition) for The Nation. The review somehow found its way to her (not by my doing) and she wrote me a warm, appreciative letter. I was pretty sure she didn’t connect the reviewer with the young person who had sat, awkward and near-speechless, in her living room. Still, I felt happily relieved, as if I had redeemed myself in her sight.
Now, when the work I began over thirty years ago is done, that personal encounter no longer matters to me. With literature, the past consumes the personal and circumstantial and leaves the essential, which is the work, the words. In the case of Ginzburg, their particular power is in delineating how intricate are our responses to ordinary and extraordinary events, how fraught with dread and absurdity and effort is that “long and inevitable parabola…we have to travel to feel, at last, a bit of compassion.” Every inch of that parabola is traced with rigorous, ardent clarity. Each Ginzburg sentence reminds us that everything we say and do matters too much for carelessness and evasion. This makes daily life more difficult, yes, but more charged and exhilarating too.
If what Ginzburg offers in her essays is the examined life, then the acuity of her writing is in the process of examination. It has been a privilege to witness and partake of that process.
Lynne Sharon Schwartz is the author of over 25 books, including the novels Disturbances in the Field and Leaving Brooklyn, and the poetry collections In Solitary (2002) and See You in the Dark (2012). Her translations from Italian include Smoke Over Birkenau (1998), by Liana Millu, and A Place to Live: Selected Essays of Natalia Ginzburg (2003). Her most recent book is the story collection, Truthtelling.