Putting a Brave Face on Loneliness and Loss: Natalia Ginzburg’s “Family” and “Borghesia”

By Jeanne Bonner

I do not think of Natalia Ginzburg as a sad figure or a writer of sad, tragic works. I’ve seen her in old interviews, and I’ve read her nonfiction work. Archival photos often show her smiling. She was not melodramatic. She did not seek pity or any kind of rapt attention beyond the effect her books might have on a reader. She was not somber. Her seminal autobiographical work Family Lexicon is full of highly amusing moments. She was also not deliberately obtuse. Her fiction feels very straightforward: what happens to a particular set of characters at a specific moment in time.

And yet as we know from this same work, she lived through the horror of learning her husband, the anti-fascist activist and editor Leone Ginzburg, had been executed just as she thought they would be embarking on better times. She lived through the horror of raising her children without their father, who inevitably died a tortured, difficult death in the Regina Coeli prison at the hands of fascists. In Family Lexicon, she dispenses with this event in a few lines. I’ve written before about this moment, perhaps because it seems so singular. How was she able to summon all of her courage, and matter-of-factly move on, raising her small children and managing a career that would be any writer’s envy? (Critic Domenico Scarpa, in a prefatory essay to the Italian reissue of Ginzburg’s essay collection The Little Virtues, notes she also lived through the death-by-suicide of her friend, the writer Cesare Pavese, in 1950).

I can imagine that having children makes you weather all kinds of things. But weather the death of your children’s father by brutal political assassins? That leaves a mark – but in the book, it leaves just a handful of sentences. Now hold that thought.

In the two novellas, Family and Borghesia, presented jointly in a translation by Beryl Stockman published this year by NYRB, Ginzburg begins in her classic vein: with immediate and detailed physical descriptions of every major character, along with an inventory of the character’s quirks, pet peeves and derelictions. This characteristic snowstorm of details about normal, everyday people has a chatty, gossipy feel to it. Family, in Stockman’s translation, begins this way: “A man and a woman went to see a film one summer Sunday afternoon.” The man and the woman – whose names aren’t immediately revealed – are with a group of children, including the woman’s daughter, Angelica. There’s almost a “Seinfeld” air about the proceedings, with characters full of humorous grievances that Ginzburg rolls out in the opening pages. My favorite line from the beginning of Stockman’s translation refers to one of the children: “Daniele, the thin little boy, was laughing, even though Abyss was not in the least bit funny.”  Ginzburg also describes Angelica as wearing her hair such that one lock almost permanently covers one of eye and her references to the “single eye” are amusing.

But – spoiler alert, dear reader – these novellas don’t end well for some of the characters! Indeed, these two novellas are permeated with a sorrow of the kind that is never overcome. The kind that comes built in. And it’s one of many paradoxes surrounding the work of Ginzburg. As Dustin Illingworth wrote of Ginzburg in the Paris Review in 2019, “In her unsparing novels, we discover a fount of mysterious life.” Note that the novels are unsparing, and the life gushing forth from the fount is mysterious.

Another paradox is her relationship to women. Through her fiction, Ginzburg often told the story of women. The average Italian woman, specifically, and more broadly the lives of women anywhere. Borghesia, in Stockman’s translation, begins this way: “A woman who had never kept any animals was given a cat.” It is the story of a widow dealing with loneliness by acquiring a series of cats. There are always male characters, of course, and children in the works of Ginzburg. As translator Tim Parks has noted for the Paris Review: “All of Ginzburg’s novels are very much about families, and all her characters take on their charm and identity insofar as they are seen in relation to others.” But the main character in Ginzburg’s fiction is often a woman, or at the very least, the action follows a group of women.

Yet to say she tells the story of women can seem like a facile observation and also one quickly dismissed; sure, in this case, both books begin with women; and she was of course a woman. But what of it? Ginzburg wrote Valentino about a couple’s spoiled, only son. She wrote Family Lexicon whose most memorable “character” is arguably her father. And besides, these two novellas are full of male characters, too, such as Carmine, the man mentioned in the first line of Family. Moreover, I certainly don’t want to suggest this is “women’s fiction.”

Ginzburg herself wrote about feminism in a way that telegraphs she did not subscribe. She refused to see the traditional women’s duties of cooking and tending to children as chores she was forced to manage, or in any way as drawing the short straw. Born in 1916, she was an early career woman, working as an editor at the Italian publishing giant Einaudi while also successfully writing fiction. Yet she was a mother, too, and it appears from Family Lexicon that she negotiated this dual existence by writing largely when the children were otherwise occupied or in the care of her mother.

She also wrote an essay called “Lui ed io” (“He and I”) that appears in The Little Virtues and which comes to mind for various reasons, not least of which is a section about film, which I thought of immediately since Family begins at the cinema. The essay is a series of contrasts, including the different ways she and her second husband appreciate film. While she wrote that the two of them would both drop everything to see a movie, he was the one fully versed on the history of film. He was the one to recall every actor, even the most minor player. She could do none of that. I believe it is meant to be a paean to an enduring partnership between opposites. But to my mind, it’s the written form of every self-deprecating comment I’ve overheard women say at parties or on the big screen.

So not a feminist. But someone who achieved almost anything a feminist would want for women (says, at the very least, this feminist), and a writer who was particularly good at capturing the small hum of dissatisfaction in life, which so often women must negotiate (either by feeling it themselves or dealing with men plagued by it). Someone who endeavored to introduce the interior lives of average Italian women. While Carmine’s story ultimately proves the most moving and important in Family, it is a work full of classic female Ginzburgian characters, such as Ninetta, Carmine’s imperious wife, and Ivana, the woman at the movies, who inculcates the small hum of dissatisfaction while working as a translator and raising a child on her own. Borghesia, for its part, gives us a signature Ginzburg female protagonist – Ilaria, the hapless widow who had never had a pet before coming into possession of the cat mentioned in the novella’s first line (she is told that it’s clear she’d never had a pet before and she wonders, in a classic Ginzburg moment, how it was so apparent).

Still another paradox? Ginzburg’s deceptively simple prose. Her prose style often sounds like dialogue or comments bent into paragraph form. In Stockman’s translation of Borghesia, one reads about the useless servant Ombretta who wore a green turban on her head. “She always put this on in the mornings to do what she called her work, in other words, making her bed. It had been given to her as a present by a woman doctor with whom she had been in service for two weeks when she first came to Rome. She was always talking about those two weeks. She made them sound like a century.” Those last two lines sound like a snickering comment that might be tucked into a blow-by-blow account of some incident one friend would share with another; as if those two weeks were a century! (The lines also frame life in the truest, if most comically sorrowful way: the tiny amount of space something wonderful took up in the days of our lives, compared with the enormous mental space this wonderful moment takes up in our minds. Classic Ginzburg.) Similarly, later on in Borghesia, Ginzburg via Stockman writes, “Ilaria told Riri to look after Lulla when she was dead, and give the kittens away. Riri told her not to talk rot. There was nothing wrong with her.” Like the stenography of a conversation – if stenography were infused with perception, with skillful observation, with fine-tuned editorial judgement.

Perhaps this is why her work is so eminently readable (and universal; she was surely channeling her own mother when writing about older women, and yet in the rhythm and content, I hear my mother, born not in Florence as Ginzburg’s mother was, but in Brooklyn). With the descriptions and the prose that sound like a conversation put to the page, these two works can seem, again, deceptively simple. Yet writing fiction – or any kind of literature that keeps the reader reading – requires a certain level of genius, I argue.

The prose style here also makes Ginzburg difficult to translate; perhaps another paradox. When I read her work in the original Italian, the simple observations contained in the text, piled one on top of another – and in particular the physical descriptions, the everyday annoyances, the tics of loved ones – are broadcast in my head like a chat with an Italian friend while we lean against the counter at the corner caffe. In other words, Ginzburg sounds like an Italian everywoman. I hear the inimitable sing-song Italian inflection even though the book is not capable of uttering the inflection. I hear the parenthetical remarks, and small exclamations that ornament Italian speech (the “Dio buono,” the “hai capito che ti sto dicendo?”).

Meaning, she is a quintessentially Italian writer whom every serious reader, not just Italian ones, should know. And yet such prose is difficult to render in another language. One has the sense sometimes that Ginzburg’s biography (the wacky family immortalized in Family Lexicon; the famous husband executed by fascists), rather than the substance of her works, are what captivate English-speaking reviewers.

 But Stockman does a good job of capturing Ginzburg’s intrinsic humor, and the zany quality of the characters, in addition to the ways the characters often work at cross purposes. She also has mastered the rhythm of Ginzburg’s blizzard of sentences. And in Family, she masterfully duplicates a delightful quirk of Ginzburg’s prose by translating into English a character’s odd habit of confusing the ‘r’ and ‘w’ sounds: “A giwl who weaws diwty clothes is a weal disgwace.”

Some of the paradoxes I’ve mentioned are uniquely Ginzburgian. Some can be attributed to the craft any successful novelist wields. So for example, the novellas are about small things, but of course also big things. In the opening scene of Family, small annoyances emerge. The air conditioning that had been promised by a visit to the cinema is in fact broken; the man says there’s another movie theater showing cartoons that the children would like but the woman wonders why he’s telling her this only now. To which he inevitably replies that she was the one who wanted to see Abyss. The whole group begins to argue about this conundrum, such that another patron shushes them. And just like that we’re caught up in this petty little drama.

But larger themes loom, heightened by the description Ginzburg had provided right away (in that blizzard of details) – that the pair weren’t lovers but had been at one time. Hold that thought, though, because in the next line, Ginzburg moves the drama to the big screen in front of them, commenting that the wealthy characters in the film are delighting themselves with a ride on a motorboat, as water splashes about them. Initially a reader might think: No explanation needed – it’s glamorous figures having an afternoon of boating vs a motley group of people not boating, not having a good time but instead watching others go boating while arguing about which movie they should have seen. It’s a wonderful novelistic sleight of hand; our attention shifts from the characters in the book to the characters on the screen. But then the rich people in the movie die, and while the envious comparison disappears, the notion that life is cruelly unpredictable remains. The notion that we are all suffering our way through life, one way or another, remains. There is an ideal but we’ll never see it fulfilled or realized.

The descriptions in Family come so fast and furious that you don’t immediately realize that Carmine and Ivana had had a child together. With such a gossipy tone, one doesn’t immediately notice that the narrative is generating suspense. But there it is, when news of this child they had together emerges. Where was the child in the opening scene? Why wasn’t the child at least mentioned, if not present?

Ginzburg buries us with details that keep the narrative in the moment but we learn the child died, and perhaps it’s unavoidable that Family (and Borghesia, for that matter) is about death, and the difficulty of finding and sustaining connections to other people before the clock on our lives runs out. Unavoidable but subtle because we are presented with the deaths in the Ginzburg way – with little fanfare. Toward the end of Borghesia, when Ilaria is brought to the hospital gravely sick, we are told, “No one said anything to her, but she knew she was very ill and thought she would die soon.” No one said anything – like Ginzburg’s mother in real life abstaining from talking about her beloved son-in-law, snatched from them by the fascists in the cruelest way. Yet the character Ilaria knows. Isn’t that life? What you’re privy to, and what you actually disclose in conversation, these two things can be separated by a wide gulf. As Eric Gudas has noted on Reading in Translation, “Natalia Ginzburg’s fiction links stifled hopes and ambitions with suppressed speech.” 

It can seem almost heartless, almost sanctioning a lack of reflection because she refuses to judge her characters. Indeed, what makes her work so remarkable is the aching tenderness that surrounds her characters. Rather than heartless, she grasped how painful any kind of introspection can be when involving the death of a loved one – and how futile. She also had an uncanny sympathy not just for the good guys – but all the guys (and gals). She fascinates because she can write about the cruel decisions of the heart with empathy. As if to say, we humans are at the mercy of a wild spirit inside and so, abbia pazienza, some of us will behave poorly because of it. One doubts Carmine was truly sympathetic to Ivana when their child died; at one point, he asks her, “Do you remember the baby?” (I think she does). Moreover, when Carmine and Ivana meet up again after 10 years, Ginzburg tells us that Carmine “talked about nothing but his son all the way, and Ivana was bored.”

Yet Ginzburg doesn’t present Carmine as someone we should hate even as she paints him as a serial philanderer. He is especially kind to Angelica, who at one point complains, “It’s a pain staying here.”

“Why, where would you rather be?’ asked Carmine.

“I don’t know, but not here.”

“That happens to me too, all the time,” said Carmine. “I’m not happy where I am, but I haven’t the faintest idea where I would rather be, nor, most important of all, who I would rather be with.”

As such, Ginzburg may have been modest, unassuming, selfless and patient, but she excels at writing about people who are none of those things (see Sagittarius for another example of this dynamic). The characters we meet in Family and Borghesia aren’t always so sympathetic. Carmine can be self-absorbed, especially compared to Ivana, who as a mother arguably doesn’t have that luxury. Yet she, too, is no paragon of virtue. At one point, Ivana attempts to console Ninetta. But Ginzburg writes that “she was not made for consoling people.” Pietro, Ilaria’s brother-in-law in Borghesia comes off sympathetic if only because we can relate when he decides to quit probing the past. Ginzburg writes, “Pietro said that, in fact, he had come to a halt with his memoirs some while back. He only wanted to remember tranquil, harmless, light-hearted things.” Who can blame him? Not Ginzburg.

To be sure, Ginzburg is probing the past, and mining interior lives, but in such a subtle way. No one would call her books psychological thrillers and yet back in the opening scene at the cinema, we are told that the woman and the man aren’t following the plot of the movie. Instead, they are thinking their own thoughts – regrets, recriminations, the works – and just like that, Ginzburg quietly slips us into the two adults’ interior lives.

I often argue that new translations or reissues of older translations serve an important purpose: re-introduce the original foreign writer to a potentially new audience. I hope publishing companies continue to re-examine Ginzburg’s oeuvre because she is an Italian treasure. Some works like Family Lexicon are masterpieces; other works like Family and Borghesia are smaller gems. But she’s a writer not to be counted out, even as many American readers might be much more familiar with Italo Calvino or Andrea Camilleri or Elena Ferrante.

Jeanne Bonner is a writer, editor and literary translator. She won the 2018 PEN Grant for the English Translation of Italian literature for her translation-in-progress of Mariateresa Di Lascia’s Passaggio in Ombra. Her literary translations have appeared in the Kenyon Review, Asymptote Journal, Drunken Boat, and Trafika Europe. Her personal essays have been published by The New York Times, Catapult, Longreads, Brevity and CNN Travel. She has written about contemporary Italian literature for Literary Hub, Ploughshares, World Literature Today, Three Percent and the Kenyon Review. She studied Italian literature at Wesleyan University and has an MFA in Writing from Bennington College and an M.A. in Italian Literary and Cultural Studies from the University of Connecticut. She will be a short-term fellow at the New York Public Library, working on translations of Holocaust-era literature.

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

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