Translating Natalia Ginzburg’s “Voice That Says ‘I’” in the Twenty-First Century

By Eric Gudas

For decades, no matter how many of my books sit boxed up in storage, I’ve always had a tattered photocopy of the chapter entitled “The End of the Affair,” from Natalia Ginzburg’s novel Voices in the Evening (1961) in the translation by D.M. Low first published in 1963 by Hogarth Press. This version has been reprinted a number of times since, most recently, with a new introduction by Colm Tóibín, by Daunt Books in the U.K., an edition New Directions will publish in May, 2021. These pages contain what is, for me, one of the most heartbreaking passages in literature—a man speaks with lacerating honesty to the woman with whom he has, reluctantly, become engaged after a long-term clandestine relationship:

“Formerly,” he said, “I told you everything that came into my head. Not any more, now. Now I have lost the wish to tell you things. What I think about now, I tell a little of it to myself, and then I bury it, I send it underground. Then, little by little, I shall not tell things any more even to myself, I shall drive everything underground at once, every random thought, before it can take shape.”

“But that,” I said, “means being unhappy.”

“Undoubtedly,” he said, “it means being very unhappy. But it happens to so many people. A person at a certain moment will not look his own soul in the face any more. Because he is afraid, if he looks it in the face, of not having the courage to go on living any more.”

The admission which the man, Tommasino, makes, has less to do with love than with freedom of the spirit, a freedom he feels himself losing, step-by-step, as he gets closer to the institution of marriage. Indeed, Tommasino resembles many of Ginzburg’s other characters who persist—rather than live—in a state of enervation, self-repression, and everyday unhappiness. These characters recall Gurov in Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog”: “Useless matters and conversations about the same thing took for their share the best part of one’s time, the best of one’s powers, and what was left in the end was some sort of curtailed, wingless life, some sort of nonsense” (Chekhov 370). Tommasino has experienced “conversations about the same thing” during a formal visit to his fiancée’s family, after his prospective father-in-law unwittingly gives him a foretaste of married life when he exclaims to his wife, “‘You have told this story to me millions of times’” (125). In Ginzburg’s fiction, the “wingless life” is more of a birthright for women than men, which makes Tommasino’s admission doubly painful for his lover and fiancée, who, until now, has experienced their relationship as an escape from the bonds of her family.

One difficulty presents itself to a reviewer of Low’s translation: in Italian, Ginzburg’s novel contains no chapter called “The End of the Affair”—because it has no chapter breaks at all. The novel published by Einaudi in 1961 runs through with, at most, an extra space or two between sections, as its narrator weaves back and forth between the story of the leading family in her unnamed Piedmontese village, the De Franciscis, who own a textile factory in whose employ “the whole neighborhood lives,” and the story of her own relationship—which neither she nor any other character calls an “affair”—with that family’s youngest son (9). The conventionally-titled chapters of the Hogarth version impose the narrative framework of realism, the dominant mode of British fiction in the early ’60s, on an experimental novel that weaves in and out of time periods, and which is narrated by means of non-sequitur, the collapse of place and time, the repetition of key words and phrases without explanation, and, most of all, by means of vernacular speech—the voci of the title.

To be sure, Le voci della sera presents a translator with numerous challenges, because it depends on a seeming infinitude of subtle effects, many of them connected with the characters’ speaking voices. Low’s use of then-current British slang for Piedmontese dialect—“I had jolly well made my choice,” “thingummy,” and “I don’t care a rap for that”—hasn’t aged well (141, 94, 103). Low faced other difficulties inherent in rendering colloquial speech, some of which he enumerates in a “Translator’s Note”: the many nicknames by which the novel’s characters are referred and the lack of an English equivalent for formal and informal “you.” In fact, the difficulty of translation helps create what Tóibín calls “an atmosphere of distance and estrangement” within the novel itself, which takes place in a network of villages, each with its own dialect (xiii). When Catè marries Vincenzino, the eldest De Francisci son, and moves from her home to her husband’s village near, her new mother-in-law: “she did not like anyone in the village. She found Signora Cecilia tiresome, an old bergiana, a word they used in her home at Borgo Martino. It meant something like a chatterbox” (62). [Trovava la signora Cecilia noiosa, una vecchia bergianna, parola che usavano a casa sua, a Borgo Martino. Significava qualcosa come vecchia peppia.] The word bergianna does not belong, it seems, to the general region, or even to Catè’s village of origin, Borgo Martino, but to her very home: it’s a fragment of family idiolect which the narrator can only approximate with another non-standard word (peppia). Ginzburg’s narrator must also become a translator, because the many voci she summons do not, in their acute separateness from each other, speak a common language.

A twenty-first century translation of Le voci della sera would doubtless take a different approach towards what Italo Calvino, in his talk, “Natalia Ginzburg or the Possibilities of the Bourgeois Novel,” delivered when this novel was nominated for the Strega Prize in 1961, calls the novel’s “propensity for dialect and slang,” and more broadly with what Ginzburg herself called “subtle details of style or tone” in her own work, than Low did more than half a century ago (Boyers 13). For a start, the novel’s title itself would be more accurately rendered as Voices of the Evening: the many speakers talk past, rather than to, each other and their voices float, as if disembodied, through the narrative. Perhaps the novel’s normative voce belongs to Tommasino himself: “He has his tape-recorder on the bedside table. He says something, then listens to his own voice, which babbles undecidedly in the recorder, an extraneous and lamentable [estranea e lamentevole] presence in the empty house” (94). Ginzburg derived the notion of a novel assembled from voci in part from Ivy Compton-Burnett’s fiction, which she encountered when she and her husband lived in London in the early 1960s: “I couldn’t read the British newspapers, but I was reading all of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels in English. Her novels are nothing but dialogue––dogged and malicious dialogue” (Ginzburg 1964). In both Compton-Burnett and in Ginzburg’s novels most inspired by her, Le voci della sera and Lessico famigliare (winner of the 1963 Strega Prize), speech constitutes the narrative itself. As Penelope Lively writes of Compton-Burnett’s method: “the narrative advances through the words of the participants. The reader is left with a sense of eavesdropping; when the book is closed the voices will carry on, remorseless” (Lively vii).

The novel’s voices, on which we are meant to eavesdrop, are summoned by an enigmatic first-person narrator. By naming this narrator in the first chapter title, “Elsa and Her Mother and Her Family,” Low undercuts a subtle but very powerful—and utterly characteristic—moment, during another conversation between the lovers that occurs almost three-quarters of the way through the novel:

He would stroke my face and say, “Poor Elsa.”

“Why poor?” I said, “Why do you think me that?”

“Because you have fallen in with me who am a disaster [uno sciagurato].” (102)

Until this moment, no one has uttered the narrator’s name, not even she herself, despite the novel’s almost comic preponderance of named characters: the first seven pages mention twelve characters by name and refer to almost as many unnamed characters, such as “the tailor at Castello’s daughter” (5). Calvino asserts that “the first person of Voices in the Evening resembles many of the protagonists who say ‘I’ in [Ginzburg’s] 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…. 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.” This self-effacement extends to the narrator’s refusal literally to name herself, so that Tommasino’s use of her name comes, at least to readers of the Italian text, as a shock: who is Elsa? (I will repeat the name far more times than Ginzburg repeats it in her novel.) Calvino’s moniker, “the narrator who says ‘I’” has an accuracy that “the narrator” and “Elsa” both lack: as the chronicler of the De Franciscis’ family history, she usurps the place of an omniscient, third-person; but as the teller of her own tale, she anticipates the autobiographical narrator of Ginzburg’s next novel, Lessico famigliare (1963), translated by Jenny McPhee as Family Lexicon (2017), who asserts, “I had little desire to talk about myself” (Ginzburg 1963, 3). What Michael Caesar calls “a gap between the Elsa who is narrated and the Elsa who narrates” becomes another problem of translation within the novel, because the two Elsas use distinct narrative dialects, so to speak. (Caesar 724).

Although “the narrator who says ‘I’” recalls the nurse in Compton-Burnett’s Manservant and Maidservant—“her methods of observation being sharpened to the vanishing point”—she eschews commentary on these observations to an almost frightening degree (Compton-Burnett 44). The novel begins and ends with rather one-sided conversations between the narrator and her mother, whose “endless flow of trivial chatter…dominates all those around her” and, rather insidiously articulates “the specific pressures at work on her daughter” (Bullock 213). The mother prattles so incessantly, one begins to feel she compensates for some lack—and indeed the narrator avers early on, “my mother’s most persistent worry is that I do not get married” (8). By the novel’s concluding conversation, the narrator’s mother harps on her broken engagement to Tommasino: “This has been a very great disappointment to us. Your father remains silent, but I know he is always thinking about it. He would like us to move to Cignano. He has come to hate the village” (155). If these two conversations embody a kind of frame-narrative, they tell the story of one family’s shame, its falling-off in social standing after its youngest daughter’s marriage prospects collapse. This decline will tell hardest on the narrator herself, who, on the novel’s next-to-last page, listens as her mother worries about relocating from the family house to an apartment in Cignano: “She said, ‘It means that if we are a bit cramped, you can sleep with Aunt Ottavia. The aunt does not worry you at all; it is enough to provide her with a book, and one hears nothing more from her’”(156). These plans, so casually stated, have appalling implications for the narrator: apparently, unmarried women, like she and her aunt, do not deserve rooms of their own and can simply be warehoused together in spare bedrooms, with books to narcotize them.

Within the frame-story of her failed engagement and its repercussions for her family, the narrator tells the story of the De Francisci family’s diminution, over decades, to its youngest member, “an extraneous and lamentable presence in the empty house.” In the inset story of Tommasino and his older siblings, Lynne Sharon Schwartz discerns the “breakup and dispersal of the family” (Schwartz 17). A critic more theoretically inclined than I might classify Voices in the Evening as a postmodern family saga because, unlike the quintessential early twentieth-century family novel, Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, subtitled The Decline of a Family, Ginzburg’s novel dramatizes the decline, not only of the family as an institution in post-war Italy, but of the family saga as a literary genre. Tóibín compares the novel to “fragments of a film whose main narrative has been lost” (xii). Tóibín’s metaphor isn’t incidental, because Voices in the Evening reminds me more of Michelangelo Antonino’s “alienation” films—including La Notte, also from 1961—than any it does of other fiction from this period. When film historian Gilberto Perez refers to the “texture of incompleteness, partial views of arresting partiality, empty spaces, narrative pauses, spaces between imbued with heedful disquiet, pieces missing in the story and characterization” in Antonino’s films, he could also be describing both Ginzburg’s method in Voices in the Evening and her approach to the family saga itself as a genre that, in her hands, fissures into “fragments” and “empty spaces” (Perez 234).

In the post-war period, the family saga and the recent cultural memory of Italian fascism became intertwined, in such novels as Ginzburg’s own All Our Yesterdays (1952), “a dense tapestry of the war years” (Schwartz 17), and, to name just two other post-war classics, Georgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1962) and Elsa Morante’s History (1974). Ginzburg, however, leaves open the question of how much of the aridity and blankness of the narrator’s and Tommasino’s lives are due to their having passed their early years under fascism. The memory of the fascist period itself flickers in and out the narrative. Near the beginning of Voices in the Evening—although somewhere in the middle of the chronological period covered by the novel—one of the novel’s most dramatic events comes up in another family conversation, when, old Balotta’s sister, Magna Maria, tells him of the execution of a character nicknamed Nebbia or “mist”—we never do learn his given name—who appears in the novel for the first time here, posthumously, as it were. The back-and-forth here typifies many of the novel’s verbal exchanges: a character says something, and a second character repeats the end of the previous utterance, in disbelief, or simply as a tic of conversation:

“You know that they killed Nebbia?”


“Why yes. The Fascists took him and killed him, just there at the back, on those rocks there. It was at night and we heard him cry out. And in the morning our woman found his scarf, and his spectacles all broken, and his cap, that fur one which he always wore.” (20 – 21)

Magna Maria’s language emphasizes her distance from the execution: she hears Nebbia’s cry—another of the novel’s disembodied voices—but doesn’t see him at the moment of his death, while she encounters his physical traces at second-hand, after a servant finds them. His fur cap only gains significance later in the novel—although earlier in the chronological narrative—when Old Balotta’s daughter Gemmina declares her love for Nebbia, who rejects her: “After that Nebbia put his raincoat on, pulled his worn fur cap over his head and went away” (41). In this way, Voices in the Evening works against the kinds of chronological structure, traditional exposition, and character development that Ginzburg mastered in All Our Yesterdays. At the end of the latter novel, Cenzo Renza, who functions as a moral center in the narrative, makes a clearly heroic gesture when, after the inadvertent killing of a German soldier by someone in his household, he gives himself up to be executed by the Germans to prevent a massacre of retribution in the village. In the opposite manner, we first learn the essential facts of Nebbia’s execution by the Germans and are then compelled, as the narrative darts capriciously, almost shambolically, about in time, to imbue him retrospectively with the significance that will explain his death.

The very rocks where Nebbia was shot have divergent meanings for various characters. Gemmina refuses to visit the place; while when Vencenzino’s estranged wife visits, “[s]he touched everything, the rocks, the trees around it and the clumps of bushes where they found his hat. She looked and touched and wept” (81). However, the place has significantly different meaning to Elsa and Tommasino, who learn of their childhood visits there from her mother:

“You used to play together,” she said, “as children in Magna Maria’s garden. And Barba Tommaso used to take you to climb on those rocks, behind the house, just where they killed Nebbia, poor fellow.”

“I don’t remember,” I said.

“I remember a little,’ said Tommasino “You had some long pinafores, all with bows.”

“They were horrible, those pinafores,” I said. (115)

This exchange establishes, or at least reminds us, that Elsa and Tommasino lived through the war and its aftermath as children; if the novel’s present corresponds with the time-frame it depicts, the twenty-seven year-old Elsa would have been born in the mid-1930s. The execution site by the rocks is simply the site of their hazy—and, it turns out, shared—childhood memories. Because the novel’s chronology itself is so hazy, it’s hard to know whether Nebbia was killed before or after Elsa and Tommasino played on the rocks. Almost any other writer would use the episode dramatically, to connect the lovers’ soon-to-fail engagement with the taint of the fascism that surrounded them as children; but it’s enough for Ginzburg to locate her characters there, unable to agree on a common memory beyond Elsa’s childhood dresses—which would have been her girlish preoccupation at the time.

Elsa’s cloudy memories of her childhood ramblings contrast with the exactitude with which she narrates the stories of Tommasino, his siblings, and their parents. Indeed, the multitude of individual voices in the novel presents an interpretive quandary for its reader: is Elsa relating what she has heard about, at first- or second-hand, from the De Franciscis and their circle, or is she assuming the novelist’s prerogative to re-create their lives imaginatively? While of course neither possibility precludes the other, the “gap between the Elsa who is narrated and the Elsa who narrates” becomes apparent in the different idioms she uses, depending on whose story she tells. The first words she speaks in the novel, after her mother prompts, “‘Couldn’t we sometimes have the miracle of a word from you?’” are a question and a factual clarification: “‘What wife?’ and ‘The one that came to the [doctor’s] door…was not his wife. She was the nurse” (5). She introduces herself, as a character in her own narrative, through monosyllables.

As narrator of the De Franciscis’ story on the other hand, her powers of language become more expansive. For instance, at a particularly dramatic moment, Old Balotta’s foster son, and, to his family’s disgust, a fascist, Purillo, comes to take Balotta and his wife to safety from the Germans: “Thereupon old Balotta got up and began to dress. He fumbled over his braces and buttons with his freckled hands that were covered with white wrinkled skin…. Signora Cecilia, in her alarm, wandered round the rooms picking up at random what she found there, some flower vases which she put in a bag, silver spoons and old camisoles” (17). The high drama of the moment when, despite his own allegiances and at considerable risk to his personal safely, Purillo whisks his aging and disoriented foster-parents away, comes out through a set of details one refers to, almost reflexively, as “novelistic.” I mean the descriptions of the characters’ movements and physical appearances and the use of details, such as the “random” objects snatched up by Signora Cecilia, rather than commentary, to evoke the patriarch and matriarch’s states of mind as they flee from a house to which, as it turns out, she will never see again before her death and which he will see only after is has been vandalized by the Germans.

In fact, “the Elsa who narrates” rarely does so by means of description, as opposed to dialogue, but a passage such as this one demonstrates her ability to transform herself into a third-person narrator, like, say, the narrator of All Our Yesterdays. Calvino articulates his own notion of a double-voice in Voices in the Evening when he contends, “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,” a formulation with which I agree—but not all the time. A passage such as the one I’ve just quoted shows how the intricacy of of Ginzburg’s method eludes even Calvino occasionally, because in that moment, “the voice that says ‘I’” proves herself the master of a “complex” situation, in which political and familial loyalties jostle against one another in one intensely hurried instance.

The question of whether Elsa bases her narrative of the De Franciscis’ narrative on information she has heard at first- or second-hand may be a red herring; however, the imaginative license she takes with such details as the “silver spoons and old camisoles” stands in unnerving opposition to the monosyllabic answers she gives to all of her interlocutors besides Tommasino. It is only through entering another family’s failures and miseries that she begins to bring forth what she represses. Elsa’s own interest in the literature of family decline passes by almost imperceptibly when her mother unloads her library books in search of the yeast she has commissioned Elsa to buy on her trip to town:

I had just got home, and was having my supper at the kitchen table. My mother was emptying the string bag on the table, taking out the books from the “Selecta” one by one She looked at a title-page with a scornful expression.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” she said. “Oh, poor creature.

“And whereas the brewers’ yeast?” she said. “Have you forgotten it?”

“Yes.” (113)

The mother’s dismissal of the title of Tennessee Williams’s play as a literal description, of less importance than the yeast’s tangible usefulness, seems at first a kind of joke—the play, as an imaginative work, means nothing to her. However, like the very novel we are reading, Williams’s play deals with an aging patriarch, his children and their spouses, and a number of taboo topics: alcoholism and repressed homosexuality (the narrator’s mother regrets that the most eligible bachelor in the neighborhood is “a morphine addict and not interested in women” [9]), infidelity (after Catè’s husband rejects her, “she began to make love with those who came her way” [75]), female sexual desire (the narrator gradually reveals that she and Tommasino are sleeping together), and failures both professional and social. For both Ginzburg and Williams, the family and the family-based narrative are in a tattered state. Although Ginzburg wrote extensively for the stage between the mid-1960s and the early 1970s, I don’t mean to draw an explicit parallel between Williams’s play and her novel (or any of her own plays), but rather to point out how much of life the narrator’s mother dismisses by reading the title of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof literally—and also how much the narrator, who chronicles not only her own story by the DeFranciscis’, has to repress in her everyday life.

When her relationship with Tommasino begins to founder, Elsa’s interest, as third-person narrator, in his siblings’ marriages becomes clearer. By whatever means, Elsa has come to know—or to imagine—the end of Vincenzino and Caté’s marriage: “She said, ‘Why have we ruined everything, everything?’ and she began to cry” (84). In Elsa’s narrative, those words reverberate in Vincenzino’s own memory:

And so often her voice echoed in his memory when she said,

“Oh, why, why have we ruined everything?”

Many a time at night he could not sleep and could hear her lamenting in that way. (91)

Finally, Caté’s words resonate in the narrator’s own mouth during a painful exchange with Tommasino:

 And I began to cry. I said,

“Why have we ruined everything?”

“Ah, no,” he said, “don’t cry, I hate to see women cry.”

But I cried and said just like Caté,

“Why has everything been ruined?” (130)

For the narrator to sound like someone in a novel—or a character in a Tennessee Williams play—and, in the process, to give voice to her own repressed pains and desires, she must first imagine her question in the voice of a woman other than herself.

 “Oh, why, why have we ruined everything?”—these are the words spoken by the ghostly voices, or traces of voices, that people and unpeople Ginzburg’s novel. “She lets [her characters] speak for themselves,” Tóibín reminds us, “but more important, she allows them to be silent, to give nothing away”—or, to use another metaphor, she allows them to remain partially untranslated (vx). Voices in the Evening depicts a world, as Schwartz wisely observes, in which “the traditions of the old era have rotted, and the new one has yet to shape a frame that confers meaning and vigor” (Schwartz 17). The very tenuousness of this world, its spectral nature, prevents a relationship like the narrator’s and Tommasino’s from taking root because they have no future before them; or at least, that’s the narrative Tommasino creates for Elsa, and which she unquestioningly accepts. (Neither of them seems particularly willing to assert their desire or their right to be with the other one.) Their love, he tells her, “was something very slight, very fragile, ready to break up at the first puff of wind. It was something which could not be captured and brought to the light or it would die. We have brought it to the light and it is dead, and we shall never recover it any more” (142 – 43).

Ginzburg the writer rejects Tommasino’s pessimism, for what is her novel but an act of recovery, even if she recovers fragments and endings: Nebbia’s broken spectacles on the rocks where the Germans shot him to death; a forgotten packet of brewer’s yeast; a girl’s pinafores; a father’s inexpressible shame and disappointment; an unmarried aunt’s silence. Readers who have lived with the present English version for decades owe D.M. Low a debt for translating this profoundly innovative novel—which itself interrogates limitations—within the restraints of a prior era. Because Le voci della sera is not only one of Ginzburg’s best novels, but the novel in which she first fully realized her talents—as her peers recognized by nominating her for the Strega Prize—I hope that twenty-first century translators will be drawn into its many voices and even more numerous silences to create a Voices of the Evening for our own time and its as-yet-undiscerned constraints.

Small Press Distribution has plenty of copies of Eric Gudas’s book, Best Western and Other Poems; his prose about literature, photography, music, and film has appeared in All About Jazz, Raritan, Senses of Cinema, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Poetry Flash, and elsewhere. He contributed an afterword to the NYRB Classics reissue of Natalia Ginzburg’s Family and Borghesia.

Works Cited

Boyers, Peg. “An Interview with Natalia Ginzburg.” Natalia Ginzburg: A Voice of the Twentieth Century. Edited by Giuliana Sanguinetti Katz and Angela M. Jeannet, University of Toronto Press, 2000, pp. 10-31. Print.

Bullock, Alan, “Natalia Ginzburg and Ivy Compton-Burnett: Creative Composition and Domestic Repression in Le voci della sera,” Rivista di Letterature Moderne e Comparate, 30 (1977): 203-226. Print.

Caesar, Michael. Review of Natalia Ginzburg’s Le voci della sera, edited by Michael Bullock. The Modern Language Review 79:3 (July, 1984), 723-724. Print.

Calvino, Italo. “Natalia Ginzburg or the Possibilities of the Bourgeois Novel.” First delivered as a talk at Cinema Fiammetta, Rome, June 23, 1961. Collected in Italo Calvino, Saggi 1945 – 1985, Vol I. Edited by M. Barenghi. Mondadori, 1995, pp. 1087-94. Translation by Stiliana Milkova and Eric Gudas published in Reading in Translation, 22 February, 2021. Online.

Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich. Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Bantam Books, 2000. Print.

Compton-Burnett, Ivy. Manservant and Maidservant. 1947. New York Review Books, 2001. Print.

Ginzburg, Natalia. Family Lexicon. Translated Jenny McPhee. 1963. New York Review Books Classics, 2017. Print.

—. “Prefazione.” Cinque romanzi brevi: e altri racconti. 1964. EPUB, Einaudi, 2013. Translated for this review by Stiliana Milkova.

Lively, Penelope. Introduction. Manservant and Maidservant, by Ivy Compton-Burnett, 1947, reprinted Oxford UP, 1984, v-xii. Print.

Perez, Gilberto. “The Point of View of a Stranger: An Essay on Antonioni’s ‘Eclipse,’” The Hudson Review, 44:2 (Summer, 1991): 234-262. Print.

Schwartz, Lynne Sharon. “The Shattered House.” The Threepenny Review 65 (Summer 1995): 16-19. Print.

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