Natalia Ginzburg’s “Winter in the Abruzzi” is a short essay about a period in the author’s life that she spent with her family in political exile from Rome. I first read it in the early spring of 2020, as I was fitfully flitting from one book to another looking for any distraction from the incomprehensibility overtaking everything around us. It has accompanied me ever since.
The essay recounts one winter, or several winters, or an eternal winter — the duration of time is unclear. At the outset of the essay Ginzburg states, “In the Abruzzi there are just two seasons: summer and winter” (35). but the first, summer, is mentioned only in passing and is eclipsed entirely by her account of winter. Winter fills the horizon of the essay, winter is the present, and just as it begins to break, the piece ends. “Winter in the Abruzzi” is a piece about memory and thus also adopts some of the qualities of memory, wherein a period in time can grow in weight to obscure everything before and after, can float free of a linear timeline and become a world unto itself (that can be revisited, relived, and revised every time it is brought to mind).
The essay is written in straightforward style in neat clear sentences that build on each other like distinct, but well-fitting bricks.
In winter some old person would die of pneumonia, the bells of Santa Maria tolled the death knell, and Domenico Orecchia, the carpenter, built the casket. A woman went crazy and was taken to the asylum at Collemaggio and the whole town talked about it for quite a while. She was young and clean, the cleanest woman in the village: they said it must have been because of her great cleanliness. (37)*
Ginzburg’s sentences are compact and satisfying in their directness, yet they are also redolent with emotional fat (just the thing to ingest when experiencing a winter of your own). Behind the exactness of her almost journalistic observations, the strange and resonant details she includes are surreal, dreamlike.
The dressmaker divided the world into two camps: those who comb their hair and those who don’t. (38)
Nearly all had missing teeth: the women down there lose their teeth at thirty, from hard work and poor nutrition as well as from the strains of childbirth and nursing babies that come one after the other relentlessly. (36)
Rosa, the school caretaker, had a neighbor who spit in her eye, and she went around with a bandage on it in order to collect damages: “Eyes are sensitive and spit is salty,” she explained. (5)
As the author walks through this remembered winter, she describes to her reader whatever details catch her eye in bright focus. But there is also darkness in “Winter in the Abruzzi,” shadowy figures she does not allow us to see clearly: her family. Her children, never referred to as anything less than a plurality, remain faceless and nameless throughout. Her husband, sometimes walking with his arm linked through hers, sometimes working near her at the table, sometimes consulted like an oracle by the people they live among, his only name the one they give him, the professor, is a presence not a character. We are told less about Ginzburg’s family than about the cleaning woman, the shop owner, the neighbors. All that we know of her family is what can be shown by the shape of their absence. They do not exist in this essay; they haunt it.
Shortly after my daughter was born, a friend asked me what her personality was like. And I had to respond that I didn’t really know yet, I was still too connected to her. We were still too much of a unit for me to have any objectivity about her. I suspect that perhaps the opposite is at play here with Ginzburg. Her husband and the childhood of her children exist only in memory now. Her family has been absorbed into the speaker. They no longer exist outside of her. They walk beside her through this winter of memory, but like Eurydice they remain always just outside the author’s vision.
Just when winter begins to end, “Winter in the Abruzzi” returns to the present. “My husband died in Regina Coeli prison in Rome a few months after we left the village. When I confront the horror of his solitary death, of the anguished choices that preceded his death, I have to wonder if this really happened to us, we who bought oranges at Giró’s and went walking in the snow” (40). The essay is revealed to be a memory in the highest sense, as the story of her husband stops with it, the story of her whole family as it was ends with that winter.
Ginzburg does not spare herself in rebuilding this season gone for her reader. She is unflinching and clear-eyed in her portrayal of herself; the Natalia in the essay, experiences joy and contentment, but also boredom, anger, and simmering resentment. She is frank in sharing how the exile sat heavy on her. She admits freely that no matter the sparkling wonder of the weft, the warp was a numbing mundane, a wearing domesticity. “We would light our green stove with the long pipe running across the ceiling; we used to gather in the rom with the stove—we cooked and ate there, my husband wrote at the big oval table and the children scattered their toys on the floor. A picture of an eagle was painted on the ceiling, and I would stare at the eagle, thinking that that was exile. Exile was the eagle, it was the humming green stove, it was the vast silent countryside and the motionless snow” (36).
Anyone who is a parent will be familiar with the Greek chorus of elders who punctuate every moment with their admonitions to cherish it as it will be gone from you before you know it. (You almost feel their absence in this essay, however, do they not exist in Italy? Instead, the townspeople say things like “what sin did they commit?” when she takes the children outside for their daily walk, they teach them songs about being eaten alive.) There is a shared implicit understanding that surrounds the domestic, that one must enjoy it, because one must anticipate the future self regarding the present self as ignorantly living the best moments of their life, even though that moment might be emblemized by the time you spend staring at the ceiling.
In this collective winter of our exile, I admit to you that rereading this essay has become a furtive searching for some way to avoid living through what has already happened, is happening, will happen. Some way to circumvent the tragedy she details here, the loss of her love yes, but also the tragedy of an understanding that comes too late and so is useless.
Dreams never come true, and the instant they are shattered, we realize how the greatest joys of our life lie beyond the realm of reality. The instant they are shattered we are sick with longing for the days when they flamed within us. (40)
Even though she condemns us all to join her, “Our fate spends itself in this succession of hope and nostalgia.” (40), I can’t help rereading, hoping, hopelessly, that she has hidden an answer in the essay, a way to avoid her fate.
Once I fall in love with a piece of literature that exists outside of English, I like to read as many translations of the original as possible, believing that in tracing the points that different interpretations converge and diverge a deeper understanding of the original can be gained. Every translation is an advancement of a particular reading and interpretation and so is a form of scholarship on the original text—albeit not in the form of criticism but in the image of the original itself. To write this I referred to the work of two primary translators, Lynne Sharon Schwartz and Dick Davis. Reading them alternately, or sometimes simultaneously, I was struck by the different registers adopted by each. Schwartz skewed more ominous, making the journey of the essay feel like one long flinch before the blow, while Davis adopted a more benign path to the cliff of an ending, making its drop feel a little more fatal.
So for example, Schwartz’s “’How mean you are, Giro,’ the women said to him, and he answered ‘People who aren’t mean get eaten by dogs.’” (8) becomes Davis’s “’You’re so mean, Giró,’ the women said. And he’d retort, ‘If you’re good you get eaten alive.’” (39) Davis’s “…and winter begins.” (3) Becomes Schwartz’s “…and winter sets in.” (35) Or the epigraph from Virgil, “Deus nobis haec otia fecit.,” which Schwartz translates as “God has granted us this respite” becomes with Davis, “God has given us this moment of peace.” In one the word otia is peace and in the other respite. If both translations are read together however, the true expanse of the word can begin to be gauged. The reader is reminded all peace is finite, all peace is just a season. And the reader is also reminded that a moment of respite can become larger than itself, can open into memory, can become, in a sense, peace.
Chloe Garcia Roberts is a poet and translator from the Spanish and Chinese. She is the author of a book of poetry, The Reveal, which was published as part of Noemi Press’s Akrilika Series for innovative Latino writing. Her translations include Li Shangyin’s Derangements of My Contemporaries: Miscellaneous Notes (New Directions), which was awarded a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant, and a collected poems of Li Shangyin published in the New York Review Books / Poets series. Her translations of children’s literature include Cao Wenxuan’s Feather (Archipelago Books/Elsewhere Editions) which was an USBBY Outstanding International Book for 2019, and Decur’s When You Look Up (Enchanted Lion) which was named a Best Children’s Book of 2020 by the New York Times. Her essays, poems, and translations have appeared in the publications BOMB, Boston Review, A Public Space, and Gulf Coast among others. She lives outside Boston and works as managing editor of Harvard Review.
Ginzburg, Natalia, “Winter in the Abruzzi.” A Place to Live. Translated by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Seven Stories Press, 2002.
Ginzburg, Natalia. “Winter in the Abruzzi.” The Little Virtues. Translated by Dick Davis, Arcade Publishing, 1985
Ginzburg, Natalia. Le piccole virtú. Torino: Einaudi, 1963.
Nelson, Maggie. “Finding Moments of Calm During a Pandemic.” New Yorker, vol. 96, no. 8, 2020.
* All quotations are from Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s translation unless otherwise noted.