A Short History of “Reintroducing Natalia Ginzburg”

By Eric Gudas

Photo: Andrew Martino

As a college student in the early 1990s, I picked up bargain-rate copies of all of the English translations of Natalia Ginzburg that had been published by Seaver/Henry Holt in the late ’80s, in a stylish set of editions with uniform covers, apparently intended to bring Ginzburg’s work to a wider American readership. American readers didn’t snap up Ginzburg’s books, which ended up at dollar racks at the Strand (where I encountered them) and in remainder catalogs. Ginzburg’s brief flash into, then out, of print in the U.S. nevertheless occasioned a great deal of highly intelligent commentary, in individual essays such as Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s “The Shattered House,” in reviews of the various books as Holt published them, and in an entire issue of Salmagundi devoted to Ginzburg in 1992.

What Schwartz’s “The Shattered House” has in common with other excellent essays, such as Lorrie Goldensohn’s “Natalia Ginzburg: The Days and Houses of Her Art” (which also uses the house a central image in Ginzburg’s work), is the essayist’s need both to introduce the Italian writer to American readers unfamiliar with her and, at the same time, to offer an in-depth critical analysis of her work. The eminent translator Willian Weaver used his review of Carcanet’s 1985 reissue of a then-thirty-year-old translation of Ginzburg’s All Our Yesterdays (a clipping fell out of the used copy I bought) to summarize and praise such then un-translated Ginzburg novels as The City and the House—a book, in turn, to which Schwartz devotes about a quarter of “The Shattered House.” These reviews and essays were my education in Ginzburg: I learned from the passion of Schwartz, Goldensohn, and Weaver as much as I drew on their knowledge of individual books and, of course, of Ginzburg’s life.

At the time, I did not know how long writers, editors, translators, publishers and other enthusiasts had been introducing Ginzburg to American readers. Almost three-quarters of a century have passed between the first American book-length publication of Ginzburg, Doubleday’s 1949 edition of The Road to the City, translated by Frances Frenaye—the jacket copy of which reads, “Two novelettes of woman’s search for love by one of the most distinguished contemporary Italian writers”—and New Directions’ republication of the same exact translation, accompanied by a New York Times review headlined, “Reintroducing Natalia Ginzburg, One of the Great Italian Writers of the 20th Century.” We are stuck in a loop of “reintroducing Natalia Ginzburg.”

The current iteration of that loop depends on publishers’ marketing of Ginzburg as a precursor to Elena Ferrante. However, this genealogy arises out of a necessity to sell books; Ginzburg’s relation to her peers—Cesare Pavese, Elsa Morante, Italo Calvino—has far more relevance than the specter of her impact on Ferrante. I do not predict that readers of Ferrante will create a new mass audience for what Schwartz so brilliantly calls Ginzburg’s “rueful stories spread out like a stretch of backlit landscape, muted in tone, ambiguous, dotted with figures emblematic of hesitation and drift, at the brief hour that delights the eye and strains it, before the gulf of darkness.”

Where Ferrante is panoramic, Ginzburg focuses relentlessly on a certain slice of the Italian leftist bourgeois intelligentsia—a world, Ginzburg confides in her review of Éric Rohmer’s Marquise of O, that is the only one she knows (2001). It is a world in which a married couple can come to grief “about politics, because she was against Stalin, and so was he, but from a different point of view” but also “because she had left a woolen vest in the kitchen and he had inadvertently used it to clean his motor bike’ (2021, 27 – 28). The differences about Stalin are reduced to the same level of pettiness as the wife’s, or now ex-wife’s, resentment of the use to which her woolen vest has been put. In a similar vein, if one reads Family Lexicon without knowing that many of its characters are leading Socialist and anti-Fascist intellectuals of the late nineteenth century through the 1930s, it could seem like a book populated purely by vapid eccentrics.

Although Ginzburg’s characters inhabit a world of ideas, in the late 1970s Italo Calvino thought she “represented a world that doesn’t know how to think of itself without resorting to the language of foolish intellectualism [intellettualismo balordo], representing it outside of this language as if this language did not exist” (Calvino 1977). One of her characters writes a mystery novel, Polenta and Poison, while another quits his job to work obsessively on his manuscript, called Nothing but the Truth that “contained fiery attacks upon the Fascists and the King”—these might as well be the same book, for all Ginzburg’s narrators care about their content: intellettualismo and balordo go hand in hand (Ginzburg 2019; Ginzburg 2012).

Ginzburg occupies a narrow world, within which intellectual and artistic endeavor cannot lift us above the pettiness of the woolen vest. In 1961, Calvino saw that her obsession with the concrete over the abstract distinguished her from her contemporaries: “Natalia does not write words: she always names things. When she says ‘veil,’ it’s a veil, when she says ‘shoe,’ it’s a shoe. She is one of the very few people today who still believe in things, and therefore on her pages we constantly come across objects” (Calvino 1961). But where does this focus on objects qua objects end? I don’t contend that the scores of American readers who have not read Ginzburg avoid her because they are scared of being trapped in a domestic world of veils and shoes, where intellectual endeavor is at most a parody of itself.

However, any longtime reader of Ginzburg will recognize the self-effacement that runs throughout her work itself and in her own comments on it, such as, “I’m no Tolstoy, that’s for certain! I’m a minor writer” (Boyers 24). This tendency in Ginzburg was acutely diagnosed in an out-of-the way but insightful 1973 essay, Clotilde Soave Bowe’s “The Narrative Strategy of Natalia Ginzburg”: “Ginzburg, therefore, passes herself off as a product of chance and culture rather than art. She is the self-confessed and self-condemned minore. Because her text pretends to claim nothing from either reader or critic, we have come to see her as part of the immobile background of a contemporary national literature. In her essays she has done nothing at all to correct this error of perspective. Like Ivy Compton Burnett and Emily Dickinson, two other women writers she deeply admires, Ginzburg works with no sense of her public and has always underestimated the importance of her books. She would have us believe that the little she had to say was said in the slightest possible way” (795). Although this is the final sentence of Bowe’s essay, her implication is clear: we should see Ginzburg’s self-effacement as a strategy and not “believe” her.         

According to Weaver, a critique of this very tendency entered into the public discourse about Ginzburg’s work in her home country: “A while back, the critic and occasional novelist Oreste Del Buono wrote a carping article on Mrs. Ginzburg entitled ‘La Finta Tonta (‘The Fake Simpleton’), criticizing her narrative detachment, her refusal to pontificate, calling it all a pose. Mrs. Ginzburg, obviously, is no simpleton; her simplicity is an achievement, hard-won and remarkable, and the more welcome in a literary world where the cloak of omniscience is all too readily donned” (Weaver). Ginzburg has apparently needed translators—in both the literal and figurative senses—such as Schwartz, Weaver, and Bowe to explain her remarkable refusal to wear “the cloak of omniscience” (even “cloak” seems too grand a word for Ginzburg) and to point to the gravity of her fictional world, as well as the depth of ideas in her extensive body of essays that almost all begin by emphasizing her lack of expertise on the matter at hand.

However, I believe that American readers are more open to Ginzburg’s play of silences and surfaces—what Schwartz calls her crepuscular world—than they have ever been before. Furthermore, I believe the act of re-translation, not explication, will bring Ginzburg’s work closer to the readership it has always deserved—even if she will never become (and why would she?) a phenomenon like Ferrante. For almost two decades now, Schwartz’s translation of a selection of Ginzburg’s essays, A Place to Live, has been a seminal entry-point into Ginzburg’s self-effacing, public-despite-itself public voice. More recently, Jenny McPhee and Minna Zallman Proctor have published revelatory new translations—new interpretations—of Family Lexicon (Lessico famigliare) and Happiness, as Such (Caro Michele), respectively, into an American idiom. And I hope there are more re-translations—instead of reprintings of decades-old British translations—to come in this new decade.

Because “The Shattered House” was so instrumental in my own early reading of Ginzburg, and because I still learn from Schwartz every time I read it, I am glad to see it republished here. However, what excited me most when I re-read it was my discovery that Schwartz quotes briefly from her own, unpublished translation of Ginzburg’s 1977 novella Family, an especial favorite text of mine, which exists in only one published translation. Furthermore, Schwartz quotes a particularly revelatory moment in Family, which every English-language commentator on that novel brings up—namely Carmine’s deathbed scene at the novella’s end, where what Calvino calls Ginzburg’s “objects, distinct and separate, as if imprinted onto the fabric of human stories” take one of their most poignantly literal forms. I extract Schwartz’s translation from her essay and present it to you here because I want to read her version of Family in its entirety, between two covers:

Why on earth his memory should have squandered and destroyed so many days, so many facts, and yet preserved that one moment so accurately carrying it safely across years, storms and ruins, he did not know. He remembered nothing about himself in that moment, not the clothes he had on, nor the shoes, nor whatever wonders and curiosities wound and unwound in his head. All of that, his memory had thrown out as useless. Instead, it had preserved at random a little pile of minimal impressions, heartbreaking but slight. It had preserved the voices, the mud, the umbrellas, the people, the night.

“The Shattered House” by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

Eric Gudas is a regular contributor to Reading in Translation. Small Press Distribution has plenty of copies of his 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

Bowe, Clotilde Soave. “The Narrative Strategy of Natalia Ginzburg.” The Modern Language Review, Vol. 68, No. 4, 1973, pp. 788–795. Print.

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.

Calvino, Italo. Letters to Natalia Ginzburg, November 2 and 6, 1977. Reprinted in Ginzburg, Famiglia, edited by Domenico Scarpa, Einaudi, 2011. E-book. Translation by Olivia Soule.

—. “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.

Ginzburg, Natalia. All Our Yesterdays. Translated by Angus Davidson, Arcade Publishing, 2012. E-book.

—.“L’altro secolo.” Non possiamo saperlo: Saggi 1973-1990. Edited by Domenico Scarpa, Einaudo, 2001. E-book.

—. The Dry Heart. Translated by Frances Frenaye, New Directions, 2019. Print.

—. Family and Borghesia: Two Novellas. Translated by Beryl Stockman, New York Review Books, 2021. Print.

—. Family Lexicon. Translated by Jenny McPhee, New York Review Books, 2017. Ebook.

—. Happiness, As Such. Translated by Minna Zallman Proctor, New Directions, 2019. Ebook.

—. A Place to Live: Selected Essays. Translated by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Seven Stories Press, 2002. Print.

—. The Road to the City. Translated by Frances Frenaye. Doubleday, 1949. Print.

Goldensohn, Lorrie. “Natalia Ginzburg: The Days and Houses of Her Art.” Salagmundi, Vol. 96, 1992, pp. 96–129. Print.

Sehgal, Parul. “Reintroducing Natalia Ginzburg, One of the Great Italian Writers of the 20th Century.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 18 June 2019. Online.

Weaver, William. “War in a Classical Voice.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 5 May 1985. Online.

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