We reproduce, with permission by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, her essay “The Shattered House,” which originally appeared in print in The Threepenny Review in Summer 1995.
Eric Gudas introduces Schwartz’s essay in his “A Short History of Reintroducing Natalia Ginzburg”
The Shattered House
Instead of by century or by literary movement, writers of fiction might be classified by times of day or slants of light. Tolstoy would fall under the clarity of high noon, Dostoievski the hysteria of three a.m. Natalia Ginzburg’s pervasive wit and minute details would suggest a morning sensibility, while her repetitions and obsessiveness feel nocturnal. In the end, though, she is crepuscular, like Chekhov. Her 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. Voices in the Evening, the title of a 1961 novel (re-issued in the United States in 2021), would suit any of her others: twilight voices of the postwar generations murmur their agonies.
Natalia Ginzburg died in 1991 at 75, revered in Italy as one of the great writers of her generation. Readers had long been familiar with her preoccupations and how they began, partly through the autobiographical Family Sayings (1963), which recounts her early years in Turin as part of an active, intelligent, and widely ramifying half-Jewish family. (The most recent English translation is titled Family Lexicon.) But over and above the urgencies of childhood, the event that most directly shaped her work and life – as well as the lives of her contemporaries – was the war. The war. For an Italian novelist coming to adulthood in the 1930s, it needs no qualifiers.
She married Leone Ginzburg, leader of an anti-fascist group, in 1938. As a result of his political activities, the young couple was exiled to a remote town in the Abruzzi, a form of house arrest. Back in Rome in 1944, Leone Ginzburg was dragged from his house to Regina Coeli prison to be tortured to death by the fascists. In a number of essays, Ginzburg describes the three years of exile, as well as the shock of personal loss and the struggle to carry on her life as a writer and mother of three.
She also mentions casually that Vicenda (Event) is a title she would like to use for a future novel. As it turned out, her droll tales of bungled lives form a unified body of work chronicling not only the singular event of the war but its legacy, a trauma of the spirit from which, in her view, there may be no recovery. Vicende, Events, or more aptly Vicissitudes, would be better yet, since the fictional strategy Ginzburg developed over forty years relies on a series of actions and reactions by characters behaving in ill-advised, seemingly arbitrary ways. Rather than a neat network or web, the design of her novels is more like an array of tangled strings: linear fiction with a vengeance, testifying to a firm belief in linearity – a hybrid kind made of causality and randomness – as the way the world works.
Actual life, especially postwar life, offered so much in the way of events that invention, for Ginzburg, became almost superfluous. “She has no more desire to invent,” she says of her own tactics in an early essay, “Portrait of the Writer”:
She doesn’t know whether it is because she is tired and her imagination is dead (always scanty, frail and sick, now it is dead), or because she understands that she was not made to invent but to tell things that really happened, things she has grasped through others or herself….She is no longer a miser, for she couldn’t possibly measure out truth. And she is so slow and patient, too, partly because the truth sketches out for her arabesques which are hard to decipher. Yet to decipher them seems essential. Sometimes her thought gets entangled in them and is difficult to extricate because her reason is very uncertain and confused. And then every so often the fear strikes her that those arabesques may have meaning only for her.
On the contrary, the arabesques have universal, utterly lucid, decipherable meaning.
Voices in the Evening and All Our Yesterdays (1952) chart the emotional and moral destruction of several small-town families during the war years and thereafter. But the characters in later novels are equally made and unmade by the war, even if it is barely mentioned and even if the younger ones, especially, seem as unaware of it as they are of much of history.
Like all wars, and probably more than most, this one left an unending series of aftershocks, the ground trembling under unsteady feet. Among the savageries it perpetrated and bequeathed, the most pungent, in Ginzburg’s fiction, is the loss of stability, from the most intimate sort – home and loved ones – to the existential: the usefulness of work and common decencies, institutions such as family and marriage, all uprooted. Her most persistent metaphor for every kind of instability is the tenuousness of houses:
There has been the war, and people have seen so many houses collapse, and now they no longer feel secure and at ease in their houses as they once did….Those who have seen houses collapse know all too clearly what feeble goods vases of flowers, paintings, and white walls are. They know all too well what a house is made of. A house is made of brick and stone… and can collapse from one moment to the next. Behind the serene vases of flowers, behind the teapots, the rugs and the waxed floors, is the other, the true face of the house, the hideous face of the crumbled house.
No wonder her last novel is built around the motif of real estate used in a manner that is both hilarious and heartrending. The City and the House (1984) is the culmination of Ginzburg’s fiction over four and a half decades; it gathers up her favorite themes (recycles them, a less sympathetic reader might say) in an epistolary form and embodies them in a populous cast. She began on a much smaller scale with two novellas, The Road to the City (1944) and The Dry Heart (1947), the latter recently republished in English.
Both grew out of Ginzburg’s wartime confinement and both address the bleak prospects of young country women, contrasting their expectations of marriage with the actuality. (The clever jacket of a 1990 American edition sports a photograph of a floaty bridal veil and tiara, simultaneously suggesting aspiration and hollowness.) It would be a mistake, though, to read Ginzburg as a feminist seeking more vivifying alternatives for women. Marriage proves deadly for all concerned. She sees it simply as the most ready example of an institution gone to seed.
Delia, the adolescent country girl in The Road to the City, hates her house, “red with a pergola in front of it, and we hung our clothes on the banisters because we didn’t have enough cupboards. ‘Shoo, shoo!’ my mother would say as she chased the hens out of the kitchen.” Delia’s parents are surly, her brothers crude, except for an adopted one, Nini, who hopes for a better life via a job in the nearby city. The one spiritually alive character, he loves Delia to no avail: in her primitive ignorance, she teases and dismisses him until his will falters and he sickens and dies. When Delia gets pregnant by the local doctor’s son, their imminent shotgun marriage promises only misery. The married life awaiting her is prefigured by her older sister, whose days in the city are spent lolling in bed, primping, meeting lovers and confabulating with the children’s nursemaid. The typically Ginzburg twist is that Delia would probably have been equally discontented with Nini. There is no better life when values have caved in and brutishness is the order of the day.
The Dry Heart, re-issued in English in 2019, is a first-person narrative told in flashback, opening just after the desolate heroine has shot her morose, unattractive and unfaithful husband in the head with an impassivity that recalls Ionesco or Pinter. (Dry as the heart in question is, a plain translation of the original title would have been preferable: È stato cosi, literally, It Was Like This, or loosely, How It Happened.)
By her own admission, the narrator first fell in love out of pure lassitude, tired of mouldering in a boarding-house room where neighbors pounded broomsticks on the wall at the slightest noise. All she wanted, really, was a change, an escape from dreariness, though in more rational moments she knows better. “If you’re in trouble,” she remarks prophetically at the suggestion of a trip, “it’s better to stew in your own juice in familiar surroundings. A change of air is positively fatal.“
In her deadpan account of the spiritual exhaustion leading to the murder – one damn thing after another – the loss of a baby is a turning point. The death of babies is one of several motifs Ginzburg will re-use in The City and the House as well as in her 1977 novellas Family and Borghesia. Two even die of the same cause, meningitis, perhaps bearing out another chastening self-criticism in “Portrait of the Writer”:
Her imagination was neither adventurous nor bountiful. It was an arid, deprived, weak imagination. She thought of it as a frail, delicate, and precious possession. She was pulling a few sad, languishing flowers out of barren soil, while she would have liked an enormous landscape of meadows and woods. So she felt poor, she must use her goods parsimoniously. She was parsimonious, impetuous, and cautious all at the same time – cautious because she felt that if she slackened, even her will might fail her.
It can hardly be paucity of imagination which causes the deaths of so many children; more likely Ginzburg is casting doubt on the viability of future generations. In fact, her ingrained pessimism may be what kept her work from finding an audience in this country until recently, when a flurry of republication of early books, including The Dry Heart, has won critical praise. As far as the requirements for literary popularity go, she offers plenty of humor and plenty of love affairs, but little of the “life-affirming” outlook so dear to American readers.
Though they show the seeds of her genius, The Road to the City and The Dry Heart are narrow, airless and, as Ginzburg herself says, “parsimonious” and “languishing.” All Our Yesterdays, in contrast, is energetic and crowded with incident, a dense tapestry of the war years. But it is with Voices in the Evening that she comes into her own, an arresting novel sketched in swift, spare strokes, about a prosperous village family undone by the upheavals of war, and an anemic love affair thwarted by history.
Old Balotta, the De Francisci patriarch, is a local captain of industry and staunch anti-fascist; his textile factory dominates the village and the vicissitudes of his children’s lives dominate the novel. All five of them totter through life like convalescents, marrying, having affairs, bearing children, aging and dying, one way or another unable to maneuver with the sureness of purpose of the older generation. The war has tainted their choices and actions, paralyzed their wills and drained their destinies of meaning. The breakup and dispersal of the family is foretold in a poignant moment when Balotta, in the bewilderment of war and advanced age, cannot remember where they have all gone:
“The boys, the grown-up ones, are at the war,” said the landlady. “Don’t you remember that they are at the war? Little Tommasino is at school; and the girls, Gemmina is in Switzerland and Raffaella is in the mountains with the Partisans.”
“What a life!” said old Balotta.
The houses in Voices in the Evening are characterized nearly as thoroughly as the people, possessing names, features, special uses and distinct personalities. They shape the novel as they shape the village, with the young De Franciscis traipsing from house to house in faltering efforts to inhabit their proper lives. Old Balotta and his wife’s house is La Casetta, which alters to reflect the couple’s success and social standing:
When he bought it, it had been a peasant’s house with a kitchen garden, orchard and vineyard. Later he enlarged and embellished it with a veranda and balconies, preserving at the same time something of its rustic appearance.
It falls to the destroying hands of the fascists, and after the liberation old Balotta returns:
They took him to La Casetta. Magna Maria had cleared away the broken glass and tidied up the rooms a bit with the peasant woman’s help. But there were no mattresses or sheets, no plate or china. Complete devastation existed in the garden, just where once upon a time one saw Signora Cecilia moving about in the midst of her roses, with her blue apron, her scissors attached to her belt, and her watering pot in her hand….Old Balotta came and sat down and suddenly began sobbing into his handkerchief like a little child.
When his children displeased him, old Balotta would send them to Le Pietre, home of his inane brother and sister. As those children move out on their own, their houses suit the lives sheltered within: Villa Rondine is “a large red suburban house, surrounded with shrubberies, lying on the top of the hill.” For a less urbane couple, Casa Mercanti is “a small house, immediately at the end of the village,” with a “vegetable-garden full of cabbages” behind it. And Casa Tonda, where Tommasino, the youngest son, settles after the war, is large, round, and significantly empty of furnishings. Everyone understands that any of the houses might be reduced to rubble as instantly as was La Casetta, or as peremptorily as Nebbia, an old friend, was shot to death by fascists on the rocks behind Le Pietre.
The story is told by Elsa, whose father is the factory accountant and whose fate is woven obliquely into that of the De Franciscis. Elsa and Tommasino are secret lovers, meeting every Wednesday in the nearby town to pass the time in a rented room, a home in its way. Through repetition, the words “the room in Via Gorizia” blossom with connotation, taking on an aura of wan passion, futureless love, acts and feelings outside the pattern of village life.
When Elsa hints she is dissatisfied with a life of clandestine Wednesday afternoons, Tommasino obliges by courting her openly, paying calls, listening politely to her mother (a walking encyclopedia of cliché), and eventually making a formal proposal. Yet as soon as the open-ended love affair congeals into a conventional engagement, as soon as Tommasino sees himself inside the “frame,” as he puts it, the stiffness of death sets in.
“Why is everything ruined?,” one of the De Francisci wives cries as her marriage evaporates. Now Elsa has reason to echo those words. She and Tommasino no longer wish to visit the room in Via Gorizia. Love outside the social frame may be barren and insufficient, but love within the frame is stultifying. The lovers are caught in a time warp: the traditions of the old era have rotted, and the new one has yet to shape a frame that confers meaning and vigor. Tommasino himself, last of a withered line, personifies the dilemma.
“I have the feeling,” he said, “that they have already lived enough, those others before me; that they have already consumed all the reserves, all the vitality that there was for us. The others, Nebbia, Vincenzino, my father. Nothing was left over for me.
“The others,” he said, “all those who have lived in this village before me. It seems to me that I am only their shadow.”
Elsa and Tommasino part, their love homeless, their contact reduced to nodding on the street. The novel ends mordantly with Elsa’s mother planning a move to a smaller house where Elsa, a belated casualty of the war, will share a room with a maiden aunt.
In 1977 Ginzburg published two novellas, Family and Borghesia, both rich in character and event, both mingling comic blunders with grievous error and betrayal, both ending with the protagonist’s death in middle-age. The style is simple and luminous, brimming with assurance, despite her self accusations about weak will and “barren soil.” Borghesia is the kind of piece one might even picture her tossing off easily. The plot, such as it is, turns on a beleaguered widow’s growing involvement with cats – a pretext for juggling a handful of familiar motifs: a dead child, an offstage suicide, a good natured busybody, an exhausted middle-aged man who besottedly marries a teen-ager, a cluster of aimless young people, and above all, a preoccupation with apartments. As always, the many real and projected moves are half-hearted attempts to force direction into errant lives. The companion piece, Family, is an unassuming masterpiece that sneaks up on you.
Family opens with two adults and three children sitting at a cafe on a hot summer Sunday afternoon, mildly bickering, eating ice-cream in a desultory way, having just left a ghastly movie whose sole virtue was the air-conditioning. Carmine is a successful architect, Ivana a translator. Years ago they were lovers and had a child who died in infancy. Now Carmine is married to an absurdly hollow, stylish woman notable for her fluffy black bangs, which Ginzburg enjoys using as a Homeric epithet. The little group in the café – the children are Ivana’s, Carmine’s, and a neighbor’s – form a family of the kind that keeps recurring in the later fiction – arbitrary and ephemeral, replacing the traditional prewar family.
Of course they cannot know, sitting idly in the cafe, that Carmine, in the prime of life, will soon become ill and die. Nor can they know that months later, these lazy, ordinary, even faintly boring afternoon hours will seem like hours of serene happiness. Happiness, Ginzburg says elsewhere, can rarely be appreciated while we are in the midst of it. Happiness, she says, is like water.
Carmine is a lost soul, comfortable only with Ivana and the substitute family he finds at her house. Beyond the familiar anomie, he shows the enervating symptoms of postwar social mobility. Once a country boy from an Abruzzi village, he is out of place in his over-decorated upper-middle-class apartment. His peasant parents (whom his wife patronizes with false courtesy) have blackened teeth and sturdy bodies, wear black clothing and say little. Who knows what they make of their son’s sleek surroundings – the lamp that looks like a condom, the red carpets and red tablecloth and red jacket of the servant who presents the dinner plates. Except that on a final visit, their weathered faces reveal the knowledge that “something had happened, something secret and tragic, something it was better not to talk about.”
Carmine and Ivana no longer remember exactly why they parted, nor is there any regret or wish to resume the affair. To write merely of a wrong choice and the subsequent remorse would be too facile for Ginzburg’s purposes: again, she implies that the lives would have soured no matter which choices were made. The social breakdown, not to mention the human condition itself, brings on the private catastrophes of Family. The customary series of downhill events is utterly lifelike and enthralling. Only as the story draws to a close do we realize it has been propelled all along by the steady thrust of decay and death.
Carmine’s illness is real enough: malignant lymphogranuloma, Ginzburg announces with cool irony, as if the impressive name fails to impress her. Yet as in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, every detail suggests that the man’s life has created the illness, is the illness: his confusion, his all-too-human equivocation, his failure to discover who he is and how he should properly live. As Carmine dies, Ginzburg, like Tolstoy, vaults beyond the moral and psychological parameters she has set up. Not to a vision of spiritual redemption, though, but to something more primal and rooted.
He was a little boy and his mother was young, with a round rosy face and white teeth and thick black hair gathered in a big bun studded with metal hairpins, that jutted out from beneath her kerchief…. He was very little, in his mother’s arms. They were at a railroad station in town, at night, and it was raining very hard and there were crowds of people waiting for the train, all holding umbrellas, and mud streamed between the tracks. 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 City and the House (1984) was not Ginzburg’s first epistolary novel. Caro Michele (Dear Michael), whose first English translation was unfortunately titled No Way, and a more recent one rendered as Happiness, As Such, appeared eleven years earlier. It consists largely of letters from the family and friends of a mysterious young man, possibly a revolutionary, who leads a vagabond life. But those letters are set in a conventional narrative. A note appended to The City and the House touches on Ginzburg’s reasons for dispensing with the narrative altogether:
My hope and wish is that something of the life of our times will be reflected in the nature and experiences of the people exchanging these letters. And yet I find the life of our times quite difficult to represent. So if it is indeed reflected here, it will be so in an exiguous, partial and fragmentary way, as if in the shards of a broken mirror. I must say that in writing my novels I have always felt I was holding up a broken mirror, but nevertheless I always hoped eventually to put the pieces back together and have the mirror intact. But this never happened, and as I kept writing, my hope gradually drifted away. So with this novel I had no such hope. The mirror was broken, and I knew it would be impossible to put the pieces back together. I have never had the good fortune to possess a whole and unbroken mirror.
Novelists who seek, over and over, to reflect a specific ambience tend to proceed like chefs using their favorite ingredients in new concoctions. Ginzburg picks up so many elements from Caro Michele to be reassembled in The City and the House that the earlier work reads almost as a trial run. In both, a man leaves the country for obscure reasons and soon makes a senseless marriage; a baby is born of dubious paternity; a fortyish woman is left alone while her former husband or lover moves on to someone younger; a violent street brawl destroys the young.
In between Caro Michele and The City and the House, Ginzburg wrote her only biography. The Manzoni Family is a huge, engrossing chronicle of the life and times of Alessandro Manzoni, nineteenth-century author of the grand and seminal novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed). Here at last she offers a book made entirely of events, with no commentary or interpretation, with the only hint of an authorial attitude resting in the crucial choice of data.
The compilation of a century’s worth of facts – domestic, social, cultural, international – along with lengthy quotes from letters, is not only audacious but a logical outgrowth of the fiction – an endeavor to assemble the broken pieces of the mirror. And indeed, from thousands of fragments, The Manzoni Family fashions a textured pattern evoking daily life at a time when Italy was a cluster of combative city-states attempting to unite. If a writer can be said to be influenced by her own work, then the strategy of the biography appears to have had a major effect on The City and the House, published two years later.
Letters, as Ginzburg uses them, become a mode of chronicle. The epistolary form has always been a self-conscious artifice, at its best a window into intimacy, at its worst an expedient way of giving data. Today, with the phone, email and texts having replaced most letter-writing, an epistolary novel – especially one with such unstinting and voluminous correspondents – feels more artificial than ever. Ginzburg brazenly uses the form as an abstraction; in her hands it makes for what is essentially a philosophical, not a realistic, novel.
To set things in motion, Giuseppe, the disaffected middle-aged Roman protagonist, announces his plan to move across the ocean to join his brother in Princeton, New Jersey – envisioned, amusingly, as a kind of Peaceable Kingdom. He feels “like someone who has decided to throw himself into the sea and hopes he will emerge either dead or new and changed.”
Everyone wants to be changed. The characters move incessantly, buying and selling property as impulsively as children in a heated game of Monopoly. They cling to a belief that “changing house,” as they say in Italian, or at least redecorating, will change their lives. Lucrezia, Giuseppe’s ex-lover and provident hostess of a spacious house where friends gather, moans, “The washing-machine leaks….My mother-in-law…found a dead bird full of ants on the bathroom window-sill….Everything is breaking up here, the whole house is falling apart,” when actually it is her life that’s falling apart. Only one character, a genial throwback, warns against selling property: “Bricks and mortar don’t let you down.” She seems not to have learned the lesson of the war or seen “the hideous face of the crumbled house.”
The group under scrutiny is not quite a family – more like a tribe; the traditional family shown in its death throes in Voices of the Evening is by now entombed. The new configuration now and then shifts with the loss of an old member or the advent of a new one, some bound by blood ties, others by long association, accident, or mere proximity. Besides the romantically volatile Lucrezia, her husband, new lover, and five children, there are Giuseppe’s semi-estranged gay son, Alberico, and his crash pad of countercultural friends; Giuseppe’s sister-in-law, a concentration camp survivor whom he dislikes and eventually marries; his new stepdaughter; and a few babies born along the way, the fathers not always known. Ginzburg pits the various points of view against one another, not bothering much to distinguish the voices. All dispatch their letters in the minor-key tones of anomie.
At the end of the two-and-a-half year span, several characters are dead; the others are in different places physically and circumstantially, yet seem profoundly unchanged. Only the places have changed. Giuseppe has sold his apartment to a psychiatrist whom Alberico later consults. “Your son,” someone writes him, “is being psychoanalyzed in the very flat you once owned.” Lucrezia’s beloved gathering place has been sold too. On a nostalgic visit, she finds it grossly altered, virtually transformed: “It is impossible to recognize our house in the Hotel Panorama. There didn’t seem to be a single guest. We left…They might make it into a college for land-surveying. No one knows yet.”
Details abound; faces, clothing, meals, and houses are graphically rendered. Besides existing for our pleasure, the details are by now habitual to Ginzburg, almost like a tic; she cannot mention a bedspread without describing its pattern and fixing its owner’s taste and class. But no amount of particularity can disguise the book’s metaphysical nature. A chorus of voices is engaged in a kind of symposium regarding the fundamental questions of our own or any age: how do we know what is the good life, and how do we go about living it?
At moments the novel seems to be moving toward some form of resolution. Will Lucrezia rejoin her complaisant, dim-witted husband? Will Giuseppe get his apartment back from the psychiatrist? But such gestures of closure would produce a comedy, with loose ends tucked in and surfaces smoothed. Witty as she is, Ginzburg is no comedian. The edges are left jagged as the lives are jagged. As she warned, the novel is only a reconstructed segment of the mirror.
“In the center of our lives,” Ginzburg wrote in an essay decades ago, “is the problem of human relations.” She was not referring to ”relationships” as currently understood, but to the ethical questions which determine, finally, whether we destroy or succor each other, on the personal and the grander scale. Voices in the Evening gives a telling instance when, after the break-up of his marriage, Vincenzino De Francisci remarks that he had never tried to influence his wife or show a genuine response to her actions, so as to avoid coercion or cruelty – he had witnessed too much of that. In other words, passivity posing as disinterest. But Vincenzino’s attitude is more than a cunning form of sophistry, an excuse for indifference. He can no longer distinguish non-interference from indifference. After the inhuman exertions of the war, emotional inertia must have been a relief, and then became a habit.
A writer of the purest sort, Ginzburg offers no social prescriptions (not in her novels at any rate), and certainly urges no return to the settled rigidities and hypocrisies of pre-war times. Far from nostalgic, her impulses spring from a place beyond the particularities of time.
Human connections must be rediscovered and reinvented every day…Every encounter with our fellow man is a human action, and therefore always evil or good, truth or lie, charity or offense….Our adolescent children look at us with eyes of stone: we are hurt, though we know well what this look is, and remember well having an identical look. We are hurt and we feel sorry for ourselves and whisper suspicious questions, though we know so well by now how the long chain of human relations unfolds, we know its long, necessary parabola, the whole long road we must travel to have, at last, a bit of compassion.
If her fiction were simply a finely-articulated plea for more humane behavior, it would never have the thunderous impact that it does. Its power is in delineating how complex are our responses to ordinary and extraordinary events, how fraught with dread and absurdity and effort is that “long, necessary parabola,” whose every inch is traced with rigorous, painful clarity.
Lynne Sharon Schwartz is a writer, poet, and translator. Schwartz is the author of more than 25 books, including 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).