Storybooks, Contemporary Artists, and Family Lexicons: An Interview with Gini Alhadeff

Gini Alhadeff is a prize-winning translator, curator, and author, including of fiction, with the novel Diary of a Djinn, and of non-fiction, with a multitude of articles and her memoir The Sun at MiddayTales of a Mediterranean Family. She grew up in Egypt, Sudan, Italy, and Japan. She studied fine art and photography at Harrow in England and at Pratt Institute in New York. She recently translated Natalia Ginzburg’s The Road to the City for the distinctive series, Storybook ND, that she curates for New Directions. This interview was conducted over zoom on October 6th, 2023 with Gini Alhadeff in New York City and Saskia Ziolkowski in Durham, NC. 

Saskia Ziolkowski: The Storybook ND series that you created and curated has the great tagline “the pleasure of reading a great book from cover to cover in an afternoon.” The works in it are therefore both gripping and a manageable length. In addition, many of them are translated, from Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Japanese, and Hungarian. What role does this variety, being from different literary traditions, play in your selection process? How did you choose the works for it?

Gini Alhadeff. Photo: Nina Subin

Gini Alhadeff: The fact that many of the works are translated and the variety of the authors really reflects the nature of New Directions. Those authors are all New Directions authors and New Directions has always had a really stellar role in translating important works. So, Clarice Lispector has always been published by New Directions, they have published Bolaño, they were the first to publish Sebald in the United States. Their list is long and really admirable. 

The idea for the series began before the association with New Directions. It was an idea I came up with for a foreign publisher who wanted a presence in the United States. You know how hard it is to get good authors if you are just starting off, you have to pay a lot for books. It is just difficult. I came up with this thought, that many authors have short stories or novellas, which publishers for some reason are not so happy to publish. I thought that would be a way for this publisher to have a presence in the United States. 

Another thing I have always been interested in is forming alliances between art and literature. I never could understand divorcing art and literature. Why should they exist in different spaces? In the eighties I started a literary journal called Normal (now in the collections of both MoMA and the Whitney Museum) that created a kind of alliance between contemporary art and contemporary literature. In this case, for the Storybook ND series, I thought the covers should be by a different contemporary artist each time. 

It turned out that this foreign publisher was a dreamer. He was very encouraging, but the person he was working with had no idea that he was doing this. So then there was this entire project, but no publisher. When I told Barbara Epler about it, she saw an opportunity. It seems as though I went around the world to do this and came right back to New York. To the first meeting with Peter Mendelsund, the designer for the series, I brought The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. I thought, why can’t we have books for adults that look like those by Dr. Seuss?

SZ: They are beautiful and distinctive from the other books in New Directions. Do you think they may draw in different readers?

GA: New Directions books always look great. With the various designers, and Erik Rieselbach, in charge of design and production, and Barbara Epler, who is always involved, they do fantastic work on the covers. The idea of using contemporary art as opposed to graphic design was something I was particularly interested in and then that came together with looking like a children’s book, with that distinctive spine and shininess, that you could hold in your hands and be happy to have. 

SZ: You translated Natalia Ginzburg’s The Road to the City (with Cecily Brown’s striking art on the cover) for the series. How and why did you decide to translate this particular work? 

GA: This was Natalia Ginzburg’s very first novel. I have always loved her. Ideally I would have liked to translate Lessico famigliare, but that has been done brilliantly by Jenny McPheeThis book she published under a pseudonym and, at the end of her life, when she was reconsidering all of her work for an anthology by Einaudi, she wrote that it was her favorite novel. 

Her main concern in writing her first book was not to bore her mother, which is probably a good impetus for a writer. And, her mother was easily bored. She would put down books and say, “why do you have to go on like that?” Ginzburg was conscious of having to make it short. It was also very real. At the time, she was living in kind of an exile within Italy with her husband. They were in hiding, essentially, in the Abbruzzo region. The atmosphere of the novel is very much that place and time. It is a rural setting, with the protagonists longing to be in a city, even though the city nearby is not a big city. You feel that it is very real. 

She said that later she started to write books that were more inventive. But at the end of her life, she decided that this was a greater novel, that The Road to the City was one of her greatest works. In some ways, it was a refusal to invent rather than writing reality. She may have been pregnant herself while writing this book, because there’s an extraordinary poignancy to the way she describes the narrator’s anguish, difficulties, and suffering during the state of pregnancy.  

SZ: Ginzburg’s lyrical concision and understatement can be difficult to translate, which is maybe why there are, for instance and unusually, three translations of her Lessico famigliare, including most recently Jenny McPhee’s. Ginzburg often builds emotion through simple repetition, which is a stylistic trait less welcome to many English readers. Your wonderful translation manages to convey this intense, lyrical, and precise nature of Ginzburg’s work. What was the translation process like? Would you share one passage that you spent a particularly long time with or that stays with you as a translator? 

GA: There was one passage that turned out to be very comical, because the narrator, the central character, meets with a man and is attracted to him, but doesn’t want to admit it because she has ambitions to escape from her small surroundings. She wants a more middle-class kind of life. She has an encounter with him. In Italian, he sort of throws her down on the ground. This particular thing is very hard to translate; there was not a proper way to translate it. It sounded very natural in Italian, sort of cinematic, and in English it sounded awkward.  

“Aveva anche del vino dentro le borracce e me lo fece bere, finché mi buttai giù nell’erba stordita e capitò quello che m’aspettava.”

“He also had some wine in a flask and made me drink some, till I lay down in the grass dazed and what I’d been expecting happened.” 

That was the only real problem. I have always felt that Ginzburg’s writing is kind of American in Italian. Ginzburg was very involved in the Einaudi publishing house, her husband was as well. They did a lot of translations from American literature. They were very into American literature and it was an extraordinarily incisive influence on her writing. She was very influenced by Hemingway. She had read the Spoon River Anthology. They had really absorbed American literature and it translates into her style, which is so original in Italian. When you translate it back, it sort of wants to go into English. There’s a natural equivalent in English, whereas certain Italian writers that I admire greatly, like Sciascia or Gadda, are very difficult to translate because they are so Italian and their constructions are so Italian. It’s a big problem and complicated to translate them, whereas with her I can hear it. I translated some poems by Patrizia Cavalli a few years ago, working with different poets in America. That was interesting because they put it in their own voices, Jorie Graham’s, Mark Strand’s, and Jonathan Galassi’s beautiful translations. Again, with Cavalli’s poems, when you are translating, when you are looking at the text, it kind of translates itself.  

SZ: Did you then avoid the existing 1952 translation by Frances Frenaye or consult it? If so, did it affect in any way your approach to translating the text? 

GA: I didn’t look at it all. I didn’t know it existed to tell the truth. I just looked at the book and just started translating. I know there are more diligent translators than myself, who first read the book. I find that takes the fun out of it, I just like to go into a translation blind. 

In America, publishers just give away the plot and I find it a pity. When you read this book and you have no idea where it is going, you are so taken with the narrator that you are completely on her side. By the time you are completely on her side, at some point you realize she is slightly creepy and ambitious. And then you think, oh wait a minute, she’s ruthless, but it is a surprise. If you begin by writing a blurb that clarifies her position, there’s no surprise.

SZ: It is such a dramatic story, it is great to discover the events and twists. I will not share more for the sake of future readers! 

Your memoir The Sun at Midday can be put in productive conversation with Natalia Ginzburg’s Lessico famigliare (Family Lexicon). Your memoir even includes the phrase “family lexicon.” While your family’s expressions are from a wider range of languages, Ginzburg makes the point that her far-flung family members are reunited by their language. I was wondering if Ginzburg played a part in your process as you conceived of and wrote this work? 

GA: It played an immense part. It was the most influential book, the first truly influential book that I read. I think I was about thirteen years old. It completely struck me, the tone of it and the idea of encompassing an entire history of a family through language, I thought was quite brilliant. Every family has a very intimate language that evolves, a kind of language that is the family’s own and a kind of shorthand that is just that one family’s. The brevity of her work and the breezy way she has of telling the stories had an effect on me. I really loved her voice. 

SZ: Ginzburg includes expressions that don’t necessarily have meaning for the reader at the beginning of the work, but you later then feel very close to as a reader.

GA: There’s also humor that lets you into things gently. There is humor and a lightness of touch. I think it comes from immense suffering. She has an ability to rise above it. The humor and distance that she has, she is always looking at something from a certain height, she’s never completely in it. By the time she wrote Family Lexicon, her husband had been killed in jail and she had had children, been in hiding. You can try to imagine what she went through, but it is unimaginable suffering for anybody and there is a kind of tone that comes out of those experiences. 

SZ: Was that something you were thinking about as you structured your memoir? You have the very intense Chapter IV which describes Nissim’s experiences in concentration camps, which is placed in the middle of the work. While it does not begin or conclude the work, it is in the center and has a different tone than the rest of the work. I was wondering what the process was like to figure out where to put that section. 

GA: The beginning of the book is really the tone of somebody who has no idea what that suffering is. Not just the suffering of being in a concentration camp, but even a family that is uprooted. On my grandmother’s side they had been in Egypt since the 1600s, on my grandfather’s side his great grandfather had started a business, his whole life was in Alexandria. Their friends were there, they had their children there. As a young person, we just left Egypt during the Suez Canal war and I didn’t take it seriously for a long time, the difficulty of exile, because we were young. So whatever we had lost, I was not so aware of it. I then started thinking about it more. Recently I was thinking about Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” and I think, how traumatic for my grandparents in their late sixties to be catapulted out of their life, lose their house, lose their business, and find themselves with not very many means, living in the north of Italy in a house that they considered a kind of vacation home. And that was it, for the rest of their days. If I think about it now, I am less flippant about it. Now I think, that must have been really hard. 

So, while I was working on the book, I couldn’t mask my own voice. I was just trying to understand the different ways that people were thinking about things. I talked to many different members of the family. And then, when I came upon the account of the concentration camps, that was really a whole other experience. 

SZ: So, part of the memoir’s construction is due to your own process of discovery? 

GA: Yes, there were many papers, letters, and piecemeal testimonies. I had to incorporate them in some way, or at least what was interesting. It was interesting to see that there were many men who wrote very detailed, tedious accounts, all business transactions—”he raised his interest rates and I raised them even higher”… I had to skip all that. To give you an example, an aunt of mine was transcribing her father’s diaries. It was a monumental task, because the man kept a daily, meticulous record. During this impossible process, she came upon the day she was born and it was never mentioned. Birth was a feminine thing, children are born, that is on the side, but he recorded in minute detail affairs in Congo and exactly what he had bought or sold or traded. This aunt of mine was horrified and stopped working on the transcription. More men have written accounts of what they were doing, what was happening in their lives, than women. Women were too busy. 

SZ: Your work also recovers some of those women’s voices.

GA: Yes, but it is harder, because they didn’t leave written documents. They just got through things. I mean nowadays they might. We might have a better record of what women are feeling, but then there were many more men’s testimonies. 

SZ: While you write in English, your work brings together a range of traditions (many of which are also represented by your family’s backgrounds and travels). What authors have been especially significant to you? Are there other Italian authors or Jewish authors who have been formative for your writing style? 

GA: Ginzburg, Ginzburg, Ginzburg, of course. There is also a kind of synthesis that I appreciate from English authors, Chesterton for instance. And of course poetry: Marianne Moore. It’s hard to say, because it is such a mixture of voices, in different languages. Proust, which I read in French when I was in my late teens. I was in boarding school so I was really bored. At the time there was really nothing. Now when I look at people in boarding school I think about how lucky they are, with so many activities. When I was in Italian boarding school, there were no activities. Their idea of an activity was to be taken to town maybe once every two weeks, to designated places, so there was a great deal of time for reading. From the moment classes ended at about 4 in the afternoon, you had the whole evening ahead of you, after you finished your homework. No television, no movies.

SZ: Time for Proust. 

GA: Yes, time for Proust. Another great influence was Truman Capote. In Cold Blood was a fantastic book.His  combination of fiction and non-fiction had a great influence on me, in thinking about how you can make a novel out of a non-fiction story. 

SZ: Do you mind sharing what you are currently working on or any projects you are willing to discuss?

GA: One thing I am working on is a book for the Jewish Lives Series of Yale University Press, on Louis Kahn. It’s been extremely interesting to look into his Estonian background. Of course he is considered an American architect, but he is so European in a very fundamental way. He is so anchored in this Russian-Estonian atmosphere. Many of the things that seem eccentric about him, his wanting to talk to material, his animistic attitude to construction and architecture, his dreaminess, his reliance on transcendence, all of that is absolutely normal in Estonia and bananas in America. There is a wonderful book that came out on his Nordic influences. You can really see the connections. His mother came from a part of the world and a part of Jewish tradition that was very involved in Kabbalah, in an almost invisible but deep way. Kahn does not seem to know anything about Jewish religion, yet he embodies it in a certain way. 

We will also be doing more Storybooks of course. 

SZ: We look forward to them! Thank you for your time and interesting answers! 

Gini Alhadeff’s intriguing comment about hearing the English of Ginzburg’s work shows why she is a wonderful translator of Ginzburg. Her English-Italian “ear” also indicates how Alhadeff herself bridges Anglophone and Italian literary traditions. Alhadeff’s memoir expands on two important elements of Family Lexicon. Critics have called attention to the backgrounds and etymology of words that Ginzburg herself may not have known. Ginzburg also shows how phrases, the “family lexicon,” can bring together a dispersed family. In The Sun at Midday, Alhadeff notes the many multilingual sources of her family phrases and shows how, while every family may have their own lexicon, there is special power these family sayings have for families who are dispersed. 

Stiliana Milkova Rousseva and I are co-editing a volume, Natalia Ginzburg’s Global Legacies (Palgrave, 2024), which places Ginzburg in some of the transnational, multilingual, and global contexts that Alhadeff’s memoir exemplifies. I had feared I was reading too much of Ginzburg into Alhadeff’s work, with an overly determined Ginzburg lens. Ginzburg’s legacies, as a woman, as Jewish, as Catholic, as a translator, and, above all, as a writer reverberate through Italian and English works. Alhadeff’s writing can be placed not only in an English-language memoir lineage, but also an Italian one, with its own prominent tradition of, as Ginzburg herself characterizes it, memoirs that can be read like a novels.

Saskia Elizabeth Ziolkowski is Associate Professor of Romance Studies at Duke University, where she is also affiliated faculty in German Studies and Jewish Studies. She works on Italian literature from a comparative perspective. She is the author of Kafka’s Italian Progeny (University of Toronto Press, 2020), the winner of the 2020 AAIS Book Prize for Literary Studies and co-editor of Natalia Ginzburg’s Global Legacies (Palgrave, 2024).

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