In the great essay ‘My profession’, in which the Italian Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1991) records her development as a writer until then, she says that she originally wanted to write as a man: ‘I found irony and malice important weapons; for when I wanted it terribly, I was horrified if my writings made me think I was a woman.’ Later, she didn’t want to anymore, ‘because I had children and I thought I knew a lot about tomato sauce, and although I didn’t put it into the story, it served my profession: in a mysterious, vague way, served my profession.’
The voice that eventually became hers is not necessarily male or female, if that can even be defined—it is mainly her voice, original, idiosyncratic, without the ballast of ideas about how it should and shouldn’t be. Published in 1962 and now translated for the first time (by Jan van der Haar). The small virtues, of which ‘Mit fag’ is a part, the ‘masculine’ irony has been transformed into an amused sobriety. There is perhaps a drop of evil in her sharp, often witty characteristics. Children and tomato sauce have been given a place as the earthly everyday things that life is built on. She connects them with dark, more intangible processes that also determined her existence: fascism, the war, the death of her first husband. Ginzburg writes laconic without being reserved or cynical, sometimes melancholic but never sentimental, in a style as if she were closely followed. She herself seeks the explanation for this in ‘Mit erhverv’ (which is about the ‘gray, puny people and things’ that originally populated her stories, about the influence of personal luck and misfortune on the authorship, about the balance she eventually found between fantasy and memory, between compassion and loveless interest in her characters) with the older brothers who used to make her shut up. “That’s how I got used to saying things very quickly, hastily and with as few words as possible, always with the fear that the others would talk again and stop listening to me.”
Also read this interview: Conversation with the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg
Born Natalia Levi in 1916, she grew up in Turin, where her father was a professor and their home a meeting place for left-wing intellectuals. In 1938 she married the university lecturer and author Leone Ginzburg, with whom she had three children and lived in exile for some years due to his anti-fascist activism, after which he was tortured to death by the Nazis in 1944. Besides her childhood with the older brothers , these events must have also affected her no-nonsense style: as if she had no time for nonsense after what she had been through. Writing had to be done and children had to be brought up. The fact that she also writes about the latter, children and parents, without apparently noticing (certainly prevalent at the time) prejudices about ‘women’s subjects’ is also refreshing and modern. It is this direct and highly individual voice that still makes one want to read Ginzburg more than thirty years after her death, and which explains the revival of interest in her work. After previous translations in the 1980s and 1990s, the novel was published in 2019 All ours yesterday (1952) reissued the next year Family encyclopedia (1963) and Dear Michelle (1973) reappears. And so now The small virtues: eleven autobiographical essays, written between 1944 and 1962, of which the first six are melancholic in nature, and the following five are more confident and moral in nature.
Very poignant is the opening essay ‘Winter in Abruzzo’, an impression of life in the remote southern Italian village where Ginzburg and her family spent their exile. There are only two seasons, she writes: hot, clear summers that cause diarrhea, and winters, “snowy and windy,” when the elderly die of pneumonia. She portrays the residents as distinctive characters, such as the school janitor who was spat in her eye and goes around wearing a bandage to collect compensation. Or the seamstress who divides the world into people who do their hair and people who don’t.
Also read Vivian Gornick about Ginzburg: ‘People from my generation yearned for a convincing life’
It was the best time of her life, she concludes in the final episode – after suddenly and almost casually announcing that her husband died in prison a few months after they left Abruzzo. And then this sentence: ‘Faced with the horror of his lonely death, with the terrifying events that led to his death, I wonder if this happened to us who bought oranges from Girò and went for a walk in the snow.’ With which she connects the daily, tangible in a moving way with the irreversible and almost unimaginable. And about the passage of time: She also describes the feeling you can have when you look back on a past period and see yourself as a stranger, simply because the you of the time was unaware of life-changing events in the future.
The best pieces in the collection are those in which Ginzburg writes clearly about recognizable relationships, with concrete details that appeal to the imagination and which at the same time tap into a deeper layer. As ‘The Son of Man’, about how her generation, which saw houses collapse during the war and therefore no longer ‘believes’ in lamps over the table and vases of flowers, has a fundamentally different attitude to life than previous generations. Or ‘Portrait of a Friend’: about Cesare Pavese, how ‘frugal and careful with greetings’ he was, for example, and how he lived ‘like a teenager’ – and his self-chosen death.
‘Silence’, on the other hand, lacks Ginzburg’s signature clarity and therefore feels like a missed opportunity: what exactly does she mean by ‘silence’ when she calls it one of the ‘worst habits of our time’? Shallowness, she seems to imply, or dishonesty, hypocrisy? Repress trauma? How (and why) you have to free yourself from ‘silence’ is therefore unclear. Similarly, the last pages of “Human Relations” (which in form are somewhat reminiscent of Annie Ernaux’s much later, The years) somewhat hazy, though it doesn’t detract much from the rest of the piece.
You quickly forgive Ginzburg anyway, partly because of the voice, which is not only so original, but also often has something surprisingly cheerful; it’s hard to imagine that she wrote “Broken Shoes” only a year and a half after Leone’s death. Perhaps she was able to do this because, as she reflects in “My Trade”, she will not accuse fate of ill will, “because it has given me three children and my profession.”