Natalia Ginzburg is known primarily as a novelist but was also a significant essayist, publishing three collections: Le piccole virtù (1962; The Little Virtues), Mai devi domandarmi (1970; Never Must You Ask Me), and Vita immaginaria (1974; Imaginary life). She was the fifth of five children of Giuseppe Levi, a Jewish professor of anatomy who was idiosyncratic and domineering at home, and Lidia Tanzi, a non-practicing Catholic and protective figure for Natalia well into maturity. In her autobiography, Lessico famigliare (1963; Family Sayings), Ginzburg writes of the early years of her family through the war, ending with the death of Cesar Pavese, a close friend of both Natalia and Leone Ginzburg, her first husband, an anti-fascist activist who himself was tortured and executed in 1944. The autobiography is strangely unemotional at times, focusing on portraits of friends and families, many of whom are quirky, distracted, literary, and politically committed.
In 1950 Natalia Ginzburg married Gabriele Baldini, a professor of English first at the University of Trieste, then the University of Rome. Ginzburg’s relationship with Baldini is the subject of one of her most anthologized essays, “Lui e io” (1962; “He and I”), a deceptively complex treatment of two people who seem to have little in common.
Ginzburg begins “He and I” with a statement of utter polarity: “He always feels hot, I always feel cold.” Her self-imposed challenge is to move beyond simple opposition to a complex and textured relational polarity. The essay works through subtle shifts of tone and point of view, and through the invocation of both the generic, clear in the title, and the more personal details: “I know the price of that dinner service—it was £16, but he says £12. And it is the same with the picture of King Lear that is in our dining room, and which he also bought in the Portobello Road (and then cleaned with onions and potatoes); now he says he paid a certain sum for it, but I remember that it was much more than that.” One feels, at times, that Baldini is a charming brute, narcissistic, and the writer is longsuffering. There is an unmistakable edge of bitterness at times, balanced by a selfknowledge that is far from self-flattering: “And so—more than ever—I feel I do everything inadequately or mistakenly. But if I once find out that he has made a mistake I tell him so over and over again until he is exasperated. I can be very annoying at times.”
As with all of Ginzburg’s essays, a kind of lyrical stoicism dominates—expressed both tonally and formally through flattened tone, repetition, and the use of theme and variation to taxonomic ends—and ends up emphasizing the effort of the writer to see the world clearly and to envision the past unsentimentally: “It is not given to us to choose whether we are happy or unhappy. But we must choose not to be demonically unhappy” (“Silenzio” [1951; “Silence”]), or: “There is no peace for the son of man. The foxes and the wolves have their holes, but the son of man hath not where to lay his head.
Our generation is a generation of men. It is not a generation of foxes and wolves. Each of us would dearly like to rest his head somewhere, to have a little warm, dry nest. But there is no peace for the son of man” (“Il figlio dell’uomo” [1946; “The Son of Man”]). An early essay, “Inverno in Abruzzo” (1944; “Winter in the Abruzzi”), clarifies the effect of the war, specifically the loss of Leone Ginzburg, on Natalia Ginzburg’s essay voice: “Our dreams are never realized and as soon as we see them betrayed we realize that the intensest joys of our life have nothing to do with reality. No sooner do we see them betrayed than we are consumed with regret for the time when they glowed within us…
My husband died in Rome, in the prison of Regina Coeli, a few months after we left the Abruzzi.”
Many of Ginzburg’s essays are melancholic; there is a constant reiteration of diminished possibilities, and a profound, but frequently implicit, sense of loss. Her spare style, however, with its bursts of the lyrical or the cantankerous, still attempts to penetrate the mysteries of love, work, friendship, and place. Ginzburg’s “Il mio mestiere” (1949;
“My Vocation”) is one of the most unsentimental and successful essays on the writing life written in the 20th century: “It is a vocation which also feeds on terrible things, it swallows the best and worst in our lives and our evil feelings flow in its blood just as much as our benevolent feelings. It feeds itself, and grows within us.” This essay also contains Ginzburg’s well-known self-estimation: “I prefer to think that no one has ever been like me, however small, however much a mosquito or a flea of a writer I might be.”
Ginzburg’s essay “I rapporti umani” (1953; “Human Relationships”) is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf in its imaginative re-creation of the development of relational psychology from girlhood to maturity. It contains one of her most heartfelt pleas for compassionate intersubjectivity: “All our life we have only known how to be masters and servants: but in that secret moment of perfect equilibrium, we have realized that there is no real authority or servitude on the earth. And so it is that now as we turn to that secret moment we look at others to see whether they have lived through an identical moment …
It is the highest moment in the life of a human being, and it is necessary that we stand with others whose eyes are fixed on the highest moment of their destiny.”
“Le piccole virtù” (1960; “The Little Virtues”) is Ginzburg’s best-known essay in English. It is similar to Montaigne’s “De l’institution des enfants” (1580; “Of the Education of Children”) both in subject and classical style (formal rhetoric, antitheses, parallel structures), as the opening sentence makes abundantly clear: “As far as the education of children is concerned I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger…” The possibility of instruction and harmony between parent and child is precarious, but also more authentically possible in the
postwar generation: “And so we have no authority; we have no weapons. Authority in us would be a hypocrisy and a sham. We are too aware of our own weakness, too melancholy and insecure…” There are important feminist implications in Ginzburg’s passionate plea for the necessity of vocation for the whole person, and thus the whole parent. As sharply as in any of her works, Ginzburg shows in “The Little Virtues” both her formality and reserve and the quietly radical ability to challenge convention that places her squarely and importantly in the 20th-century essay tradition, drawing on the essay’s old fathers and new mothers: “And what is a human being’s vocation but the highest expression of his love of life? And so we must wait, next to him, while his vocation awakens and takes shape. His behavior can be like that of a mole, or of a lizard that holds itself still and pretends to be dead but in reality it has detected the insect that is its prey and is watching its movements, and then suddenly springs forward.”
Born Natalia Levi, 14 July 1916 in Palermo, Sicily. Family moved to Turin, 1919.
Studied at the University of Turin, 1935. Married Leone Ginzburg, 1938 (killed by Nazis, 1944): three children. Exiled to Pizzoli, Abruzzo region, 1940–43, then returned to Rome after the fall of Mussolini, 1943; went into hiding in Rome and Florence, 1944, then returned to Rome after Allied Liberation. Worked for Einaudi publishers, Rome, 1944, and Turin, 1945–49. Married Gabriele Baldini, 1950 (died, 1969). Moved to Rome, 1952.
Lived in London, 1959–61. Elected to parliament as independent left-wing deputy, 1983.
Awards: Tempo Prize, 1947; Veillon Prize, 1952; Viareggio Prize, 1957; Chianciano Prize, 1961; Strega Prize, 1963; Marzotto Prize, for play, 1965; Bargutta Prize, 1983.
Died (of cancer) in Rome, 8 October 1991.
Essays and Related Prose
Le piccole virtù, 1962; as The Little Virtues, translated by Dick Davis, 1985
Mai devi domandarmi, 1970; as Never Must You Ask Me, translated by Isabel Quigly, 1973
Vita immaginaria, 1974
Other writings: many novels and novellas (including La strada che va in città [The Road to the City], 1941; È stato così [The Dry Heart], 1947; Tutti i nostri ieri [All Our Yesterdays], 1952; La madre [The Mother], 1957; Valentino., 1957; Le voci della sera [Voices in the Evening], 1961; Caro Michele [Dear Michael], 1973; Borghesia, 1977;
Famiglia [Family], 1977; La famiglia Manzoni [The Manzoni Family], 1983; La città e la casa [The City and the House], 1984), several plays, and the autobiography Lessico famigliare (Family Sayings), 1963.
Collected works edition: Opere (Mondadori Edition), edited by Cesare Garboli, 2 vols., 1986–87.
Giffuni, Cathe, “A Bibliography of the Writings of Natalia Ginzburg,” Bulletin of Bibliography 50, no. 2 (June 1993): 139–44
Bullock, Allan, Natalia Ginzburg: Human Relationships in a Changing World, New York and Oxford: Berg, 1991
Cappetti, Carla, “Natalia Ginzburg,” in European Writers, New York: Scribner, 1991
Janmart, Anne, “Lettres féminines en Italie: Natalia Ginzburg,” Revue Générale 8–9 (August-September 1982):53–63
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