On Fascism and Patriarchs

Born on July 14, 1916, in Palermo, Sicily, Natalia Ginzburg, née Levi, is one of the most renowned names in contemporary Italian, if not world literature. Italian literature has established a long tradition – spanning centuries – of producing some of the most heralded writers in the world. In this long list of globally recognized writers are Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, Primo Levi, Elena Ferrante, and Cesare Pavese, among others. Among them, they have produced some of the world’s most recognized and most studied titles such as The Adventures of Pinocchio, Inferno, The Name of the Rose, Decameron, and If on A Winter’s Night A Traveler. It was this esteemed company of top-notch writers that Ginzburg found herself in and her prolific career that spanned various genres, including novellas, short stories, novels, and essays.

Ginzburg’s storied career began when she was seventeen years old. In 1933, she published her first story, I bambini, in the magazine Solaria, a modernist and distinguished Florentine periodical that ran between 1926 and 1936. Ginzburg’s first published short story would be succeeded by more short stories. In 1942, she published her first novella, La strada che va in città (1942; The Road to the City), under the pseudonym Alessandra Tornimparte to protect her identity. With Fascist forces suppressing Jews, to which her family belonged, from publishing any literary work, Ginzburg had no recourse but to adopt a pseudonym. Following the end of the Second World War, Ginzburg published her second novella, È stato così (1947; “The Dry Heart,” in The Road to the City).

The 1950s was a major turning point in Ginzburg’s career. For one, she married Gabriele Baldini, a professor of English literature in Trieste; she was previously married to Leone Ginzburg, a prominent antifascist activist, who died in 1944 while in prison. Ginzburg and Baldini then moved to Rome in 1952. During the same year, she published Tutti i nostri ieri (1952; U.K. title, Dead Yesterdays; U.S. title, A Light for Fools). In the succeeding years and decades, Ginzburg’s literary career took flight. This period saw her remarkable rise as she produced some of her most renowned and critically-acclaimed works. Among these works was Lessico famigliare. Originally published in 1963, the novel was suffused with autobiographical elements as Ginzburg recaptured her younger years growing up in Turin.

“That loss may have been one of the things that tortured him. He was incapable of sparing himself pain and he went through the most bitter and cruel suffering every time he fell in love. Love overtook him like a bout of fever. It lasted a year or two years, and then he was cured but he seemed to be reeling with exhaustion, like someone who has just got up after a serious illness.”

~ Natalia Ginzburg, Family Sayings

In 1967, Lessico famigliare it was made available to anglophone readers through the English translation of D.M. Low. The first English translation carried the title Family Sayings. It would eventually be republished with the English titles The Things We Used to Say (1977) and Family Lexicon (2017). In the Author’s Preface, Ginzburg wrote, “I have had no great wish to speak of myself, since this story was not in fact my own but rather, in spite of all its gaps and omissions, the record of my family. I may dd that ever since my childhood and adolescence I have always intended to write a book which would tell the story of the people who lived through those times with me. This is to some extent that book, but only to some extent, because memory is treacherous and books founded on reality are so often only faint reflections and sketches of all that we have seen and heard.”

Living up to its title, the novel chronicled the life of the Levi family through the lens of the author. The matriarch, Lidia Tanzi, was from Florence and was born an Italian Catholic while her husband, Giuseppe Levi (October 14, 1872 – February 3, 1965), was born in Trieste and was of Jewish ancestry. Between the couple, they had five children: Gino, Alberto, Mario Paola, and Natalia. The story was littered with details of the Levis’ family and quotidian life, ranging from the heartwarming to the humorous to the heartbreaking. We read about the family and their interaction with those who orbit around them, from relatives to servants to family friends. An uncle who worked as a psychiatrist was referred to as “The Lunatic”. Alberto, one of Natalia’s older brothers, constantly tricked their mother for a lire or two. Other scenes of family life include dinner discussions, games of solitaire, and portraits of teenage angst.

The Levis, on the surface, were your typical family. They had disagreements. They share triumphs and tribulations. All throughout the story, one character dominated the story. It was not the author, rather, it was her father, Giuseppe. Giuseppe Levi was a renowned Italian histologist and anatomist. He was also a prominent professor of anatomy who taught at the prestigious Universities of Palermo and Turin. It was due to his occupation that the family moved from Palermo, Natalia’s birthplace, to Turin, where she would spend her younger years. Giuseppe’s studies were lauded for their contributions to the study of the nervous system. He inhabited lecture halls with his magnetic personality and electrifying lectures. His lectures reeled in some of the creams of the crop.

Three of Giuseppe’s brilliant students would go on and be awarded Nobel Prizes in the fields of Physiology or Medicine: Salvador Luria, Renato Dulbecco, and Rita Levi-Montalcini. Some of them would even keep in touch with their mentor years after their graduation. Giuseppe Levi was indeed an accomplished scientist, anatomist, and histologist. The long list of accolades he received during his lifetime further underlined this. However, Family Sayings provided a different portrait of the highly heralded scientist. Within the ambit of his home, he retained his dominant voice. He steered dinner-time conversations, which, at times, with his socialist views; he and his wife were socialists. Toward his children, he can be both endearing but he was also very critical of and stern with them.

“We do a lot of “self-criticism” in the years immediately after the war. That is to say, after having made mistakes, we analysed and dissected them at the tops of our voices. We piled mistakes on mistakes, and self-criticism was then superimposed on the mistakes and was interposed and blended wiht them. It was rather like the way in which music blended with words in an opera, veiling the meaing and carrying them off in its own glorious rhythm.”

~ Natalia Ginzburg, Family Sayings

Giuseppe’s stern personality was ostensibly displayed in the opening sequence of the novel when the family was having dinner: “You people don’t know how to sit at table. You are not people one could take out anywhere. You make such a mess. If you were at a hotel table in England, they would send you out immediately.” His severe judgment also extended beyond his family. He had no scruples in sharing his opinions of people he came into contact with during the day. Snippets of his judgment of these people also formed part of their dinnertime conversations. Meanwhile, Lidia was her husband’s antithesis. She was of a timider nature and even silently resented some of her husband’s ideas for their family. Family scenes, however, were not always as heavy as they seemed as a confetti of humor, and light scenes were interspersed in the story of the Levis.

But the autobiographical novel was more than the portrait of a family. Through the story of the Levi family, Ginzburg captured a vivid portrait of this pivotal but equally tumultuous point in Italy’s history. The story commenced in the 1920s and slowly entered the tumultuous period of Fascism, with the infamous Benito Mussolini at its helm. This pivot did not go unnoticed in the Levi household. Some members of the family would form part of the anti-Fascist movements. A character was caught smuggling antifascist literature from Switzerland. The Levi household, at one time, sheltered Filippo Turati, a socialist leader hiding out from fascist Italy. Giuseppe himself would turn from a vocal socialist into an equally vocal anti-fascist. The family’s Jewish ancestry made them an open target of the oppressive Fascist regime. The Italian Racial Law of 1938 adversely affected the family and other Jewish characters. From the rise of the Fascist regime, Ginzburg captured the years of the war, with the story concluding in 1950.

The Levi household, albeit its constantly changing address, turned into a hub for cultural, intellectual, and eventually, political life. Owing to the influences of the patriarch, there was never a dull moment in the household. Prominent political and cultural figures of the period occasionally intersected with members of the Levi family, crowding their household. Among them as well were Italian publishers and writers; Ginzburg’s first husband was, after all, a renowned publisher himself. Leone and Natalia’s marriage was also briefly tackled in the story. These publishers and writers share the same sentiments as Leone and the rest of the Levi family. They were united by their struggle against the Fascist regime. Well-known figures who crossed paths with the Levis include Cesare Pavese, Primo Levi, and Giulio Einaude. Although he was not physically present in the story, Marcel Proust was occasionally referenced in the story; Ginzburg was the first Italian translator of Proust’s works.

In constructing her autobiographical novel, Ginzburg did not only rely on her memory. A healthy chunk of the story was derived from lines and words she recorded. Expressions, jokes, admonitions, casual passages, and random words were leitmotifs. Some of these words often epitomized the circumstances in which the family found themselves. For instance, “compromising” became an integral part of the family conversation after the rise of Fascism. As Ginzburg would ruminate, “New phrases had been added to our family vocabulary”. Words, after all, play an important role in our daily lives, and in a period where censorship was rampant, they are even more powerful. It was from this accumulation of words, phrases, and expressions from the members of her family that the book’s title was derived. The characters, from the family members to their acquaintances were characterized by their actions and their words.

“We had to go back to choosing words, examining them in order to see whether they were true or false, to see if they had true roots or only the transitory roots of the common illusion. Writers were obliged to take their work more seriously. The time that followed was like a hangover, a time of nausea, lassitude, and boredom and everyone felt in one way or another that they had been cheated or betrayed. This was equally true of those who lived in the real world, and of these who possessed or thought they possessed the means of describing it. And so everyone went on their own way again, alone and discontented.”

~ Natalia Ginzburg, Family Sayings

The portrait of family life was captured by Ginzburg’s unflinching gaze. Writing about one’s childhood would have resulted in a nostalgic or even sentimental trip down memory lane. That was, however, not the case with Family Sayings. While there were some omissions, as she would write in the preface, she rarely embellished the story. She let the readers into an important part of her life while, at the same time, keeping her distance. As she iterated in the preface, “I have had no great wish to speak of myself, since this story is not in fact my own but rather, in spite of all its gaps and omissions, the record of my family.” For sure, the Levi family was the focal point of the story. In a way, the novel functioned as Ginzburg’s own reckoning with her memory of her younger years but mainly of her father who was a man of contrast.

The winner of the prestigious Strega Prize in 1963, Family Sayings is a remarkable literary piece from one of the prominent names of contemporary Italian literature. It was bereft of a robust plot but the intersection of history, language, memory, community, and even culture made for a compelling story. It was, at its heart, the portrait of a big Italian family navigating their way through an important but tumultuous moment in modern Italian history. History and politics, however, would take the backseat. Built with a cacophony of words and actions, we read about the Levi family, their quirks, and what made them tick. We read about the author’s own childhood and were even given intimate, albeit cursory peeks into her personal life. She was raised in a secular household that saw the comings and goings of prominent intellectuals, activists, and industrialists. Ginzburg was astute and candid in the rendering of her childhood. Family Sayings is a timeless classic worthy of the accolades it has and continues to receive.

Rating

81%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 
18%
Writing (25%) – 
23%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
15%

I thought I explored a lot of parts of the literary world, such as Italian literature. It seems I have not. When I was going through the list of books I have read, I noted how glaringly lacking my foray into Italian literature was. Prior to this year, I read a meager four books, two of them by Umberto Eco. Without design, I read more works by Italian writers this year than in previous years, among them was Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Sayings. My first encounter with her was through online booksellers. I didn’t have an iota about her influence on world literature as a whole nor have I encountered any of her works previously. With my curiosity piqued, I bought a copy of Family Sayings and made it my May 2022 European Literature reading month; it would be the first of three works of Italian literature I read during the month. I didn’t have much of an expectation going into the book except maybe that it will provide me a different literary experience. For sure it did because the book, which had autobiographical elements to it, grappled with fascism in Italy and the early post-World War II years through the story of the Ginzburg family. Natalia herself sounded detached but it did not hamper her from reeling in the readers with the story of her childhood. I can’t wait to read more of Ginzburg’s oeuvre, especially with the renewed interest it has been gaining recently.

Book Specs

Author: Natalia Ginzburg
Translator (from Italian): D.M. Low
Publisher: Hogarth Press
Publishing Date: 1986
Number of Pages: 177
Genre: Literary, Historical

Synopsis

Family Sayings asks to be read as fiction, though the author, one of Italy’s finest contemporary novelists, admits that it is highly autobiographical. The book spans the period from the rise of fascism through World War II (in which her first husband perished at the hands of the Nazis) and its immediate aftermath. The subject of this book is the “other people” in her family. The author herself is a witness, a seismograph, a recording angel. It is woven around the inconsequential, revealing remarks that are repeated in a family until they become its affectionate private code, rich in memory and association. This is one of the rare true evocations of a family in modern literature: a living history with characters upon whom the heavy history of Italy in the 1930s and 1940s leans. Beyond the quirky freedom with which the members of the family treat one another lies the political dark ages backdrop familiar from the films of Fellini, Bertoluci, and others.

In her preface, Natalia Ginzburg reverses the usual disclaimer: “The places, events and people are all real. I have invented nothing. Every time that I have found myself inventing something in accordance with my old habits as a novelist, I have felt impelled at once to destroy everything thus invented.

About the Author

Natalia Ginzburg, née Levi was born on July 14, 1916, in Palermo, Sicily where her father, renowned anatomist and histologist Giuseppe Levi was a professor. She would, however, spend most of her youth in Turin as her father took up a position at the University of Turin in 1919. Ginzburg was the youngest of five siblings.

Ginzburg’s literary career would commence when she was just seventeen years old. In 1933, her story I bambini was published in the Florentine magazine Solaria. Nearly a decade after her first published work, Ginzburg published her first novella, La strada che va in città (1942; The Road to the City). It was published under the pseudonym Alessandra Tornimparte due to Fascist Italy’s censorship of Jewish works. A second novella, È stato così (“The Dry Heart” in The Road to the City) was published in 1947. Among her other popular works were Tutti i nostri ieri (1952, A Light for Fools / All Our Yesterdays transltion by Angus Davidson, 1985); Lessico famigliare (1963, Family Sayings, transl.ation by D.M. Low,1963; The Things We Used to Say, translation by Judith Woolf, 1977; Family Lexicon, translation by Jenny McPhee, 2017); and La famiglia Manzoni (1983, The Manzoni Family, translation by Marie Evans, 1987).

On top of her novellas and novels, Ginzburg has also written several dramas such as Ti ho sposato per allegria (performed 1966; I Married You for the Fun of It) and L’inserzione (performed 1968; The Advertisement). She also published essays and collections of essays such as Le piccole virtù (1962, The Little Virtues, translation by Dick Davis, 1985). For her works, Ginzburg has received several literary awards such as the 1952 Veillon International Prize for Tutti i nostri ier, the1963 Strega Prize for Lessico famigliare, and the 1984 Bagutta Prize for La famiglia Manzoni. She was also active in the political scene, and, at one point, she served as a member of the Italian parliament from 1983 in affiliation with the (left-wing) Left Independence Party. In 1991, she was made the Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Ginzburg adopted the last name of her first husband, Leone Ginzburg, a prominent publisher, writer, and journalist. He was also a vocal activist and anti-Fascist. It was his antifascism that would ultimately cost him his life. In 1944, he was arrested by Italian police after being incognito. He would die from the complications of the injuries he sustained from severe torture. Leone and Natalia had three children. Natalia remarried in 1950 to Gabriele Baldini, a scholar of English literature. Ginzburg passed away on October 7, 1991.