Rediscover Natalia Ginzburg | The New Yorker

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In a first short story by Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, it has just been reissued by New Directions, under the title “The dry heart(Translated by Frances Frenaye) – the narrator walks into her husband’s office and finds him drawing. He shows her his drawing: “a long, long train with a large cloud of black smoke swirling above and himself leaning out of a window to wave a handkerchief.” In other words, goodbye. He’s laughing. She doesn’t. “I took the gun out of his desk drawer and shot him in the eyes.”

About the weather! During their four-year marriage, she curled up in front of him: “I was always worried about my face and my body, and when we had sex, I was afraid he would be bored. Whenever I had something to say to her, I would think about it to make sure it wasn’t boring. Eventually he goes to sleep in his office, although he calls her every now and then to have sex, and then, presumably, sends her again. “Why don’t more wives kill their husbands? Asks the cover of the book.

Maybe they will, because there is a revival of Natalia Ginzburg, encouraged, perhaps, by the enormous success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. Before this series was published in English (2012-15), who among the people you know spoke of modern Italian fiction? Of course, we are talking about Primo Levi (a complete new edition of his works was released in 2015, under the direction of Ann Goldstein, translator of Ferrante), but for both historical and literary reasons. Levi was a prisoner at Auschwitz and wrote our greatest book on this subject. But the rest of Italy’s post-war stellar generation – Carlo Levi, Alberto Moravia, Cesare Pavese, Elsa Morante, Giorgio Bassani, Ginzburg – have been largely overlooked in recent decades.

Now, at least for Ginzburg, the wheels are turning again. This year saw not only the reissue of “The Dry Heart” (originally “È Stato Così” or “That’s How It Was”, 1947), but also a new translation, by Minna Zallman Proctor, of the “more mature of Ginzburg “Happiness as such“(” Caro Michele “, 1973). Another novel, “The Manzoni Family” (1983), will be reprinted in August. Most important, his masterpiece, “Family Lexicon(“Lessico Famigliare”, 1963), was published by New York Review Books in a new translation, by Jenny McPhee, two years ago. There is still work to be done, however. Several of Ginzburg’s books remain out of print. The only English biography I have found, a translation of a German book by Maja Pflug, is also not printed. And that’s only about two hundred pages – this for a woman who lived and wrote until the mid-seventies.

It’s good to have “The Dry Heart” back, good to see what Ginzburg, who few people encouraged to write, did at first, quite different from what she did later. Ginzburg became famous for his ability to create a mixed emotional atmosphere, poignant but without sentimentality. (Chekhov was one of his favorites.) “The Dry Heart” isn’t very mixed up. While it’s not without comedy, it’s a cold, angry book. The main reason, no doubt, is that it was written in the shadow of fascism, an affair which, for Ginzburg, struck very close to the bone.

Born in 1916, Ginzburg came from a large, cranky, high IQ family based in Turin, an industrial hub, home to the Italian automotive industry (Fiat’s flagship factory is there) and commercial machinery. Olivetti. It is also an important center of learning. Ginzburg’s father, Giuseppe Levi, was professor of neuroanatomy at the University of Turin. (Three of her lab assistants won Nobel Prizes.) Paola, Natalia’s older sister-in-law, married a future president of Olivetti. Of his three brothers, Gino became the technical director of Olivetti, Mario a journalist and Alberto a doctor. Natalia, the youngest of seven, didn’t have much formal education; her father would not let her go to elementary school, believing the children to catch germs there, and she dropped out of college.

In the 1930s and 1940s Turin was a hotbed of anti-fascist activity, and almost everyone in the Levi family was a part of it. At the same time, they were Jews. (Or Giuseppe was Jewish; the mother, Lidia, was a good one.) They suffered from it. The Germans were not the only ones in Europe who believed that opposition to fascism was a Jewish plot. Natalia’s brothers came and went in prison for seditious acts. Giuseppe lost his job at the university and had to move to Belgium to continue teaching. Natalia’s first novel appeared in 1942 under a pen name, because Mussolini’s racial laws prohibited Jews from publishing books.

Most of the family friends were, like them, very good students – publishers, writers, teachers, scientists – and anti-fascists and Jews. But probably the most notorious fighter in that circle was Leone Ginzburg, an Odessa-born Jew who was a professor of Russian literature at the University of Turin. He was a leader of the Turin branch of the anti-fascist organization Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Freedom), to which Levi’s men belonged. He too was dismissed from his academic post. Eventually he stopped visiting the Levis home, as he felt his presence endangered them, but he obviously managed to see Natalia, because in 1938 she married him. They had three children, the eldest of whom is the eminent historian Carlo Ginzburg.

Leone, Natalia remembers, was arrested whenever an important politician came to town, and certainly whenever King Victor Emmanuel III visited Turin. “Cursed king! His mother would say. “If only he stayed home!” Finally, in 1940, Leone was sent to confino, or “internal exile”, that is, confinement in a city so poor and isolated that, in the opinion of the government, the accused could not cause further damage from there. But Léone, in confino, continued to do all the harm he could to the authorities. In 1943, when Mussolini was deposed, Leone decamped to Rome, to supervise an underground press. But after five months he was gone. According to prison records, the cause of death was cardiac arrest associated with acute cholecystitis, an infection of the gallbladder that is often the product of trauma. That is, Leone probably died under torture.

From these sorrows, suffered when she was just beginning to write, Natalia learned that misfortune, while powerful enough, does not always help writing well. As she says in her essay “My vocation” (1949):

When we are happy, our imagination is stronger; when we are unhappy, our memory works with greater vitality. Suffering makes the imagination weak and lazy. . . . A special sympathy is established between us and the characters that we invent – that our weakened imagination is still able to invent – a tender and almost maternal sympathy, warm and wet with tears, intimately physical and suffocating. We are deeply, painfully rooted in every being and thing in the world, the world that has filled with echoes and tremors and shadows, to which we are bound by devout and passionate pity. Then we risk sinking into a dark lake of stagnant, dead water and dragging our mind’s creations with us, so that they perish among dead rats and rotten flowers in a dark, hot whirlpool.


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