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by Bamber Gascoigne

Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1991) - Original surname Levi


Italian novelist, essayist, translator and playwright, who has written of her unconventional family and its opposition in Turin to Fascist oppression. Ginzburg's novels are a mixture of reminiscence, observation, and invention. Much of her fiction is written in the first person in a plain style, and constructed almost entirely of dialogue.

"A un certo punto della vita, tutto quello su cui posiamo gli occhi per la prima volta ei è estraneo. Lo guardiamo da turisti con intresse ma freddamente. Appartiene agli altri." (in La città e la casa, 1984)

Natalia Ginzburg was born Natalia Levi in Palermo into a middle-class family. From her father's side, who was professor of anatomy, she was Jewish, and from her mother's side she was Catholic. However, Ginzburg was brought up an atheist, and this separated her from other children. In 1919 her father accepted a professorship at the University of Turin, where Ginzburg grew up in a cultural milieu. The Levi household became a meeting place for many intellectuals, who opposed Benito Mussolini. "... my father was an old-style Socialist, but, well, he had no idea how to oppose Fascism," said Ginzburg later in an interview. After her brother Mario escaped to Switzerland, her father was arrested for some weeks. Ginzburg's mother, Livia Tanzi, was a family friend of the prominent socialist politician Filippo Turati, who went into exile to Paris.

For a period, Ginzburg attended literature courses at the University of Turin, but then gave up her studies. In 1938 she married the editor and political activist Leone Ginzburg; they had two children. Leone Ginzburg, born in Odessa, was a brilliant Slavist and he helped introduce Russian literature into Italy. In 1933 he refused to swear an oath of allegiance to Fascism, and could not continue his career as a teacher. Leone was one of the frequent visitors at Benedetto Croce's summer residence in Piedmont. Croce, a philosopher and Senator, was a well-known anti-fascist, whose houses were under surveillance. On account of his activities, the Ginzburgs spent three years in "confinement" in the Abruzzo village of Pizzoli, after which they went into hiding to Rome and Florence. To help Leone, Croce sent him books, periodicals and translation work. Leone Ginzburg was arrested again in 1944, and he was tortured and killed in the Regina Coeli prison in Rome.

Ginzburg started her career as a writer publishing short stories in the distinguished Florentine periodical Solaria. Her first major work, 'Un'assenza', appeared in Solaria when she was seventeen and centrered on an unhappy, anguished individual who suffers from boredom. Ginzburg's first novella, La strada che va in città (1942, The Road to the City), was published by Einaurdi. Because her husband well known anti-fascist resistance, it came out under a pseudonym (Alessandra Tornimparti). It was followed in 1947 by È stato così, about an unhappy marriage like the author's previous work. At the end the narrator shoots her unfaithful husband. 

After the liberation in 1944 Ginzburg returned to Turin with her chilren. She worked as an editorial consultant for the new publishing house of Giulio Einaudi. The publishing house had introduced such writers as Cesare Pavese, Elio Vittorini and, a little later, Elsa Morante and Italo Calvino. Ginzberg's translation of  Marcel Proust's Swann's Way came out in 1946 and was later printed with some alterations in the Einaurdi Gli struzzi series. Ginzburg herself preferred the earlier version, which was more passionate, and revised the adjustments.

In 1950 Ginzburg married Gabriele Baldini, a professor of English literature at the university of Rome. She was widowed again in 1969 and left with a seriously handicapped daughter to care for. Ginzburg stayed from the 1950s mostly in Rome, where she worked in publishing. From 1959 to 1961 she lived in London, following there her husband, who had been nominated for three consecutive years as director of the Italian Cultural Institute.

Tutti i nostri ieri (1952. A Light for Fools) a story of two families, one rich, one not, partly drew on her experiences in detention on the country. Through the intertwined histories Ginzburg portrays a generation that lived through Fascism, war, the German invasion, resistance, and the Allied victory. The story ends on a positive note. Le voci della sera (1961, Voices in the Evening) was set in Piedmont around the time of World War II.  Ginzburg wrote the novel in London ‒ she disliked the city ‒ while living there with her husband. The memoir-novel Lessico famigliare (1963, Family Lexicon), written in colloquial Italian, belongs among the most important works of Holocaust literature. It gave an account of Ginzburg's childhood, adolescence, and adulthood during the Fascist dictatorship through the "family lexicon", words and phrases of the various members of her family. Ginzburg writes calmly about the murder by torture of her first husband. The author herself stays in the background and avoids making any judgement on the intimate language which is often pretty odd to outsiders:

"For my father, a 'negro' was someone who was awkward, clumsy, and fainthearted; someone who dressed inappropriately, didn't know how to hike in the mountains, and could't speak foreign languages.
   Any act or gesture of ours he deemed inappriopriate was defined as a 'negroism'."
(Family Lexicon, translated by Jenny McPhee, 2017)

Ginzburg was elected to the Italian Parliament in 1983 as an independent left-wing deputy. She was reelected in 1987. "Sometimes when I'm there in Parliament, on that sofa in the corridor, I'm thinking deeply about things I want to write," Ginzburg once confessed. (It's Hard to Talk about Yourself, ed. Cesare Garboli and Lisa Ginzburg, 2003) Her later, internationally acclaimed works include Caro Michele (1973, Dear Michael), about the family of the writer Alessandro Manzoni, in which she used the epistolary technique, La città e la casa (1984, The City and the House), a chaotic novel, and Serena Cruz, o la vera giustica (1990, Serena Cruz, or True Justice), dealing with the case of Serena Cruz, who had been taken away from her adoptive parents. Ginzburg died of cancer on October 7, 1991. A few days before her death, she completed the translation of Maupassant's Une vie.

Ginzburg wrote memoirs, several dramas, essays, translations from such authors as Marcel Proust and Flaubert, and a biography of the poet and essayist Alessandro Manzoni, La famiglia Manzoni (1983), which reveals the failure of the great author as a father. Am reviewer said of the style this work: "Everything is stated and nothing is underlined or glossed or implied or invoked as material to argue something different." Ginzburg's play Ti ho sposato per allegria (1965,  I Married You for Fun) was written for the actress Adriana Asti. L'inserzione (1968, The Advertisement) was produced in London by Laurence Olivier, and in Italy by Luchino Visconti

In her earliest works Ginzburg consciously rejected any autobiographical style or elements, which she saw as characteristic of what she called "feminine" writing. However, she soon discovered that it was through writing her personal experiences in a fictionalized form, that she succeeded best in expressing herself. Many of her works rely on memories of her childhood and youth in Turin. Recurrent characters are frustrated intellectuals and women living static lives. Valentino (1957) was her first novel which portrayed homosexual figures.

As an essayist Ginzburg has explored a wide variety of subjects from current movies to books and art, and from pedagogy to morals and individual rights. "At the center of our life is the question of human relations," she said in one essay. In the preface for her translation of Il racconto di Peuw bambina cambogiana (1975-1980), which came out in 1985, she asked why there was a total silence in the West and the media about the Cambodian disaster. Ginzburg's style is sparse, melancholic, but relieved by occasional flashes of humor. "Too many descriptions; I can't bear descriptions in novels," Ginzburg stated in the novel The City and the House. Her major collections of essays were Le piccole virtú (1962), Mai devi domandarmi  (1970) and  Vita immaginaria (1974). In 'Il mio mestiere' (1949) she wrote: "I prefer to think that no one has ever been like me, however small, however much mosquito or a flea of a winter I might be."

For further reading: 'Introduction' by Cynthia Zarin, in Valentino and Sagittarius by Natalia Ginzburg (2020); La corsara: ritratto di Natalia Ginzburg by Sandra Petrignani (2018); 'Foreword' by Belle Boggs, in The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg (2017); It's Hard to Talk about Yourself, ed. by Cesare Garboli and Lisa Ginzburg (2003); Maternal Desire: Natalia Ginzburg's Mothers, Daughters, and Sisters by Teresa Picarazzi (2002); Natalia Ginzburg: A Biography by Maja Pflug (2001); Natalia Ginzburg: A Voice of the Twentieth Century, ed. by Angela M. Jeannet (2000); 'Ginzburg, Natalia,' in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2, ed.  Steven R. Serafin (1999); Natalia Ginzburg by Giancarlo Borri (1999); Italian Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook by Rinaldina Russell (1994); Natalia Ginsburg: Human Relationships in a Changing World by Allan Bullock (1991); Invito alla lettura di Natalia Ginzburg by E. Clementelli (1972); Le voci della sera by S. Pacifici (1971); A Guide to Contemporary Italian Literature by S. Pacifici (1962) - Note: Natalia Ginzburg's son Carlo (b. 1939) became a professor of modern history at the University of Bologna. He has published books on sixteenth-century religious radicalism and witchcraft. His first major work was The Night Battles (1966). Other works include Il nicodemismo (1970), The Cheese and the Worms (1976), and The Enigma of Piero (1981).

Selected works:

  • La strada che va in città, 1942 (as Alessandra Tornimparti)
    - The Road to the City (translated by Frances Frenaye, 1949) / The Road to the City: Two Novellas (reprinted in 1952)
  • È stato così, 1947
    - The Dry Heart (translated by Frances Frenaye, 1949, published with The Road to the City, 1952)
  • Tutti i nostri ieri, 1952
    - A Light for Fools (translated by Angus Davidson) / All Our Yesterdays (GB title, translated by Angus Davidson, 1985)
  • La madre, 1957
  • Valentino, 1957
    - Valentino; and, Sagittarius: Two Novellas (translated by Avril Bardoni, 1987)
    - TV mini-series 1983, prod. by Radiotelevisione Italiana, dir. Maurizio Ponzi, teleplay by Gianni Menon, cast: Vanni Corbellini, Giuseppe Pertile, Dina Sassoli, Tino Schirinzi, Sabina Vannucchi
  • Sagittario, 1957
    - Valentino; and, Sagittarius: Two Novellas (translated by Avril Bardoni, 1987; introduction by Cynthia Zarin, 2020)
  • Le voci della sera, 1961
    - Voices in the Evening (translated by D.M. Low, 1963; with an introduction by Colm Tóibín, 2021)
    - film Las Voces de la noche, 2003, prod. by DeA Planeta Home Entertainment (Spain), dir.  Salvador García Ruiz, featuring Laia Marull, Tristán Ulloa, Vicky Peña, Juli Mira
  • Le piccole virtù, 1962
    - The Little Virtues (translated by Dick Davis, 1985; foreword by Belle Boggs, 2017)
  • Lessico famigliare, 1963
    - Family Sayings (translated by D.M. Low, 1967) / The Things We Used to Say (translated by Judith Woolf, 1997) / Family Lexicon (translated by Jenny McPhee, 2017)
    - Kieli jota puhumme (suom. Elina Melander, 2021)
  • Ti ho sposato per allegria e altre commedie, 1965
    - I Married You for Fun (translated by Henry Reed, 1980) / I Married You to Cheer Myself Up (translated by Wendell Ricketts, in The Wrong Door: The Complete Plays of Natalia Ginzburg, 2008)
    - film 1967, prod. by Fair Film, dir.  Luciano Salce, adaptation by Sandro Continenza, starring Monica Vitti
  • L'inserzione, 1965 - The Advertisement (translated by Henry Reed, 1969; Wendell Ricketts, in The Wrong Door: The Complete Plays of Natalia Ginzburg, 2008)
  • Fragola e panna, 1966
    - The Strawberry Ice (translated by Henry Reed, 1973) / Strawberry and Cream (translated by Wendell Ricketts, in The Wrong Door: The Complete Plays of Natalia Ginzburg, 2008)
  • La segretaria, 1967
    - The Secretary (translated by Wendell Ricketts, in The Wrong Door: The Complete Plays of Natalia Ginzburg, 2008)
  • Mai devi domandarmi, 1970
    - Never Must You Ask Me (translated by Isabel Quigly, 1973)
  • Dialogo, 1971 (written in 1970)
    - Duologue (translated by Henry Reed, 1977) / Dialogue (translated by Wendell Ricketts, in The Wrong Door: The Complete Plays of Natalia Ginzburg, 2008)
  • La porta sbagliata, 1972 (written in 1968)
    - The Wrong Door (translated by Wendell Ricketts, in The Wrong Door: T he Complete Plays of Natalia Ginzburg, 2008)
  • Paese di mare, 1972 (written in 1968)
    - A Town by the Sea (translated by Wendell Ricketts, in The Wrong Door: T he Complete Plays of Natalia Ginzburg, 2008)
  • Caro Michele, 1973
    - No Way (US title, tr. Sheila Cudahy, 1974) / Dear Michael (tr. Sheila Cudahy, 1975) / Happiness, As Such (translated by Minna Zallman Proctor, 2019)
    - film 1976, prod. by Flag (Italy), dir.  Mario Monicelli, starring Mariangela Melato, Delphine Seyrig, Aurore Clément, Lou Castel
  • La parrucca, 1973
    - The Wig (translated by Henry Reed, 1976; Jen Wienstein, in Natalia Ginzburg: A Voice of the Twentieth Century, 2000; Wendell Ricketts, in The Wrong Door: The Complete Plays of Natalia Ginzburg, 2008)
  • Paese di mare e altre commedie, 1973
  • Vita immaginaria, 1974
    - A Place to Live (selections, translated by Lynn Sharon Schwartz, 2002)
  •  Famiglia, 1977 [novella]
    - Family (translated by Beryl Stockman, 1988)
  • Borghesia, 1977 [novella]
    - Borghesia (translated by Beryl Stockman, 1988)
  • La famiglia Manzoni, 1983
    - The Manzoni Family (translated by Marie Evans, 1987)
  • La città e la casa, 1984
    - The City and the House (tr. Dick Davis, 1986)
    - Kotina ystävyys (suom. Erkki Kirjalainen, 1987)
  • Opere, 1985-1986 (2 vols., edited by Cesare Garboli)
  • L'intervista, 1988
    - The Interview (translated by Wendell Ricketts, in The Wrong Door:  The Complete Plays of Natalia Ginzburg, 2008)
  • Teatro, 1990
  • Serena Cruz o la vera giustizia, 1990
    - Serena Cruz, or The Meaning of True Justice (selections, translated by Lynn Sharon Schwartz, 2002)
  • È difficile parlare di sé, 1999 (edited by Cesare Garboli and Lisa Ginzburg)
    - It's Hard to Talk about Yourself (translated by Louise Quirke, 2003)
  • Non possiamo saperlo: saggi 1973-1990 (edited by  Domenico Scarpa)
  • A Place to Live: And Other Selected Essays, 2002 (translated by Lynn Sharon Schwartz)
  • Tutto il teatro, 2005 (edited by Domenico Scarpa)
  • The Wrong Door: The Complete Plays of Natalia Ginzburg, 2008 (translated by Wendell Ricketts)
  • Lettere a Ludovica, 2008 (edited by Carlo Ginzburg)
  • The Complete Short Stories of Natalia Ginzburg, 2011 (translated by Paul Lewis)
  • Un'assenza: racconti, memorie, cronache: 1933-1988, 2016 (a cura di Domenico Scarpa)
  • Family and Borghesia: Two Novellas, 2021 (translated by Beryl Stockman; Famiglia & Borghesia, originally published in 1977)

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