Natalia Ginzburg fever

Mark Rappolt on why the late Italian author’s novels are making a comeback – and why you should care

By Mark Rappolt

You may have noticed that the writing of Natalia Ginzburg is coming into fashion once again in the English-speaking world. Or at least that her out-of-print works are coming back into print (as is the case with The Dry Heart); or that new English-language translations are appearing (Minna Zallman Proctor’s rendition of Happiness, as Such); or that she is being championed by contemporary writers such as Rachel Cusk (who introduced the republished UK edition of The Little Virtues in 2018), Zadie Smith and Maggie Nelson. Or, for the more adventurous among you, that Sandra Petrignani’s 2018 biography of the Italian writer (La Corsara) will appear in German (as Die Freibeuterin) in March. Or maybe you didn’t notice it at all, because you only notice what happens in galleries, because you’re only interested in the visual arts. In any case, here’s why you should care.

The family, Ginzburg once said, is ‘where everything starts, where the germs grow’. And so The Dry Heart begins with a narrator and her husband. She asks him a question. He shows her a drawing of him waving goodbye to her from a steam train. After which (six lines into the text) she shoots him ‘between the eyes’. The drawing may or may not have answered the narrator’s question (we can only draw that conclusion as Ginzburg’s tale reaches its conclusion – which, ouroboros-like, returns us to the point at which it starts: the shooting). But it does relate to a subject about which she and her husband struggle to speak. And the fatal division between a life lived in theory and life lived in practice.

A paragraph later the narrator has gone out for a cup of coffee. For the rest of the novella she sits on a park bench, having slipped off and pocketed her wedding ring (more words expended on that than on the shooting), and relates how she got to this point. And, as we read that, we begin to think, as we do with many of Ginzburg’s works, about how language and art relate to emotion and action, and how actors (more particularly, although not exclusively, women actors: Ginzburg, her friend the author Italo Calvino once wrote, ‘is the last woman left on earth’, a player on a stage in which everyone else was simply an actor in a man’s world) relate to their socially prescribed roles. (In most cases they don’t.)

When the narrator of The Dry Heart imagines getting married, she pictures the objects she will surround herself with, the potted plants, the stylish gadgets, the armchair and the embroidery. Desire and emotion – the personal – is voiced via prostheses – a ficus, a blender, a gun – and, with the exception of the last, is couched in smotheringly anonymous domestic terms. The potential husband is faceless, no more than a voice. He is anyone, not someone. Because marriage is what a woman in postwar Italy is expected to achieve. There’s a notion somewhere that once the narrator attains the status of married woman she’ll be able to take a lover for the fun part. But an acceptance therein that the fun part is not the required part. The reality, when it comes, comprises her husband’s affairs, dead children, the desire for more children and a love that waxes and wanes in a manner seemingly outside the narrator’s control. Women in Italy ‘wait’, Calvino noted. The Dry Heart (1947) is Ginzburg’s second novel, but the first, as a result of Fascist-era restrictions on the work of Jews being published in Italy, to be issued under her own name (the first, published in 1942, was credited to Alessandra Tornimparte). Her first husband, the editor and writer Leone Ginzburg (one of the founders of the celebrated Einaudi publishing house), had lost his Italian citizenship in 1938 (the same year he married Natalia), been internally exiled (with his wife) in 1940, arrested and severely tortured (to the point of crucifixion) in 1943 before dying in prison of his injuries in 1944. Natalia’s mother was Catholic, her father Jewish Italian. Consequently and despite her early membership of the Communist Party and participation in a number of anti- Fascist activities, the persecution she suffered was less, relatively speaking. Nevertheless it, and the war in general, profoundly shaped her writing. How could it not?

It’s in her consideration of female agency, and the potential for any individual to possess that within a society, that Ginzburg’s work continues to have force

The relation between objecthood and subjecthood plays out particularly strongly through Ginzburg’s sparse, precise use of language (or, for the English-language reader, her translators’ replication of her sparse, precise use of language). ‘A woman awoke in her new house. Her name was Adriana,’ begins Happiness, as Such (originally published in 1973), as Ginzburg splits what the character is from who she is, while subtly suggesting that the what comes before the who. A little later we find out that it is Adriana’s birthday, but this is told to us in the same way we are told that it is snowing outside. As the novel unfolds, a series of letters document an estranged familial and social structure in which everyone’s estrangement seems to grow deeper the more they attempt to understand the others. The whats (a woman, a son, a mother, a friend, a lover) and the whos fail to come together; everyone on some level is seeking to manipulate the others (notably a son by doing things, a mother by saying things). ‘I do this person the great favour of living with him in his house and spending his money that he doesn’t need. But what does this asshole want from me in the end. Sometimes I’m so angry that’s what I think,’ writes Mara to Michele, Adriana’s son, who has fled Italy for England – leaving a trail of debt – as a result of political persecution, and who may or may not be the father of Mara’s child. Mara is living with an older, wealthy man, while trying to persuade Adriana that her baby is definitely Michele’s and that Adriana should make her son marry her. Michele, in the meantime, has married an older Englishwoman as part of his own quest to fit in and be respectable. As is often the case with Ginzburg’s work, these relationships are governed by signs that her characters are unable to read and conventions that no one really understands. At times the novel seems to anticipate the infamous maxim from Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction (1987), ‘No one will ever know anyone. We just have to deal with each other’– but Ginzburg gets us there with infinitely more subtlety and nuance.

Perhaps ultimately it’s in her consideration of agency, particularly female agency, and the potential for any individual to possess that within a society, that Ginzburg’s work continues to have force. That and the fact that, while the consideration is complex, the language is direct and simple. At times even brutal. By and large her characters are people to whom things happen, even as they are constantly wishing to make things happen for themselves. ‘What am I doing here? Where am I? Why am I wearing a fur coat?’ Mara writes to Michele at one point. 

The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Frances Frenaye New Directions, $12.95 (softcover)

Happiness, as Such by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Minna Zallman Proctor New Directions, $15.95 (softcover) 

From the January & February 2020 issue of ArtReview