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On the Side of the Losers

                       

An Interview with Natalia Ginzburg

 

By Gaither Stewart

 

There is a category of writers in Italy classified as Untouchables. Their works are sacred, above negative criticism, especially by literary critics. Not only is negative criticism of their global work forbidden, but also each individual product they pen enjoys near total immunity.

            At the top of the Untouchables list was doubtless Alberto Moravia, who, though Italians were not his most avid fans, could boast of nearly universal positive critique: as one critical critic wrote, 99.0% for, 0.01% against. Other Untouchables have been Leonardo Sciascia, Nobel poet Eugenio Montale, and Italo Calvino. Now deceased, these Untouchables have largely retained their immunity until today.

            Literary historians complain that they can find no negative opinions of the Untouchables. No faults. No bad books. No debate about them. Montale was universally recognized as a great poet, but, one wonders, is it possible he never wrote a bad poem? Or Moravia, or Sciascia, a bad book? Strangely, critics have overlooked what legions of Italian readers still say about Moravia: “I liked his Racconti Romanithe sixty-one stories published in one volume in 1954—but he didn’t write a good book in the last thirty years of his life.”

            Literary historian, Guido Almansi, puts Natalia Ginzburg( pronounced in Italy as Natalía) in this small group and wonders why critics never questioned her inclusion in the prestigious Meridiano Collection of Mondadori Editore, along with Thomas Mann, Kafka, Joyce, Ezra Pound and Proust. His conclusion is: she is an Untouchable.

            “I read that article and it irritated me,” Mrs. Ginzburg told me in an interview not long before her death in Rome in 1991. “I don’t know what the term Untouchables means. It sounds like a journalistic invention. Critics have certainly canned some of my works and, on the other hand, I myself have written articles about a lack of serious literary criticism in Italy.

            In an essay of 1970 included in her collection, Mai Devi Domandarmi, [published in English under the title of Never Must You Ask Me, Michael Joseph, London, 1973] she compared the role of the real critic—“of clear, steady, inexorable and pure judgment”—with the role of the father like her heroic, powerful, domineering father described in her autobiographical Lessico Famigliare [Family Sayings]. “We need a critic who knows us [me] and is implacable in pointing out our [my] mistakes and who reveals what we are [I am].” But at the time I interviewed her she no longer cared what critics said about her works, claiming she anyway wrote for only three or four people.

            The father image remained a dominant factor in Ginzburg’s life as a person and a writer. In Lessico Famigliare, she describes how her father, Giuseppe Levi, physician, scientist, professor and author of scientific works, conditioned the life of the family and their friends. His huge angry and bellowing figure is always before her. “He thundered against my indolence. I felt a holy terror of him: his frowning brow, lined cheeks, curly eyebrows and grim red hair.” The young girl, wife and widow of two husbands, and writer, felt terror of him. And guilt. She felt guilty for everything she did or did not do that caused him displeasure. “In my childhood I knew no sadness,” she once wrote, “only fear.”

 

            I met Natalia Ginzburg the first time when she opened the door to her apartment in the Historic Center of Rome. She was immediately familiar and very sympathetic. I later thought it was her voice—soft and hesitating, above all, pure—as pure as her writings. Her apartment in a seventeenth-century palazzo was the opposite of what she and her second husband, the professor of English literature, Gabriele Baldini, were searching for when they settled in Rome. She had wanted a house like the family house in Turin, with garden, trees, bushes and pond. But when she first saw the apartment overlooking the Pantheon and Piazza Navona it was home for forty more years. Books, paintings, cats, and maids wandering around the huge salon or up and down creaking stairs, from time to time dusting ineffectually, combined to create an atmosphere of negligent disorder. Mrs. Ginzburg’s only household concern the Saturday morning I spent with her was to ask a maid if she had bought bananas. To me she admitted in an aside that she simply has no ability to command.

            Having just finished Lessico Famigliare, I sensed there the presence of the old Turin households of her generation and the figure of Father Levi. As Ms. Schwartz wisely points in her introduction to the collection of essays in A Place To Live, a reading of Ginzburg’s Lessico Famigliare [Family Sayings, the title I also prefer, or, The Things We Used To Say] is indispensable to grasp the background that formed the writer. Parades of important people passed through the lives of the Turin Levis: from the founders of Italian Socialism, Anna Kuliscioff and Filippo Turati, to Adriano Olivetti—later her brother-in-law—who made of a typewriter factory a modern industrial giant. What writer has not typed on Olivetti’s machines at one time or another? Artists and academics, writers and industrialists, and militant anti-fascists frequented the eccentric family unlike any other in Turin.

            When I asked her about a survey among European writers as to why they write—to which Italo Calvino had answered, “I write because I’m searching for a better book than the last one I wrote”—Ginzburg said, “They didn’t ask me, but I wouldn’t have had much to say. I write because I have to and because I can’t do anything else. It’s my profession. My vocation.”

            I found it peculiar that she seldom exploited in her writing the important people she had known, first at home, then in the Einaudi Publishing House, started up by her first husband, Leone Ginzburg, a Russian Jew from Odessa who immigrated with his parents to Italy. She met and worked with a generation of Italian writers including Cesare Pavese (under-rated abroad), Italo Calvino, Primo Levi (no relationship with Natalia’s family), and Mario Soldati, another giant writer too little known abroad.

            In a flurry of movement of people, ideas and eccentricities in ebullient, aristocratic Turin, Natalia instead always wanted to be more like “normal people.” Perhaps that explains her fascination with two women writers, Ivy Compton Burnet and Emily Dickinson, who led uninteresting lives while their imaginative worlds were intense. Natalia Ginzburg lived in big cities and knew many people, but she wrote about mild, middle class characters, who achieve little, are more or less good, but are far from heroic.

            She however believes that she did use her life in her work. “I have had a life of misfortunes, rather than drama and action. I haven’t traveled but I saw the same things my generation saw—fascism and war. Above all, I have suffered. My first husband was arrested, tortured and killed in prison by fascist police.

            To appreciate Italian writers of the second part of the Twentieth century one must always keep in mind the role of twenty years of fascism and World War II. However, if Natalia Ginzburg was anti-fascist as were most writers then, and if she quite naturally belonged for a time to the Communist Party, she was always a most apolitical person and the least dogmatic of writers in a country where writers are expected to have opinions on everything.

 

To Rome, To Rome

           

The Ginzburg’s came to Rome before the post-war movement that brought many of Italy’s intellectuals to the capital. The fascist regime had interned the couple in a village in the Abruzzi Mountains near Rome. Leone Ginzburg and Natalia were everything fascism was not. They came clandestinely to Rome to edit an anti-fascist newspaper, until Leone was arrested and murdered in a Rome jail. After the war it was natural that Natalia settle in Rome where she joined the Communist Party and wrote books, essays, plays and newspaper articles, and subsequently remarried.

            “Though I no longer even like Rome, I have stayed here, linked by memories, seeing only a few friends and my children. Since I don’t like traveling, I sit here at home, thinking and smoking,” she said, lighting another cigarette and unsuccessfully trying to coax one of her Siamese cats to lie quietly on her lap.

            Her reality is however different from her words. In the 1980s she was elected to Parliament as an Independent and went to sessions three days a week, as she said, “trying to develop a political culture,” since she tended to view politics from her apolitical dimension. She said her parliamentary experience was more useful to her than to the political world, which she was supposed to serve.

            “The truth is I simply cannot speak. I prefer to observe events, reflect on them, and then relate them in writing. I could never say how a country should be governed. Though I am still a Communist—they are the best our country has to offer—I left the party years ago simply because I should never belong to any party.”

            Cinema is something else. It is an old love. Her mother went everyday in Turin and dragged Natalia along so that it became part of her life. “Until recently,” she said, “when the cinema degenerated. Now I go to Parliament.”

She especially loves Fellini, all of whose films she has seen many times. Her reflections about Fellini do not resemble standard cinema critique; hers are unique as is all her writing. She wrote a subjective article about Amarcord long after the initial hullabaloo had settled. After a mild introduction to say it seemed useless to try to add to what had been written about the film, she wrote the most moving, penetrating essay ever written about Fellini’s masterpiece.

            Amarcord seemed to me a happy event,” she began in a typical Ginzburg opening. “Happy events are so unusual. It seems to me Fellini’s best film, and also one of the best films ever made. Perhaps it is not useless to speak of a happy event. The spectator is asked only to look. Fellini talks the language of images and they must first be looked at and later understood. And he proceeds to show us the truth. Of what snow or fog are really like. Or what the melancholy of anti-fascists under fascism was really like.”

            She liked Amarcord because it centered on a family of losers, people who feel wonder and surprise and live on dreams, in opposition to the priests and teachers on the side of power. She loved the language of images, which sprinkle her books, concocted, she said, at the moment of writing, in places where other writers use adjectives.

 

TURIN

           

Natalia Ginzburg was born in 1916 in Palermo, grew up in Turin, and lived her adult life in Rome. In ebullient, aristocratic Turin, she claimed, she did nothing but take hot baths, lie on the floor in the mornings eating bread—all the things her father despised and roared about—and then feeling guilty.

            “Today,” she repeated, “I sit on this couch in Rome and chain smoke and watch the cats and the indolent maids wandering around the house.”

            Turin was childhood and youth. Her family’s being “nothing” was a way of life. They were “nothing” in religion. Neither rich nor poor, they were excluded from both worlds. Anti-fascists, they were excluded from mainstream life. They had no fatherland; her father called the King an idiot. Because of her father’s fear of germs, she studied at home. No fashions for her because Father ridiculed such idiocies. She belonged nowhere. That nonbelonging became a way of life too: if she was born, grew up and lived in apparent mainstream intellectual life, she never felt like a member of the closed club of Italian intellectuals.

            Even though she liked to quote writer Mario Soldati’s “You don’t choose your friends,” she disagrees: “We choose some, some are chosen for us, and fate chooses others.”

            At a Turin party the much older Soldati heard about her stories, read them, and later sent her first telegram: he thought they were good. Her first literary steps and her first steps outside the family were in Turin. She published her first story at eighteen, married Leone Ginzburg in 1938, and published her first novel in 1942, La Strada Che Va In Cittá[ The Road to the City], under the pseudonym of Alessandra Tornimparte. At war’s end she returned to Turin a widow with three children, and again worked at Einaudi Editore.

            “Writer Cesare Pavese was the driving force of the publishing house, leading the battle against the contorted pre-war literary style. He was the major influence on Italo Calvino, who actually changed Italian literature with his clear limpid language. Calvino’s early Le Fiabe Italiane [Italian Fables] was so beautiful that children today learn to write from it.

            “I too believed that the pre-war literary language was the enemy of literature and that we had to find a new language intelligible to everyone. I simplified my language, shortened my sentences, and constructed my language based on spoken Italian. I wanted a concise clear style, and since I wrote slowly I searched for speed and a fast-moving style. Above all, I wanted to be understood and was never tempted by fantastic or surrealistic writing. I try to capture the reader immediately, to enter into communication with him, and not bore him. I don’t consider myself an intellectual, nor my writing an intellectual act. Though writing is hard work, it’s also an act of inspiration, which I find in daily life … daily life projected on the past.”

 

The Chickens’ Plot

 

            In her essay, “The Chickens’ Plot,” included in the original Italian edition of Mai Devi Domandarmi, Ginzburg describes her early fascination for the fabler Tommaso Catani, who in his frightening stories never bothered with happy endings: they terrified children and made them suffer over their heroes. In the Turin atmosphere of eccentricity those were positive images for the future writer; her own literary images regularly reflect a preference for madness. Catani was not cruel, Ginzburg once wrote; he was honest and imaginative. “His cats and chickens went mad, drank poison, became crippled and blind, and fell off rocks.”

            Similarly, she said she would walk a mile to see Paolo Poli, a Tuscan cabaretist and female impersonator, on stage surrounded by boys dressed as women, women dressed as men, gypsy dances, babies born in wine shops, wives betrayed and buried alive, amid which Poli, perhaps dressed as a Cardinal, suddenly sings the old fascist song, Giovinezza in a way that made him the opposite of fascism. There is always a streak of madness in her: as her mother says in Lessico Famigliare when father and brother Gino are released from jail: “And now back to the boredom of everyday life.”

            Quiet, soft-spoken, humble, timid, discreet, unobtrusive, self-deprecating, yet Ginzburg asks herself about Emily Dickinson: “ How can you recognize genius and greatness in a spinster dressed in white out for a walk with her dog? She would seem ridiculous and we don’t like the ridiculous, we [I] like madness. Madness doesn’t whisper, it shouts, and it wears bright colors and unexpected clothes.”

            Ms. Ginzburg told me that she fears boredom—being bored or boring others. Fear of boredom is a very Italian concept.

            Father Levi in Lessico Famigliare is one of the few heroic figures in Ginzburg’s writing; and he is the most eccentric and mad. The writer’s life seemed to be a reflection of his eccentricity—from her rebellion against his benevolent dictatorship to the hero worship of his image: the girl in Turin on her tummy on the floor eating bread to the woman chain smoking on the couch in Rome. Getting up mornings at 4 a.m. as he did, going to Parliament instead of the cinema, subscribing each year to the opera just to hear two arias, one each from Lohengrin and Don Carlos, walking a mile to hear a female impersonator.

            And then feeling guilty for her extravagances.

            Guilty without knowing why, she said—guilty when she was writing, and guilty when not writing—therefore in a hurry to reach a conclusion. Finishing seemed to be the goal. She felt guilty all her life, a nameless and unmotivated guilt. She felt guilty for wrongs done to others in ways she had forgotten. A mixture of guilt, anguish and desperation.

            “Perhaps Moravia is right that man must feel desperate,” she said. “I’m thus a pessimist, with moments of hope.”

            The reader will search in vain for such self-analysis in her fiction; it is only a faint glimmer in her autobiographical writings. But it permeates her brilliant essays. Though some writers ask to what extent writers should engage in self-analysis, Natalia Ginzburg admitted that her essay “Portrait of a Writer” in her collection, A Place To Live, is self-analysis. “I wrote it for myself. It is a confession, even if written in the third person.”

            In her confession she speaks of herself as the tired writer whose imagination is dead, who in fact never had much imagination, who has realized he was meant to tell things that happened to him or others rather than invent. “Compared with telling the truth, invention seems to him like playing with a basket of kittens, whereas telling the truth is like being involved with tigers. He once loved invention as he now loves the truth. But his love for invention was meager and cold and gave him back nothing but cold greedy images. But now when he tries to tell the truth he loses himself gazing at its violence and immensity. Is then writing a duty or a pleasure? Stupid! It was neither. In the best of moments, to him, it was and is just living on this earth.”

            After hours of cigarettes and coffee and cats and the useless bustling about of the maids, Mrs. Ginzburg summed up: “I wanted to say that the best of men feel a gulf between themselves and the victors in power. For me this is the malaise of the epoch. I’m on the side of the losers. I know that I would far prefer to be killed than to kill.”

 

Rome, 2002

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© 2005 Gaither Stewart

 

This is the title essay in Gaither Stewart's Ebook, available free of charge from SCR.

Gaither Stewart, writer and journalist, is originally from Asheville, NC. After studies at the University of California at Berkeley and other American universities, he has lived his adult life abroad, first in Germany, then in Italy, alternated with long residences in The Netherlands, France, Mexico and Russia. After a career in journalism as the Italian correspondent for the Rotterdam daily newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, and contributor to the press, radio and TV in Italy and various European countries, he today writes fiction. He has authored novels and short story collections. His collections, Icy Current, Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger, Once In Berlin, are published by Wind River Press. (www.windriverpress.com or http://stewart.windriverpress.com) He lives with his wife, Milena, in the hills of north Rome. Other essays and stories by Gaither are available in Back Issues.