Eternal Return

In Natalia Ginzburg’s fiction—including three recently reissued works—painful things cannot be put off forever.

Jess Bergman
June 18, 2021
Natalia Ginzburg. Photo courtesy of Basso Cannarsa/Opale

Discussed in this essay: Voices in the Evening, by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by D.M. Low. New Directions, 2021. 144 pages.

Family and Borghesia, by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Beryl Stockman. NYRB Classics, 2021. 128 pages.

THERE IS PERHAPS no greater archivist of the family lexicon than the Italian novelist Natalia Ginzburg. As she recounts in the insistently autobiographical novel titled after that private language, Ginzburg grew up in Turin as the youngest of five children in a voluble family. She believed that the words and stories “heard and repeated countless times” in childhood constituted a “dictionary of our past”—and, at least in her case, created the conditions for “family unity.” They certainly lent her fiction a unity of form. Like the people who populate them, her books are strange and elliptical but reveal themselves in their compulsively repeated phrases: “What a jackass!”; “It looked like something the cat had dragged in”; “Why has everything been ruined?” The tone of these expressions, ranging from frustration to dejection, reflects the unvarnished way that close relatives really communicate—and the minor key in which Ginzburg almost always wrote. 

Though she died in 1991, contemporary readers have had many opportunities to consider Ginzburg’s distinctive voice, which remains stubbornly identifiable across a range of translations. Since 2017, New York Review Books and New Directions have brought out new editions of eight of her works, situating Ginzburg within a constellation of 20th-century women writers who have experienced a recent revival in the Anglophone world, Clarice Lispector and Ingeborg Bachmann among them. The latest batch of reissues—consisting of the 1961 novel Voices in the Evening, and a pair of novellas from the 1970s, Family and Borghesia, published together in a single volume—provides another window onto the fixations that animated her work.

The quietude of Ginzburg’s fiction belies the extremity of her early life: She was a Jew and antifascist in Mussolini’s Italy, widowed at 28 when her first husband, resistance intellectual Leone Ginzburg—with whom she had edited a dissident newspaper—was tortured to death in a Roman prison. While nearly all of Ginzburg’s characters live in some kind of aftermath, if not of World War II than of a more private horror, violence is largely kept off of the page—quarantined in the past, or relayed only through dialogue, so that the events reach the reader second-, or even thirdhand. (The notable exception is 1947’s The Dry Heart, which begins with an aggrieved wife shooting her feckless husband in the face.) These buffers suggest it wasn’t destruction itself but the messy, unheroic experience of outliving it that most interested Ginzburg. She was especially attentive to the intimacy forged by trauma: its silences, and the talk that exists only to fill them.

The domestic scene—a refuge from external upheaval and engine of its own forms of turbulence—is thus never far from the center of Ginzburg’s work. Family, Borghesia, and Voices in the Evening are particularly fixated on the weight of family history. Their saturnine characters serve as a repudiation of Tolstoy’s famous maxim. In Ginzburg’s world, unhappy families are all unhappy in more or less the same ways: because of bad marriages, children who have moved away, love affairs that leave their participants feeling empty, siblings who don’t know what they want or how it might be obtained. This isn’t to say her characters’ misery is always of the pedestrian variety—babies die; people are struck down by illness; the scars of the war are everywhere—but that they themselves see no point in making such distinctions. As Ilaria, the protagonist of Borghesia, discovers upon the death of her first cat, “even poor sorts of pain are acute and merciless, and quickly take their place in that immense, vague area of general unhappiness.” In Ginzburg’s oeuvre, suffering is less an event than an atmosphere.

This emotional monotony adheres to the overriding logic of her fiction, in which everything is part of a pattern. No matter the translator, her novels teem with uses of “always” and “usually”; when the past tense appears, it is often accompanied by the habitual “would.” The latest reissues are no exception. Within them, the same stories are told and retold, the same meals eaten ad nauseum, and, as in children’s cartoons, some figures only ever appear in a single set of clothes. Accordingly, these books are concerned less with narrative than with routines and their temporary disruptions. Voices in the Evening depicts the relationship between its narrator, Elsa, and Tommasino, scion of the village’s cloth factory where Elsa’s father is employed. Interspersed with chapters recounting the fate of Tommasino’s sprawling family, their affair furnishes the novel with its only semblance of plot. It begins clandestinely, with weekly trysts in a rented room that provide Elsa an escape from airless daily life with her hypochondriac mother and taciturn aunt. But the relationship ends in a broken engagement when Tommasino admits that his love for Elsa cannot survive the scrutiny of her family or the impositions of marriage. Despite their parting, the novel’s fundamental mood is not rupture but stasis: It ends just as it began, with Elsa walking alongside her mother, who carries on a one-sided conversation about their neighbors and her possibly imaginary ailments. The breakup is really a restoration, returning Elsa and Tommasino to the narrow remit of their ordinary lives.

The episodes depicted in Family and Borghesia share the earlier novel’s digressiveness, even if they conclude with a bit more finality, in one of the only ways a Ginzburg novel can: with a death, a solution to the problem of repetition that is itself endlessly repeated in her work. Family centers on architect Carmine’s friendship with Ivana, his ex-partner with whom he had a child who died. After separating, they lost touch for ten years, then met again by chance at the apartment of a mutual friend, by which point Carmine had remarried and had a son, and Ivana, a daughter. In the novella’s present, Carmine has thoroughly re-insinuated himself into Ivana’s life; their renewed companionship has an ease that eluded them when they were romantically involved. Borghesia is even more diffuse, tracking a period of years during which the middle-aged widow Ilaria obtains (and loses) a number of cats, and the fissures in her family begin to proliferate. Both loose narratives attain their shape only in retrospect, when it is revealed in the novellas’ closing pages that they happen to coincide with the ends of their protagonists’ lives. 

Ginzburg’s deliberately repetitive style, and the parochialism of her characters, can make life in her novels feel cramped. Whether dwelling in the city or the countryside, they tend to be aware of their own insularity. In Borghesia, Ilaria’s best friend Rirí urges her to break from “the family circle” in which she is “trapped”—advice she notes but never follows. Ilaria’s inability to extricate herself from the personal dramas of her relatives may be characteristic of Ginzburg’s characters, but her quiet resignation isn’t uniformly shared. Voices in the Evening’s Tommasino is driven to distraction by the claustrophobia of living exclusively among people he’s known his whole life. He compares his relations to “a long snake” and worries that the family’s vitality is a finite resource that’s run dry: Every possible version of his life has already been lived by someone else, and there is no existence left to him but the shadow of what came before. The smallness of the village compounds this feeling. “How a place can get one down!” he complains at one point. “It has a weight of lead, with all its dead.” Elsa is the audience for Tommasino’s paranoid soliloquy, which doubles as an explanation for why he cannot love her the way a husband should—she’s too bound up with the place that made him; if only she had been an unknown girl on a faraway street. Elsa, for her part, has little patience for such hypotheticals: “You want veiled ladies and unknown cities, not families or parents,” she tells him. “This means being a romantic.”

In this moment, Elsa sounds like a mouthpiece for Ginzburg herself, who admitted, as Tim Parks notes in his review of Family Lexicon, that her first-person narrators were always “in some obscure and confused way, myself.” At the very least, she would have agreed that Tommasino’s frustrated longing for a clean break from the past was a fantasy. In a 1951 essay collected in The Little Virtues, Ginzburg criticizes the psychoanalyst’s au courant imperative to do whatever feels natural—meaning, whatever one wants. Placing family at the center of her skepticism, she writes that “to make a free choice of your life is not to live according to nature; it is to live unnaturally, because man is not always given a free choice: he does not choose the hour of his birth, or his face, or his parents, or his childhood.” 

If her pessimism about the impossibility of severing oneself from the nuclear family occasionally feels like an anachronism, Ginzburg’s fiction suggests that the bonds of what we might today call “chosen family” can be just as inviolable. In Family, Carmine spends more time with Ivana and her daughter Anjelica than his own wife and son, giving the title an ironic slant. Likewise, nearly every traditional marriage in Borghesia ends in divorce or suicide, while the book’s most durable domestic unit is composed of people with no blood relation to one another. And even if Voices in the Evening emphasizes the futility of Tommasino’s wish for a fresh start somewhere new, it allows that his and Elsa’s relationship is fatally imperiled the moment it’s brought out of the shadows and into the formal structure of engagement, transformed from choice into obligation. The point is not exactly cheerful, suggesting the only way to escape the web of the childhood home is to become just as entangled elsewhere.

Though tradition and routine are often cast as drudgery in Ginzburg’s world, she is also clear-eyed about their comforts. Sometimes it takes the transfiguring distance of nostalgia for her characters to find solace in monotony, as when Carmine is agonized by the memory of an afternoon like any other, in which he and Ivana had gone to a dull movie about bourgeois people on vacation with their respective children, then whiled away the hours until dinner on a café patio. “[I]t seemed like a very nice day, and yet, he had not noticed it at the time,” Carmine thinks, because there was “nothing wonderful” about it. But he has recently fallen ill, and the knowledge that this may have been the last such afternoon is what allows him to grasp its pleasure. 

The shadow of impending mortality can clarify the consolations of boredom; so can living in the wake of murderous upheaval, as Ginzburg herself knew well. Voices in the Evening is set not long after the liberation of Italy. During the war, Elsa’s family had fled the village for fear that it would be bombed. They returned to a parochial world that was nonetheless irreparably changed: Some neighbors had died in exile; others who stayed were killed by fascists. In this context, to pass half an hour blankly warming your hands and face on a stove, to debate the merits of beignets with your family, to take the same bus to the same library on the same day each week, does not seem like the worst fate.

And yet, this description risks diminishing the real tenderness in even Ginzburg’s most exasperated family portraits, whose source runs deeper than mere lesser-evilism. This aspect of her fiction is difficult to capture because it is so rarely straightforwardly expressed. There are exceptions, as in Borghesia, when Rirí caresses Ilaria after her daughter Aurora’s marriage breaks up; Rirí is, Ilaria thinks, “the only person she could talk to about this separation in the same way as she talked to herself.” In Family, when Ivana’s sometimes-lover Amos Elia dies by suicide, she and Carmine share their own rare moment of tactile comfort when he strokes her “thin, pale, nervous” hands. Later, Carmine observes that Ivana is “the best part of his existence . . . No other source gave him that vital something which made him more intelligent, less ordinary and stronger.” This private admission represents the far limit of emotional self-knowledge in Ginzburg’s fiction, and it’s a credit to her discretion, and her faith in the intelligence of her readers, that the novella does not concern itself overly much with why Carmine might feel this way. The persistence of his attachment—through a breakup, the loss of a child, failed relationships with other women—is allowed to maintain its essential mystery, as attachments so often do in life. 

Outside of these instances, affection is present in the books mostly as a quality of noticing, sometimes expressed as criticism, like when Ivana disapproves of Carmine’s use of the word “delightful.” “It was a word that was not him, he would never have used it at one time,” she notes, with the authority of their long association—a reminder of Ginzburg’s belief in shared language as the foundation of intimacy. Throughout Voices in the Evening, Elsa observes Tommasino in a similarly vigilant fashion, at no point more closely than the moment their relationship comes to an end: “I looked at him, I looked at his head, his ruffled hair, his long big pullover, his thin hands which could not keep still and made continuous gestures.” It is the peculiar effect of Ginzburg’s oblique style that this roving look more clearly expresses Elsa’s love and disappointed hopes than her explicit admission of both. 

When death or distance make this watchfulness impossible, sublimated feelings often take the form of a private archive instead: a collection of cherished objects that are squirreled away despite a character’s professed indifference, or their silence. In Family, Ivana’s doomed paramour Amos Elia is long estranged from his wife—whom he claims not to have been able to stand—at the time of his suicide. Yet he dies in possession of an ivory tortoise she once owned, her “tattered manicure-set,” her coat still hanging in his closet. Similarly, after cancer kills Ilaria near the close of Borghesia, Aurora returns to clean out her mother’s apartment and finds a stash of school exercise books belonging to her brother, who died of meningitis when he was nine, a fact mentioned only glancingly in the text and never revisited. These hoarded books constitute a posthumous message, the sole testament to Ilaria’s love and her grief, because she and Aurora had “learned not to talk about painful things, and prudence became a habitual part of their relationship.” 

But painful things cannot be put off forever. Like any other element of a Ginzburg novel, they are fated to return—if only at the last possible moment. This might explain the ubiquity of death in her fiction; it is, after all, the closing of a circle, capable of collapsing any distinction between a person and their past. Consider Carmine, who in Ginzburg’s world is something of a test case for how far outside the family it is possible to travel. His parents are nearly illiterate peasants from Abruzzo; he has left them behind not only geographically, but in terms of education and class. Their semiannual visits to Rome are a source of constant anxiety for him: “He loved them, but he could have just strangled them.” This ambivalence is shaken, however, by the freak lymphatic disease he contracts near the narrative’s end. As he lies dying in the hospital, time and space contract, and Carmine begins to lose his sense of self. In the absence of perception, memories of his mother rise to the surface of his consciousness. On the novella’s last page, he recalls being carried by her through their village’s train station on a rainy evening: the mud on the tracks, the look of her thick black hair pinned up under a headscarf. “Why on earth his memory should have squandered and destroyed so many days and so many events, and yet preserved that moment so accurately, bringing it safely through the years, tempests and ruins, he did not know,” Carmine thinks. Why on earth? To the reader, it’s no great mystery. Like that afternoon with Ivana on the patio, it’s a moment of uncomplicated closeness he’ll never get back.

The belatedness of these sentimental realizations in Ginzburg’s fiction is tragic, but there’s also something touching about her apparent faith in their inevitable arrival. In Family Lexicon, she enacts a kind of thought experiment: If she and her siblings were to find themselves “in a dark cave” (or among millions of people), she writes, it would take “just one of those phrases or words” from their childhood to recognize each other in the inky blackness. The half-world that Carmine inhabits in the throes of his sickness—in which he “never knew whether it was day or night, and he could never tell who was in the room and who had just left”—resembles nothing so much as Ginzburg’s cave. And though his mother spends long stretches sitting vigil by his bedside, it is in these depths that he seems to find her.

Jess Bergman is an editor at The Baffler and a contributing writer for Jewish Currents.