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The Uncivil Servant: Family Fiction

Mitchell Abidor
May 15, 2017

by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this essay: Family Lexicon, by Natalia Ginzburg, translated from the Italian by Jenny McPhee, NYRB Classics, 2017, 221 pages, and And Then, by Donald Breckenridge, David Godine, 2017, 101 pages.

SEVERAL YEARS ago, my wife and I were in Venice, and in an effort to avoid the omnipresent crowds, we visited the new Jewish cemetery. There we found a sadly touching tombstone on which was a photograph of a little boy in short pants, jacket, and hat, proudly holding the Italian tricolor flag. Italian Jewry was proudly patriotic, grateful to the Risorgimento, the Italian unification movement that had liberated the Jewish community, and to the country’s royal house.

This little boy could have been a member of the family portrayed in the great Italian novelist Natalia Ginzburg’s marvelous memoir, Family Lexicon.

Family was central to Ginzburg’s (1916-1991) fiction, and she told the American writer Mary Gordon in an interview that “I write about families because that is where everything starts, where the germs grow.” Family Lexicon is the book in which she confronts her own family, the source of all she was, most directly.

The family was Jewish on her father’s side (her maiden name was Levi) and typical of the odd mix that was life among the educated elite of pre-fascist Italy. Her father, a science professor in Turin, “appreciated and respected . . . socialism, England, Zola’s novels, the Rockefeller foundation, mountains, Val d’Aosta mountain guides,” she writes. “The things my mother loved were socialism, Paul Verlaine’s poetry, music, in particular Lohengrin, which she used to sing for us in the evenings after dinner.” Yet the socialist father had no better word for any form of conduct he didn’t approve than to call it a “negroism.” His fidelity to Italy led him to irredentist politics (aiming at the recapturing of lands once considered Italian), and his family, we are told, was, like many Jewish families, filled with girls named Margherita and Regina, after Queen Margherita, Umberto I’s wife (and the source of the name for the “pizza margherita”).

The Levi family was full of other paradoxes. Money complaints were constant, yet the family lived in a ten-room apartment with a substantial body of domestic help. Their socialism and straitened finances didn’t prevent regular getaways, and their love for each other never stood in the way of disputes and regular insults, usually with Ginzburg’s father on the delivering end, with virtually everyone else around him on the receiving end.

The book is entitled Family Lexicon in honor of the vocabulary peculiar to the Levis, with “nitwittery” being a favorite insult of the head of the family for everything he disapproved of. “Taradiddling” was the sin of passing secrets. Few things were more worthy of condemnation than failure to “lend your gear,” the family’s expression for lending an ear.

GIUSEPPE LEVI, the father, is the star of the tale, a not entirely admirable man with a fierce temper and little patience for the foibles of others, who is opposed to the marriages of all of his five children, and from whose mouth barely a kind word passes. On the rare occasions when it does, it is immediately qualified: Speaking of the son of a family friend who worked with Enrico Fermi, he says, “I always said Rasetti was very intelligent. But he’s aloof! Very aloof!”

Jewishness played no role in the Levi family life, other than a few mentions of Jewish foods that only older family members can bear to eat. Ginzburg’s mother wasn’t Jewish, but there was no friction caused specifically by the mixed marriage. The family was connected to important Jewish figures -- one of the family’s daughters married into the Olivetti typewriter family, Jews from the Piedmont -- and it seems that all of the family friends were Jews. But Ginzburg makes no special case of this: Only the Segre family, with whom they are friends, were Zionists, while the rest lived the lives of comfortable, well-educated Italians, with Jewishness playing no distinguishing role. Even up to 1938 and the introduction of the racial laws, the Levi family’s anti-fascism had no Jewish element. Until the younger members of the family became active in the anti-fascist movement and were either arrested or fled into exile, even their opposition to the government did little to shake up their quiet, bourgeois life. When trouble did occur, Ginzburg’s parents hesitated about asking their well-connected cousin Margherita for assistance, and ultimately decided against it. This Margherita was Margherita Sarfati, Mussolini’s mistress.

MARIO LEVI, Ginzburg’s brother, was arrested as part of the Ponte Tresa Affair, which saw fifteen Turinese Jews arrested for their political activity. Among the fifteen was Leone Ginzburg, the anti-fascist journalist whom Natalia married. We encounter him in passing through much of the book, but learn little about him, and even less about his horrible death by torture after being captured by Germans in early 1944. This is simply not Ginzburg’s focus.

Although her family lived through the war, the threat to them is never stressed. The father lived in Liege as a professor, and various family members lived in internal exile or in some form of hiding, but there is no feeling that they were threatened as Jews. The uniquely odd situation of Italian Jewry is nowhere better encapsulated than in the lament of a Jewish woman in hiding in the Abruzzi at the same time as Ginzburg and Leone, who told Ginzburg’s visiting mother her regret: “I wrote poems for Mussolini! What a mistake!”

As we learn in the excellent afterword by Peg Boyers, Ginzburg, in the original preface to the Italian edition of the book -- which, strangely, won Italy’s most prestigious fiction award, the Strega Prize, though it is clearly a memoir -- “indicated she was not much interested in writing about herself,” so the portrait one would hope for of a marriage between two such extraordinary intellectuals and individuals as Natalia and Leone Ginzburg never appears. We are abruptly informed of their marriage, and we are given almost no details of his arrest and death. She is a neutral observer of her own life, of her family, and the mere fact that she is writing it does not oblige her to give her own experience pride of place.

Instead, we are given portraits of the world she and her family circulated in, and we learn almost more about the great writer Cesare Pavese and his tortured life (he committed suicide in Turin in 1950 over an unhappy love affair; according to Ginzburg, all of his many love affairs were unhappy) than about her martyred husband.

In a sense, Family Lexicon is less personal, certainly no more so, than Ginzburg’s biography of the family of the great Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni. But its genius resides precisely in its avoidance of the tropes and traps of memoir. Her family’s factual life is, after all, very much the novel that the judges of the Strega Prize treated it as being.

THE KEY to Donald Breckenridge’s moving and complex And Then is given in its opening pages, a recounting of the Jean Rouch section of the brilliant 1965 omnibus film Paris Vu Par (English title, “Six in Paris”). It is not so much the tragic story of marital discontent in the film, nor the specificity of its locations, that mirror the varied and intertwined stories of And Then and its careful attention to place. More precisely, the film offers a key to a reading of the novel.

Its characters exist in different times and places, in Vietnam, in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the darkest days of New York during the financial crisis of the 1970s, and in suburban Washington, DC in the 21st century. Breckenridge, like a skilled film editor, crosscuts the tales, and in a nod to the simultaneity of act and speech in film, he runs the two together in the novel: “ ‘Is it your heart,’ Suzanne crossed her right leg over her left knee, ‘or your phone that’s broken?’ His hands were numb from the cold, ‘I was waiting for your call.’ ” And Then is written under the star of Alain Resnais and his fractured, refracted narratives.

One of Breckenridge’s characters is reading Funeral Rights, and his description of Genet’s novel fits And Then perfectly: “It’s like stepping through a series of continuously unfolding mirrors.” And Then is complex, but its form does not obscure the sorrow of its multiple tales. Every character, every scene, every description is clearly etched, and the sections in first-person, recounting the long, sad death of the narrator’s father, are imbued with deeply felt emotion.

The novel is haunted by death and the dead (in its 90 pages I counted at least four deaths), but it is the death of the narrator’s father that dominates. The process of this death, unlike the suddenness of the others in the book, carries us along as And Then’s through line. Breckenridge’s account is unblinking and unsentimental, a tour de force -- as is And Then.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a translator and writer living in Brooklyn. He has published many books of translations from the French, his articles have been translated into German and French, and his Voices of the Paris Commune has just appeared in a Turkish edition, put out by Kafka Kitap of Istanbul.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.