Saturday, October 26, 2013

Hope and Nostalgia: The Yesterdays of Natalia Ginzburg

All Our Yesterdays (Tutti i nostri ire) by Natalia Ginzburg

“There is a certain dull uniformity in human destiny,” reflected the ‘great small’ writer Natalia Ginzburg, some years before her death. “The course of our lives follows ancient and immutable laws, with an ancient, changeless rhythm. Dreams never come true, and the instant they are shattered, we realize how the greatest joys of life lie beyond the realm of reality. The instant they are shattered we are sick with longing for the days when they flamed within us. Our fate spends itself in this succession of hope and nostalgia.” It is a tone—this weariness, this resignation—that permeates her fiction, which, while ever fresh and compelling, is like a sitting room at dusk. 

Her novel All Our Yesterdays is no exception, this otherwise straightforward tale drawn back and forth through the skein of her own rueful experience of life, lending it a somber, doleful intimacy that is the mark of Ginzburg’s work. As in the prose of Marcel Proust (whose work she greatly admired: she was the first to translate Du Côté de chez Swann into Italian) in which the past is meticulously re-created, Ginzburg is a miniaturist in her extraordinarily fine command of detail, in the charged, if distinctly unsentimental way in which she brings the past to heel. It is a detachment that seems to me a particularly Jewish, particularly Italian detachment, an ancient, all but visceral fatalism (one can feel the history in it, the darkness, the weight) cruelly compounded, in the author’s own lifetime, by the torture and murder, by the Gestapo, of her husband, Leone Ginzburg, and by the Holocaust itself.

Yet, as is the case with so many great writers, such brooding forbearance as Ginzburg’s is transmuted—through the powerful process of her writing—into fiction that transcends her own experience, so that, while dark, still very dark indeed, it is poignantly, often luminously so.

Set in Italy between 1939 and 1944, All Our Yesterdays is essentially a family drama writ small with great precision, then writ large against the jingoism, murder, and destruction of WWII, a war that steadily creeps its way toward the family, day by day, mile by mile, even deep into the southernmost reaches of Italy, where finally it engulfs them in its fury. 

The novel’s characters are sharply, memorably drawn—the housekeeper and de facto mother, Signor Maria; the wealthy and eccentric “uncle,” Cenzo Rena; the children: Anna, Giustino, Ippolito, and Concettina; and their sickly, cantankerous father, with his Goethe and detective novels, exacting his revenge upon the mad and degenerate nation that is Italy of the time by secretly writing his memoirs: “The old man used to laugh and rub his hands together at the thought that the King and Mussolini knew nothing about it, while in a small town in Italy there was a man writing fiery remarks about them.” It is an image that makes me smile. 

Widely considered the most important woman writer of post-World War II Italy, Natalia Ginzburg is an author whose works have long been savored by more solitary, world-weary readers for whom the pace of the telling itself—so patient in Ginzburg’s case—would be consolation enough.  Yet her stories offer the reader much more than that. To read one of her novels is to surrender oneself not only to a different tempo but to a different temperament and time. All Our Yesterdays is a deeply affecting portrait of the trauma and betrayal of war, an experience Europeans of Ginzburg’s generation knew altogether too well.

*Opening quotation from A Place to Live and Other Selected Essays by Natalia Ginzburg.  Translated by Lynne Sharon Schwartz and published by Seven Stories Press.

Natalia Ginzburg (1917-1991)was an Italian-Jewish novelist and playwright who studied  in Turin, where  she befriended many of the Jewish antifascist intellectuals active in the Italian resistance. Her first husband, Leone Ginzburg, a victim of the Nazis, died in a Roman prison in 1944.  She was friends with many of Italy’s greatest writers of the period, including Pier Pasolini, Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante. and Cesare Pavese.  Her best-known books include Family Sayings, The Little Virtues, The City and the House, The Manzoni Family, Valentino and Sagittarius, Family: Family and Borghesia, Two Novellas; and Voices in the Evening(Thanks in part to Jewish Virtual Library)

Peter Adam Nash

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