Women in Translation Month: Two Works by Natalia Ginzburg

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On September 16, 2019 the translator Minna Zallman Proctor spoke at the bookstore 192 Books about her new translation of Natalia Ginzburg’s novel Happiness as Such, which was recently published by New Directions Press. Also speaking at the event was the acclaimed author Vivian Gornick who read one of Ginzburg’s most well known essays.

Ms. Proctor, the author of Landslide and the editor of The Literary Review, won the PEN/Renato Poggioli Award for her translation of Federigo Tozzi’s Love in Vain. Ms. Gornick, whose book Fierce Attachments was recently named by the New York Times as the best memoir of the past 50 years, is also the author of the bestselling memoir The Odd Woman and the City

Natalia Ginzburg was born to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother in Palermo in 1916. She grew up in Turin where her father Giuseppe Levi was a professor at the University. The family home was a meeting place for the intellectual and cultural leaders of the period. In 1938 the author married Leone Ginzburg, a Russian Jew and a Slavic studies scholar. He lost his position at the University of Turin because of the racial laws that had been promulgated in Italy that discriminated against Jews. When the Nazis invaded Italy, the Ginzburgs and their three children were exiled to the Abruzzi region of Italy. Eventually returning to Rome and then Turin, Leone Ginzburg continued his underground resistance activity and was eventually captured, tortured and executed by the Nazis. 

Ms. Proctor read the first chapter of Happiness as Such which was originally published in Italy in 1973 as Caro Michele (Dear Michele). The book is written primarily as a series of letters exchanged between members of a family whose only son fled Italy to escape the consequences of his radical politics. It speaks about the difficulties the family faces in coming to terms with what was a traumatic event in their lives. The letters encapsulate the love, hate, and confusion that characterize much of everyday domestic life. It was mentioned during the presentation that the book was not well received in Italy when it was published; it was seen as making fun of the chaotic political situation in Italy at that time.

Vivian Gornick read one of Ginzburg’s most famous essays, He and I, which was originally published in Italy in 1962 in a collection of essays entitled Le Piccole Virtu’ (The Little Virtues).The essay isbased on Ginzburg’s second marriage to Gabriele Baldini, a professor of English in Trieste.  The interactions between husband and wife of which Ginzburg writes seem to be marked by the husband’s domineering nature and the wife’s diffidence in the fact of that fact.  The wife compares herself to her brilliant and charismatic husband and seems to find herself wanting. Yet at the end of the essay, the author writes with sympathy about a day twenty years before when the couple walked through town together, still young and in love and able to judge each other “with kind impartiality.” The absence of an overtly feminist voice in the story should probably be viewed in the context of the period in which it was written (the 1960’s). 

After the reading, Ms. Gornick pointed out the restraint and the lack of sentiment in Ginzburg’s writing. Despite having survived the torture and death of her first husband, the family’s exile in the Abruzzi and the suicide of her friend, the poet and novelist Cesare Pavese, her language remains minimalist, almost conversational. Ms.Proctor made the interesting point that while the author often writes out of grief, her deceptively simple style may be a way of keeping intense grief at bay. It is interesting to note, however, that while Ginzburg is not noted as a comic writer, many of the listeners in the room enjoyed the ironic and highly witty passages that were nevertheless present in both of these works.

There has been a resurgence of interest in Ginzburg’s writings in the English speaking world over recent years. Based on the readings of these two works and the enthusiastic reception by those who attended the event, this resurgence is more than justified.

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