Tolstoy once said that if he was asked to write on social or political questions, he would not waste one word on the subject, but if asked to write a book which twenty years from the time it was written would make people laugh and cry and love life more, to this he would bend all his efforts.
A writer whose work has often made me love life more is Natalia Ginzburg. Reading her, as I have repeatedly over many years, I experience the exhilaration that comes with being intellectually reminded that one is a sentient being. First time around, my eyes were opened to something important about who I was at the moment of reading; later, to who or what I was becoming. But then I lived long enough to feel a stranger to myself—no one more surprised than me that I turned out to be who I am—and reading Ginzburg again has provided solace as well as revelation.
When I was ten years old, the teacher held a composition of mine up before the class and said, “This little girl is going to be a writer.” I don’t think I’d ever heard the word “writer” before and I certainly didn’t know what it meant, but I remember that I felt warm and happy hearing it applied to myself. Even then I knew that what had so absorbed me when I was writing my composition—that is, sitting with a pen in my hand, thinking about how to best arrange the words on the piece of paper in front of me—had given me something I’d never had before: a thrill. When the teacher praised what I had written I felt the thrill again and resolved that I would go on “writing.” What I didn’t know, couldn’t know, was that I would feel compelled to go on even if what I wrote received no praise, and had no especial effect on anyone other than myself.
It soon developed that writing became central to my life. That is, I found that when I sat down to write, the me who entertained a myriad of anxieties and insecurities seemed to disappear. There, at the desk, with a piece of paper in front of me, my fingers now on a keyboard, wholly absorbed by the effort to order my thoughts, I felt safe, centered, untouchable: at once both excited and at peace, no longer distracted or unfocused or hungry for the things I didn’t have. All that I needed was there in the room with me. I was there in the room with me. Nothing else in my life—neither love nor the promise of wealth or fame or even good health—would ever match the feeling of being alive to myself—real to myself—that writing gave me.
Of course it was great novels I was going to write—large, dramatic, world-changing novels that would make the reader love life more after my book had been read—and discovered soon enough I had no talent for telling a tale that was concocted out of wholly imagined cloth. When I tried to write such a story, I soon found myself drowning in a muddle of verbiage from which I could make nothing of literary value emerge: the paragraphing was arbitrary, the sentences rang false, the words lay dead on the page. Writing a letter I sounded more natural to myself. It seemed that it was only when the un-surrogated me was narrating that the waves consented to part and I could walk on water: which is how it felt when the writing flowed.
What to do? I was now well into my late twenties and hadn’t a clue as to how I was going to write the great American novel when I couldn’t make anything fictional come to life. Then I read Natalia Ginzburg’s essay “My Vocation,” and I saw the way forward.
The essay traces Ginzburg’s own apprenticeship as a writer. It tells of how a talented child dreams of writing prose extravaganzas—large and operatic—but hasn’t the vaguest idea of how to approach the task of telling a story as she doesn’t really know what a story is. She only knows she is going to write magnificent sentences. And so she does: sentences that describe sinister castles, kidnapped maidens, tyrannical fathers, threatening lovers: “I didn’t know anything about them beyond the words and phrases with which I described them.” Next she falls in love with phrases she thinks will chase down the ever-elusive story; and after that, characters (really puppets) on which to hang the story. Bit by bit it comes clear that the essay itself, the one Ginzburg has written and we are reading, is a miniature bildungsroman wherein the author is teaching herself how to grow up and take her place in the world as a human being who is a writer; that is the story.
Natalia Ginzburg (née Levi) was born in 1916 in Palermo, Sicily, but spent her youth in Turin where her father taught science at the university. While the family was smart, cultured, and liberal, agitation reigned in the Levi household, as the father was a domestic tyrant, the mother a docile dreamer, and all five children given to melancholia. Natalia couldn’t wait to get out. In 1938, at the age of twenty-two, she married Leone Ginzburg, a Russian-born intellectual who wrote and taught and, by the time he and Natalia married, had become an anti-fascist activist. In 1941 the couple moved to a poor village in south central Italy as Leone had been sentenced to internal exile, and there they had three children whose birth proved so astonishing an experience to Natalia that she began to write the short pieces that were the genesis of the personal essays for which she would later be celebrated. In 1943, after the fall of Mussolini, the Ginzburgs decided it was safe to move back to Rome: a miscalculation for which they would pay dearly. Within twenty days of their arrival in the city, Leone was arrested and taken off to a military prison where he was put to death.
For Natalia life itself had now accumulated with head-spinning rapidity, and a new kind of need to write came on full force; with it there also arrived a sense of clarity that shocked her writing into authenticity. The trick, she saw, was to pay strict attention to one’s actual experience and then find a way to make the writing accommodate it. Out of this precious insight Ginzburg carved the brilliantly minimalist style that was to be ever after hers: a style she shared with nearly every European writer whose apprenticeship was the Second World War.
In 1961 Ginzburg published a novel—yes, she had taught herself to write fiction—called Voices in the Evening. The book opens with two women, a mother and a daughter, walking. One narrates, the other talks. The sentences pile up, one on one, casual to the point of disconnect:
My mother said, “I feel a kind of lump in my throat.”
. . .
My mother said, “What a fine head of hair [the General] has, at that age!”
She said, “Did you notice how ugly the dog has become?”
. . .
“However did [the new doctor] discover that I have high blood pressure? It has always been low with me, always.”
These banalities continue, both in speech and in narration. I remember thinking as I read, “Who are these people? What are they about? Their speech is tiresome, their situation dull, why should I care?” The second time I read the novel I realized these people were actually saying and doing startling things to themselves and one another, but the tone of voice that overlay the narration—hazy, dream-like, almost anesthetized—was obscuring the action. And then it hit me: all this was taking place just after the Second World War. The war was the drain, the gap, the terrible lassitude at the center of a remarkable novel being written by a writer working out of an acute sense of the poetry at the heart of human catastrophe.With the novels we know that the story is one of ordinary lives caught inside a devastated culture trying to pick up the pieces.
It was the Ginzburg essays, however, coming apace with the novels as they did, that spoke most directly to me; in time, they seemed written for me. There in the essays we had the creation of a narrating persona who, speaking out of the same interiority that informed the fiction, adopted a tone and vantage point sufficiently different that it lent a modernist distinction to the classic art of making metaphor out of nonfiction prose. As I read these essays, even for the first time, I felt myself taking instruction from a master teacher showing me how to become the writer I had it in me to be.
Among my early favorites was the well-known “He and I,” an essay that makes literary use of Ginzburg’s life with her second husband. On the surface a bold and amusing laundry list of marital differences; at its core the piece is a tour-de-force demonstration of what it actually means to live with the circumstantial decisions that push us around most of our lives. Looking hard at one of the most taken-for-granted experiences in life—marriage—historically beloved, ceremonially worshipped, more often than not stumbled into and then ever after endured, we see the narrator trying to untangle the knot of a pair of adversarial personalities (hers and her husband’s) glued together in a situation that can seem as though it is being inflicted on the narrator alone: it’s him, him, him who is causing all the damage! Only gradually does she come to see how complicit she is in this unholy alliance. At one point she observes that while she has long been holding her husband to account for bullying her with his ever-exploding temper, she has only just now realized that while he yells, she nags—“if I once find out that he has made a mistake I tell him so over and over again until he is exasperated.” It dawns on her that the shouting and the nagging together form a dynamic that feeds the ambivalence that insures the irritations that characterize the relationship.
It is the discovery of her own contribution to this disastrous intimacy that holds the narrator’s attention, and brings the essay to a point of startling arrival. Extraordinary, when one comes to think about it, the compelling need to bend ourselves out of shape, rationalize trade-offs of an incredible variety, endure a lifetime of intermingled pleasure and pain—all in order to not be alone. The reader’s eyes widen as the starkness of the double bind sinks in.
For me, the narrator’s discovery in “He and I” of her own part in the complexity being explored was key. I experienced it as the organizing principle behind the piece: the element that gave it dimension and structure, lifted it into the realm of dramatic writing. With this illumination came the one lesson I needed to advance my own apprenticeship.
In fiction, a cast of characters is put to work, some of whom speak for the author, some against. Allow them all their say and the writer achieves a dynamic. In non-fiction the writer has only one’s own un-surrogated self to work with. So it is the “other” in oneself that the writer must seek and find in order to achieve the necessary dynamic. Inevitably, the piece builds only when the narrator is involved not in confession but in self-investigation, self-implication actually. To make vital use of one’s own part in the situation—that is, one’s own frightened or cowardly or self-deceived part—is to provide the essay with narrative tension. This insight was Natalia Ginzburg’s great gift to my own working life; central to the education I needed to pursue the writing that I was not only best suited for, but could approach with the same regard for shaping a piece of experience through the personal essay that a fiction writer assumes when intent on exploring the inner life of the characters in a novel or a short story.
Ginzburg’s abiding concern, like that of any serious writer, has always been with identifying the conflicts within ourselves that keep us from acting decently toward one another. Like Montaigne, she is fearless about using herself as the specimen par excellence, tracing her own development away from the very faulty sense of human solidarity that she has seen at work in herself, even as she first began thinking seriously about the behavior of others. Taken all together, Ginzburg’s essays can sometimes seem a veritable pilgrim’s progress, as the narrator in these pieces explores the price to be paid for uncommon self-regard.
“The problem of our relationships with other human beings,” she writes, “lies at the center of our life: as soon as we become aware of this—that is, as soon as we clearly see it as a problem and no longer as the muddle of unhappiness, we start to look for its origins, and to reconstruct its course throughout our whole life.” Thus begins “Human Relationships,” an essay that achieves authority precisely because its narrative drive is provided by the narrator’s brilliant investigation into her own emotional history.
At the outset she confides that it has taken her most of a lifetime to grasp the seriousness of what she is about to investigate and certainly it will take the entire essay to make some large sense of it. We are primed then to accept that she will be thinking things out as she goes along. And oh yes, she will be speaking in the first-person plural as she suspects that this is the voice that will best persuade her readers to see themselves in her findings.
Starting with the emotional violence of the household in which she grew, Ginzburg remembers how angry she and her siblings became with the parents forever shouting at each other and the house in constant thrall to the father’s outrageous mood swings. Self-protection required the cultivation of an emotional distance that, in time, took a heavy toll. In adolescence she began to feel unreal to herself, and soon grew into a “stony-faced” belligerent for whom everyone around her became unreal as well: “Sometimes we stay alone in our room for a whole afternoon, thinking: with a vague feeling of dizziness we wonder whether the others really exist at all, or if it is we who have invented them . . . Isn’t it possible that one day when we turn round unexpectedly we shall find nothing, no one, and be left staring into emptiness?”
In time, this all-inclusive sense of spiritual remoteness allows her to indulge the perverse pleasure of inflicting cruelty on others: “The friend whom we have stopped seeing suffers on our account . . . we know this, but we don’t feel sorry about it; it even gives us a kind of underhand pleasure, because if someone suffers on our account it means that we—who for so long thought of ourselves as weak and insignificant—have in our hands the power to make someone suffer.” And here we have it: the crime of emotional unreality that will haunt her life and her work.
She grows up, marries and has children, and then, for the first time, experiences naked anxiety: “We never suspected that we could feel so bound to life by . . . such heart-rending tenderness.” A crack develops in her armor. When devastation comes—as it does with war and the loss of her young husband, death raining from the sky, children abandoned in the rubble—she, quite unexpectedly, finds herself taking part in a fellowship of suffering: “We learn to ask for help from the first passer-by,” then to “give help to the first passer-by.” This experience proves transformative. Now, at last, she feels herself real because of “that brief moment when it fell to our lot to live [as though] we had looked at the things of the world . . . for the last time” and “found a point of equilibrium for our wavering life.” From this moment on, “we could look at our neighbor with a gaze that would always be just and free, not the timid or contemptuous gaze of someone who whenever he is with his neighbor always asks himself if he is his master or his servant.”
Enough years pass that our narrator lives to see that what goes around comes around—and her wisdom as well as her essay is completed: “Now we are so adult that our adolescent children have already started to look at us with eyes of stone . . . we are upset by it and we complain about it . . . even though by now we know how the long chain of human relationships unwinds its long necessary parabola, and though we know all the long road we have to travel down in order to arrive at the point where we have a little compassion.”
Ah, those eyes of stone! Family Sayings is the memoir Ginzburg wrote at the age of forty-seven when she felt sufficiently in command of her art to do justice to the story she still wanted to tell: from whence come those eyes of stone.
“When I was a little girl at home,” the memoir begins, “if one of us children upset a glass at table or dropped a knife, my father’s voice bellowed: ‘Behave yourself!’ If we soaked our bread in the gravy, he cried out, ‘Don’t lick the plates, don’t make messes and slops’ . . . We lived always with the nightmare of our father’s outbursts of fury which exploded unexpectedly and often for the pettiest reason: a pair of shoes that could not be found, a book out of its proper place, a light bulb gone, dinner slightly late . . .”
The volatile father, a madly discontented man with a hair-trigger temper, roars through the memoir issuing arbitrary commands—Sit up straight . . . don’t get into conversations with strangers in a train or in the street . . . don’t take off your shoes in the sitting room or warm your feet at the stove . . . don’t complain of thirst, fatigue, or sore feet while walking in the mountains—for no apparent reason other than an almost demented need to exercise power over his beaten-down wife and children. Throughout the book we never see him as anything other than the sum of his disabilities, a domestic despot responsible for an entire group of people wandering through the years, imprisoned within themselves, intent only on surviving the anxiety felt in the father’s presence or, equally, the relief felt in his absence.
The mother, in her turn, having been driven into childlike dippiness, lives inside a pair of blinders, looking neither to the left nor the right only straight ahead into whatever small pleasure is available to her, most often the one she gets from being with her sons: “‘Isn’t Gino handsome,’ my mother would say. ‘Isn’t Gino nice. My Ginetto! The one thing I really care about is my sons. I only have fun with my sons.’”
Which leaves Natalia, she of the increasingly stone-faced demeanor, standing in a place within herself not quite alienated, but definitely not grounded. Quite casually she lets us know that she is the one child for whom the mother feels affection but almost no intimacy. “In the early days of [my sister] Paola’s marriage, my mother cried a lot because she no longer had her at home. There was a great bond between them and they always had a great deal to say to each other . . .” As for herself, she confides, the mother “was not jealous of my friends . . . did not suffer or cry over my marriage . . . [n]or did she mind my leaving home, partly because, as she used to say, I never ‘unwound’ with her.”
Neither it seems did any of her four siblings who remain as opaque to one another—“indifferent and aloof”—in adulthood as they apparently were in childhood. When they meet as grown-ups all they have in common is some grim amusement over the shared past: “We have only to say ‘We did not come to Bergamo for a picnic’ . . . for us to pick up in a moment our old intimacy and our childhood and youth, linked indissolubly with these words and phrases.”
With the novels we know that the story is one of ordinary lives caught inside a devastated culture trying to pick up the pieces. With the memoir, the devastated culture is the family itself rather than the time in which it is living. But in both cases the protagonist is seen wandering in an emotional desert that lends the writing its surreal quality. To drive home the point, the memoir is filled with the kind of disjointed paragraphing that marks the modernist novel:
When [Alberto] came home [from school] for the holidays he told us that when they were at table eating omelettes a bell rang. The headmaster entered the room and said, “I would remind you that one does not cut an omelette with a knife!” Then the bell rang again and the headmaster disappeared. My father no longer went skiing. He said he was too old. My mother had always said: “The mountains! What a hole!” She could not ski, of course, but stayed indoors. But now she was sorry that her husband did not go skiing any more.
It’s the tone of voice that does it; the tone, the odd place in which the narrator seems to be standing, and the even odder angle of vision from which she views her own psychological development; the one that tells me Ginzburg is writing to let me know that she, too, is a stranger to herself.
Excerpted from Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader by Vivian Gornick. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2020 by Vivian Gornick. All rights reserved. Featured photo, Laverne Harrell Clark.