Everyone knows it: expressions that immediately make everyone laugh within a family. ‘A bad bike’, was one of us, or ‘I have a trick for that’ and ‘get lost’. Words that hide something that only a select, intimate group knows and understands. In Family lexicon, the book we will read this month, is the family language, the use of phrases, recurring comments about how things are, should be, or never will be, the threads on which the fabric of the entire book is made. Threads that consist of the exclamations of the father of the house (‘Oelewapper!’; ‘Donkey!’) but also many typical phrases behind which a world lies hidden.
As Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1991) writes about herself, her three brothers and sister, now adults: ‘When we say: ‘We didn’t come to Bergamo to take a trip together’ or ‘What does sulfur dust smell like?’ our relationship immediately becomes the same as before, as in our infancy and in our youth, inextricably linked to these words, these phrases.’
Of Family lexiconoriginal title Lessico famigliareGinzburg instantly established her name among a larger audience in Italy in 1963. Before that she had already written a whole series of novels, including That’s how it happened (1947) about the end of a marriage (with the fantastic opening line ‘I shot his eyes’) and All our yesterdaysa novel about a family, basically just like Family lexicon. But that book was very different: more personal, more direct, jumpy, witty, lively, tight and perhaps (we’re going to talk about that) more peculiar. In any case, it was an immediate success: Ginzburg received the Premio Strega for it, Italy’s largest literary prize.
A quick word about herself: she was born as Natalia Levi, daughter of a Jewish, anti-fascist family in Turin. She had three brothers and a sister, a sparkling but also busy, superficial mother who understood little about her youngest daughter, her father was a doctor. It was a bleak and lonely childhood. She felt like an outsider and maybe she was. She later said she remembered her childhood as a time when no one had time to let her experience anything like childhood.
In the Jewish family, both the father and the brothers were actively anti-fascist in the period in which the book is set, the years between 1920 and 1940, with the rise of fascism, Mussolini and Hitler. In 1938 Ginzburg married Leone Ginzburg, who was also Jewish and anti-fascist, and they had two children. Both her husband and her brothers ended up in prison for their political activism, her husband was murdered there in 1944.
Natalia Ginzburg worked in Turin at the leading publishing house Einaudi, founded by her husband, among others. In 1950 she married again, to Gabriele Baldini, and moved to Rome. In the 1980s she served in the Italian parliament for the Communist Party.
Direct, tasty, witty
Back to Family lexicon. I quote here from the piece I wrote about it de Volkskranton January 19:
Language is at the heart of this book in which Ginzburg portrays her extended Italian-Jewish family and a host of their friends in Turin before and during the Second World War. She writes about the years when she, the youngest daughter, grew up, became an adult, left home and temporarily returned with her children after her husband did not survive his capture by the Nazis. She briefly touches on the ‘racial campaigns’ of the 1930s and 1940s; extensively the political involvement of the parents and their friends, all anti-fascists. Meandering through the typical family language, the jokes, songs, customs and views, a picture emerges of the family and their socio-political environment: the intellectuals and writers (Pitigrilli, Pavese), the activists who first opposed Mussolini and later the Germans. the gun arrived.
Leading roles are given to the undiplomatic father who constantly calls his wife and children a ‘donkey’ or a ‘crap’, shouts ‘you shouldn’t snitch!’, and shouts that people are not walking in the mountains properly. For the mother, who eagerly and cheerfully has dresses made, watches television with the cleaning ladies and finds her writing daughter the most difficult of the whole bunch, because she ‘never gives a shit’.
Ginzburg tells directly, tasty, witty. The combination of her extremely direct language and intelligent observation does the job and colors everything – from cool anecdotes about the brothers fighting each other out of the house to the mother’s desire for cinema visits and trips (‘How nice it is to take the tram!’) and the depiction of the father’s outbursts of anger when one of the children gets married or when he hears that his wife is sharing confidential information with the housekeeper (“That’s a loser! We’ll all end up in jail because of her!”) .
Family lexicon has been translated all over the world and a lot has been written and published about it. For the reading club it is most fun to use the new translation that was recently published: in the Privé-domein series from publisher De Arbeiderspers, by translator Jan van der Haar. In addition to the foreword by Ginzburg himself, it contains an introduction by critic Cesare Segre, plus two afterwords: by Domenico Scarpa and Cesare Gariboldi. All these pieces provide nice background information and tell a lot about what Family lexicon makes such an exceptional book.
A nice example is the review by writer Eugenio Montale, who is quoted – although also strange here and there and perhaps dated for us (we can talk about that later in the reading club): ‘Perhaps there is something merciless in Natalia’s writing, the desire to be gently hard, as only a woman can be. But tough with a certain weakness, with an appearance of semi-irresponsibility. All in all, her softness predominates; and this explains why both men and women love her writing.”
Ginzburg herself called the book a novel instead of a book of memories, ‘as an eyewitness or report of a past period’ the book was, in her opinion, of questionable value. Not only because she did not remember everything about her childhood, but because she did not tell us everything about what she did remember: ‘only what had penetrated our house or my family’. You could conclude from the book that her own feelings were not part of that, that they did not ‘penetrate’ into the house and the family, because they are hardly discussed. Ginzburg did write that Family lexicon the only book she had written ‘in complete freedom’. That freedom certainly also concerns the form: she left out what she did not feel like doing, did not fill in any gaps, and thus stylized her own youth. You could say that she therefore used both fictional and non-fiction methods. What is this book?
The latter is one of the angles you can choose to look at Family lexicon to watch. Is the book autobiographical? If so, how does the writer portray himself and why? Can this book indeed be regarded as a novel, as Ginzburg herself did, and what do you notice about her memories: is she complete, or not? What is the effect of her selection and choice?
While reading, it is worthwhile to look at the main points and gaps in the story, which tell a lot about the writer’s (selection) method.
And be sure to take notes on the style! Which expressions do you find witty, beautiful, meaningful, meaningful, remarkable? How do people talk, how does she describe people in her life? Language, style, perspective and genre will be recurring topics in the reading club in the coming weeks.
For further preparation I also recommend the previously published volume in a new translation The small virtues to (Nijgh & Van Ditmar, 2022). Furthermore, for those who are interested, there are Ginzburg’s novels, nice to see the difference between them Family lexicon and the truly fictional narratives.
Out de Volkskrant Furthermore, a few earlier pieces that are worth reading:
About All our yesterdaysGinzburg’s novel that is also about a family and is set in roughly the same period as hers Family lexicon: Deservedly reissued: All our yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg.
About The small virtues: Natalia Ginzburg’s intense observations give her hard-hitting prose great warmth.
In The Green Amsterdammer a beautiful piece by Ginzburg expert Anne Branbergen (only for subscribers): A wonderful settlement.