Everyone is talking about the “new normal” these days: continued social distancing; meetings and classes conducted via Zoom; a summer with less baseball and beaches. Here at Commonweal, we’re keeping one tradition alive: the Summer Readings and Screenings series. As in years past, we’ll be pairing a book recently reissued by NYRB Classics with a film from the Criterion Collection. Every two weeks or so, we’ll post a critical exchange about the two works.
We hope you’ll read and watch along with us. (What else are you going to be doing this summer?) Today, we’re discussing two anti-fascist classics, Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon and Ettore Scola’s A Special Day. In two weeks, we’ll be thinking about race with the help of Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual and the film Losing Ground, written and directed by Kathleen Collins.
Every family, happy or unhappy, speaks in its own way. For the Levis, the large, boisterous Torinese family at the center of Natalia Ginzburg’s 1963 “memoir-novel” Family Lexicon, that speech often takes the form of rude jokes (“little gags”) and hostile imprecations. When one of her siblings arrives home late, or expresses an interest in contemporary fiction or modern painting? They are, according to her father, a professor of anatomy at the University of Turin, a jackass! Or if another wants to change majors in college, or get married? Lummox! Imbecile! They don’t know anything! Sure, this constant ribbing can be annoying, and even a little hurtful. But for Ginzburg it’s also evidence of genuine affection and admiration, of intimate proximity and the longevity of relational bonds.
Ginzburg, as you know, is one of twentieth-century Italy’s most admired, widely read writers, winning her country’s top literary prizes and even serving in the Italian parliament in the last decade of her life (born in 1916, she died in 1991). Today she’s enjoying an unexpected revival among English readers, thanks to new translations (like this one, by Jenny McPhee) and a renewed interest in the subjects she tackles with moral clarity and linguistic precision: fascism and the resistance, gender and family relations, and the vicissitudes of grief. I’ve long admired Ginzburg’s piercing intellect. But this time around I was struck by something else: the understated, hard-won wisdom that her difficult life conferred.
What kind of book is Family Lexicon, long considered her masterpiece? The text begins with an “Author’s Preface,” which, as the original Italian (Avvertenza) makes clear, is also a warning: “The places, events, and people in this book are real. I haven’t invented a thing, and each time I found myself slipping into my long-held habits as a novelist and made something up, I was quickly compelled to destroy the invention.” But that doesn’t mean Ginzburg claims any kind of historical omniscience, or detached objectivity: “I have written only what I remember.” And what she remembers, she admits, is riddled with lacunae, and feels a lot like fiction. Thus she urges readers to treat the book that way, “not demanding of it any more or any less than a novel can offer.”
On all counts—vivid settings, compelling characters, surprising plot—Family Lexicon delivers. The narrative spans four decades, beginning with Ginzburg’s childhood in Turin during the 1920s (she recalls her summer vacations in the nearby mountains, and her father’s obsession with hiking, skiing, and making mezzorado, a kind of yogurt). Her teenage years (in the 1930s) are brightened by visits to the studios of painters like Felice Casorati, but also shaded by the slow-and-steady rise of fascism (“It seems like it’ll be over soon,” her mother naively declares). The Levis, in fact, were active anti-fascists, and their apartment along the Corso Re Umberto served as a salon for a wide circle of artists, intellectuals, and resistance figures—including Natalia’s soon-to-be husband, Leone Ginzburg, who was eventually arrested, tortured, and killed by the Nazis at the Regina Coeli prison in Rome in 1944. Lastly, we witness the launch of Ginzburg’s literary career, first as an editor at the famed Einaudi publishing house in Turin, then as a full-time writer in Rome in the 1950s.
Almost always, though, Ginzburg keeps herself at the margins of the story, preferring to sketch portraits—both physical and acoustic—not only of her family members, but also of the many leading political, economic, and cultural figures that crossed her path. My favorite is her father Beppino (Giuseppe Levi), a secular Jew, whose gruff manners mask his deep concern for the well-being of those around him. I was also fascinated by Ginzburg’s descriptions of the Italian industrialist and visionary Adriano Olivetti (her brother-in-law), who didn’t just make typewriters, but built a kind of socialist utopia in his factory at Ivrea (the Olivettis lived in an old friary called the Cloister, and their socialist father used to “sprinkle his conversation” with “references to the Bible, psychoanalysis, and the sayings of the prophets”). And then there’s the brilliant, sardonic novelist and editor Cesare Pavese, whose premeditated suicide seems to sadden (and anger) Ginzburg more than the tragic, gruesome death of her own husband. These portraits aren’t gratuitous: for Ginzburg they’re a way of memorializing her friends and family, and rescuing them from death.
Tony, I could go on and on—about Ginzburg’s critique of Proust, about my affection for (and uncanny similarity to) the Italian philosopher Felice Balbo, whose passion for aimless talk and irrepressible admiration for “mechanical things” (like factories and vespas) prevents him from working or reading. But tell me, how did you like Family Lexicon? The parallels with our current situation (Trump’s presidency and the rise of authoritarian nationalism across the globe, the coronavirus health crisis, the civil unrest sparked by George Floyd’s racist murder at the hands of the police) seem to leap off the page.
And I know you hate this kind of thing (nitwittery! Beppino might say), but are there “lessons” we might draw from Family Lexicon today? And what did you think of the film we’re pairing it with, Ettore Scola’s A Special Day (1977), about two people who stay home during a 1938 fascist rally in Rome? What parallels do you see with Ginzburg, and with our present predicament?