Summer Readings & Screenings

‘Family Lexicon’ & ‘A Special Day’
Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni in ‘A Special Day’ (Courtesy of Criterion Collection)

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.

***

Tony,

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?  

***

Griffin,

Authoritarianism, whether of the Mussolini or Trump variety, wants to stamp out clarity, complexity, irony—all that language lives by.

You’re right about Ginzburg’s incredible skill at portraiture, at once loving and unsparing. But what most struck me about Family Lexicon is its style. You might expect a book like this—one that narrates a big, loud Italian family living amidst big, loud political history—to run hot. But Family Lexicon decidedly runs cool; at times, it’s even a bit nippy. The humor, and this is a very funny book, is perfectly deadpan. Of Beppino, the most uncivil father imaginable, Ginzburg flatly writes, “He had the greatest respect for England and believed that civility had found there, more than anywhere else in the world, its greatest expression.”

In McPhee’s translation, Ginzburg’s prose displays precision and control, the syntax and diction exquisitely calibrated, like those “mechanical things” Balbo loves. Here, for example, is how we learn about the arrest of Ginzburg’s brother, Mario, for transporting anti-fascist writings:

On Monday morning Gino and Piera came to tell us that Mario and a friend had been arrested on the Swiss border. The place where they’d arrested him was called Ponte Tresa, and that was all they knew…. [My father] came home the next morning and my mother barely had time to tell him what had happened before the apartment filled with police agents who’d come to search the place….

 

The police agents left after telling my father he would have to follow them to the police station for questioning. By the evening, when my father still hadn’t returned home, we realized he’d been put in prison.

The history through which Ginzurg lived was exceptionally dramatic. The style with which she met this history was utterly composed.

The most remarkable example of this restraint occurs midway through the novel, as Ginzburg remembers the dyspeptic Pavese and the ebullient Balbo. Then we read this paragraph:

On the wall in his office the publisher had hung a portrait of Leone: his hat slightly at an angle, his eyeglasses low on his nose, his deeply dimpled cheeks, his feminine hands. Leone had died in prison, in the German section of the Regina Coeli prison one icy February in Rome during the German occupation.

That’s the only direct reference we get to Ginzburg’s husband being tortured to death by the Nazis.

Ginzburg’s style of writing suggests a style of living. Authoritarianism, whether of the Mussolini or Trump variety, wants to stamp out clarity, complexity, irony—all that language lives by, much that gives life vitality. It wants reason overwhelmed by passion; it wants the personal colonized by the political. And Ginzburg shows how language, used with care and love, can push back against ideology. After listing phrases from her family lexicon, Ginzburg offers one of her few rousing perorations:

Those phrases are our Latin, the dictionary of our past, they’re like Egyptian or Assyro-Babylonian hieroglyphics, evidence of a vital core that has ceased to exist but that lives on in its texts, saved from the fury of the waters, the corrosion of time. Those phrases are the basis of our family unity and will persist as long as we are in the world.

In its quiet celebration of the language by which intimacy lives, Family Lexicon is a great work of humanism—which is to say, it’s a great work of resistance. 

The similarities between Family Lexicon and A Special Day are clear. They both blend fiction and history: Scola opens his film with eight minutes of newsreels announcing Hitler’s arrival in Rome for a celebration of German-Italian solidarity. And they both consider the borders between the public and private: the film’s two main characters, Antonietta and Gabriele, bicker and laugh inside while the sounds of the fascist rally drift in through their apartments’ open windows.

Yet, in many ways, the two works could not be more different. Family Lexicon renders life not on any exceptional day but as a matter of course: daily routines, petty squabbles, inside jokes, the texture of the everyday. By contrast, everything about the day on which A Special Day is set is, well, special. Hitler has just come to town. Antonietta and Gabriele, played by Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni respectively, are neighbors meeting for the first time; Gabriele, who recently lost his job as a radio announcer, reveals the reason for his dismissal (not because he is anti-fascist, as is rumored, but because he is gay); Antonietta, who creates scrapbooks of propaganda and dreamily remembers that one time she witnessed Mussolini ride by on a horse (“It was like a fire flared up inside me”), comes to see the violent conformism demanded by fascism. For complicated reasons, Antonietta and Gabriele end up making love—something that Antonietta, the mother of six children, has never done with anyone but her brutish, dictator-loving husband. (When they have another son, he declares, they’ll name him Adolfo in honor of Hitler.)

Scola gives us life in Mussolini’s Italy: the obsession with physical fitness and masculinity (Antonietta’s husband does squats when he wakes up; the Italian people have a “virile desire for peace,” the radio pronounces); the sense that you must always be performing your patriotism. But the film is most interested in those moments that fracture the everyday—in this case, a day that brings two alienated people into laughing, caring intimacy.

This got me thinking: What is the best way to represent times of great historical churn? What will the great coronavirus novel look like? Will its characters mindlessly scroll through Twitter, waiting for the next Trump lie and the dozen clapbacks it provokes? Or will it focus on the singular events: the day when all hell broke loose, with the NBA shutting down and the stock market crashing and Tom Hanks—Tom Hanks!—infected?

I know you’ve seen A Special Day before, Griffin. What did you notice particularly this time? What did you think about Scola’s very different stylistic approach to a similar kind of story?

***

Tony,

This might seem banal, but I promise it’s not: the first thing I noticed about Scola’s film this time around were the colors!

Gabriele says it best: “I’m not anti-fascist. Fascism is anti-me!”

I first saw A Special Day in an Italian film class back in grad school, and I remember the fuzzy, saturated visuals and tinny sound from the VHS cassette. It made the film feel cheap, and old.  The new Criterion Collection edition, which we streamed online, is actually the result of a major 2014 restoration, which took pains to get the “particular photography” of Scola’s DP, Pasqualino De Santis, right. The visuals are now as crisp and engrossing as they are symbolically significant. The bronze-tinted imagery, which mirrors the hue of both Antonietta’s fascist scrapbook and Gabriele’s family photographs, drains all color from the massive apartment block where the action takes place. The only bright colors we actually see are the Nazi and fascist flags draped over the courtyard; even nature (Antonietta’s talking bird, the plants and flowers, the sky during the rooftop scene) seems drab and boring, incapable of offering resistance. It’s as if by casting almost the entire film in near black-and-white (recall that Italian fascism was all about wearing black, and being white), Scola exposes the force with which fascism distorts our ability to see and distinguish reality.

The other difference between now and when I first saw the film is, in a word, Trump. It was easy (and a luxury) not to have to think about fascism with Obama as president: all (it seemed) was going well. Now A Special Day hits home, and hard. I found the absurd trappings of fascism particularly odious: not just the oppressive and reductionist gender roles you note, but also its unimaginative material culture—those ugly black capes and boots (one of Antonietta’s sons keeps tripping over his), the ridiculous rhetoric (the radio announcer, with his “strong, ancient Roman voice,” at one time praises the “magnificent reality” of fascist Italy, which was of course anything but), and the pompous brass music, with insipid lyrics praising things like “youth” and “sacrifice.” Scola makes sure this cacophony is omnipresent: Gabriele even tries to drown it out by blasting the rhumba, but he fails. Fascism doesn’t just oppress the characters, but viewers too. Gabriele says it best: “I’m not anti-fascist. Fascism is anti-me!”

That’s the problem with Trumpism, too: like Italian fascism, it’s anti-reality, and anti-human. Just look at the administration’s shambolic response to the coronavirus: Cases aren’t rising, states are just testing more—so we ordered them to slow it down! We can still have campaign rallies, and a convention—but you’ll have to sign a waiver! What a disgrace, and what a danger.

Thankfully, we’re not quite at the point of Italy in the late ’30s. We haven’t promulgated race laws, and there’s still a viable political opposition to the Republicans. But then again, as the Floyd killing and the violent suppression of peaceful protests revealed, maybe we’re well on our way. There’s a saying in Italy—Italiani, brava gente (Italians are good people)—which implies that unlike the Germans, the Italian people never really fully gave their hearts over to fascism, didn’t quite believe it with the same fervor. Nonsense, Scola’s film argues: like the two fascist agents who “politely” escort Gabriele into political internment at the end, going along with evil makes you just as evil.

Which brings us back to Ginzburg, and the notion of resistance. The “coolness” of her style, as you note, isn’t merely a style. It’s also an ethic: a commitment to fact, shorn of ideology, but not of values. It’s an impulse she takes from Italian neorealism, the post-war cinematic and literary movement (think Rome, Open City by Roberto Rossellini, Bicycle Thieves by Vittorio De Sica, or the novel On the Path to the Spider’s Nest by Italo Calvino) that translated the deep communal experience of the Italian resistance into a pared-down aesthetic style—one in which, as Ginzburg puts it, poetry and politics were one:

During fascism, poets found themselves expressing only an arid, shut-off, cryptic dream world. Now, once more, many words were in circulation and reality appeared to be at everyone’s fingertips. So those who had been starved dedicated themselves to harvesting words with delight. And the harvest was ubiquitous because everyone wanted to take part in it.

True, this moment couldn’t last. Everyone eventually “went their own way again, alone and dissatisfied,” Ginzburg concludes. But that doesn’t mean the moment—of communal possibility, of building a new world founded on imagination, justice, and mutuality—wasn’t real. It persists organically (note Ginzburg’s farming metaphor) in language, in the literary re-evocation of a particular moment in history, when the resistance was far more fertile than the blind, barren ideology it opposed. For Ginzburg, that’s why we need art: words, images, and culture (or humanism, as you put it) create civilizational bonds rooted in freedom and truth, not coercion and lies.

Tony, to answer your first question: I don’t know how best to represent historical churn, or what the great coronavirus novel will look like. But it probably won’t have anything to do with Twitter, performative outrage, or egocentric clapbacks. It will have everything to do with humanism—that is, with kindness and attentiveness to the needs and struggles and dreams of people around us.

I remember the first days and weeks of the pandemic in New York City, the initial outpouring of generosity with which people came together in the face of tragedy. That’s mostly gone now. But solidarity in the city isn’t over, it’s just taken other forms—now there are protests, highly visible and public, but then also private phone calls and Zoom meetings and masked meet-ups on park benches that no one ever sees.

Family Lexicon ends with one such moment. Ginzburg recounts an ordinary, everyday conversation between her parents, bickering and retelling the same old story they’ve told for decades (this one’s about Barbison, an uncle). It is, in a way, unremarkable. But it’s also profoundly moving: what better way for Ginzburg to convey her hope, her faith in the meaning and goodness of human life, than by ending recursively, right where she started, writing down the words of people she loves.

Griffin Oleynick is an assistant editor at Commonweal. Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, SUNY and a columnist at Commonweal. 

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