In the novels of Natalia Ginzburg, family has a private grammar. “If my siblings and I were to find ourselves in a dark cave or among millions of people,” she wrote in Family Lexicon, her most celebrated novel, “just one of those phrases or words would immediately allow us to recognize each other.” Ginzburg’s intimate cosmologies are fraught with allusive significance. Fantasy is the prism through which we glimpse her character’s dissatisfactions with each other. A wife may wish for a more loyal husband, or a father a more dynamic daughter, or a mother a smarter son, and in the strength of their desire, believe it is so. Out of these illusions, all manner of misunderstandings emerge, some comic (Ginzburg is a very funny writer), and others tragic. Ginzburg’s characters reveal themselves most fully in their unacknowledged weaknesses, the places where their ambition, yearning, disappointment, and pain all hide in plain sight. They are islands of misapprehension in a domestic archipelago. In many of Ginzburg novels, family is a loneliness compounded by virtue of its being shared.
Two of Ginzburg’s books have recently been reissued by New Directions. Both explore the chasm between the intimacy we desire to have and what our bitter experiences have taught us to expect. The Dry Heart, a 1947 novella translated from the Italian by Frances Frenaye, begins with the unnamed narrator’s admission of having killed her husband: “I shot him between the eyes.” What follows is a kind of postmortem on the particulars of their failed relationship. In clear and precise prose, the narrator relates how she, a girl from the hill country, came to the city in pursuit of romance. “When a girl is very much alone and leads a tiresome and monotonous existence,” she explains, “with worn gloves and very little spending money, she may let her imagination run wild and find herself defenseless before all the errors and pitfalls which imagination has devised to deceive her.”
While working as a teacher and enduring the indignities of a boarding house, the narrator meets Alberto, a shabby, nondescript melancholic man with whom she becomes entangled. Their courtship is not one of passion, or even chemistry—“We went for long walks along the river or in the outskirts of the city, where lovers go, and yet we exchanged none of the words or gestures of love”—but rather of habit. It is a devotion predicated on the specter of withdrawal. The narrator fears not the loss of the man so much as the occupation of the hours. (Ginzburg is very good at violet evenings and boiled eggs, the dingy particulars of a hotplate-and-paperback loneliness.) Though Alberto is in love with another married woman, Giovanna, he and the narrator continue to see one another, caught in the undertow of their quasiromantic inertia. Alberto’s lukewarm ministrations fill in all the space the narrator is holding open for love. Though Alberto warns her he’ll never love her as much Giovanna, and the narrator’s parents are confused by her choice, she decides to marry him. Despite the repulsion the narrator feels toward sex with her husband—“a wave of terror and disgust came over me at the thought”—they have a child.
Marriage attenuates their already meager affection. A shadow life of half-truth and misdirection unfolds. Alberto disappears for long stretches of time, and the narrator quickly realizes he is meeting with Giovanna. He hedges and dissembles, sleeps in his office, and shows haphazard interest in the child, who seems to hate him. Alberto reveals himself as pathetic—“He hates people who are always searching inside themselves and trying to find some meaning in life,” the narrator tells a friend—yet he’s never stripped of a desperate, enigmatic sorrow. We almost pity him despite our own very reasonable objections.
The solace of domestic illusion—its reflexive self-protectiveness and rote devotion—are at first enough to staunch the wound of the narrator’s abandonment. But when she can no longer pretend there is love in the terminal lurch of their marriage, her wretched embarrassment precipitates the novel’s final catastrophe. The Dry Heart’s leanness, its bitter knowledge, and the white heat of its anger may surprise those who only know the Ginzburg of Family Lexicon. It is a lonely book, and its central preoccupation is the imaginative contortions we submit to in pursuit of a love that doesn’t exist. “I reflected how easy everything was for other women … who never seemed to have known even the shadow of my great fear,” the narrator says at the book’s end. “How easy life is, I thought, for women who are not afraid of a man.”
A later, more experimental Ginzburg novel, Happiness, as Such, will also be reissued in a fresh translation from Minna Zallman Proctor. Originally published as Caro Michele in 1973, this largely epistolary novel recounts the fortunes of an Italian family over the course of a year. Their many letters to one another—charming, hesitant, smothering, futile, untoward—are the rich and wonderfully evasive stuff of a family’s hopes and afflictions, its duplicities, its gossipy, convivial bustle. The disclosures afforded by such a form—the way time telescopes in a phrase or tone—grant each page a stifling intimacy. “When nostalgia and repulsion get mixed together,” one character writes, “then all the places and people we love from a distance seem to sit at the far end of a broken, impassable road.”
The novel’s new English title is evocative. That comma is like the pre–big bang universe shrunk to a pinhead. Though Happiness, as Such features recognizably comic elements, its humor is often in service of a diffuse melancholy. The characters are pained, drifting, indolent, and filled with their own lack. There is a depressive mother, Adriana, whose ex-husband has recently died. Her children are wayward and often disappointing. One unreliable son, the ever-absent Michele, is a political dissident who has fled to England, leaving behind the promiscuous and wonderfully pragmatic Mara, whose baby may or may not be his. Mara briefly takes up with a publisher named The Pelican, and then finds other accommodations as she can. Osvaldo, Michele’s best friend and sometime lover, runs errands for the family, acts as courier for Mara, and finds time to read Adriana a bit of Proust in the evenings. (“When I see him at the door, I feel a strange sense of relief mixed with irritation,” she says.) The family learns that the lazy and opportunistic Michele has married an alcoholic English woman, whom he abruptly deserts. When he is killed in Bruges during a political rally, the family contracts around its pain, though the interminable rhythm of life and letters will continue unabated. “You can get used to anything when there’s nothing else left,” Adriana says.
Their voices are pungent and earthy. Here is Adriana on Osvaldo: “He’s polite. It’s the kind of politeness that makes you feel full, like you’ve had too much jam.” Or Mara on the people she meets in the park: “It’s nice to talk to strangers when you’re depressed. At least you can make things up.” Or Adriana again in a letter to Michele: “Explain to your wife that I’m a person whose house is in order but whose heart is in disrepair.” Or The Pelican’s goodbye to Mara: “I wish you happiness if there is such a thing as happiness. I don’t believe there is, but other people do and who am I to say they are wrong.” Like the creations of Chekhov or Mavis Gallant, Ginzburg’s characters believe in themselves to such an extraordinary degree that we cannot help but do the same. Their sense of life, the wonderfully aggrieved fullness of their complaints, the unpredictable actions they take on their own behalf, their energy and canny self-interest, grant them a surplus of reality. This is Ginzburg’s rare genius: that the finely filigreed idiosyncrasies of her characters suggest something much broader, a human—and deeply humane—nature, in which they exalt. The new translation of Happiness, as Such makes the English language one masterpiece richer. Like Clarice Lispector in 2015, Natalia Ginzburg is deserving of a moment among English readers. In her unsparing novels, we discover a fount of mysterious life: “But we’re all unreliable and broken somewhere inside and sometimes it seems desperately attractive to be unrooted and breathing nothing but your own solitude, which creates a place that the rest of us can enter and understand you that way.”
Dustin Illingworth is a writer in Southern California.
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