Natalia Ginzburg and Italo Calvino. Ginzburg photo: courtesy of Archivio Storico Einaudi. Calvino photo: courtesy of the author’s estate.
On September 21, 1947, Italo Calvino—then the twenty-four-year-old book critic for Piemonte’s L’Unitá newspaper—published a review of Natalia Ginzburg’s second novel, The Dry Heart. The review, which is presented below in English for the first time, opens with this proposal: “Natalia Ginzburg is the last woman left on earth. The rest are all men—even the female forms that can be seen moving about belong, ultimately, to this man’s world.” For a moment, if you’re familiar with Calvino’s surreal masterpiece Invisible Cities, written twenty-five years later, you feel as if you’re teetering on the edge of one of that book’s bewildering scenes—all glimpse and symbol, hallucination posing as anthropology. But no, the young writer is merely trying to find the perfect words to describe the entirely singular aesthetic of a novelist who is vexingly (to him, it would seem) female. Calvino’s review stands in the Ginzburg archives as one of the most bizarre, yet also astute, as he pinpoints the way her made-up worlds are hyperrealistic voids, her characters both humane and remote, her Minimalism dependent on small mundane artifacts, her domesticity suffocating and vast. “It’s a shame we’ll never know Ginzburg’s reaction to this review,” the Ginzburg biographer Sandra Petrignani writes, “that positioned her in a new world of fiction, modern precisely because it is ancient.”
Ginzburg is singular, and her organic, turgid, droll, intelligent Minimalism is difficult to capture with descriptives. Her writing just is. Or, as the novelist Rachel Cusk has put it, her voice “comes to us with absolute clarity amid the veils of time and language. Writings from more than half a century ago read as if they have just been—in some mysterious sense—composed.” And though in his review Calvino takes pains to distinguish Ginzburg from the lacy histrionics of women’s writing (take heed, Virginia Woolf), his real point then, and for the next thirty years of their close friendship, was to absolve Ginzburg of the matter entirely: she writes like a man. Ginzburg took his judgment for what it was, a compliment.
Postwar Italian literature, arguably the country’s most fertile literary moment, was dominated by great writers—great male writers. Calvino would soon go on to become one of them, joining the ranks of Cesare Pavese, Alberto Moravia, Elio Vittorini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Primo Levi, and Carlo Levi. The last woman on earth was hardly an outsider. A principal editor at the prestigious publishing house Einaudi alongside Pavese and Calvino (who left journalism for publishing), she was at the heart of a vibrant literary scene. The intellectual lions of this world were stubbornly defined by politics above all else: they were not Jewish writers or Catholic writers, not Holocaust survivors, feminists, depressed writers, or gay writers. They were just writers. If you were to ask them to define themselves as a group, they would have answered antifascist—which would explain nothing about the literature any one of them produced.
In many ways, this school of writers was an antischool. Fiercely united, they read one another’s work, edited and published one another, vacationed and socialized together, gossiped and discussed other writers. Many more times over the years, until Calvino died suddenly of a stroke in 1985, he and Ginzburg would continue to describe each other’s work in print. In a tribute after he died, Ginzburg spoke about reading Calvino through the years. In the first short stories of his that she read, “there flowed vibrant landscapes bathed in sun, though at times the events unfolding were the events of war, of blood and death, nothing ever clouded the great light of day … his style was, from the very beginning, linear and transparent, reality exposed as mottled, variegated, a thousand colors.” Then, right before Invisible Cities, “his most beautiful book,” there was a transformation. “Gradually, the vibrant green landscapes, the glittering snow, the great light of day disappeared from his books. There emerged in his writing a different light, no longer radiant but white, not cold but utterly deserted. His sense of irony was still there but imperceptibly so. He was no longer just happy to exist … it was as if he knew that his capacity to search, excavate, contemplate had abandoned him forever.” Calvino turned his gaze elsewhere, she wrote, trying to explain Calvino’s reach for transcendence, “to the immensity of human events.”
Natalia Ginzburg was thirty years old when she met Calvino; he was twenty-three. She was already a war widow with small children, and The Dry Heart had not yet been published. He’d stopped by the Einaudi offices to pick up books to review for L’Unita. The two stood in the hallway in front of a radiator, near a couch, talking. Ginzburg wrote, “I remember the radiator perfectly, the snow falling outside, but I can’t remember what we talked about.” They probably talked about Hemingway, she thought, about the story “Hills Like White Elephants,” which, they both agreed, they “would give ten years of life to have written” themselves. They couldn’t have imagined that winter day in 1946 when they, still strangers, would soon meet their hero together. That he would sit with them around a table and give them writing tips. That Hemingway would then read Ginzburg’s books and send word that he thought “they were glorious.” They couldn’t have imagined the friendship, the life in letters, that stretched years into the future. Below, I have translated Calvino’s 1947 review into English for the first time. —Minna Zallman Proctor Read More