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Ginzburg, Natalia (1916–1991)

Ginzburg, Natalia (1916–1991)

Leading Italian novelist, known for her neorealistic style, and whose most memorable works were novels on the difficult relations between the sexes. Name variations: (pseudonym) Alessandra Tornimparte. Born Natalia Levi on July 14, 1916, in Palermo, Italy; died in Rome on October 9, 1991; daughter of Giuseppe Levi (a professor of anatomy at the University of Palermo) and Lidia (Tanzi) Levi; private study at home to 1927; attended secondary school in Turin, 1927–33; studied briefly at University of Turin, 1933; married Leone Ginzburg (an academic, writer, and anti-Fascist activist), in 1938 (died 1944); married Gabriele Baldini (a professor of English at the University of Trieste), in 1950 (died 1969); children (first marriage) two sons, Carlo and Andrea, and one daughter, Alessandra Ginzburg ; (second marriage) one daughter, Susanna Baldini .

Moved with family to Turin (1919); her first short story published and her father arrested by Fascist government (1934); started work as editor at Einaudi publishing house (1938); followed husband Leone Ginzburg into exile in the village of Pizzoli (1940); published first novel under pseudonym (1942); fled to Rome during period of German occupation, her husband arrested and handed over to Nazis (1943); on death of husband, took refuge with her children in Florence (1944); resumed work with Einaudi (1944); returned to Turin (1945); joined Communist Party (1946); won Tempo Literary Prize (1947); left Communist Party (1951); moved to Rome, won Veillon International Prize (1954); won Viareggio Prize (1957); lived in England (1959–62); won Chiancino Prize (1961); won Strega Prize (1963); completed first play (1965); elected to Italian Parliament (1983); reelected (1987).

Selected works:

La strada che va in città (The Road to the City, 1942); Tutti i nostri iera (All Our Yesterdays, 1952); Le voci della sera (Voices in the Evening, 1961); (collection of essays) Le piccole virtù (The Little Virtues, 1962); Lessico famigliare (Family Sayings, 1962); Serena Cruz, or True Justice (1990).

From the late 1940s until her death in 1991, Natalia Ginzburg was a leading Italian writer, whose life was intimately linked to the tragic experience of her country in the era of Fascism and World War II. Nonetheless, this prolific author, with a stream of novels and novellas as well as ten plays and numerous essays following 1945, put no emphasis in her work on the momentous political and military events of the Fascist, wartime, and postwar eras. The basic themes of her fiction were the courses of intimate relationships within the family, and these she explored with unrelenting—some critics say deepening—pessimism. Professor Sergio Pacifici of Yale University in his study of Italian literature described her themes as "the solitude and anguish of life as well as the impossibility of communicating our despair to other humans." For Alan Bullock, the "basic stimulus" for her writing was her rejection of "submission or exploitation… in a society where women are still more often than not relegated to positions of inferiority and where masculine values are correspondingly seen as naturally and necessarily predominant." Nonetheless, he notes, Ginzburg's male characters likewise show a lack of creativity, drive, and ambition. To add a paradox: Ginzburg, who used the political upheavals of her time only as an occasional background element for her fictional writing, ran successfully for the Italian Parliament in 1983 and again in 1987.

She was born Natalia Levi in Palermo on July 14, 1916, to an academic family of mixed religious heritage. Her father Giuseppe Levi was a member of a Jewish family that traced its origins to the city of Trieste. Her mother Lidia Tanzi Levi was a Roman Catholic. Natalia was the second daughter and the fifth and last child in the family. When Natalia was only three, her father's career as a professor of anatomy led to the family's relocation northward where Giuseppe Levi received an appointment to the faculty of the University of Turin. Most of the rest of her life, except for a harrowing period during World War II when she was in exile in a southern Italian village, she spent in the cities of northern Italy.

Home life revolved around her autocratic father who tried to dominate his wife and children much as he ruled over his university laboratory. To shield Natalia from infectious diseases, her father insisted on keeping her at home, and she was educated by private tutors. When she entered her first communal classroom at age 11, the young girl discovered that, as neither actively Jewish nor Catholic, she was a permanent outsider.

Although her father had no interest in literature, it became a central concern for the Levi children. By the time Ginzburg began attending school with other children, she had already decided to become a writer. While still a teenager, she began to publish fiction. Her regular studies drew little of her energies and attention, and she failed many of her courses in secondary school, although she still managed to enter the University of Turin.

A crucial thread running through Natalia Ginzburg's teenage years was her family's opposition to the Fascist regime. Her father and one of her brothers were imprisoned in 1934, a second brother was arrested the following year, and her third brother avoided the Fascist police only by a daring escape to Switzerland. Natalia joined an anti-Fascist organization in Turin. Critic Wallis Wilde-Menozzi finds the roots of her passion for exploring human relationships in her "somber childhood." There "as a girl and a Jew in a family in which science, political opinion, and physical danger took precedence over art and feeling, her impulse to express herself became a painful, solitary, lifetime task."

Ginzburg later described the struggle at the heart of her early writing. She had problems finishing her stories, and sometimes even writing the first lines of a piece was nearly impossible. Taking Anton Chekhov as a model, she saw herself constricted by her Italian identity. "It pained me to have been born in Italy, to live in Turin because that which I would have loved to have described in my books was Nevsky Prospect."

The tragic events of the era leading up to World War II soon overtook her life. In 1938, Natalia married Leone Ginzburg, the leader of the anti-Fascist group in Turin that she had joined a few years before. Born in Russia, Leone was a former professor of Russian literature who had lost his academic post due to his open opposition to dictator Benito Mussolini's Fascist regime. For the first years of their marriage, she joined him in working as an editor and translator for the Einaudi press, which he had recently helped to establish. The newlyweds immediately began a family, and they soon found themselves and their children in a deeply hostile environment. Both the Ginzburgs' Jewish background and their political sympathies placed them in peril in the Italy of the late 1930s. Mussolini's growing ties to Adolf Hitler led his dictatorial government to adopt increasingly severe restrictions on Italy's small Jewish community. The Racial Laws of 1938, for example, made marriage between Jews and non-Jews illegal and barred Jews from teaching in universities, publishing books, or even being listed in the telephone directory. Moreover, the Fascist government had from its origins dealt severely with open political opposition and especially with avowed critics from the socialist side. In these difficult years, Natalia's father was forced out of his position at the University of Turin and immigrated, along with Natalia's mother, to Belgium.

When Italy joined World War II in May 1940, the Ginzburgs were affected immediately. Leone, as a known left-wing leader, was exiled to a remote part of the country, the town of Pizzoli in the Abruzzi. Natalia, by now the mother of two young children and pregnant with her third, soon followed her husband to this remote locale in the extreme southern part of the Italian peninsula. Always prone to writer's block, Natalia found the dullness and isolation of her primitive new home a useful backdrop for a period of substantial creativity.

Italy's fortunes and that of the Ginzburgs changed dramatically in 1943. Mussolini was deposed in late July, and, in early September, Italy abandoned its alliance with Nazi Germany. Following the fall of the Fascist dictator, Leone immediately left the family's place of exile and settled in Rome. There, he continued his political activities. But the shift in the Italian government's composition and policies led to a brutal response from Adolf Hitler. The German army now rushed in to occupy the territory of their erstwhile ally, and anti-Fascists like Leone Ginzburg were in serious danger.

The German occupiers also took control of Pizzoli. To escape being arrested as a Jew, Natalia traveled to rejoin her husband. Posing as a refugee from Naples and a relative of a member of the village population, she managed to secure a place on a German army truck bound for Rome. In November, she had a rendezvous with her husband, but the couple spent less than three weeks together before Leone was arrested. Natalia soon learned the tragic news that her husband had died in early 1944 as the result of torture in a German prison.

In 1942, while the war was still going on, Ginzburg had published a short novel entitled The Road to the City. In those days of a Fascist government, the book could not be presented to the public under her real, obviously Jewish, name, so it appeared under the innocuous pseudonym of Alessandra Tornimparte. In 1944, in the aftermath of Leone's death, she now resumed her literary career. Natalia settled in Turin where she worked for the publishing giant Einaudi. Another brief novel, The Dry Heart, appeared in 1949. These novellas were marked by the absence of any extensive plot. Typically her heroine (and narrator) is a young woman who seeks but fails to achieve personal happiness in a secure emotional relationship.

Aperceptive novelist capable of distilling so much of our own anguish in simple and unusually poetic stories, she deserves to be read.

—Sergio Pacifici

In an early venture into political affiliation, Natalia Ginzburg joined the Italian Communist Party in 1946. In 1951, she would abandon this tie, stating that a writer had to be free to pursue truth and reality, not to stand always on the side of the oppressed as the party tried to do.

In 1950, the young widow remarried. Her husband, the distinguished scholar Gabriele Baldini, was professor of English at the University of Trieste, and in 1952 he was appointed professor of English at the University of Rome. His career subsequently took him and Natalia to London from 1959 to 1961, where he served as head of the Italian Cultural Institute. The couple had a severely handicapped daughter, Susanna, whom Ginzburg cared for at home and refused to institutionalize.

Starting in 1952, Ginzburg published a number of full-length novels to accompany her continuing flow of novellas. Several were set in the World War II years, but her emphasis remained on her characters' evolving personal relationships rather than the impact of great political and military events upon their lives. The basic themes of her writing were now becoming evident: anguish, solitude, despair at life's problems, an inability to connect in a meaningful way even with one's spouse. Suicide and murder are frequently the only way the lives of many of her characters can find some resolution for their problems. As Pacifici noted, "The world they live in is surely a strange one; although the action acknowledges the existence of an external world, little or no attention is paid to it." He saw her heroes "living in a glass bowl, unhappy with their condition and yet doomed to it." A clear statement of Ginzburg's literary aims comes from Alan Bullock: "Dissatisfaction, frustration, and a sense of alienation are almost invariably crucial to Ginzburg's characters." American reviewers compared her work with that of her childhood idol, the turn-of-the-century Russian writer Anton Chekhov. Like Chekhov, Ginzburg concentrated her talents on everyday life events and the subtle depiction of her characters' maturing personalities.

By the early 1950s, European critics were also impressed by her work, and she received growing recognition such as the prestigious Veillon International literary prize, which she won in 1954. In 1957, she was awarded the Viareggio Prize, in 1961, the Chiancino. Despite her success, she was frequently the target of Italian literary critics who objected to her simple style, a mode of writing notably removed from what Bullock has called "the ornate traditions of Italian literary composition."

The decade of the 1960s brought a number of new accomplishments. Still afflicted by writer's block, Ginzburg found that her residence in England, just like her enforced exile in the south of Italy from 1940 to 1943, eased her return to productive work. An important collection of essays that she had written between 1944 and 1962 appeared in Italian as Le piccole virtù. Its subsequent English translation, The Little Virtues, appeared in 1962. A notable essay in this collection, "Winter in the Abruzzi," recorded the Ginzburg family's experiences in their southern Italian place of exile from 1940 to 1943. Her novel-like memoir of 1962, Lessico famigliare (Family Sayings), was written in less than a month, and it soon won the prestigious Strega Prize. The success of Family Sayings, which recounted her life up to her second marriage, encouraged Ginzburg to strike off in a new literary direction. Thus, she wrote eight plays between 1965 and 1971. The plays, like her novels, downplayed dramatic events in the lives of her characters. Using dialogues and soliloquies, Ginzburg sought to show her audiences the characters' natures. Critics had a mixed response, with some suggesting that her work was crippled by her inexperience in writing for the theater, and others finding her willingness to transfer the techniques of her novels to her stagework effective in a delicate and subtle fashion.

In the view of Wilde-Menozzi, the publication of Family Sayings and the award of the Strega Prize created a basic dividing line in Ginzburg's career. In that critic's view, Ginzburg's role in Italian society as the widow of an anti-Fascist hero dropped away, and she was known first and foremost for her literary achievements. Moreover, the Italian writer's confidence grew in a way that opened the door to

larger achievements. For example, she now began to publish highly regarded articles of personal opinion in Italy's newspapers.

Tragedy struck Ginzburg in 1969 when her second marriage, like her first, ended with her husband's death. Nonetheless, her steady production of novels filled with carefully wrought and incisive studies of family life continued for several more decades. Ginzburg's basic interest in the family remained the dominant element in her work, and her bleak and pessimistic views on the impossibility of deep personal happiness remained ever present. Along with a final novel that appeared in 1987, she wrote a critical biography of the renowned Italian poet and novelist of the 19th century Alessandro Manzoni and translated the works of Marcel Proust into Italian. In the last years of her writing career, she took up the celebrated legal case of a Filipino girl who had become the center of an ugly controversy between officials of the Italian government and the couple that had adopted her. The resulting book, Serena Cruz, or True Justice, appeared in 1990.

Although her fiction was largely devoid of concern for the great political events of the time, Ginzburg became increasingly linked to the political world in the last decade of her life. As a candidate of the Sinistra Indipendenza Party, which was positioned on the non-Communist left of the political spectrum, she was elected to the Italian Parliament in 1983 and reelected four years later. Even before entering the political arena, she had taken up the cause of Palestinians whom she saw suffering as a result of actions by the state of Israel. In a revealing article written in 1972, Ginzburg had explored her complex feelings toward her Jewish background. This was only one of a number of essays that she devoted to subjects of current concern. All the while, her fictional work held closely to the world of private emotions. In an interview with American novelist Mary Gordon in 1990, Ginzburg spoke about her life's experiences and her views on writing. "Of course I wrote about the war," she remarked. "I think of a writer as a river; you reflect what passes before you." Nonetheless, she remained convinced that she had properly devoted her talents to family life. "I write about families because that is where everything starts, where the germs grow."

Following her death in Rome on October 9, 1991, Natalia Ginzburg's children decided that their mother should be buried as a Roman Catholic. While she had given great weight to her Jewish identity, nonetheless she had converted to Catholicism during her marriage to Gabriele Baldini.

In his introduction to Family Sayings, D.M. Low gave an apt summary of Ginzburg's literary achievement. In contrast to earlier Italian writers, she had left behind "the opulent and florid styles once so popular, in favour of a pregnant economy of phrase." With this "severely controlled writing," she conveyed "a deeply felt sense of the inseparable blend of comedy and tragedy in life."


Bullock, Alan. Natalia Ginzburg: Human Relationships in a Changing World. NY: Berg, 1990.

Current Biography Yearbook, 1990. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1990.

Ginzburg, Natalia. Family Sayings. Translated by D.M. Low. NY: Dutton, 1967.

Gordon, Mary. "Surviving History," in The New York Times Magazine. March 25, 1990.

Pacifici, Sergio. A Guide to Contemporary Italian Literature: From Futurism to Neorealism. Cleveland, OH: Meridian Books, 1962.

Wilde-Menozzi, Wallis. "Anchoring Natalia Ginzburg," in Kenyon Review. Vol. 16. Winter 1994, pp. 115–130.

suggested reading:

Bowe, Clotilde Soave. "Narrative Strategy of Natalia Ginzburg," in Modern Language Review. Vol. 68. October 1973, pp. 788–795.

Merry, Bruce. Women in Modern Italian Literature: Four Studies Based on the Work of Grazia Deledda, Alba De Céspedes, Natalia Ginzburg and Dacia Maraini. Townsville, Australia: Department of Modern Languages, James Cook University of North Queens-land, 1990.

Russell, Rinaldina, ed. Italian Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California

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