Saturday, 16 March 2019


The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg  {Reviewed by THOMAS}
Natalia Ginzburg writes the eleven essays in this collection with such clarity, precision and directness that they slip easily back and forth across the line between the particular and the general. Written between 1944 and 1960, the pieces are arranged in two strands. The first strand takes a very particular approach, and are, in my opinion, the most effective. Ginzburg’s evocative account of a damp winter living in Italy’s rural Abruzzi region is full of details of rain and people and mud and walks that shelve perfectly as memories. The reason for their heightened effect becomes apparent when we reach the end of the essay and learn that this winter was the last she spent with her first husband: when they returned to Rome from their exile he was imprisoned and murdered by the fascist wartime government. The four-page essay on her worn-out shoes, written in Rome in 1945 when she was sharing a room with a friend and waiting out the war, says so much about hardship, mental focus and the longing she felt for her children, but is written with such lightness that it conveys much more than it tells. Two essays in this section tell of Ginzburg’s experiences as a foreigner living in England, and maintain an equilibrium between gentle satire and razor-sharp perception: “The English seem somehow aware of their sadness and of the sadness which their country inspires in foreigners. When they are with foreigners they have an apologetic air and appear always anxious to get away,” or, in the very funny essay concerning English food: “As far as the eye can see the countryside stretches - beautiful, green, rustling and damp, wild and at the same time gentle like no other in the world, silent, inedible and odourless.” The character study of her friend, the writer Cesare Pavese (unnamed in the essay), following his suicide in 1950 is full of subtle and succinct observations that evoke the complexities of his existence, and the essay contrasting her personal habits with those of her second husband is revealing without providing any biographical details. Through Ginzburg’s autobiographical writings the reader feels quickly that they know her, even though, even by the end, they still don’t really know anything about her. This ability to compound resonance through detail without resorting to exposition is subtly effective, making the essays independent of their contexts and thereby as fresh to read today and they were when they were written. The second section, or DNA strand, of the collection moves in the other direction across the line between the general and the particular. More theoretical, occasionally approaching being didactic, Ginzburg approaches subjects like ‘My Vocation’, ‘Silence’ or ‘Human Relationships’ and develops her arguments with such a light touch and clarity that the personal is called forth by the general rather than annulled by it. ‘Human Relationships’, describing a lifetime being altered by relationships with friends, lovers, and, most drastically, children, is written in first-person plural throughout. At first this seems like a universal bildungsroman but soon the specificity of the experiences make them clearly the experiences of a single person. Through this specificity, however, the narrative reaches back to the universal, but at a deeper level. The effect reminded me a little of Annie Ernaux’s The Years, which simultaneously tells the author’s own story and the history of twentieth century France in a flat third-person account. Both works clip the tether between experience and its subject and allow experience to fit itself to others. 

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