An autobiographical novel from one of Italy’s leading postwar writers.
During her life, Ginzburg (The Little Virtues, 1989, etc.), who died in 1991, wrote essays, novels, and short stories; worked for Einaudi, the publisher behind Primo Levi and Italo Calvino, among others; was an anti-fascist and communist activist; and, in 1983, served in Parliament. But these other accomplishments shouldn’t obscure the first: Ginzburg was a masterful writer, a witty, elegant prose stylist, and a fiercely intelligent thinker. This 1963 novel, newly translated by novelist McPhee, is a genre-defying work. It reads like a memoir, but it doesn’t adhere to the conventions of either fiction or nonfiction. In it, Ginzburg describes her family’s experiences before, during, and after World War II; she uses their real names as well as the real names of well-known figures like Cesare Pavese and Adriano Olivetti, with whom her family was intimately acquainted. But Ginzburg herself doesn’t appear until more than halfway through the book. Until that point, she describes her siblings, their friends, their mother, and their volatile father. As a framework for all this, Ginzburg returns again and again to inventory the family’s “lexicon”—the words they used as a kind of shorthand, to call forth shared memories, or to indicate private meanings. Ginzburg’s father, for example, referred to modern paintings (like the paintings of Modigliani), of which he generally disapproved, as “dribbledrabs” or “doodledums” and to those he found stupid as “nitwits,” their actions “nitwitteries.” Ginzburg writes, “If my siblings and I were to find ourselves in a dark cave or among millions of people, just one of those phrases or words would immediately allow us to recognize each other.” It’s a poignant thought that grows ever more poignant as Ginzburg goes on to describe the limits to expression under fascist leadership.
Ginzburg’s “lexicon” is a valuable addition to an already burnished body of work in translation.