Wednesday, August 17

‘This is a perfect novel’: Sally Rooney on the book that transformed her life | Fiction in translation


When I first read Natalia Ginzburg’s work several years ago, I felt as if I was reading something that had been written for me, something that had been written almost inside my own head or heart. I was astonished that I had never encountered Ginzburg’s work by her before: that no one, knowing me, had ever told me about her books by her. It was as if her writing by her was a very important secret that I had been waiting all my life to discover. Far more than anything I myself had ever written or even tried to write, her words from her seemed to express something completely true about my experience of living, and about life itself. This kind of transformative encounter with a book is, for me, very rare, a moment of contact with what seems to be the essence of human existence. For this reason, I wanted to write a little about Natalia Ginzburg and her novel All Our Yesterdays. I would like to address myself in particular to other readers who are right now awaiting, whether they know it or not, their first and special meeting with her work with her.

Ginzburg was born Natalia Levi, the daughter of a Jewish father and Catholic mother, in Sicily in 1916. She and her four siblings grew up in Turin in northern Italy, in a secular and intellectually lively home. In 1938, at the age of 22, Natalia married the Jewish anti-fascist organizer Leone Ginzburg, and they went on to have three children together. In 1942, she published her first novel, La strada che va in città (The Road to the City). Due to the legal government barriers imposed by the fascist on publications by Jewish writers, this novel was printed under the pseudonym “Alessandra Tornimparte”. The Ginzburgs were sent into internal exile during the war, in the south of Italy, because of Leone’s political activities, but they traveled to Rome in secret to work on an anti-fascist newspaper. In 1944, Leone was imprisoned and tortured to death by the fascist regime. The war ended a year later, when Ginzburg was still in her 20s, a widowed mother of three small children. These experiences – her upbringing of her, her marriage, her motherhood, her husband’s death and the political and moral catastrophe of the second world war – would shape Ginzburg’s writing of her for the rest of her life.

All Our Yesterdays, Ginzburg’s third novel, was originally published in Italian under the title Tutti i nostri ieri in 1952. It begins in a small town in northern Italy, in the years before the war, with a family: an aging widower, his four children and the family’s companion, Signora Maria. Across the street, in the “house opposite”, lives the owner of the town’s soap factory, with his wife, his children of him and “a person that you could not be quite sure who he was” named Franz. Gradually, from the hectic and comical jostling of family life in the opening chapters, a protagonist begins to emerge: the widower’s youngest daughter Anna. The novel goes on to follow Anna’s relationships de ella with her family de ella, with the inhabitants of the “house opposite” and with an older family friend named Cenzo Rena, before and during the war.

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But Anna’s status as the protagonist remains a partial and contingent one. The narrator often leads us away from her without warning, relating events to which she is not a witness, describing with sudden compassion the disappointing thoughts and feelings of others, seemingly minor figures, their desires, ments and dreams of her. The great emotional power of this novel springs from the depth and truth of each one of its characters. As readers we grow to know and love Anna deeply, but we cannot help loving at the same time her de ella cantankerous father, her sombre and beautiful brother Ippolito, the fretting Signora Maria and all the other complex and interesting people that populate the world of the book.

After the death of Anna’s father, near the beginning of the novel, Ippolito befriends Emanuele, one of the boys from the opposite house. The two of them have “great discussions” together, “but no one knew quite what they were about, because if anyone else was present they started talking in German”. They are soon joined by Danilo, a suitor of Anna’s sister Concettina, and the three young men take to shutting themselves up in the sitting room together, talking. The adolescent Anna is mystified by these developments: are Emanuele and Danilo both in love with her sister de ella? Why do they spend so much time with Ippolito speaking German? Then her brother de ella Giustino whispers one word to her, a word that will change the course of the novel and Anna’s life de ella: “Politics.”

Politics, Anna thought. She walked about the garden, amongst Signora Maria’s rose-trees, and repeated the word to herself. She was a plump girl, pale and indolent, dressed in a pleated skirt and a faded blue pullover, and not very tall for her fourteen years. “Politics,” she repeated slowly, and now all at once she seemed to understand…

Ippolito, Emanuele and Danilo, we learn, are anti-fascist dissidents, gathering in secret to share and discuss prohibited political literature. Soon, Danilo is taken to prison, and Ippolito and Emanuele enlist Anna’s help to burn the newspapers and books they have been hiding behind the piano. As war breaks out in Europe, the moral world of the novel becomes increasingly haunted by the brutality of fascism, and by the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust. Ippolito sinks into a morbid depression at the German occupation of Poland, “with the Germans taking people away to die in the concentration camps… his will to live left him at the thought of those camps, where the Germans put their cigarettes out against the prisoners ‘foreheads”.

In the second part of the novel, Italy too is at war. Anna is by this time married, a young mother, helping to conceal fugitives from the fascist regime in the cellar of her home. In one long tumbling sentence, from the point of view of the man who has become Anna’s husband, Ginzburg evokes the catastrophic unraveling of ordinary life:

He looked out of the window at the refugees from Naples who were now going hither and thither about the lanes of the village, carrying mattresses and babies, he looked and said how sad it was to see all these mattresses carried about here and there all over Italy, Italy was now pouring mattresses out of her ravaged houses.

Politics for Anna is no longer a daydream among the rose trees, but a question of supreme moral urgency. In times of crisis, she learns – and we learn along with her de ella – that there can be no ethics without politics.

Ginzburg’s work is concerned, it seems to me more than anything, with the distinction between what is right and what is wrong. All Our Yesterdays approaches this question intellectually and ideologically, with an interest in the development of moral theories and belief systems; and it also and equally approaches this question from a practical and human point of view. In other words, it poses two questions of equal significance. Firstly, how do we know what is right? And secondly, how can we live by that knowledge? Reading this novel, we get to know its characters as if they were our own friends, or even ourselves. Many of them are trying hard in various ways to figure out what is right and resist what is wrong. As the war penetrates further into their lives, some must make terrible compromises in order to survive, while some cannot survive at all. But as readers, we have the chance to see a few of these people, under unimaginable pressure, with chaos and violence everywhere around them, responding with transcendent and unforgettable moral beauty. These are not people born with special moral qualities, people who find it easy to be brave and honorable. We know them: we know quite well that they are just as irritable and selfish and lazy as we are. As Anna’s husband tells her: “No one found himself with courage ready-made, you had to acquire courage little by little, it was a long story and it went on almost all your life.” Ginzburg shows us the possibility of this courage, she bears witness to the possibility, and reading her work de ella we know and believe also.

This is not a novel that turns its face away from evil. Like any story of the second world war, it tells of almost unendurable grief, loss, violence and injustice. But it is also a story about the possibility of knowing what is right, and living by that knowledge, whatever the consequences. As readers, we understand and love the novel’s characters in all their humanity – and for a moment or two, their courage seems to illuminate, in a flash of radiance, the meaning of human life. And yet, at the novel’s close, after the war has ended, Ginzburg is careful to show the difficult task that awaits those who survive. A character who has spent the war editing an anti-fascist publication struggles to adjust to his new working conditions:

He could produce secret newspapers but not newspapers that were not secret, producing secret newspapers was easy, oh, how easy and how splendid it was. But newspapers that had to come out every day with the rising of the sun, without any danger or fear, that was another story. You had to sit and grind away at a desk, without either danger or fear, and out came a lot of ignoble words and you knew perfectly well that they were ignoble and you hated yourself like hell for having written them but you didn’t cross them out because there was a hurry to get out the newspaper for which people were waiting. But it was incredible how fear and danger never produced ignoble words but always true ones, words that were torn from your very heart.

These are characters from whom the war has taken a great deal, almost everything. But the challenge that faces them in the end is to make sense of a world that is no longer at war, a world in which heroic acts of courage are no longer necessary or even possible, a world in which newspapers have to “come out every day with the rising of the sun”. All Our Yesterdays was published seven years after the end of the war, and it is difficult not to hear Ginzburg’s own voice in this passage, sitting and grinding away at her desk, “without either danger or fear”, trying to make sense of what remains.

To me, All Our Yesterdays is a perfect novel, which is to say, it is completely what it is attempting to be, and nothing else. It is a book that shows in simple and intelligent prose both how large and how small a novel ought to be. Its stakes are as high as the most cataclysmic crisis of the 20th century, and as low as the marriage of one young woman, the fate of one family dog. As readers, we come to see and feel the inextricable relations between the inner and outer worlds of human beings. Ginzburg’s novels manage not only to accommodate, but to place into a meaningful relationship the intimate lives of fictional characters and the radical social and political changes unfolding around them. This accomplishment is made possible by Ginzburg’s extraordinary understanding of the human soul, by her brilliance de ella as a prose stylist and above all by her incomparable moral clarity de ella. All Our Yesterdays is among the great novels of its century, and Ginzburg among the great novelists. Speaking for myself, as a reader, as a writer and as a human being, her work has touched and transformed my life. I hope that you might give it the opportunity to do the same to yours.


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