En uno de los tenderetes encontré un libro de cuentos de Sensini y lo compré. Estaba come nuevo¾de echo era un libro nuevo, de aquellos que las editoriales venden rebajados a los únicos que mueven este material, los ambulantes, cuando ya ninguna librería, ningún distribuidor quiere meter las manos en ese fuego.
– Roberto Bolaño
It was in one of the stalls that Bolaño talks about that my fortuitous encounter with Natalia Ginzburg’s La strada che va in città e altri racconti (The Road to the City and Other Stories) took place. This edition, curated by the literary critic Domenic Scarpa, was originally only available for purchase with La Repubblica or La Stampa, two of Italy’s most widely read newspapers: this made it unsellable after about one day (hence its appearance on a market stall, conveniently priced at 3 euros), but it is also a sure sign that Ginzburg is having a revival.
While Ginzburg is certainly considered a modern classic in Italy now, and has been for some time, the initial reaction to her writing was less than enthusiastic, as we learn from the critical anthology that follows Ginzburg’s stories, deemed too modern, too banal, too unambitious to measure up to the greatness of Italy’s best-known dead white men: Dante, Manzoni, etc.
Ginzburg published her debut novel in 1942, as the fascist regime celebrated its twentieth year in power, which forced her to adopt the pseudonym of Alessandra Tornimparte to hide her Jewish identity. Her chosen name bore the mark of her and her family’s political persecution all the same: Tornimparte is the name of a village in the mountainous and sparsely populated Abruzzo region, where she had followed her husband Leone Ginzburg, who had been exiled for his anti-fascist activities, and where their daughter Alessandra was born.
It may seem unsurprising, then, that in this historical moment, so saturated with deadly masculinity and nationalistic nostalgia, the story of Delia, a sixteen-year-old girl from a poor, rural family, who takes “the road to the city” and becomes pregnant with the doctor’s son out of wedlock would be received coldly, at best.
What is perhaps slightly more surprising is how much airtime the book’s initial reception is given in this 2021 reprint. One of the most damning reviews (from a 1942 Catholic magazine, no less) is the first quote to appear on the back cover: “The book is a noteworthy indicator of what we have begun to reap in Italy too, from the bountiful sowing of a certain shameless strain of foreign novels, and American more specifically.”
But Ginzburg’s signature terse style is to be attributed more to a fear of boring her mother than to her American influences. She wrote: “when she [her mother] read a novel that was too long or boring she would say ‘What a load of drivel’ … my aim was not to drivel on, so I wrote and rewrote the first pages, trying to be as dry and bare as possible. I wanted every sentence to be like a whipping or a slap.”
She succeeded. The story whips and slaps its characters more often than it holds them in a maternal embrace, especially Delia’s tearful, martyred mother, a supremely unhappy woman and the chief—but not the sole—architect of the entire family’s unhappiness. More than the “illicit” pregnancy, what contemporary critics could not stand is perhaps Ginzburg’s unflinching depiction of the family as a site of misery, a recurring theme across the three stories that follow: “Un’assenza” (An absence), “Casa al mare” (Beach house) e “Mio marito” (My husband), which were also included in the 1945 edition of La strada che va in città, the first that Ginzburg was able to publish under her own name.
Ever since her first short story, Un’Assenza, written when she was only seventeen, Ginzburg had a gift for depicting marital unhappiness, the silent harm wrought by men’s childish incompetence and refusal to get their hands dirty with the thankless task of child-rearing, and women’s often—but not always—doomed search for solidarity and connection with other women, who are never either sinners or saints, as the Church and the Duce would have wanted them. The stories are not devoid of judgement, but her gaze is never moralistic.
Despite her initial aversion to give her characters surnames or to name any real places—which Ginzburg herself, as a Communist living under fascism, attributes to her wish to have been born “on the banks of the Don [river, in Russia]” rather than in Italy—her sense of place and time is so specific, and yet “generic” enough as to feel like a no-place, a fever dream, or a slightly altered reality, where time is suspended and the story can unfold at its own pace. Characters come and go, as regularly unpredictable as the tide, and even their briefest appearance on this stark stage gives a sense of who they are as nuanced, flawed, real people.
This is what the author herself discovers, once the book is finished and she can reflect on her own endeavor; that the people and places to whom she felt bound by bonds of hate and love had slipped into her stories unannounced, and that she herself had done the same. She wrote:“la memoria è amorosa e non è mai casuale … ma sempre appassionata e imperiosa. Lo pensai; ma poi lo dimenticai, e in seguito ancora per molti anni mi diedi al gioco dell’oziosa invenzione, credendo di poter inventare dal nulla, senza amore né odio, trastullandomi tra esseri e cose per cui non sentivo che un’oziosa curiosità” (loving memory is never coincidental … but always commanding and passionate. I did think that; but then I forgot it, and afterwards for many years I still gave myself up to the game of idle invention, thinking I could conjure things out of thin air, without feeling love nor hate, dawdling among beings and things for which I felt nothing but idle curiosity.”) Perhaps not all writers who use short sentences are imitating Hemingway after all?
This is where I take issue even with modern, much more sympathetic critics; while the richness of the biographical, historical, and critical material that accompanies the text is commendable, this edition places Ginzburg into a universe solely populated by men. Whether it is her beloved husband Leone, who was tortured and killed by the fascists in 1944, which prompted Natalia’s decision to sign her works with the surname of Ginzburg from that moment onwards, or her esteemed colleague Cesare Pavese, who wrote to her “Dear Natalia, stop getting pregnant and start writing a book more beautiful than mine,” or Dante and Manzoni, or some unspecified (white, male) American writers, Natalia is not given the possibility to exist on her own terms, or within a network of references that is not entirely populated with dead white men. But, in 2022, she already should have been.