Voices in the Evening by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. D. M. Low)

Born in Palermo in 1916, the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg is perhaps best known for her autobiographical novel Family Lexicon, winner of the Strega Prize for fiction in 1963. Voices in the Evening is an earlier novel, first published in Italian in 1961 and translated into English in 1963.

In many respects, Voices is an episodic work, a series of interconnected vignettes depicting the lives and loves of various members of one particular family, all set in a small Italian village, viewed from the perspective of the years following WW2.

Central to the novel is Elsa, an unmarried twenty-seven-year-old woman who lives with her parents in the watchful village community, a place where gossip and arbitrary judgments are prevalent, adding colour to the inhabitants’ day-to-day activities. The narrative is bookended by two ‘conversations’ between Elsa and her mother. I use the term ‘conversation’ with caution as the dialogue is in effect a monologue with Elsa remaining silent in the face of her mother’s barbed musings and pointed observations.

‘One can see that there is a party somewhere,’ she added, ‘at the Terenzis’ very likely. Everyone who goes has to take something. Nowadays many people do that.’

She said, ‘But they don’t invite you, do they?

‘They don’t invite you,’ she said, ‘because they think that you give yourself airs. You have never been to the tennis club either. If one does not go about and show oneself, people say that such a person is giving himself airs, and they don’t seek one out anymore…’ (p.4)

These opening and closing vignettes set the tone for the novel, emphasising the sense of distance between Elsa and her mother, a feeling of separation between the generations. There is a touch of wry humour in these passages too, a note of irony in Ginzburg’s prose as Elsa must endure her mother’s complaints.

Voices can also be thought of as a novel of conflicts or tensions – conflicts between mothers and daughters, men and women, and ultimately those between different values and ideals. The first half of the narrative explores the troubled lives and loves of the most influential family in the village, a household headed up by old Balotta (or Little Ball), the owner of the local cloth factory where Elsa’s father works as an accountant. Old Balotta has five children, most of whom are unlucky in love. There is also another family member to contend with: Purillo, the patriarch’s adopted son.

Gemmina, Balotta’s eldest daughter, is in love with Nebbia, a man who rejects her advances in favour of marriage to a foolish young girl from a nearby village. Next in line are Balotta’s sons, Vincenzio and Mario – the former a bit of a misfit, the latter cheerful and sociable.

The Balotta family dynamics are disturbed when Mario decides to marry Xenia, an artist he meets during a business trip to Munich. Xenia appears somewhat aloof with her expensive tastes in clothes, food and other accoutrements. There is even a concern on the part of Balotta that Xenia might be a spy – the girl’s lack of interest in learning Italian is another point against her.

The family’s relationships are characterised by various flaws and failings – more specifically, unrequited love, marriages of convenience, and unions founded on acceptability at the expense of emotion.

The final vignette is the most emotionally compelling in the sequence, the story of a doomed love affair between Elsa and the last of Old Balotta’s sons, a young man by the name of Tommasino. Every Wednesday afternoon, Elsa and Tommasino spend time together in a nearby town, a place where they can experience a sense of freedom, unburdened by the weight of familial ties or expectations. Their meetings are conducted in secret, mostly in a rented room on the Via Gorizia.

At heart, Tommasino is not a romantic; his demeanour is a solitary one, reflecting a reluctance to be tied down. However, everything changes when Tommasino visits Elsa at home one evening, a move which soon results in the young couple’s engagement. As Elsa’s family begin to make preparations for the wedding, Tommasino glimpses the life of responsibility and domesticity that lies ahead. It is a world that does not appeal to him, far removed from the atmosphere of Via Gorizia with all its simplicity and seclusion. As a consequence, Tommasino cannot help but make his true feelings known to Elsa.

There was something, all the same, something intimate and delicate, and it had its own fulfilment and its own freedom. You and I, up there in the Via Gorizia, alone, without any plans for the future, without anything at all, have been happy in some fashion of our own. We had something there; it was not much but it was something. It was something very slight, very fragile, ready to break up at the first puff of wind. It was something which could not be captured and bought to the light or it would die. We have brought it to the light and it is dead, and we shall never recover it any more. (pp. 142-143)

Voices in the Evening is a simple yet subtle novel, one that explores the tension and discontentment in relationships between men and women, particularly those living in a small, close-knit community. There is a strong sense of estrangement running through the novel, a feeling of separateness and isolation in a shifting world. The shadow of war also looms in the background, accentuating a feeling of unease and instability.

Ginzburg’s prose is direct and unadorned in a way that leaves quite a bit of space in the narrative, maybe too much. If I had a criticism, it would be to say that the novel as a whole feels a little slight, particularly given the episodic structure and shift in focus from one character to another. Nevertheless, in some instances, what is left unsaid between individuals can seem just as significant as what is shared. Plus, I’m significantly impressed to want to read Ginzburg’s highly-regarded autobiographical work, Family Lexicon.

This is my first post for Biblibio’s Women in Translation event, which is running during August. (It just so happens that my #WITMonth has started a little early this year.)

Voices in the Evening is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

22 thoughts on “Voices in the Evening by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. D. M. Low)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The final piece — the longest by far — is actually very good. I just felt some of the characters in the early vignettes were somewhat underdeveloped. Definitely a writer to consider, though. I think you’d appreciate her style.

  1. Brian Joseph

    I tend to like books that are comprised of vignettes. It kind of makes it easier to digest ideas. The characters in this one sound so rich and interesting. I think that I would like Ginzberg.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She’s definitely worth considering. Her themes are personal and intimate — loves, lives, family tensions etc. — and yet there’s something wider too, particularly when viewed in the political context of the era. I think you’d find her interesting.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that’s great to hear – thank you! I had a feeling that Family Lexicon might be a stronger book, possibly more even in depth or texture than Voices. I look forward to reading your piece (if you get a chance to review it).

  2. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Oh and a great choice too, I just heard this author mentioned on my blog recently, saying Natalia Ginzburg’s work is experiencing something of a revival, so wonderful to be reading a review of one of her books so soon after hearing that!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I recall reading this piece on Ginzburg in The Guardian early this year. It seems at she thought of herself as a neorealist writer, part of a movement that reflected the trend in Italian cinema at the time with directors such as Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini. I think you can see it in this book, particularly given its focus on relationships and family tensions.


    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Sounds good. I’d be interested to see what you think of it. My suspicion is that it’s a stronger book than Voices, more ‘complete’ perhaps.

  3. bf

    What a wonderful review, I now bought the book in the original. BTW, there’s an interesting detail in the translation you quote. A person referred to as “himself” is ungrammatical in Italian, and were I to guess the original text, it would be gender neutral. Time for a new translation?

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. That’s an interesting point about the translation. Just reading that passage again in English, “oneself” might be a more natural choice there – and from what you’re saying, it would also be the more accurate interpretation. I am constantly fascinated by the process of translation, the tension between accuracy and readability/flow. Definitely an art, not a science!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, excellent! I think you’d enjoy the themes, plus the details of everyday Italian life are quite revealing. Even though I didn’t love it unreservedly, I was sufficiently impressed to want to read another Ginzburg.

  4. madamebibilophile

    This does sound very appealing despite its being a bit slight in places. I really like the delicacy of that final quote. I’m not familiar with Ginzburg but I’ll look out for her!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a nice passage, isn’t it? I found that final vignette very affecting. You really get a sense of a community in the aftermath of the war, a damaged generation cut adrift in some way. She’s definitely worth considering.

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  6. 1streading

    I’m glad you enjoyed this. I’ve only read a couple of her novels but I wonder whether the lack of focus on a single character is typical? I recently read Carmen Martin Gaite”s Variable Cloud where Ginzburg is mentioned – it makes me suspect she was quite influential on the continent.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m not sure how representative it is of her work in general, but I’d like to take some time to find out. (Family Lexicon is certainly on my wishlist for the future.) You know, part of me thinks I read this too quickly, skimming over passages that may have benefited from more considered reflection. Maybe a second reading would be in order at some point.

      You’re right to highlight Ginzburg’s potential influence on other writers and the literary world in general. I get that feeling too. I’ve also seen her name mentioned in connection with Elena Ferrante, which makes sense given the focus on familial tensions and relationships.

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