Happiness, As Such by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Minna Zallman Proctor)

Last August, for Women in Translation Month, I read Voices in the Evening (1961), an episodic, vignette-style novel by the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg. It’s one four books by this writer recently reissued by the publishing arm of Daunt Books (you can find more details here). While Happiness, As Such is a later novel than Voices, it explores similar themes – centred as it is on the lives and loves of the members of an Italian family in the mid-20th century. If anything, I think it’s an even stronger (better integrated?) work than Voices. Nevertheless, both books are well worth checking out, especially if you’re interested in the messy business of families and the insights into humanity novels can offer us.

Set in the early 1970s, Happiness, As Such takes the form of a series of letters interspersed with brief passages of exposition written in the third person. Central to the novel is Michele, the grown-up son of an Italian family, his parents having separated some years earlier. Michele – who appears to have been actively involved in politics – has fled to England leaving several loose ends in his wake. His mother, Adriana, writes letters to her son, berating him for various things – not least the fact that his former lover, Mara Martorelli, has turned up with a son who may or may not be his. The default tone of these letters is passive-aggressive, highlighting Adriana’s disenchantment with her former husband as well as her son.

If this Martorelli baby is yours, what will you do, you don’t know how to do anything. You didn’t finish school did you. I don’t think your paintings of owls and falling-down buildings are that good. Your father says they are and that I don’t understand painting. They look to me like the paintings your father did when he was young, but not as good. I don’t know. Please tell me what I should say to this Martorelli and if I need to send her money. She hasn’t asked but I’m sure that’s what she wants. (pp. 8–9)

Mara for her part is a bit of a mess – careless, unreliable and promiscuous, she flits from one place to another, unable to settle or establish any degree of stability.

When Michele needs to call in various favours, he writes to Angelica, his long-suffering sister and closest confidante within the family. At various points in the narrative, there are books to be sent, papers to be procured and guns to be disposed of – the later adding to the possibility that Michele’s disappearance may well have been politically motivated.

Also in the mix is Osvaldo, Michele’s close friend and possibly lover – there several reflections on the ambiguity surrounding Osvaldo’s sexuality throughout the book. Through his relationship with Michele, Osvaldo is drawn into the extended family, supporting Mara by finding her a job and a place to live, neither of which last very long due to Mara’s inherent fickleness and instability. Furthermore, Osvaldo proves himself to be a strange kind of comfort for Adriana when her former husband dies, particularly as Michele fails to return home for his father’s funeral.

Like Voices, Happiness, As Such can be though of as a novel of tensions – in this case between former lovers and the different generations of an extended family. On the surface, Ginzburg’s prose seems unadorned and straightforward, but this apparent simplicity belies the complexity of emotions running underneath. Evasion, resentment, grief, spitefulness, confession and compassion all come together to form a richly textured, multi-faceted narrative. Moreover, the nature of the largely epistolary form means that many of the novel’s key incidents and conversations take place outside of the letters, requiring us to read between the lines of the various missives to piece together a more nuanced picture of the family dynamics.

While Ginzburg’s tone is often very amusing – there is a wonderfully rich vein of wry humour running through the book – the impression we are left with is one of palpable melancholy. There is a sense that we are all fragile and at risk of finding ourselves stuck in a form of stasis, unable to break free without assistance.

[Letter from Angelical to Michele:] Your friend Mara has left Colarosa. She wrote to me from Novi Ligure where she is staying with her cousins’ maid. She’s not doing well, she doesn’t have anywhere to live, and has nothing to call her own, except for a black kimono with sunflower embroidery, a fox-fur coat and a baby. But I feel like all of us are vulnerable to the gentle art of ending up in terrible situations that are unresolvable and impossible to move out of by going either forward or back. (p. 153)

At the heart of the book are various reflections on happiness, particularly the idea that we may not be cognisant of this feeling as and when it is happening to us. Happiness is often fleeting and best appreciated in retrospect when we can look back on events from a distance. In other words, ‘we rarely recognise the happy moments while we’re living them. We usually only recognise them with the distance of time.’

In creating Happiness, As Such, Ginzburg has crafted a beautiful, wryly humorous, deeply melancholy novel of family relationships. Her characters are complex, flawed and nuanced – qualities that make them feel real and humane as they navigate the difficulties of family life. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates something of the book’s biting humour as Adriana passes judgement on her sisters-in-law, Mathilde and Cecilia, following the death of their brother, Michele’s father.

[Letter from Adriana to Michele:] Your father left you a series of paintings, the ones he did between 1945 in 1955, and the Via San Sebastianello house, and the tower. I get the impression your sisters are going to come out of this with much less than you. They’ll get those properties near Spoleto, many of which have been sold off, but there are some left. Matilde and Cecilia are going to get a piece of furniture, that baroque, Piedmontese credenza. Matilde immediately observed that Cecilia gets the better end of that deal because Matilde wouldn’t know what to do with a credenza. Can you just imagine. What joy will half-blind, decrepit Cecilia get from a credenza? (pp. 94–95)

My thanks to the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website). 

32 thoughts on “Happiness, As Such by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Minna Zallman Proctor)

  1. Caroline

    I didn’t realize at first that this was a review of Caro Michele, which I’ve read and loved ages ago. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?
    I need to revisit her.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes – it is the same book! Did you read it in Italian, then? I envy your language skills, being able to read some of these books in their original prose. There’s a film too, also called Caro Michele…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, excellent! Yes, Christmas will be upon us before we know it, especially as we’re in lockdown across England right now. I’ll be interested to see how you get on with this. It’s very well constructed, offering different perspectives on the same situations (if that makes sense). A good introduction to this writer, I think.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, definitely. I preferred this to Voices in the Evening, which I really liked in parts even though it felt somewhat fragmented. You’d like it, I think, especially given the focus on family.

      Reply
  2. Julé Cunningham

    Your description of Natalia Ginzburg’s writing, how it feels straightforward yet holds so much, is a style I really admire. She’s a writer who’s been at the edges of my must-read-at-some-point far too long.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s the kind of style that appears deceptively simple on the surface but actually conveys quite a lot of emotion underneath. She’s well worth a try.

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui and this does sound like a marvellous read. Like others, I’ve been circling her for a while and I have at least one of her books in the stacks unread, having intended it for at least one WIT Month. I’ll try and bump it up the pile as I know how highly thought of she is!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, is that Family Lexicon, by any chance? That’s the one I’d most like to read next, I think, although I already have another on the pile. WIT Month would have been a great time to read this one, but I ended up getting sidetracked by other things. Anyway, I’m glad I got around to it eventually!

      Reply
  4. Jane

    I do like a messy family and one in the 70’s sounds perfect! But this sounds much more than that, I love getting involved in books that seem simple but are full of richness, and thinking about happiness is always a good thing to do. . .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s it exactly. The reader has to do a bit work to read between the lines (and in this instance between the letters themselves) to fully appreciate what’s going on here. I like that in a book – a feeling that you have to bring something personal to it as opposed to simply getting everything straight from the page.

      Reply
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  7. BuriedInPrint

    Interesting: I’ve only read one of her novels, but it was also epistolary (and about messy relationships). She’s someone I’d enjoyed exploring in more detail. And I don’t know what *I* would do with a credenza either! Haha

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I get the feeling that’s her speciality, the complexities of family life, particularly from the female perspective. As for the credenza, I had to look it up to check that I was thinking of the right thing! It reminds me of elements of Deborah Orwell’s memoir, Motherhood, in which the author talks about various memories of her mother’s bureau (which Deborah herself subsequently inherited). This cabinet has so many associations for Deborah, many of the ominous and forbidding…

      Reply
  8. 1streading

    You exactly right both about the emotional complexity and the way in which melancholy lies beneath the humour of the surface, I think. I’m so pleased to see her brought back into print. I also believe that this is not the only epistolary novel she wrote – she must have liked the form.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, there’s a real lightness of touch; and yet, several of the emotions run fast and deep. She uses humour very well, I think, as there’s often a sense of either sadness or resentment at the heart of it, something that’s not always easy to achieve…

      Have you read Family Lexicon, Grant? I’m thinking of trying that as my next NG.

      Reply
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