Family and Borghesia by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Beryl Stockman)

Family and Borghesia are two separate but related novellas by the Italian neorealist writer Natalia Ginzburg, reissued together in this lovely edition from NYRB Classics. Both stories deal with the messy business of family relationships – how couples come together and subsequently break apart, often creating shock waves across their wider family networks. Viewed together, they illustrate how painful day-to-day life can be, how difficult it is to defend ourselves against unhappiness and detachment.

She remembered saying that there were three things in life you should always refuse: hypocrisy, resignation and unhappiness. But it was impossible to shield yourself from those three things. Life was full of them and there was no holding them back. (p. 110)

Central to Family are Carmine, a forty-year-old architect (financially stable but somewhat disaffected by life), and Ivana, a thirty-seven-year-old translator searching for a full-time job. Their stories unfold as a revisitation of the past – a key theme in Ginzburg’s work – taking us back to the time when these two were lovers, despite their differences in background and class. (Carmine’s parents are poor, his mother barely literate, while Ivana’s family are from the educated middle-classes, her father a successful mathematician.)

We follow Carmine and Ivana through the ups and downs of their relationship. They have a child, who subsequently dies at a very young age; their relationship falls apart, and Carmine marries Ninetta, who likes Ivana at first but later turns against her (to a certain extent). Meanwhile, Ivana has a number of lovers, one of whom provides her with a child (Angelica), which Ivana raises on her own. She also falls into a long-term relationship with a doctor who suffers from depression – a condition that culminates in him taking his own life after losing the will to survive.

By now, Carmine spends most of his evenings with Ivana and her daughter, Angelica, neglecting his wife Ninetta and their seven-year-old son, Dadò. In effect, Carmine and Ninetta’s marriage has fallen apart, leaving Carmine to ruminate on times past – not only the chances squandered but the more mundane day-to-day activities too. Central to the novella is our inability to recapture these moments – how we don’t quite appreciate the value of what we’ve got until it’s gone. 

Borghesia focuses on a different family, equally complex and troubled as the group featured above. Ilaria is a widow who acquires a sequence of cats in an attempt to stave off the loneliness she experiences day-to-day. Like the characters in Family, Ilaria is part of a complicated family network. She receives financial support from her brother-in-law, Pietro, who lives in the flat above, while her eighteen-year-old daughter, Aurora, shares the flat next door with her boyfriend, Aldo. Aurora, a student, and Aldo, who has dropped out of college to drift along aimlessly, are also being supported by Pietro – possibly as a kind of debt to his deceased brother. (The brothers owned a valuable piece of land together, which Pietro refused to sell when Ilaria’s husband was still alive.)

Once again, this is a story of couples coming together and falling apart as we follow Pietro, Aldo and Aurora – and their respective affairs – over time.  Caught in the middle of all this is Ilaria, who is broken by the death of her first cat.

To have lost him was a slight thing. It was a poor sort of pain. But, all of a sudden, she was discovering that even poor sorts of pain are acute and merciless, and quickly take their place in that immense, vague area of general unhappiness. (p. 76)

Both novellas were written and published in 1977. As such, they share a sense of fluidity around the nature of family, a relaxation of the strict views towards marriage that were prevalent in Italian society in the 1940s and ‘50s. Nevertheless, these more liberal domestic arrangements bring their own sources of tension, often leading to sadness and restlessness as relationships evolve.

One of the things Ginzburg does so well here is to create richly imagined characters through simple, beautifully-crafted prose. Her descriptions and clear and vivid, frequently drawing on details to bring these individuals to life. (Evelina is Ninetta’s mother from the first novella, Family.)

The whole room was dominated by Evelina’s large head and gauzy blue hair, her tall, commanding, flourishing figure and her smile, which, like Ninetta, she offered as if it were a precious jewel. But behind it, there was also a sort of satisfaction at being so tall and straight and exuberant in her old age. Her presence was like a monument to elegant old age, healthy, shrewdly wealthy and wise. Carmine suddenly felt he detested her. He detested the two people with her as well. It seemed horrible to him that mixed up in all this hate was Dadò. (pp. 29-30)

Ginzburg can be funny too, even when dealing with dark subjects like depression, death and infidelity. Her descriptions often start in a neutral tone, then veer into humour, darkness or both, highlighting some of the absurdities we have to deal with as we amble along.

Winter passed once again and spring came, and Pietro was still planning to get married but kept putting it off because Domitilla had to study, or practise for a horse-show or play in a folk-group. (p. 91)

Nevertheless, at heart, these novellas highlight the painful nature of family life – what binds us together as individuals often forces us apart. Several of these characters seem lost or purposeless, drifting through their lives, navigating the things that cause us pain – infidelity, abandonment, illness, suicide, premature death, loneliness and depression. And yet, Ginzburg manages to maintain a lightness of touch in these stories, highlighting the inherent emotions without a hint of sentimentality, exploring the relationships with insight and depth.

In short, Family and Borghesia would make an excellent introduction to Ginzburg’s work, like a pair of Italian neorealist films in the style of Roberto Rossellini or Vittorio De Sica.

(I read this book for Karen and Lizzy’s Read Indies event, now extended to mid-March.)

30 thoughts on “Family and Borghesia by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Beryl Stockman)

  1. Claire 'Word by Word'

    I haven’t yet read Natalia Ginzburg, but she’s been in my literary peripheral vision for a while. This sounds like an interesting pairing and thought provoking insight into the ripple effect of relationships and family as different personalities are thrown together.
    A delightful and dangerous (to the TBR) review Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, and it’s humorous too, in a somewhat scathing way. I really like her style. She’s an interesting writer and well worth a try. Probably an influence on Elena Ferrante at one point or another!

      Reply
  2. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Loved the review, Jacquiwine! I’ve been a Ginzburg fan since I read Valentino & Sagittarius about the same time you did (Could it have been last year? great review there as well BTW) & for the reasons you discuss in your review. She has such an incredible ability to depict the horrors and strengths of family ties, to show the dark without (as you point out) losing a certain lightness of touch. Thanks to several NYRB flash sales, I have a copy of Family as well as pretty much every other Ginzburg work NYRB has reissued; hopefully I’ll actually read them at some point (August maybe, for a women in translation thing?).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jankay! Yes, it was last year when I read Valentino and Sagittarius, so we must have been in synch back then! Family and Borgehsia feel very similar in style to V&S, full of wise (and somewhat withering) insights into the difficulties of family relationships. That said, there is perhaps a greater sense of people drifting through their lives here – especially in Family, which has a rather melancholy ‘if only we could recapture the past’ kind of feel to it. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think of them. (And yes, they’d make an excellent pairing for WIT Month!)

      Reply
  3. 1streading

    I love your summary of the two stories’ focus – “how difficult it is to defend ourselves against unhappiness and detachment”. I do have a copy of this but I’m trying not to rush my way through Ginzburg’s work!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Grant. I think, IIRC, it links into something Ginzburg conveys in the second novella, Borghesia, (e.g. as per my first quote) but it seems equally applicable to Family. They work so well together as a pair of novellas, both featuring characters who are trying to deal with the sadness and difficulties of day-to-day life. I’ll be interested to see what you think, as and when you read them! (I’m trying to keep a few Ginzburgs in my back pocket too, just to have some of her novellas to forward to!)

      Reply
  4. madamebibilophile

    These sound very powerful – the pains of ordinary life are what everyone experiences at one time or another and it sounds like she looks at these in such an engaging way. The comment about the folk group did make me laugh! But they sound quite dark too – I’ll definitely look out for Ginzburg.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I couldn’t resist that quote as the humour feels central to Ginzburg’s style, especially in these novellas. Some of her characters can be very scathing about those around them, and these pronouncements are often communicated in a darkly comic way. You’d like her, I think. She’s definitely worth trying!

      Reply
  5. Jane

    offering your smile like a precious jewel is such a great line! Ginzburg is someone that I keep meaning to read, I’ll put this on my wishlist, thanks for the reminder!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just! And there a bit of a dig in it too because Evelina seems to have a high opinion of herself (certainly as far as Carmine is concerned at this point in the story).

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great choice for ReadIndies, Jacqui, and as usual a marvellous review. These two novellas do indeed sound like the perfect introduction to Ginzburg and the quotes are very striking. Family dynamics can be the living end, and it sounds though she captures them in all their dysfunction here!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m trying to read at least one book a month by a woman in translation at the moment, just to make WIT Month more of an ongoing thing throughout the year. So Ginzburg seemed like the perfect choice, given that she’s published by Indies. (There are another three or four in my TBR pile, so I need to spread them out!)

      Reply
  7. heavenali

    I have yet to read Ginzburg, but she’s definitely someone I am interested in exploring. These novellas sounds excellent. A thorough examination of relationships, I think that’s a theme I never tire of. So many dynamics and emotions to explore.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d really like her, Ali, as the themes and era seem right up your street. Either this one or Valentino and Sagittarius (another pairing from NYRB) would make a great entry point.

      Reply
  8. Rob

    I’ve been reading Ginzburg in the original in an effort to improve my Italian, so I will seek out these two. I would highly recommend Le piccole vertù (The Little Virtues), a collection of essays which has some sharp and witty things to say about the English character, as well as many other topics.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s great. Thank you. I’m very keen to try Ginzburg’s non-fiction, so Little Virtues is on the list for the future. It’s always good to have a personal recommendation from another reader. And I envy you being able to read her in Italian – what a treat!

      Reply
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  10. Marcie McCauley

    I’ve only read a couple of her books but the quotations from this one make me think she should be an addition to my MRE (MustReadEverything) list. She captures longing and love so well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ve been working my way through her books in translation over the past two years, and I have to say the more I read, the more I’m enjoying her observations. This pairing and Valentino + Sagittarius, also from NYRB, are particularly good.

      Reply
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