All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Angus Davidson)

While I’ve enjoyed several reissues of Natalia Ginzburg’s work in recent years, All Our Yesterdays feels like the one I’ve been waiting to read – a rich, multilayered evocation of Italian family life spanning the duration of the Second World War.

Through Sally Rooney’s excellent introduction to the novel, we learn how Natalia and her first husband, the Jewish anti-fascist activist Leone Ginzburg, were sent to Southern Italy during the war as a form of internal exile. In 1944, Leone was imprisoned, tortured and killed by the incumbent regime for his covert work on an anti-fascist newspaper. By the war’s end, Natalia was in her late twenties, a widow with three young children and a debut novella under her belt. As such, she channelled her experiences into her work, publishing All Our Yesterdays in 1952. It’s a brilliant novel, full of warmth, intelligence and humanity, punctuated by wry observations on the tangled business of life.

The book focuses on two Italian families living opposite one another in a small Northern Italian town, with the story opening in the late 1930s during the run-up to war. While one family derives its wealth from the town’s soap factory, the other is middle-class and relatively short of money, contrasting the fortunes of these neighbouring households. As the novel unfolds, Anna – the youngest daughter in the middle-class family – gradually emerges as the main protagonist, an ordinary, impressionable teenager alert to developments around her. With his wife no longer alive, Anna’s father (a former lawyer) devotes his time to writing his memoirs, a long, sprawling series of anti-fascist declarations that will fail to see the light of day.

While Anna’s older sister Concettina – an attractive girl who bemoans her flat chest – works her way through a sequence of fiancés, her brother, Ippolito, helps their father by typing up his memoirs late into the night. Completing the family are younger brother, Giustino, and an eccentric old maid, Signora Maria, a former companion to the children’s deceased grandmother.

With Mussolini in power and fascism on the rise, Ippolito becomes increasingly interested in politics, debating the issues of the day with Emanuele – the eldest son from the wealthy family opposite – and their principled friend, Danilo, one of Concettina’s many fiancés. Full of the exuberance of youth, the trio pore over newspapers and dream of revolution, drawing up plans that Anna begins to glean…

She seemed to understand about the sitting room, and the sentences in German, and Ippolito stroking his face, and his restless eyes that were always looking for something. They were talking politics in the sitting room, they were once again doing a dangerous, secret thing, as the book of memoirs had been. They wanted to overthrow the fascists, to begin a revolution. (p. 47)

Over time, a friendship develops between Anna and Emanuele’s younger brother, Giuma, a rather arrogant, insensitive boy who seems more interested in himself than anyone around him. At sixteen, Anna finds herself pregnant by Giuma, who subsequently abandons her with a 1000-lire note, sufficient money to cover an underground abortion.

She was alone, she was alone and no one said anything to her, she was alone in her room with her grass-stained, crumpled dress and her violently trembling hands. She was alone with Giuma’s face that gave her a stab of pain at her heart, and every day she would be going back with Giuma amongst the bushes on the river bank, every day she would see again that face with the rumpled forelock and the tightly closed eyelids, that face that had lost all trace both of words and of thoughts for her. (pp. 152–153)

As personal relationships in these families are forged and fragmented, the Germans continue their irrepressible march across Europe, advancing into Belgium and Holland – and then France. The boys are particularly aware of these developments, knowing full well that Italy will likely align itself with Nazi Germany. But while Emanuele remains relatively calm in the face of events, Ippolito is deeply unsettled, pacing his room at night and avoiding contact with others. Through their contrasting responses to the encroaching war, Ginzburg is showing us how the political seeps into the personal, highlighting the devastating impact on young, impressionable minds.

Concettina, too, is disturbed by the situation in Europe. Recently married to Emilio, the father of her baby boy, she fears for the family’s safety – consequently, her nights are haunted by dreams of fleeing should the Germans advance further. Ginzburg is particularly adept at highlighting how everyday life appears meaningless and futile in the face of war, especially when external factors feel uncertain and threatening.

But Concettina had not forgotten the war, and she looked incredulously at the cradle and the coverlet with the mushrooms on it that Signora Maria was embroidering, and she wondered how much longer the baby would sleep in that big cradle of blue taffeta, she already saw herself running away with the baby in her arms amongst tanks and the whistling of sirens, and she hated Signora Maria with her mushrooms and her futile chatter. (pp. 160–161)

Meanwhile, as Anna decides to seek an abortion, an unexpected lifeline appears in the shape of Cenzo Rena, a family friend who suddenly proposes marriage while agreeing to take on the baby. At forty-seven, Cenzo Rena seems like an unlikely match for Anna, but he is kind, thoughtful and generous – qualities to be admired irrespective of his appearance.

They looked like two people who had been flung against each other by chance in a sinking ship. For them there had been no fanfare of trumpets, he said. And that was a good thing, because when fate announced itself with a loud fanfare of trumpets you always had to be a little on your guard. (p. 210)

Despite her family’s objections, Anna marries Cenzo Rena and moves to his house in the South, a strange collection of large, sparsely-furnished rooms adorned by the myriad of useless objects he has amassed from his travels abroad.

Cenzo Rena is an influential figure in the area, with several contadini calling on him for sound advice. And it’s here in the village of Borgo San Costanzo – an impoverished, insular community with multiple health problems – that the presence of war really makes itself felt. Jews from some Italian Northern cities are sent to the South, shunting them off to villages where they cannot ‘harm the war’. San Costanzo receives four Jewish internees under this initiative – three old women and a Turkish Jew, who ultimately becomes Cenzo Rena’s friend. A Polish Jew named Franz, a friend of Emanuele’s father, also makes his way to San Costanzo, further complicating the situation. In true Italian fashion, Franz is married to Emanuele’s sister, Amalia, having been involved with the siblings’ mother, Mammina, some years before. (The novel’s network of romantic entanglements is suitably complex but relatable – a delight to observe!)

Once again, the juxtaposition between the micro-level tensions of family life and the broader drama of world events is highly compelling, underscoring the radical sociopolitical changes unfolding across the country at the time.

He [Cenzo Rena] 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. And perhaps they too might soon be forced to run away, with their mattresses and the little girl and La Maschiona and the dog and the deckchairs, to run away to goodness knows where through the burning dust of the roads… (pp. 328–329)

Unsurprisingly, there is an eccentric cook/housekeeper here too, a rather foolish woman referred to as La Maschiona, whose devastating actions drive the novel’s denouement.

As the novel draws to a close, Anna is happy to be reunited with Emanuele and Giustino, reflecting on those who died during the war, a time of immense fear, confusion and uncertainty. However, she also understands that the future comes with its own challenges – a ‘long, difficult life’ full of all the things they don’t know how to do.

Ginzburg has written a truly remarkable novel here, a story of ordinary people living through extraordinary times, beautifully told with a warmth and generosity of spirit that reflects the Italian character. There are some lovely touches of dry humour throughout, as the author maintains a wry sense of detachment from life’s absurdities, despite the gravity of events. It’s also clearly a novel informed by personal experiences and memories, written by a woman who lived through the turmoil of a country at war – a point that adds a genuine sense of poignancy and authenticity to the story as it unfolds.

All Our Yesterdays is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.)

28 thoughts on “All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Angus Davidson)

  1. gertloveday

    I know you really like and admire the work of Ginzberg, but this does sound quite extraordinary. The interweaving of war and politics, with family life and struggles sounds brilliant, and especially as it reflects her own life. Another winner from Daunt Books.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think you’re right. It really gives a sense of how it must have felt to be on the fringes of war, the tension and uncertainty as the conflict edges ever closer. I couldn’t help but reminded of Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy in that respect. A different region and family set-up, but the overarching themes are broadly the same.

  2. 1streading

    Great review of a great novel. I didn’t buy Rooney’s suggestion in the introduction that Anna becomes the central character – one of the things I most liked about it was that it’s very much an ensemble piece and there is no sense that one character is more important than all the others.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Grant! That’s a fair point about the novel feeling like an ensemble piece, especially the first section where the focus moves around from one character to another (Ippolito really stands out there too). But I guess I’ve homed in on Anna because she features quite heavily in part two where we follow her move to the South and her marriage to Cenzo Rena. Still, there’s a richness there, with various other characters weaving in and out of the narrative as their lives continue to change. Either way, it’s a fascinating book – worthy of a second read at some point!

  3. heavenali

    This sounds marvellous. So evocative of time and place, depicting family life and war time challenges. Especially fascinating as it seems to have been inspired by aspects of her own life. This is going on my list.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! I’m really glad you like the sound of it, Ali. I think it will tick a lot of boxes for you – strong female characters, a focus on family and evolving relationships, the WW2 setting, and an evocative sense of place. As you say, it’s fascinating to see how some elements relate to Ginzburg’s own life experiences, especially the upheaval of war and its impact on family life.

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review, Jacqui, and this does sound like a suitably involving and well-told tale. Interestingly, it has resonances for me with the book I’m just finished, Victor Serge’s “Last Times”. Again, it’s set against the war, and has a large ensemble cast who the reader follows through the wartime events to their eventual fates. It perhaps has a different focus from the family oriented book this is, but there’s that same sense of an author drawing on their own experience. Sounds brilliant!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. It really is a remarkable book. I’ve read quite a few of Ginzburg’s novels/novellas over the last few years, but this feel like the one I’ve been hoping to find – major-league stuff, especially given its scope and setting.

      That’s really interesting about the Victor Serge. I know he’s one of your favourite writers, but I’ve never tried him. Maybe this will be the one that tips me over the edge, unless you would recommend a different one as a better starting point? (I do like a wartime setting though, especially if there’s a large cast!)

      1. kaggsysbookishramblings

        This is certainly a more conventional novel than the others I’ve read by him – he tends to write more experimentally, but this book was, I believe, conceived as a novel which would sell and make him a bit of living. Having said that, there is much that is recognisably Serge, and some gorgeous writing. It could well be a good place to start, and if you’ve read Segher’s Transit there might be resonances as part of the narrative is set in Marseilles!

        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I have read Seghers’ Transit – a wonderful novel, almost labyrinthine in tone and style. That’s definitely a selling point, I have to admit! I shall await your review with interest…

  5. Fatma

    this sounds like such a fascinating book! ive been wanting to get into more italian literature in translation ever since reading elena ferrante and natalia ginzburg sounds like the perfect author to explore!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely – Ginzburg would be a terrific next step, especially if you enjoyed Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet! Ginzburg’s style is somewhat different to Ferrante’s — there’s very little (if any) dialogue here — but it’s still incredibly immersive.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Jane. She’s a wonderful writer, and this book in particular is a worthy addition to a list of classics. I hope you get a chance to read it.

  6. Rick

    Hi Jacqui,

    Lovely review, thank you! This one is moving up my ‘to buy’ list rapidly. Have you read ‘Family Lexicon’ yet? That’s the most ‘major-league’ of Ginzburg’s works that I’ve read so far, and I think widely recognised as her masterpiece, or at least one of them. Really enjoyed that and ‘The Little Virtues’.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Rick – I’m so glad you enjoyed my review! No, I haven’t read Family Lexicon yet, but it’s great to hear that you rate it so highly as I definitely want to get to it. As you say, I suspect it’s in a similar league to All Our Yesterdays with its broad scope and focus on family dynamics. It does sounds very good indeed (with some similarities to the one I’ve written about here).

      In the meantime, I hope you get a chance to read All Our Yesterdays as I think you’ll really appreciate it!

  7. Marcie McCauley

    I just want to read all of her books and it’s wonderful that her work is becoming more available once more. Lovely to see so many other interested/curious readers in the comments here, too!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, same here. She’s rapidly becoming one of my ‘must-read-everything’ authors. Well, everything that’s readily available in English as my Italian is way too scant!

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  9. Max Cairnduff

    It does sound very good. I’ve found that writers from the period with loved experience of the war seem to have a very different view of it than contemporary commentators looking back. The lived experience seems messier.

    Great as it sounds, is there a little bit of class based cliche with the housekeepers? It was the only potential negative that struck me.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, good point. It definitely has the feel of a novel based on real-life experiences rather than imaginary lives. As you say, the messiness is a clue – funnily enough, it’s a common characteristic in pretty much everything I’ve read by Ginzburg, which suggests that much of her writing was inspired by lived experience.

      I hadn’t thought about the possibility of class-based stereotyping with the housekeepers until you mentioned it, but it’s a fair observation. That said, I think these characters may well be based on real people, so they’re probably relatively close to the truth even if they might seems a little clichéd to us as readers. Ginzburg is nowhere near as cliched or prejudiced as many other writers I’ve read from this period. Have you ever come across the English writer, Angela Thirkell? her novels are sometimes touted as being quite Pym-like in style, but she’s quite prejudiced in terms of class dynamics to the point where I don’t think I can read read her any more. (She’s also nowhere near as sharp as Pym in her observations on social dynamics and slights!)

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