I have written before about my love of Natalia Ginzburg’s fiction – most recently, All Our Yesterdays, a rich, multilayered novel of family life spanning the duration of WW2. The Little Virtues is a volume of Ginzburg’s essays, and what a marvellous collection it is – erudite, intelligent and full of the wisdom of life. Ginzburg wrote these pieces individually between 1944 and 1962, and many were published in Italian journals before being collected here. In her characteristically lucid prose, Ginzburg writes of families and friendships, of virtues and parenthood, and of writing and relationships. I adored this beautiful, luminous collection of essays, a certainty for my end-of-year highlights even though we’re only in January – it really is that good.
In the opening essay, ‘Winter in the Abruzzi’ (1944), Ginzburg describes the time she and her family spent living in exile in a village in Abruzzo during the Second World War. It’s a poignant, melancholy piece, particularly given what happens to Natalia’s husband, Leone – a Jewish anti-fascist activist – at the hands of the authorities.
There is a kind of uniform monotony in the fate of man. Our lives unfold according to ancient, unchangeable laws, according to an invariable and ancient rhythm. Our dreams are never realised and as soon as we see them betrayed we realise that the intensest joys of our life have nothing to do with reality. No sooner do we see them betrayed than we are consumed with regret for the time when they glowed within us. And in this succession of hopes and regrets our life slips by. (pp. 12–13)
This palpable sense of melancholy is carried through to ‘Portrait of a Friend’ (1957) as Ginzburg reflects on her home city, the city of her youth, a place haunted by ‘memories and shadows’. Here she likens the area to an old friend, a poet who is now deceased.
Written in the immediate aftermath of war, ‘The Son of Man’ (1946) develops these themes further, with Ginzburg conveying how her generation — effectively the fugitives of war — will never feel safe in their homes again, where a knock in the middle of the night will almost certainly instil fear in the soul. In essence, the war has exposed a brutal truth, the darkest, ugliest sides of humanity in all their horror and cruelty. There’s a sense that the young have had to find a new strength or toughness to face the realities of life, something different from the previous generation – and hopefully the one to come. It’s a mindset that has led to a gulf between Ginzburg’s generation and that of her parents, especially in their respective approaches to parenthood.
They would like our children to play with woolly toys in pretty pink rooms with little trees and rabbits painted on the walls. They would like us to surround their infancy with veils and lies, and carefully hide the truth of things from them. But we cannot do this. We cannot do this to children whom we have woken in the middle of the night and tremblingly dressed in the darkness so that we could flee with them or hide them… (p. 83)
In ‘England: Eulogy and Lament’ (1961), the author relays her impressions of England and its people – a nation whose characteristics she documents with the directness of an outsider.
To Ginzburg, England is a civilised country, well governed and organised, serious and conventional, gloomy and dull, with occasional glimpses of beauty amid a largely homogenous environment. Many of these qualities are reflected in how the English dress – a style showing little imagination or individuality with the majority dressing alike. For women, the norm seems to be ‘beige or transparent plastic raincoats which look like shower curtains or tablecloths’, while businessmen opt for pinstripe trousers and black bowler hats. Moreover, Ginzburg is adept at capturing the demeanour of the English, how in conversation, they tend to stick to the superficialities of life (such as the weather and other banalities) to avoid causing others offence.
I couldn’t help but raise an ironic eyebrow at some Of Ginzburg’s observations about England’s principles. Oh, how this country has changed from the version portrayed here – in some areas for the better, in others for the worse!
It [England] is a country which has always shown itself ready to welcome foreigners, from very diverse communities, without I think oppressing them. (p. 36)
In ‘My Vocation’ (1949), one of my favourite pieces in this collection, Ginzburg traces her approach to writing over the arc of her creative life, from composing juvenile poems and stories in childhood to her maturity as a writer of the female experience in adulthood. It’s a fascinating piece detailing how her relationship with writing has changed through adolescence, marriage and motherhood. This beautiful, thoughtful essay also captures how the tenor of Ginzburg’s work is affected by her mood, especially the balance between her use of memory vs imagination.
When we are happy our imagination is stronger; when we are unhappy our memory works with greater vitality. Suffering makes the imagination weak and lazy; it moves, but unwillingly and heavily, with the weak movements of someone who is ill… (p.104)
Here, along with several other articles in this collection, we get the sense Ginzburg approaches her subjects obliquely or at an angle. In short, by writing about one aspect of a topic, she triggers reverberations elsewhere – like an echo amid the landscape or stone skimmed across a pool – adding a broader resonance to her insights beyond their immediate sphere or focus.
‘Human Relationships’ (1953) is another piece that follows a timeline, tracing the nature of our relationships with others from childhood and adolescence to adulthood and parenthood. Ginzburg is adept at capturing how the subtleties of our interactions change as we move through each of these phases. As our values, needs and priorities shift, so do our thoughts and emotions, frequently manifesting themselves in our attachments to others. While all stages are brilliantly conveyed, Ginzburg writes especially well about the mysteries of the adult world from a child’s point of view, highlighting the joys and anxieties that consume us at this age. In addition, her reflections on finding a life partner in adulthood are just as insightful and beautifully expressed.
After many years, only after many years, after a thick web of habits, memories and violent differences has been woven between us, we at last realise that he is, in truth, the right person for us, that we could not have put up with anyone else, that it is only from him that we can ask everything that the heart needs. (p. 141)
Central to some of these essays are our relationships with others. In ‘He and I’ (1962), Ginzburg describes the relationship with her partner in terms of their many differences, from their personalities and character traits to their interests and pursuits. It’s a beautifully written piece, tinged with touches of poignancy, especially towards the end.
Finally, in the titular essay from 1960, Ginzburg sets out her approach to parenthood, arguing that we should put more weight behind the ‘great virtues’ of life, several of which spring from instinct, and less on the ‘little virtues’, typically born from a defensive spirit of self-preservation.
As far as the education of children is concerned I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; nor shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one’s neighbour and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know. (p. 151)
Moreover, she argues that by focusing too much on the little virtues, parents are in danger of fostering a sense of ‘cynicism or fear of life’ amongst their children, particularly if the great virtues are missing or downplayed.
While we might not necessarily agree with everything Ginzburg sets out in her essays, there is no denying her commitment to these principles and the reasoning behind them. There is so much wisdom and intelligence to be found in these pieces. A fascinating collection to savour and revisit, a keeper for the bedside table as a balm for the soul.
The Little Virtues is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.
I can feel this will be on your end of year list too Jacqui, I definitely need to get aboard the Natalia Ginzburg bandwagon, this sounds delightful and totally my mind of read. I love this cross cultural observations that only an outsider can bring, while also showing something of who they are and from where they’ve come. These perspectives that we are gifted in accessing thanks to the efforts of translators. Wonderful review!
Thanks, Claire. I think you’d find this collection really interesting. As you say, there’s the cross-cultural aspect of an outsider’s observations on a different culture to their own. (I had no idea that Ginzburg had spent time in England until I read this book!) Plus, I think you’d appreciate her reflections on writing, how her approach, themes and preoccupations have evolved over the years. A marvellous collection to read and revisit – it might be my favourite Ginzburg yet!
That makes me laugh because I went back and reread some of your other Ginzburg reviews and each successive read often ends with that reflection, that it might be your favourite yet! I was looking for your favourite(s) by going back, but I guess I should just ask! It seems they’re all pretty good and have different strengths.
Haha! It true, the more I read Ginzburg, the more I love her! If you’re looking for a good place to start with her fiction, I’d suggest one of the NYRB pairings of novellas, probably Valentino and Sagittarius (although Family and Borghese is just as good). All Our Yesterdays is my favourite of her novels, but it’s worth working up to that one rather than diving straight in. If you’re more interested in non-fiction, then The Little Virtues is the business. Hopefully that helps, Claire!
This sounds such a rich and thought-provoking collection. I really like the idea of the oblique approach you describe.
It might be a reflection of the way she thinks or sees things, an ability to take a broad view of a situation or an underlying theme? I guess it ties into some of her fiction too, especially something like All Our Yesterdays where she combines the personal and political by setting the family stories in the broader context of political events.
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Sounds well translated too. Some themes perhaps comparable to Georgio Bassini’s wonderful “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” superbly filmed by Visconti.
Ah, yes. A terrific book! That’s a really interesting connection – it hadn’t occurred to me before, but now you’ve mentioned it I can see some of the resonances.
This does sound an excellent collection, with the pieces on her relationship with writing and our relationships with others at different points in time really appealing to me. The ones on having to escape during the war made me think of themes that Eva Ibbotson explores in her fiction–the need for a home and for safety, both lost for those who had to leave.
Yes, Ginzburg’s reflections about writing and human relationships are really interesting, partly because they help to put various aspects of her fiction into context. That’s an interesting point about Eva Ibbotson. Oddly enough, I’ve yet to read her, but I do recall seeing various positive reviews. Thanks for the reminder, Mallika – I’ll add her to the list.
Wonderful review, Jacqui, and this sounds like a stunning collection. Those quotes are excellent, and I totally get what you say about this country – her perception of its welcoming nature couldn’t be further from what we’re witnessing right now. I’ve not read any of her fiction but I love a good essay – do you think this would be a good place to start?
Yes, absolutely. For you, I would definitely recommend her non-fiction as the best entry point. Even if you read nothing else by her, these essays are so worth seeking out. I’m pretty sure Calvino was a fan of work, IIRC…
Yes, I believe he was… 😉
You’re going to have to try her now! ;-)
This is a lovely book, the only one of Ginsburg’s I have read. Your review does it justice, such a brilliant writer, so perceptive and precise. Excellent review, Jacqui.
Thanks, Bii. I’m so glad you enjoyed it too. It feels like a book to return to in the future, something to dip into now and again.
Great review. I enjoy essays, so this sounds a good place to start with Ginzberg.
Yes, I think it would be a great entry point for you, especially as you enjoy this type of non-fiction. Definitely a top-tier read for me – the writing is superb.
These sound very interesting. I tabbed over to Amazon and requested the free kindle sample. I try to read a book of essays every year.
Great – I hope you enjoy. It’s a handy facility on the kindle, isn’t it? I often use mine to download a sample of something, just to see how it reads.
I’d like to read some Ginzburg and these excerpts sound brilliant—love the distinction between the great and the little virtues!
Yes, in fact that essay is probably worth the cover price alone! You can feel her experience of having lived through the war coming through in that essay, especially in the importance she places on courage, generosity, truth and a contempt for danger. It’s very striking…
This month has been a good one for memorable books, I already have two potential candidates for my end of the year list! I read my first Ginzburg last summer and she is a marvelous writer; I love the quote here about teaching children about the great virtues – what a wonderful way to look at it. Now I’ve got two essay collections from Italian writers to look forward to, Ginzburg and Italo Calvino!
You know, it’s interesting. January has been a bit up and down for me on various fronts (reading included), but this was a flat-out, 5-star read, no question! (It’s not my favourite month as I have quite a severe form of Raynaud’s which makes the current cold weather very tricky to cope with.) Which of your January reads have stood out for you? I’m interested to hear…
(I probably ought to read some more Calvino at some point as it’s been quite a while!)
I do remember your struggles with Raynaud’s last year and am sorry to hear that it’s again giving you such troubles. In some ways December was worse for me because of intensely icy conditions that lingered, which is unusual for us, and treacherous with our terrain. Since being severely injured a few years back, coping with difficult walking conditions isn’t fun. Oh well, at least I can walk again.
On a more cheerful note, the two January books that will almost certainly be on the best-of are, The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter and A Change of Time by Ida Jessen. I wish both were better known – they definitely should be!
Thanks, Jule. I really need a burst of milder weather to give my hands a chance to heal! So sorry to hear that December was difficult for you in terms of getting out and about. Your previous injury sounds serious, so I hope it hasn’t left you with too many challenges… Spring can’t come soon enough for several of us!
Thanks for letting me know about those books, that’s great. I’ve seen a few very positive reviews of Ida Jessen’s work (published by Archipelago, I think?), so I shall have to investigate her further at some point!
“He and I” is a masterpiece. Thanks for reminder that I’m due another reading.
You’re very welcome! I can see this collection standing up to a second reading, for sure.
As I read your review, I was struck by how circumstances mark us. What kind of writer, I wonder, would Ginzburg have been if she had grown up in the U.S. or Canada? If she hadn’t had to listen for that knock on the door? I understand that is the theme for the current movie “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” (Haven’t seen it yet but I hope to soon.)
Yes, it definitely feels as if Ginzburg’s values have been heavily shaped by her experiences of the war. There’s quite a lot here about the differences Ginzburg sees between her own generation and the one before – their priorities and values, attitudes to parenting and relationships etc. It also made me wonder about the next generation (e.g. Ginzburg’s children and their contemporaries), how their lives might be influenced by their parents’ experiences of the war, even if they never have to cope with such a traumatic experience themselves.
Generational trauma has been much discussed lately.
Yes, a complex topic…
This sounds excellent. I wasn’t aware of her essays but they sound well worth reading. What she wrote about brining up children after the war sounds poignant. All the war related essays speak to me.
I think you’d find this a really interesting collection, Caroline. You’ve probably got more than enough on your TBR piles at the moment, but it’s worth keeping in mind for the future – the writing is superb!
Oh wow, to say you’re already sure that this will make your end of year highlights is praise indeed. I must say it does sound marvellous. I find writing about wartime to be endlessly fascinating and readable. I still haven’t read any Ginzburg but this could be a good place to start.
Yes, I think it would be a good entry point for you – or possibly one of her slim novellas if you’d rather try her fiction, (e.g. the NYRB pairing Valentino and Sagittarius). All Our Yesterdays is terrific, but it’s a chunkster and probably best as one to work up to. She writes about war so well, sometimes at a slight angle rather than explicitly.
This is one Ginzburg I don’t yet have, though, as you say, it seems to make a good starting point. I laughed at her comments on England / the UK – but it also made me think that a collection of writers from around the world on the UK would make for an interesting volume.
Yes, that would indeed be an interesting collection, especially if the entries were drawn from the last 100 years! I couldn’t help but feel a mix of amusement, anger and disappointment on reading that essay by Ginzburg. Basically we’re a complete joke on the world stage at the moment, especially after Brexit, Boris and all the political shenanigans of the past 2 or 3 years. How far we have fallen since Ginzburg’s day…I feel ashamed to be British when I look at what the current government are trying to do.
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I’m overdue for my first encounter with Ginzburg so I’ll keep this in the mix when it comes time to settle on a book of hers. Some of the essays sound wonderful even if grim or melancholy.
Yes, definitely. She has such an ability to convey something meaningful or profound in a seemingly simple sentence or two, and that really comes through in these essays. It’s a very readable collection, even when it touches on the darker sides of human behaviour regarding the war…
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