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.