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 appearances.
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.
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.)