Originally published in 1963, when it won Italy’s Strega Prize, the Natalia Ginzburg memoir Family Lexicon (NYRB Classics, $14.95), translated from the Italian by Jenny McPhee, is a lively and ultimately loving account of a childhood and young adulthood among Turin’s intellectual, secular-Jewish, anti-fascist elite.
Ginzburg, the youngest of the five Levi children, died in 1991; she is widely recognized as one of Italy’s greatest writers. Although she enjoyed a privileged childhood, her father’s dark moods constantly threatened. In an enactment of their respective parenting roles, her father forbids sunhats, rain caps, or scarves on the mountain walks he forces his children to take each summer, damning them with the terrible word “negroisms”; in contrast, her mother forever attempts to sneak protective gear into the children’s rucksacks.
Ginzburg owes her awakening as a writer to those dreaded mountain hikes. After one outing, a family friend proudly recites a poem he composed among the “green pastures” and “black schists.” “I’d seen those things myself so many times,” Ginzburg realizes, “but it had never occurred to me that I could do something with them.” From then on, she studies the world with “watchful eyes.” “I looked for things that could be like those black schists, those green pastures, and made sure that this time no one would take them away from me.”
Though childhood poems and recollections are described in detail, Ginzburg’s memoir largely maintains emotional distance. “We got married,” she writes of her union with the antifascist activist Leone Ginzburg, yet we are never given so much as a conversation between the two. Her subsequent pregnancies and the births of her three children are similarly unremarked upon. However, as the Germans advance into Italy, Ginzburg allows a scene of vulnerability. Her family had always been fiercely anti-fascist, her father even exhibiting a rare paternal pride when her older brother was forced to flee Italy. But it isn’t until she is alone with her children in the remote Southern village to which she and Leone have been exiled that her descriptions of fascist Italy become poignant rather than playful. “For the first time in my life I realized that there was no one who could protect me and that I’d have to manage on my own,” she writes. “I now understood that bound up with my love for my mother was the belief that she would protect and defend me from tragedy. Now all that remained was my love….”
Ginzburg and her children are hidden by the villagers and escape to Rome. Her husband, the editor of a clandestine newspaper, is tortured and killed by the Nazis. Though the war undoes her mother, rendering a known world “enormous, unknowable, and without end,” nonetheless “she inhabited the world again with joy because her temperament was joyful.” Perhaps it is as her mother’s child that Ginzburg can write with such levity not just about a bullying father but about an entire brilliant community that would be destroyed by war.
The “family lexicon” of the title refers to the familiar stories and repeated phrases that all families share: “our Latin,” Ginzburg calls them, “the dictionary of our past.” Her memoir bursts with those remembrances: nonsense rhymes and nicknames, stories and songs; one uncle lovingly referred to as “The Lunatic,” another who inspired the lines: “Night or day there’s no grander feller/Than Perego and his wine cellar.” It’s a testament to the warmth of Ginzburg’s writing that as the book draws to a close and some of the stories are repeated for the last time in an almost musical back and forth between her parents, I felt, in their bittersweet familiarity, as if I’d been admitted into the family circle.
Ilana Stanger-Ross is a midwife and writer just back from a sabbatical year in Italy, where she never managed to make it to Turin. She is the author of the novel Sima’s Undergarments for Women.