Translated by Jenny McPhee
“Even though the story is real, I think one should read it as if it were a novel, and therefore not demand of it any more or less than a novel can offer … memory is ephemeral, and … books based on reality are often only faint glimpses and fragments of what we have seen and heard“
This is a deceptively light read, an autobiographical novel describing the ticks and cadences of Ginzburg’s family life before, after and during the Second World War in Italy under Mussolini. (I’ve not done very well at stepping away from books set during the War!) It comes with a useful introduction by Tim Parks, who notes that “Ginzburg’s book is written in an extremely colloquial Italian, something quite unusual in the early 1960s and difficult to show when translating into English“.
Ginzburg wrote the book while living in London during the 1960s, and missing her Italian family deeply. The characters of Ginzburg’s family members, friends and servants are vividly drawn, and there is much humour. The prose is straightforward and somehow unemotional, briskly whipping through moments of great tragedy as well as charming domestic incidents, which are described with beguiling levity.
“My father went very reluctantly to the seaside. He would sit under a beach umbrella, dressed for the city, angry because he disliked seeing people in bathing suits. My mother, she would go into the water, but she’d stay very close to the shore since she didn’t know how to swim. While she was in the water she enjoyed herself, rolling in the waves, but when she returned to sit next to my father, she also sulked. She was jealous of Paola, who would go far to sea in a pedal boat and not come back in for ages.”
Ginzburg’s father, the Jewish scientist Giuseppe Levi, sounds as though he may have been somewhat belligerent and even terrifying, as his intolerance and extreme inflexibility come across with clarity, but again the author’s lightness of touch means that is affection and warmth that dominate, rather than any sense of domestic turbulence. His gentile wife Lidia is the perfect foil for his temper, and then there are their children, Mario, Gino, Alberto and Paola, who, led by Natalia, the youngest family member, we follow well into adulthood.
Unfortunately, I didn’t realise until the end of my edition of the book, published by Daunt Books, that there are extensive notes explaining various historical and cultural points that might be a bit oblique when reading the book, and which would have been handy to know about in advance. A few footnotes might have been a useful addition, then. Overall, though, this was a great read.