The Little Virtues is a little and mildly disturbing gem. The quirky Italian novelist Natalia Ginzburg compiled a group of short essays, ranging from political internal exile in 1944 through the postwar period to 1962. Her writing has the distilled power of a poet. Written episodically, at times impressionistically, she jumps subjects with the greatest of ease, sometimes within the same sentence. While befuddling, at times obtuse and emotionally distant, she rarely bores.
Her first essay, “Winter in the Abruzzi”, introduces her and her husband’s place of exile as a dichotomy, winter or summer, nothing in between. By her fourth sentence, I was hooked:
The longs days of sunshine and the low parched hills, the yellow dust in the streets and the babies’ dysentery come to an end, and winter begins. [p.3]
Her own winter is about to begin and, in some ways, never ended. After a handful of elegiac pages on exile in Abruzzi, she ends the essay:
My husband died in Rome, in the prison of Regina Coeli, a few months after we left the Abruzzi. Faced with the horror of his solitary death, and faced with the anguish which preceded his death, I ask myself if this happened to us – to us, who bought oranges at Giro’s and went for walks in the snow. At that time I believed in a simple and happy future, rich with hopes that were fulfilled, with experiences and plans that were shared. But that was the best time of my life, and only now that it has gone from me forever – only now do I realize it. [p.8]
Evidently, this is the emotional anchor and underpinning to her subsequent writing – yet the subject is not directly broached again. (The beautiful “He and I” essay, written in the present tense as if he were still alive, ends the eulogy with a vision of the couple, as young intellectuals, walking the streets “so young, so educated, so uninvolved, so ready to judge one another with kind impartiality; so ready to say goodbye to one another for ever, as the sun set, at the corner of the street.”) The horrors of war – including her husband’s murder – and national political suicide are the unexamined circuitry that energizes, if glancingly, her sharp perceptions, her honest gaze, her elliptic writing.
At her best, she disdains the unexamined assumptions, the commonplaces of lazy thinking. Describing a famous Italian poet and subject of “Portrait of a Friend,” she elaborates:
However, conversation with him was never easy, even when he seemed happy; but a meeting with him in which just a few words were exchanged could be far more stimulating than with anyone else. In his company we became more intelligent; we felt compelled to articulate whatever was best and most serious in us, and we got rid of commonplace notions, imprecise thoughts, incoherent ideas. [p.16]
This is what she reaches for in her conversational writing – that lacks any dialogue at all.
A sardonic wit evidences itself in “England: Eulogy and Lament,” which describes her living in London as another sort of exile, where the suburbs are “extremely gloomy.” [p.22]
She credits the English with imagination is only two areas: in the evening clothes worn by old ladies and in their frumped up cafés. Regarding the latter,
Perhaps they are right to camouflage their cafés and restaurants under foreign disguises, because when these places are unequivocally English such a squalid desperation reigns in them as to make anyone who enters to think of suicide. [p.25]
(Indeed, I still felt the pinched existence of post-war English socialism – prior to the Thatcher Revolution – two decades later.)
Ginzburg also evidences a very attractive humility – not only as a wife as described in “He & I,” but as a writer (a rare thing). It does not appear to be false modesty.
But there is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer. [p.67]
Neither does she appear to be a slave to fame, or very competitive. In fact, she claims in My Vocation that “I am not interested in what other writers do.” [p.53] How refreshing! This extends into a disdain of materialism, mostly of the bourgeois kind. In “The Son of Man” she writes, “We have been driven to look for an inward peace which is not the product of carpets and little vases of flowers.” [p.51]
This rejection of materialism rightly leads her to seek the spiritual. In condemning love of money in the book’s title essay (and perhaps most conventional) “The Little Virtues,” she encourages children to “realize its true nature and its inability to satisfy our innermost desires, which are those of the spirit.” [p.105]
Yet, the burden of the 20th century’s descent into societal madness and bloodshed is heavy. For “all the certainties of the past have been snatched away from us, and faith has never after all been a place for sleeping in.” [p.51] True, but perhaps she forgets the nearly 2,000 year old example of the “Son of Man [who] has no place to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)
With great prescience, she resists the temptation to call vices illness. “And we are too used to calling our soul’s vices illnesses, to putting up with them and to letting them rule our lives, or to soothing them with sweet syrups in order to cure them as if they were illnesses.” [p.72]
Oddly, she seems to underplay the dangers of her one enduring obsession, her vice, her muse, in the disturbing essay “My Vocation.” Perhaps overdramatizing, she writes,
This vocation is a master who is able to beat us till the blood flows, a master who reviles and condemns us. We must swallow our saliva and our tears and grit our teeth and dry the blood from our wounds and serve him. Serve him when he asks. [p.66]
She ends the essay with a hint of her what psychologists might call an underlying psychosis, an illness instead of a vice:
It is a vocation which also feeds on horrible things, it swallows the best and the worst in our lives and our evil feelings flow in its blood just as much as our benevolent feelings. It feeds itself, and grows within us. [p.68]
This, alarmingly, likens the muse to a incubus, seducing the soul into submission.
Starting from her and her husband’s persecution, the understated, concentrated reticence throughout her storytelling engenders a gentle feeling, an underlying theme of disassociation, of inability to face all the facts. It is as though Ginzburg, at the beck and call of her muse, lives in a fantasy world. Early on, back in “Winter in the Abruzzi,” she opines:
Our dreams are never realized and as soon as we see them betrayed we realize that the intensest joys of our life have nothing to do with reality. [p.8]
I had never heard of much less read Ginzburg prior the book’s selection by our small book club. There I learned a few things about Ginzburg – in general I prefer to approach a writer’s work through the work and not the biography – including that she was a life-long Communist. Perhaps that too was a form of disassociation and one of her “intensest joys” – for it too is far from attractive in reality.
Natalia Ginzburg, The Little Virtues, 1962, English translation by Dick Davis, 1985 (Arcade Publishing, New York)
Here is a video of the Wolf Book Club discussion: