‘La Madre’ or ‘The Mother’ by Natalia Ginzburg is written from the perspective of two young boys who watch their mother’s mysterious comings and goings and pine for her affection. It is a tragic social commentary of a rigid social code that denies the woman sexual or emotional independence. The ‘madre’ is no heroic figure, but an embittered thwarted woman who does not conform to the view maternal love is the only love permissible. She is an unloved mother with a yellow-powdered face who kills herself in a dingy hotel room when her exotic lover dumps her.
One day the boys see their mother at a café eating lunch with a strange man. We are not only told that they see her, we are later told that after an awkward confrontation with their mother about it, the boys decide this incident should be suppressed and not mentioned again.
They said nothing to Granny. In the morning while their mother was dressing the younger boy said: ‘Yesterday when we were out for a walk with Don Vigliani we saw you and there was a man with you.’ Their mother jerked round, looking nasty: the black fish on her forehead quivered and met. She said: ‘But it wasn’t me. What an idea. I’ve got to stay in the office till late in the evening, as you know. Obviously you made a mistake.’ The older boy then said, in a tired calm voice: ‘No it wasn’t you. It was someone who looked like you.’ And both boys realized that the memory must disappear: and they both breathed hard to blow it away.
What struck me whilst reading this story set in 1950s Italy and Lucy Caldwell’s work set in contemporary Ireland was, how little had changed in terms of the challenges facing a woman.
The story first appeared a collection by Italian writers such as Elsa Morante, Natalia Ginzburg and Francesca Duranti. The thirteen stories in the book highlight the different styles and preoccupations of these writers as they examine the status of women in post war Italy. I have read the stories in Italian, but there are critical notes in English and an extensive vocabulary.
First published in English in Italian Women Writing, ed. Sharon Wood, Manchester University Press, 1993. Also published in The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, ed. Jhumpa Lahiri, Penguin, 2021
It may not be quite proper to include this marvellous piece of writing here, because in truth it is an essay, or perhaps we would say now ‘Creative Non-Fiction’ rather than a short story. But I am including it anyway, because it has a story-like quality that deserves mention. Written to honour Ginzburg’s friend, Cesare Pavese, who took his own life via an overdose in 1950, ‘Portrait of a Friend’ is a masterclass in understated emotion – something we seek with fervour in our publications at Lunate.
It is also a spectacular example of how to weave character and place together so that one cannot be cleanly picked from the other. Her depiction of the city of Turin is hauntingly beautiful:
‘In summer our city is deserted and seems very large, clear and echoing, like an empty city-square; the sky has a milky pallor, limpid but not luminous; the river flows as level as a street and gives off neither humidity nor freshness. Sudden clouds of dust rise from the streets; huge carts loaded with sand pass by on their way from the river; the asphalt of the main avenue is littered with pebbles that bake in the tar. Outside the cafés, beneath their fringed umbrellas, the little tables are deserted and red-hot.’
Within Ginzburg’s writing, the city absorbs both her own quiet grief and the desolation that her friend must have felt. Tragedy can become a delicate thing and, when presenting it to an audience, sometimes it is all the more devastating for its unassuming fragility. (HC)
First published in Italian as ‘Ritratto d’un amico’, Radiocorriere, 1957. First published in English in The Little Virtues, Carcanet, 1985. New edition from Daunt Books, 2018
These days, many Italian (female) authors seem to be discovered or re-discovered thanks to the “Elena Ferrante effect”. We couldn’t imagine two authors more different than Ferrante and Natalia Ginzburg, but, regardless of the reasons, we are happy for the recent rediscovery of Ginzburg’s seminal work in the English-speaking world, where her books are having a period of new popularity.
Little Virtues is something between a collection of short stories and a collection of personal essays; one of our favourite pieces in the book is ‘He and I’, a delicately ironic recount of the author’s life with her second husband, Gabriele Baldini, who was also a writer. The piece is at times funny, at times melancholic; it is a quintessential example of Ginzburg’s distinctive voice, intimate and intelligent, graceful and deep, and able to observe everyday life and human relationships from an astonishingly original perspective.
First published in Le piccole virtù, Einaudi, 1962 / The Little Virtues, Daunt Books, 2018
Discovering Ginzburg’s body of work has been one of my reading highlights over the last eighteen months. This story is typical of her magic, written in the first person, detailing a newly married wife coming to terms with the intrusions in her relationship. She writes with such clarity, and almost lulls you into a false sense of security – when sudden emotional tornadoes hit. This is fiction as memory, visceral and often proudly sad. Predictably, I’m hooked.
First published in English in The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, ed. Jhumpa Lahiri, 2019