Little by Little, Courage: Facing Uncertainty with Natalia Ginzburg

Nora Kirkham considers how Natalia Ginzburg’s writing might help us to find ‘humility and hope’ while experiencing grief and hardship, in the next installment of our series on the ‘Art of Poverty’. 

In Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film, The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), we come upon a familiar scene: Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus with nard in anticipation of his death and burial. In Pasolini’s interpretation, Mary, played by Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1991), stands upright, grinning widely as she strokes Jesus’ hair with oil. The disciples are silent until Judas cries out, reprimanding the woman for her extravagance. Ginzburg beams, confident as Jesus defends her gift. It seems fitting that Mary of Bethany should be played by Natalia Ginzburg, who wrote in her essay, ‘The Little Virtues,’ that children should be taught ‘not the little virtues but the great ones,’ among which are ‘generosity and an indifference to money,’ ‘courage,’ ‘frankness and a love of truth,’ as well as ‘love of one’s neighbor and self-denial.’1 In her role as Mary and in her novels, Ginzburg was concerned with embodying these great virtues, exploring the ways in which suffering asks us to draw from new wells of courage and generosity.

Reading Ginzburg, we are reminded to be open to the inevitability of change. Born to a Jewish father and Catholic mother and raised in a lively, politically engaged family, Ginzburg would live through both World Wars and suffer immensely under antisemitism and fascism.2 Her writing career began during Fascist Italy’s most antisemitic period and as a Jew, she was banned from publishing. In 1938, she married Leon Ginzburg, a professor and leader of an anti-fascist organization in Turin. Leon was arrested several times before Ginzburg’s family went into internal exile in an impoverished and isolated village in the south of Italy. In 1944, Leon was imprisoned and tortured to death in Rome, leaving Ginzburg a widow of three children in her twenties.

Unsurprisingly, much of her writing delves into entangled familial relationships shaped by grief and hardship. Jeanne Bonner and Dustin Illingworth describe her novels as permeated with ‘a sorrow of the kind that is never overcome’ yet containing a ‘fount of mysterious life.’3 As we press on through a years-long pandemic, a war in Ukraine, and an impending recession, good writing has the potential to instill us with courage. Reaching into the past to retrieve stories of how others have lived and endured the tragedies of their time cultivates humility and hope.

All Our Yesterdays

Ginzburg’s third novel, All Our Yesterdays (1952) examines the courage of characters who live through unimaginable suffering and loss. Following the lives of two neighboring families in Northern Italy, the novel begins in the years before the Second World War, when war was something happening to other countries and to other people. Ginzburg lingers over domestic life as members of the families encounter their own personal triumphs and losses–they study for exams, engage in political debates, fall in love, and break up. War persists as the backdrop of the novel until it erupts into their lives, irrevocably altering their relationships. Fixtures of their daily lives–a cafe that ‘feels like Paris,’ and a park bench collapse into sites of trauma and tragedy. Family members and even beloved pets perish or are sent to far-flung places.

While Ginzburg maintains a bird’s eye view of her characters, the novel’s focus drifts to Anna, who at sixteen, is shaken by an unexpected pregnancy and swiftly ushered into marriage with a family friend and much older man, Cenzo Rena. As Italy plunges into war, Cenzo Rena brings Anna to the southern, ‘fairly wretched village’ of San Constanzo, a village where wolves wait on the fringe of the forest, a community with a doctor who ‘took no interest in illness and the schoolmistress took no interest in teaching.’4 Life becomes marked by austerity; meat and sugar are rationed and bread is described as ‘soft, gray dough that you could never digest.’5 In a village that ‘knew nothing beyond its own misery,’ Cenzo Rena fosters friendships with the contadini, or peasant farmers, observing that even the rich ones ‘lived in the same way as the poor ones, with all their money sewn up in their mattresses and nothing to cover themselves with in winter and dysentery in simmer, and that same diet of almond paste and cabbage-stalks, and always lice.”6 When a Nazi stationed in the village is shot by Cenzo Rena’s contadini friend Giuseppe, Cenzo Rena, who was concealing his Jewish friend Franz in his cellar, offers his life to protect the villagers. Moments before his execution, Cenzo Rena spots a local man ‘with the corkscrew leg’ running away:

He thought that if there was God he thanked Him for that happy leg, he did not know if there was one but in any case, he thanked Him. He wondered why he so much wanted the man with the corkscrew leg to remain alive, he did not understand why it was.7

Cenzo Rena sees the particularity of this man and loves him for it. Through a decision others might perceive as reckless, absurd, or futile (‘San Constanzo was a filthy village and for this filthy village Cenzo Rena had died’), Cenzo Rena attempts to model the courage he admonishes Anna to embrace. Before they get married, he tells her, ‘you had to acquire courage little by little, it was a long story and it went on almost all your life.’8 Courage is ‘not ready-made,’ but borne out of circumstances. As Sally Rooney writes in a new introduction to the novel, ‘these are not people born with special moral qualities, people who find it easy to be brave and honorable. We know them: we know quite well that they are just as irritable and selfish and lazy as we are,’ and yet they respond with ‘transcendent and unforgettable moral beauty.’

 

The Son of Man

If courage is a ‘long story’ that goes on almost all one’s life, the aftermath of the war would require Ginzburg’s characters to reconfigure the entire shape of their new lives. In her essay, “The Son of Man,” Ginzburg moves through the tumultuous feelings of precarity and disillusionment post-war. While the veneer of ordinary life may resume, life can swiftly unravel again: “behind the peaceful little vases of flowers, behind the teapots and carpets and waxed floors there is another true face of the house–the hideous face of a house that has been reduced to rubble.”10 In light of this, ‘we are constantly forced to seek out a new strength, a new toughness with which to face whatever reality may confront us. Inward peace is not planted in ‘the product of carpets and little vases of flowers.’11 This peace must be able to withstand the absence of ordinary comforts and absorb the shocks of life. Ginzburg likens this reality to the precarity of Jesus’ life on earth, recalling Matthew 8:20:

There is no peace for the son of man. The foxes and wolves have their holes, but the son of man hath not where to lay his head. Our generation is a generation of men. It is not a generation of foxes and wolves. Each of us would dearly like to rest his head somewhere, to have a little warm, dry nest. But there is no peace for the son of man. Each of us at some time in his life has had the illusion that he could sleep somewhere safely, that he could take possession of some certainty, some faith, and there rest his limbs. But all the certainties of the past have been snatched away from us, and faith has never after all been a place for sleeping in.12

War revealed the fragility of a faith contingent on safety and material security. For Ginzburg, faith stirs us from our slumber, inviting us to confront reality, rather than shielding ourselves from it. She writes, ‘we cannot lie in our books and we cannot lie in any of the things that we do.’13

Lemonade with Rationed Sugar

If faith is not a place for sleeping in, then Ginzburg seems to suggest that faith compels us to action, while accompanying us into places we didn’t expect to find any hope. As the poet Christian Wiman writes, ‘faith is folded into change’ and is the ‘mutable, messy process of our lives rather than any fixed mental product.’14 In the Gospels, we witness Jesus as an incarnation of this reality, choosing precarity over comfort. A pervasive sense of uncertainty seemed to underpin Ginzburg’s own spiritual life.15 She claimed she believed in God ‘albeit in a chaotic, tormented and discontinuous manner.’16 Her essay, ‘On Believing and Not Believing in God’ explored this fraught relationship with religion as she wavered between faith and doubt. In it, she envisioned her belief in God as ‘so doubting, so wavering, so ready to be snuffed out altogether that it is not in the least consoling.’17 As Judith Laurence Pastore notes, Ginzburg experienced God through the ‘real people she loved.’18 In her essay, ‘Human Relationships,’ Ginzburg notes the absurdity of the challenge to love one’s neighbor in our ‘wavering life.’19 She writes, ‘human relationships have to be rediscovered and reinvented everyday,’ and understanding the ‘things of the world’ takes place when we renounce our possession of them and return them to the will of God.20

For Ginzburg, suffering, when it inevitably arrives, may lead us both to the ‘depths of our exhaustion’ and also to a sharp awareness of things.

This act of surrender underpins Ginzburg’s call to the ‘great virtues,’ that promote radical generosity. For Ginzburg, suffering, when it inevitably arrives, may lead us both to the ‘depths of our exhaustion’ and also to a sharp awareness of things, letting us ‘look at the earth for the first time.21 The ending of All Our Yesterdays expresses this disquiet as the remaining members of the families eventually reunite in their hometown and gather, clutching glasses of sugary lemonade in the garden. Grief and gratitude fuse in the final lines: ‘they were pleased to be together, the three of them, thinking of all those who were dead, and of the long war and the sorrow and noise and confusion, and of the long, difficult life which they saw in front of them now, full of all the things they did not know how to do.’22 The losses still sting. Their lemonade is made with rationed sugar.23 Like Mary of Bethany washing Jesus’ feet with precious nard, Ginzburg leaves her characters at the threshold of complete uncertainty and sure suffering, lavishing on them a small gift of clarity to carry into the dark.

1Natalia Ginzburg, The Little Virtues, trans. Dick Davis (London: Daunt Books, 2015), 151.

2For Ginzburg, literary and political engagement went hand in hand. She was an activist and a member of the Italian Communist Party in the 1930s. In 1983, she served in the Italian Parliament as an independent politician.

3See Jeanne Bonner, ‘Putting a Brave Face on Loneliness and Loss: Natalia Ginzburg’s ‘Family’ and ‘Borghesa,’’ Reading in Translation, February 20, 2021, https://readingintranslation.com/2021/02/22/putting-a-brave-face-on-loneliness-and-loss-natalia-ginzburg s-family-and-borghesia/. See also Dustin Illingworth, The Domestic Disappointments of Natalia Ginzburg,” The Paris Review, June 20, 2019, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2019/06/20/the-domestic-disappointments-of-natalia-ginzburg/.

4Natalia Ginzburg, All Our Yesterdays, trans. Angus Davidson (London: Daunt Books, 2022), 226-227.

5Ginzburg, 247.

6Ginzburg, 257.

7Ginzburg, 396.

8Ginzburg, 207.

9See Sally Rooney’s introduction in All Our Yesterdays, x.

10Ginzburg, 80.

11Ginzburg, 82.

12Ginzburg, 83.

13Ginzburg, 81.

14Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 17.

15Ginzburg identified as Jewish for most of her life but was also baptized in the Catholic Church in 1950.

16Judith Laurence Pastore, “The Personal is Political: Gender, Generation and Memory in Natalia Ginzburg’s Caro Michele,” in Jeannet, Angela M. and Giuliana Katz, Natalia Ginzburg: A Voice of the Twentieth Century (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 92.

17Pastore, 92-93.

18Ibid.

19Ginzburg, The Little Virtues, 148.

20Ibid. 21Ginzburg, 146.

22Ginzburg, All Our Yesterdays, 418.

23See Ginzburg, 417: “Emanuele gulped down a big glass of lemonade with a heap of sugar in it and Giuma asked him if he had forgotten that sugar was rationed.”

Author

  • Nora Kirkham is a doctoral student in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen. Her project explores enchantment, religious belief, and embodiment in contemporary women's writing about mountains. She holds an MLitt from the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts and an MA in Creative Writing from University College Cork, Ireland. Her poetry and short stories have been published in journals such as Rock & Sling, Ruminate, St Katherine Review, The Christian Century, and Tokyo Poetry Journal.

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