Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Little Virtues, by Natalia Ginzburg

Virginia Woolf said something interesting once about marriage. I can’t track down the quote, unfortunately, but approximately it was that the ordinary days of any long relationship were like plain beads being put on a string, one after another, and then – at a moment when we’re beginning to get impatient, or perhaps after we’ve been impatient for some time – something magical is slipped on the thread, some invaluable, unexpected stone that would be much less beautiful if it were not set off by the beads that came before and the ones that will follow.

This idea is pleasing, but I don’t think it sits comfortably with most people today. Intensity is a more easily celebrated goal: feeling things as strongly as possible for as much of one’s life as possible, diamond after diamond on the string. We could easily be falling in love today – or visiting another country, fighting our old limits, and then sinking ourselves in some strange and exquisite pleasure. Or all at once! - the more intense the better.

I’m not sure which one I believe – neither, entirely – but I know that very few modern writers apply Woolf's advice to their books. The goal is to dazzle, line by line and page by page, because otherwise the reader – the extraordinarily beautiful creature who has agreed, for some reason, to go on a blind date with us – will get bored and leave. It is the rare writer who considers that the reader’s boredom might actually be a valuable tool in her arsenal. Not cranky and impatient boredom, of course, which we experience when a person’s forced liveliness fails to enchant, but the gentle, lazy variety. This kind of receptive boredom is a valuable state for a writer, because the most profound and surprising truths can be slipped under the table of the reader’s fully engaged consciousness.

One of the marks of Natalia Ginzburg's originality, I think, is her use of the constructive possibilities of boredom. In several of her best essays, I wondered in the middle why I was bothering to read this stuff at all, and only continued because Ginzburg's plain, conversational style kept pulling me through sentence after sentence, until, usually near the end of the piece, she would slip on that magical stone that transformed everything that came before.

The essay that first captured me was He and I, included in Philip Lopate’s wonderful anthology of the personal essay. It is about Ginzburg’s long marriage. Here are the first few paragraphs:
He always feels hot, I always feel cold. In the summer when it is really hot he does nothing but complain about how hot he feels. He is irritated if he sees me put a jumper on the evening.

He speaks several languages well; I do not speak any well. He manages – in his own way – to speak even the languages that he doesn’t know.
This is already getting a little annoying. I skipped this essay in the anthology several times because it felt like one of those narcissistic relationship features in the lifestyle section of the newspaper. But as the essay continues, it becomes apparent that Ginzburg is writing out of a belief not in her extraordinariness but her complete ordinariness - the opposite of narcissism. She feels quite sincerely that she is much like other people (several of her essays are written in the first person plural) and is comfortable using her own life to get at some general truths. And so the essay continues, alternating between her husband’s attributes and her own:
There are certain restaurants in England where the waiter goes through a little ritual: he pours some wine into a glass so that the customer can test whether he likes it or not. He used to hate this ritual and always prevented the waiter from carrying it out by taking the bottle from him. I used to argue with him about this and say that you should let people carry out their prescribed tasks.
This is mildly interesting and it makes you think about how different people are, but it isn't exactly scintillating. I kept reading with half-focus, a little bored, and when I had to do something else, I marked the page and set the anthology aside. I could easily have never picked up the essay again. Which shows what a dangerous strategy this exploitation of ordinariness can be for a writer. Good filmmakers – who have always known how to use boredom, just think of Tarkovsky or Ray or Ozu – only need us to stay in our chairs and keep our eyes open. But writers can't rely on inertia. Luckily, Ginzburg’s pieces are short; I saw the book a few days later and decided that I might as well finish the essay.

He and I continues in list form, with all the accumulated knowledge and schisms of a long relationship: the couple’s different approaches to cleanliness, and shopping, and how they fight. And then, near the end, Ginzburg mentions the first time they met and walked along the Via Nazionale, many years before they were together as a couple. Then there are a few more details about how her husband dressed differently then than when she came across him again. And the essay ends with this paragraph:
If I remind him of that walk along the Via Nazionale he says he remembers it, but I know he is lying and that he remembers nothing; and I sometimes ask myself if it was us, these two people, almost twenty years ago on the Via Nazionale; two people who conversed so politely, so urbanely, as the sun was setting; who chatted a little about everything perhaps and about nothing; two friends talking, two young intellectuals out for a walk; 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.
This was magical for me when I read it – "so ready to say goodbye to one another for ever" – and I knew that it could not have had the same effect if not for all of those mundane details that I had half-sleepwalked through earlier in the essay. And then, in those last few lines, a rush of illumination, achieved in a way that would have been impossible through more direct means.

Illumination about what, exactly? It’ll sound hackneyed as soon as it’s written out – the great mystery, the strangeness of life! – which is why writers have to find other ways to get at it.

Impressed, I picked up The Little Virtues, a collection of Ginzburg’s essays translated from the Italian, including He and I. It's a slim collection, just over a hundred pages. When I began, I was convinced that I’d found a new favorite writer. Winter in the Abruzzi is a masterpiece; like He and I, it is a simple narrative of family life, entirely transformed by its last few paragraphs. And I really liked Portrait of a Friend, about Cesare Pavese.

And then my enthusiasm started to tail off. There are three essays about life in England with a few extraordinary passages, but full of untenable, abstract generalizations – about the obscure sadness of England, its tasteless cuisine, and various other gripes that sound like the laments of an Italian in an unfamiliar country and not the unassailable truths that Ginzburg seems to think they are.

This trend continues in the essays about life in Italy after the Second World War. At a certain point, I stopped being able to follow what Ginzburg was talking about. Here, for example, is a quote from Silence, which she considers a vice that “poisons our epoch”:
We have been advised to defend ourselves from despair with egotism. But egotism has never solved despair. 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. Silence must be faced and judged from a moral standpoint. It is not given to us to choose whether we are happy or unhappy. But we must choose not to be demonically unhappy.
This is simply too vague to be satisfying for me. And the less I understand an author, the more the use of “we” feels like an imposition. Maybe the audience of Ginzburg’s time knew exactly what she was talking about – in another essay, she directly addresses the survivors of Fascism in Italy – but I think a writer needs to be less insular to survive her age.

Ginzburg is at her best when she has a concrete subject to work with – her own life, or her friend’s life – instead of abstract ideas. But she is too good and careful a writer not to have at least one interesting thing to say in any piece she bothered to write and publish. The Little Virtues, for example, the title essay, is a wonderfully wise and thought-provoking set of maxims on how to raise children, going very much against the modern grain. And even though Ginzburg only duplicated, for me, the beauty of He and I in a single essay, I still think the book is entirely worth reading. Even a weaker essay like Human Relationships can contain a passage like this one, worth remembering for a long time (Ginzburg is talking about the moment when we know we are truly adults):
In that brief moment we found a point of equilibrium for our wavering life: and it seemed to us that we could always rediscover that secret moment and find there the words for our vocation, the words for our neighbour; that we could look at our neighbour with a gaze that would always be just and free, not the timid or contemptuous gaze of someone who whenever he is with his neighbour always asks himself if he is his master or his servant. All our life we have only known how to be masters and servants: but in that secret moment of ours, in our moment of perfect equilibrium, we have realized that there is no real authority or servitude on the earth. And so it is that now as we turn to that secret moment we look at others to see whether they have lived through an identical moment, or whether they are still far away from it; it is this that we have to know. It is the highest moment in the life of a human being, and it is necessary that we stand with others whose eyes are fixed on the highest moment of their destiny.


Anonymous said...

Condivido pienamente il suo punto di vista. Ottima idea, sono d'accordo con lei.
Condivido pienamente il suo punto di vista. Mi piace la tua idea. Offerta di mettere una discussione generale.

FuzzyLogic said...

Fantastic review. I too agree that one of Ginzburgs greatest literary skills is her use of boredom and i agree too that many of her attempts don't succeed very well. By when they do, as it did in He and I, it is almost perfect. Good thoughtful stuff here. I know the post is old but keep on reviewing.

Jill said...

I enjoyed your review very much. Just read 'Valentino and Sagittarius', my first reading of Ginzburg, and am hooked on her quiet but unwavering view of her subject. I look forward to her essays you've described here.

Akshay Ahuja said...

Dear Jill,

Thanks for your note. I actually haven't read any of Ginzburg's fiction but have been meaning to seek some out. I like your description of her writing: "quiet but unwavering."

Thanks again for the recommendation -- all the best,


lisamarieelliott said...

Thank you for the article, very worthwhile material.

Rahul Seth said...

I had just finished reading Ginzburg's essay 'My Vocation' which impressed me greatly by its keen insights into the mind of a writer. And I just felt compelled to find her other works and came across "He and I' - am amazingly simple yet profound piece. Just wanted to share. I enjoyed your review and look to following your pointers in enjoying her works. Thanks.

luke BAKING barker said...

excellent, considered review, thank you for posting. I looked for the Woolf quote but only found a reference to Bloomsbury book by Edel?

For NG, of who I am a big fan, even if I agree she sometimes has odd viewpoints that can seem dated, I can recommend the novella Family in addition to other recommendations (Family Sayings autobiog. is great too, but Family is a piercing story of characters and life's tangled path!)