The Ides of March: Two Italian authors

There’s a tenuous explanation for why I decided to read mainly Italian literature during the month of March – namely, the famous Ides of March assassination of Julius Caesar, and generally an important ‘adminny’ type day in the Roman Empire, the day of settling debts (filling out your tax returns?), as well as the start of a number of religious festivals. But the truth is that I have a bit of a gap in my literary knowledge when it comes to modern Italian literature, so I thought it was high time I did something about it.

I am also publishing this a day early (on a Tuesday instead of a Wednesday), to fit in with both the Ides of March and with the last day of the #ReadIndies initiative launched by two of my favourite bloggers, known on Twitter as @kaggsy59 and @LizzySiddal. Both publishers featured here are small independent publishers based in London (and Melbourne).

Natalia Ginzburg: The Little Virtues, transl. Dick Davis, Daunt Books.

I knew more about Ginzburg’s life as an anti-Fascist Jewish intellectual and activist rather than her literature, but it’s a delight to discover her writing now. Perhaps her cool, limpid style (with anger or sorrow always brimming just below the surface) suits our angry times. There is something of the self-contained, understated and clear-eyed attitude of Joan Didion about this collection of essays, but there are plenty of hints that there are deeper, more emotional currents underneath.

Not all of the essays in this collection are entirely successful. I thought she was in danger of stereotyping and being judgemental in the two essays written during her stay in England (she is particularly scathing about English food, which possibly was quite dreadful in the 1960s). ‘Winter in the Abbruzzi’ is perhaps her most personal one, describing the period when she and her husband Leone Ginzburg had to go into internal exile in a remote countryside location during WW2 and ending with one of the most heartbreaking final paragraphs I’ve read in a long while (her husband was tortured to death in 1944).

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.

As a parent, one of the most interesting essays for me personally was the titular ‘The Little Virtues’, an appeal to parents to cultivate the riskier but far more important humane virtues in their children rather than the practical little ones. You may raise misfits who cannot duck and weave their way in society, but wouldn’t it be a much better society if we all had those virtues? I remember someone telling me soon after my arrival in the UK that English politeness was a stand-in for genuine empathy (although I have experienced both here).

As far as the education of children is concerned I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one’s neighbour and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.

Ginzburg had five children, three with her first husband and two with her second (one of them died in infancy), so she is more aware than most about domesticity encroaching upon one’s art. What I love particularly is her not at all romanticised view of the relationship between parents and children, which must have been quite revolutionary for post-war Italy. In ‘Human Relationships’ she takes us full circle from adolescent rebellion to friendships, to love, marriage and parenthood – and then being rejected by one’s teenage children, pricking the pomposity and stubborn beliefs of the various ages with her dry wit. At other times, her words sound like advice imparted by a gentle, wise mentor:

Our relationship with our children should be a living exchange of thoughts and feelings, but it should also include deep areas of silence: it should be an intimate relationship but it must not violently intrude on their privacy… We must be important to our children and yet not too important; they must like us a little, and yet not like us too much… for them we should be a simple point of departure, we should offer them the springboard from which they make their leap… they must realise that they do not belong to us, but that we belong to them, that we are always available, present in the next room… And if we ourselves have a vocation, if we have not betrayed it, if over the years we have continued to love it, to serve it passionately, we are able to keep all sense of ownership out of our love for our children.

Still trying to achieve all of the above, but it’s easier said than done!

The most interesting essay of all for a writer (or artist of any kind) is ‘My Vocation’, which seamlessly combines self-deprecating humour (when describing her early attempts at literature, for example) and wise counsel about the social and historical role of a writer, as well as the challenges of keeping the personal and the artistic in balance. She compares the ways she was writing when she was happy and when she was grieving, and there were so many instances where I gasped at how well she had nailed it:

When we are happy we feel that we are cooler, clearer, more separate from reality. When we are happy we tend to create characters who are very different from ourselves… What we lack is compassion. Superficially we are much more generous in the sense that we always find the strength to be interested in others and devote our time to them – we are not that preoccupied with ourselves because we don’t need anything… When we are happy our imagination is stronger; when we are unhappy our memory works with greater vitality.

As far as the things we write are concerned there is a danger in grief just as there is a danger in happiness. Because poetic beauty is a mixture of ruthlessness, pride, irony, physical tenderness, of imagination and memory, of clarity and obscurity – and if we cannot gather all these things together we are left with something meagre, unreliable and hardly alive.

This applies equally well to those who live in poverty and therefore have little energy or appetite left for creativity (which creates a link with the Prunetti book below).

I can see how Elena Ferrante was inspired in her essays by Ginzburg, and I am glad that Ferrante’s popularity has led to a rediscovery of this opinionated but always extremely precise writer. Ginzburg said she originally wanted to write like a man, which is why she steered clear of any hint of emotion in her work. After she had children, however, she started allowing more of her whole self to seep in, much to the delight of her readers. Yet she remains unsentimental, deceptively simple in style, unadorned like an early Byzantine icon, not at all like the stereotype we have of the expansive, baroque Italian exuberance.

Alberto Prunetti: Down and Out in England and Italy, transl. Elena Pala, Scribe.

Prunetti is also politically left-wing and this book is largely autobiographical, but otherwise he is about as different from Ginzburg as a writer as it is possible to get. (And I think he would be the first to acknowledge it). In contrast the well-educated middle-class background of Ginzburg’s family in Milan, Prunetti grew up in a steel town in Tuscany at a time when the steel industry is in steep decline and unemployment among Italy’s youth is at a record high. He is the first in his family to go to university but fails to find a job upon graduation. So he decides to come to England and work in various low-paid jobs (pizza chef, cleaner, school canteen worker) to learn the language properly.

He finds he has a lot in common with the English working classes (‘the oppressed are the same everywhere’, as his father taught him) and beyond, for his workmates are quite an international bunch. His often quite graphic descriptions of the humiliations of the job, the supercilious and absurd bosses, customers who are either too fussy or ignore them, as well as the petty revenge these workers sometimes enact may not be to everyone’s taste. I didn’t mind them that much, but they didn’t always sit comfortably in juxtaposition with literary references and quotes, from Shakespeare, the Angry Young Men, A Clockwork Orange, R. L. Stevenson and H.P. Lovecraft.

Above all, of course, this book is a recreation of Orwell’s famous Down and Out in Paris and London for the 1990s. But I think there are significant differences too. I am always one to appreciate a sympathetic description of life on the margins of society, showing that there is far greater humanity and diversity there than generally portrayed in the media. I certainly liked the fact that the author does not see himself as ‘superior’ to the other workers he encounters (neither does Orwell), but I felt there was a lot more of ‘I, I, I’ in this story than in Orwell’s work and that certain characters were potentially exaggerated for comic effect. In other words, he has a ‘spillage’ of words and he doesn’t know the meaning of understatement – far closer to the cliché image of Italians.

Yet the final chapter, with his return to Italy for his father’s death, and witnessing the final closure of the steelworks, is quieter and all the more moving for that. A bit of a marmite book, but an interesting look at low-paid work in Britain from the perspective of an outsider.