Monday, July 1, 2013

Wendy Rawlings on Natalia Ginzburg's THE LITTLE VIRTUES

From the cover photo on a book of criticism about Natalia Ginzburg’s work, she looks directly at the camera with an expression so sour she might have been sucking on a lemon. A woman past middle age in a dark sweater and incongruously cheerful flowered blouse, she’s leaning on an elbow that anchors a stack of papers. The photographer seems to have interrupted her in the midst of a writing session. Or perhaps the photo was taken during Ginzburg’s time as an independent left-winger in the Italian parliament, to which she was elected in 1983, and we’ve interrupted her conducting some important government business.
     She was a tough nut. You can gather this from her essays even without seeing the photo or knowing anything about her life, which was shaped by Mussolini’s fascism. The youngest of five children, she was kept at home in Palermo, Italy till the age of eleven to try to prevent her from catching infectious diseases. A biographer notes that it’s no wonder this isolation encouraged the “morbid introspection” characteristic of her writing. Her father, a socialist, was arrested in 1922 and taken from the family. Later, her first husband, a Jewish Marxist, was tortured and killed by fascists, leaving her with three small children.
     The whole of Ginzburg’s life was punctuated at regular intervals by death, forced geographical relocation, and financial hardship. She had plenty to write about, and she did, publishing stories and novels as well as nonfiction. But despite the difficulty of her life, she tempers her writing with gallows humor. In one of my favorite essays, “Worn-Out Shoes,” Ginzburg recalls, “During the German occupation I was alone here in Rome, and I only had one pair of shoes. If I had taken them to the cobbler’s I would have had to stay in bed for two or three days, and in my situation that was impossible.”
     Ginzburg published several collections of essays, but the one I love most is a slim volume called The Little Virtues. In just a few more than a hundred pages she speaks with the brevity of Hemingway about all the things in human life that are important and will eternally be important: love, war, poverty, death, generosity, loss. I admit that when I came across this book for the first time I had just finished reading a novel by Nicholson Baker called The Fermata in which the narrator very exhaustively and exhaustingly describes stopping time (a skill he has picked up) in order to remove a co-worker’s clothes and examine her pubic hair. Much as I enjoyed Baker’s narrative pyrotechnics, I was feeling a little spiritually depleted. The Little Virtues proved to be the literary version of a palate cleanser.
     The book’s title piece is part philosophical treatise, part childrearing manual, part socialist primer, part compendium of useful aphorisms a la Poor Richard’s Almanack. She advances the claim that children “should not be taught the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; nor shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth...not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.” Though published in 1962, these values seem radical to me even now and much in contrast to current American childrearing practices. “The money we give our children should be given for no reason; it should be given indifferently so that they will learn to receive it indifferently,” Ginzburg advises. Hear that, parents who hand their kids a twenty for each “A” they earn?
     The effect of war and privation on Ginzburg’s writing shows itself in the way she pares expression down to its essence. “A house is not particularly solid. It can collapse from one moment to the next,” she says matter-of-factly in an essay called “The Son of Man.” She is speaking here of the war that swept across Europe in the 40’s, but this essay came to mind after the tornado that cut a swath through the town where I live, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 2011, and again more recently, when parts of Oklahoma were obliterated by tornadoes. “Behind the peaceful little vases of flowers, behind the teapots and carpets and waxed floors there is the other true face of a house – the hideous face of a house that has been reduced to rubble.” Such are the observations of a woman writer who refused to write flowery prose about flowers and teapots or smile for the camera. She had more important things to write, and I’m glad she wrote them.


Wendy Rawlings is the author of The Agnostics and Come Back Irish. Her essays and stories have appeared recently or will soon in AGNI, Passages North, The Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, and The Florida Review. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Alabama.

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