There has been a war and people have seen so many houses reduced to rubble that they no longer feel safe in their own homes which once seemed so quiet and secure. This is something that is incurable and will never be cured no matter how many years go by.
This opening sentence of “The Son of Man” by Natalia Ginzburg could have been describing Kobe, my hometown, instead of Turin in 1946, the year the essay was written. Although I was born 12 years after the war ended, the bombs that had destroyed half the city were far from forgotten. On summer nights in our backyards in the 1960s, my friends and I were allowed to light bottle rockets on our own because none of our mothers could go near the noise and the flash that reminded them of the nights they’d hidden in their houses with the windows covered with black paper. The last time I saw my grandmother, in 1992, she still talked about how she had sold all her best kimonos on the black market to buy bags of rice to feed her family in the last years of the war. “Everything turned into rice,” she kept saying. She would have understood Ginzburg’s deliberate use of redundancy. Their generation’s fear about having no food, shelter, or clothing was “something that is incurable and will never be cured no matter how many years go by.”
Little Virtues, published in Italian in 1962, features 11 essays Natalia Ginzburg wrote between 1946 and 1962. The book has been available in English since 1985. One of the essays, “He and I,” has been a favorite of mine since the 1990s when I first encountered it in Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay. Still, for reasons I can’t remember or justify, I didn’t read the book until the summer of 2020, when the second paragraph of “The Son of Man” seemed to be presaging the present moment in the United States:
A ring at the door-bell in the middle of the night can only mean the word police to us. And it is useless for us to tell ourselves over and over again that behind the word “police” there are now friendly faces from whom we can ask for help and protection. This word always fills us with fear and suspicion.
Natalia Ginzburg feared the police because several members of her family had been jailed or exiled by the Fascist government and her first husband, Leone Ginzburg, who edited an anti-Fascist newspaper, was tortured to death in prison in 1944. On March 13, 2020, the police broke down the door to Breonna Taylor’s home in Louisville, Kentucky, in the middle of the night and shot her dead. According to CBS news, 164 Black Americans were killed by police in the first eight months of 2020.
In May and June, following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, groups of protestors gathered daily in front of the White House. By then I never went anywhere without a mask and only shopped for groceries at a small neighborhood market where I seldom encountered more than one or two other customers. Living three miles north of the White House, I wondered what Natalia Ginzburg would have thought of me staying away from the daily protests. Politically active her entire life, Ginzburg served on the Italian Parliament starting in 1983 when she was 67.
In “My Vocation” (1949; Turin), Ginzburg claims that her vocation is simply to write stories, “invented things or things which I can remember from my own life, but in any case stories, things that are concerned only with memory and imagination and have nothing to do with erudition.” She confesses, “When I write something I usually think it is very important and that I am a very fine writer. I think this happens to everyone. But there is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer. I swear I know it. But that doesn’t matter much to me.”
In “England: Eulogy and Lament” and “La Maison Volpe,” her two essays about living in London in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ginzburg calls attention to the small details of everyday life that disappoint and sadden her: a beautiful blooming tree that “is there according to some precise plan and not by chance,” the thousands of young people who naively believe they are expressing their originality through their identically unconventional attire, the English shop assistants who are “the stupidest shop assistants in the world,” and (my favorite), the little cakes that are “so prettily covered in chocolate and dotted with almonds [but] are, when you eat them, like a paste made of coal-dust or sand.” She is not “erudite” in the sense that she doesn’t offer any scientific rating system or researched proof of the shop assistant’s stupidity or the cakes’ inedibility. Instead she compares the English cakes to the cakes she imagines “placed next to the mummies in the tombs of the Pharaohs.” She assures us that the cakes are “perfectly harmless. They are only horrible, innocuous but horrible, with the staleness of hundreds of years, but innocuous.” She is unapologetically subjective and opinionated.
Like “He and I,” her portrait of her comically contentious second marriage to Gabriele Baldini, a professor of English literature, these essays about England, placed in the first half of the book (Part One), criticize false civility. “Nothing is sadder than an English conversation,” she declares, “in which everyone is careful to keep to superficialities and never touch on anything essential.” She longs for “vulgarity” which “springs from coarseness and bullying. It also springs from fantasy and imagination.” Both in private conversations and in public discourse, Ginzburg prefers “vulgar” arguments to polite silence. Many of the essays in Part One begin with seemingly small or “innocuous” details, but they are fundamentally as serious as the essays in the latter half that engage in ambitious moral explorations.
Part Two opens with the description of the houses reduced to rubble in “The Son of Man.” In this short essay, Ginzburg concludes, “We have been driven to look for an inward peace which is not the product of carpets and little vases of flowers” and that “we are tied to our suffering, and at heart we are glad of our destiny as man.” She has no time for little rituals of civility, little objects of beautification, or little virtues.
In “Human Relationships,” the penultimate essay, Ginzburg traces the course of her life from childhood to adulthood through a series of attachments she formed with family, friends, husbands, children. Though the details are specific and clearly personal, she uses the plural singular pronoun, we, which lends the narrative the expansive feeling of an epic or an allegory. She presents the all-absorbing childhood attachment to the parents, the rejection of them in adolescence, the shifting alliances of friendships (through which we learn that “we too are capable of making someone suffer”), courtship, marriage and parenthood; through her careful scrutiny, every phase feels at once inevitable and surprising. Ultimately, “we” realize we are “really adult,” not because we’ve gained self-confidence but because “we have behind us the silent presence of the dead, whom we ask to judge our current actions and from whom we ask forgiveness for past offences.”
Even when we finally attain our full adulthood, she warns, we will continue to blunder because “human relationships have to be rediscovered and reinvented every day. We have to remember constantly that every kind of meeting with our neighbor is a human action and so it is always evil or good, true or deceitful, a kindness or a sin.” Ginzburg portrays life as a “long necessary parabola” through which “we know all the long road we have to travel down in order to arrive at the point where we have a little compassion.”
In leading us to this conclusion—the need for compassion—Ginzburg employs its opposite: utter ruthlessness. Not only in this essay but throughout the book, she challenges and destroys our naive expectations for hope or wisdom. She tells us that her vocation, the one thing that gives her life meaning, “has always rejected me, it does not want to know about me. Because this vocation is never a consolation or a way of passing the time.” She points out that if we are writing seriously, “it is a bad sign if it doesn’t make you tired.” Most of the things we jot down in our notebooks, hoping to use them in a story, will be useless by the time we come up with the story in which they might have fit. She doesn’t believe in teaching children “little virtues” such as thrift, frugality, and moderation. Children should be encouraged to spend money carelessly on small insignificant toys that give them temporary happiness so that later in life, they may be recklessly generous toward others.
Reading “He and I” in the 1990s, shortly after my divorce, was a revelation. After a long catalogue of disagreements and incompatibility, the essay pivots in time and mood to suggest—through the couple’s first meeting which did not result in falling in love—that love has nothing to do with compatibility. As described also in “Human Relationships,” an ideal marriage is one in which the couple disagrees and argues: “Every now and then violent differences between us and this person erupt into the open; and yet they are unable to destroy the infinite peace we have within us. After many years, only after many years, after a thick web of habits, memories and violent differences has been woven between us, we at last realize that he is, in truth, the right person for us, that we could not have put up with anyone else, that it is only from him that we can ask everything that our heart needs.”
My marriage to a man from a small town in the Midwest was nothing like this. Both of us believed we had rebelled against our conventional upbringing, but we were only fooling ourselves. The insipid English politeness that Ginzburg criticized was at the core of the cultures that had formed us: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all; if the conversation makes you uncomfortable, politely change the subject. We both grew up under what another friend—another Midwesterner—called “the dogma of polite denial.” My version of the mummified cakes was the beautifully sculpted sweets (hard lumps of sugar, really) served at Japanese tea ceremonies; my husband’s was the multi-layered, color-coordinated Jello salads that were the mainstays of backyard potlucks. We only argued about things that didn’t really matter—music, movies, and books we’d listened to, watched, or read recently, not the ones we’d encountered in high school and, forever after, aspired to live by or up to. When one of us got upset, we politely excused ourselves and went for a run or a drive. In the 13 years we spent together, we never learned how to combine disagreement with empathy.
Now, reading Little Virtues in 2020 in the capital of a polarized country, I am particularly interested in the paradox at the core of Ginzburg’s essays: the simultaneous need for conflict and compassion. In her foreword to the book, Ginzburg reveals that her essays were inspired by the conversations she had with a friend to whom they are “secretly addressed.” She characterizes their friendship as one, “like all friendships, that has passed through the fire of violent disagreements.”
Ginzburg doesn’t give any advice about how we can stay passionately, even violently, committed to our beliefs while cultivating our compassion for those who oppose them with their own passion and commitment. Nowhere in the book does she suggest that we should modify our views and meet our opponents in the middle. If I could ask her how much or what kind of political engagement is required of a writer—me—in 2020 who also considers “telling stories” to be her vocation, she would consider me insufferably stupid. She wouldn’t order me to go march in the street, or give me a pass for not doing so. She is not inclined to give out little pieces of advice about how to live a life of authentic moral engagement. The only hope she offers, in the very last sentence of the book, is that we can set examples for our children—or for future generations—through our own commitment to our vocation: “to know it, to love it and serve it passionately; because love of life begets a love of life.” She may be the most pessimistic and optimistic writer I’ve ever read.
But after all, at the heart of every essay is a divided self, an internal schism that is essential to an essayist’s being. “The mind works by contradiction,” Phillip Lopate pointed out in the introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, the book that introduced me—and many others, I’m sure—to Ginzburg’s work: “Personal essayists converse with the reader because they are already having dialogues and disputes with themselves.”
Ginzburg interrogates her own internal conflict in a voice that is at once compassionate and critical, optimistic and pessimistic, logical and passionate. She teaches us that the only way to write in any society, but especially a polarized society, is to accept the irreconcilable divisions within ourselves: between the fear that will never be “cured” and the hope we should never give up; between the commitment to our own truths and the willingness to imagine their opposite; between the devotion to our vocation and the desire to engage with the world.
(Aside from the Lopate quote, the other quotes are all from Natalia Ginzburg, Little Virtues, translated from the Italian by Dick Davis: 1985, Arcade Publishing.)
Kyoko Mori is the author of 3 nonfiction books (The Dream of Water; Polite Lies; Yarn) and 4 novels (Shizuko’s Daughter; One Bird; Stone Field, True Arrow; Barn Cat). Her essays and stories have appeared in The Best American Essays, Harvard Review, The American Scholar, Colorado Review, Conjunctions, and others. She teaches nonfiction-writing in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at George Mason University and the Low-Residency MFA Program at Lesley University. Kyoko lives in Washington, DC with her cats, Miles and Jackson.