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Ginzburg's marriage to Leone Ginzburg, who met his death at the hands of the Nazis for his ...
Ginzburg's marriage to Leone Ginzburg, who met his death at the hands of the Nazis for his anti-Fascists activities, and her work for the Einaudi publishing house placed her squarely in the center of Italian political and cultural life. But whether writing about the Turin of her childhood, the Abruzzi countryside, where her family was interned during World War II, or contemporary Rome, Ginzburg never shied away from the traumas of history-even if she approached them only indirectly, through the mundane details and catastrophes of personal life.
Intensely reserved, Ginzburg said that she "crept toward autobiography stealthily like a wolf." But she did openly discuss her life and her work in an extraordinary series of interviews for Italian radio in 1990. Never before published in English, It's Hard to Talk about Yourself presents a vivid portrait of Ginzburg in her own words on the forces that shaped her remarkable life-politics, publishing, literature, and family. This fluid translation will join Ginzburg's autobiography, Family Sayings, as one of the most important records of her life and, as the editors write in their preface, "the last, unexpected, original book by Natalia Ginzburg."
My father used to say that Turati was naive, and my mother, who did not see naivety as a fault, would nod and sigh and say, "My poorlittle Filippo." Turati once came to ourhouse, when he was passing through Turin, and I remember him in our sitting room, as large as a bear, with his gray beard closely trimmed. I met him twice, then and lateron when he had to flee the country and stayed with us in hiding fora week. However, I cannot remembera single word he said that day in our sitting room. I remember a great deal of talk and discussion, and that's all.Was a visit from Turati so routine? Was it a part of the backdrop, the way of life in yourhouse as seen through youreyes as a child?
We are living in times of crisis: and man finds himself faced with forces and institutions that are without limit and beyond his possibilities as an individual. When faced with the mysterious nature of these forces and institutions, his own nature as a man becomes mysterious to him; and the tendency toward a dispersion or breaking up of personality among those huge and faceless institutions is alarmingly powerful. So that every act is a choice, or a defense, or a creation. Faced with the greatness of these forces, which threaten to overwhelm us at all times, every refusal and also every acceptance ask of man a similargreatness, a similargreatness, which, I repeat, requires courage. It is the courage to exist, to be men, not to succumb, when things are at their very worst, to desperation. Not to believe in idols, to resist confusion in the faceless crowd. This courage, this greatness is not only to be found in men who are thinkers, who are powerful, who are involved in the arts. It is not exclusive to writers, painters, architects, musicians, politicians, leaders, scientists, and philosophers--and I shan't give here a list of names that, in any case, would be judged incomplete by those many people, too many, who would claim unjustifiably that they deserved to be featured there--but, perhaps to an even greater extent, it is to be found in all those who have no specific connection to the cultural world but who have nevertheless managed in these last years to preserve man's dignity by making their life, no matterhow modest and anonymous, into something with real culture and truly civilized values. It is in these men whose virtue goes unnoticed and not in idolized men that we recognize greatness. We have all witnessed this in years gone by on a daily basis. The Resistance was a moment of populargreatness in which every man, every woman who courageously took part contributed to the salvation of the world's shared patrimony and to that great and mysterious "ideal maturing," in preparation for the future.And now here is how you once remembered Carlo Levi:
It isn't easy forme to write about Carlo Levi, who was as dear to me as a brother. My memory of him is closely linked to the events, the people, and the years of my youth. The night I found out that he was ill, and was dying, I gathered together inside of me so many scattered memories. I don't think I can talk of him at length as a painteroras a writeroras a political activist. I can only line up my memories.
In recent years I saw him very rarely. When I met him it seemed that I was meeting a crowd of loved and lost beings. This fact, and the great serenity that he exuded, made me feel emotional and happy every time I met him. In fact, I don't know why I didn't try to see more of him. We have, through our youth and the people that were a part of it, ties that are complicated, tortuous, and not easy. They often slow us down. And yet when I met up with Carlo Levi I felt all the tortuousness and complications disappear. and his big, rosy face made me happy. He was someone with whom relationships were direct and light.
The first memories I have of him go back to the time of my ado lescence, in Turin, which was his city and mine. He was fourteen years older than me. Fourteen years seemed at the time to be a great deal. He belonged to the adult world, a world to which I yearned to belong with an angst that was like a kind of snobbery, just like someone who wants to climb to a higherand more noble social standing. But I was shy, and this angst stayed hidden. He intimidated me, so much so that in his presence I hardly dared uttera word . . .
He had a large, wide, and rosy face, surrounded by a crown of curls. He used to wear a light-colored coat, almost white in fact; it was a short, wide coat, was always undone and was made from soft, hairy wool. He had corduroy jackets, which at that time no body was wearing; ornate gold buttons; soft, embroidered ties that were tied in wide knots. He was a friend of my brothers . . . He was a painter, I thought "a great painter," per haps because it seemed that nothing about him could be mediocre or small, and I neverasked myself then orindeed laterjust how significant his painting was. It seemed to me that in the paintings done by his peers there was squalor and grayness whereas in his there was a joyful riot of color. The landscapes in his paintings seemed beauti ful to me, because they were whipped by the wind. It was a wind without dust orgusts, a wind that swept nature along and ruffled
it so as to curl it up and make it brighter. The human figures, too, were whipped by the same strong and tempestuous wind that blew at theirjackets and ties and blew through theirhair, tingeing it with pink, violet, and green hues not so as to offend or mortify these figures, not so as to make them grotesque, but in order to celebrate somehow theirarrogance, theircomplexity, and their glory. Ears and hair that are curled up like this become shells. The world, in his pictures, often seemed to me like a huge beach over which shone a white light where everything was clouds, wind and shells . . .
When I saw him again after a break of many years, in Florence, afterthe liberation, I no longerfelt a great distance between us, partly because I was a lot older and partly because I had seen my share of misfortunes. Besides which he himself seemed to have come down orup from those heights and depths in which I had always seen him. I realized then, during those days in Florence, that in the past he seemed to dwell always eitheron great mountain heights orin the depths of seas. He had been aloof from and different from people you saw in the street. Now he seemed to be a part of these people. His desire to be different now mingled with a desire to be like other people. . . . Carlo Levi was by nature a person in whom harmony was indestructible and indispensable, just as it is indestructible and indispensable for the sun and for light itself. The world must have seemed to him, in his last years, out of harmony and tiresome, but he loved it all the same and certainly forgave it, out of generosity and goodness and humility; just as, perhaps, he forgave his friends for any indifference and betrayal, which he managed to overlook, gradually, not quickly, as he was incapable of harsh, hasty, or brutal acts.
. . . Last summerhe called me and we had dinnertogetherin a trattoria in the center. I hadn't seen him for a while. I didn't find him much older, except that his hair was now completely white, light as feathers, and except for a certain pinkish thinness to his face and neck, which again reminded me of my father. I had always thought there was a vague resemblance in him to my family, perhaps because Jews often have features in common, and his mother had had red hair and there was red hair in my family too, and freckles, and this seemed to establish a kind of kinship between him and us. We were not related, even though my maiden name is the same as his.
That was the last time I saw him . . . We left the restaurant, and I watched him walk one more time into the Rome night, as I had done so many years before, in the time of Christ Stopped at Eboli, with his lazy, random, and light-footed step . . .SINIBALDI I would like to ask Natalia Ginzburg to read a very short extract from The Things We Used to Say in which the greatness of Levi is cast in a slightly different light:
My mother started going to the prison with clean clothes again, and she would run into Vittorio's parents there and the relatives of the other detainees. "Such nice people!" she would say of Vitto- rio's parents. "Such a good family! And they've told me Vittorio is a really fine lad. He's just passed his law exams with flying colors. Alberto has always chosen such respectable friends!"
"And Carlo Levi is inside, too," she would say with a mixture of fear, satisfaction and pride, because it frightened her that so many people had been put inside and that perhaps they were planning a mass trial. But there was also some comfort in the idea that so many were inside, and she was gratified that Alberto was in the company of mature, respectable, and distinguished people. "Pro fessorGuia is inside, too."
"I don't care forCarlo Levi's paintings, though!" my fatherwould retort, since he never missed an opportunity to make it known that he didn't care for Carlo Levi's paintings. "Oh no, Beppino, you're wrong. They're really good," said my mother. "That portrait of his mamma is lovely. You haven't seen it."
"Slathers!" said my father. "I can't abide modern art!"We might say this is someone looking up from below, don't you think?
As a young man, he was gifted with imagination. Little, but some at least. The fact of having so little worried him. Having decided and hoped since childhood to be a writer and a novelist, he found it very odd to have so little imagination.
Excerpted from It'S Hard to Talk About Yourself by Marino Sinibaldi Copyright © 2003 by Marino Sinibaldi. Excerpted by permission.
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