Thursday, February 20, 2020

Family Lexicon

A Family Lexicon / Natalia Ginzburg;
trans. from the Italian by Jenny McPhee
NY: NYRB, 2015, c1963.
224 p.
This is a story of Ginzburg's large family, told in a fragmentary jumble of memories of growing up in this atheist, intellectual household. Written when the author was living in London in the 1960s and homesick, it pulls her family into sharp relief as she illumines their path from the 20s -- 50s, a period that happens to include the rise of Mussolini and WWII. This had a huge impact on her family and her circle, as they were Jewish and avowed anti-fascists. Her brother and father went to jail, and her husband was murdered by Nazis, something she mentions only in an aside. 

The style is sharp and non-sentimental. Whether talking about her children, her husband's death, or the death of a dear friend, or about happy times in her family, her style is not emotional. It's rational, calm, clear. She is an observer, it isn't about her emotional life at all.  

The book is arranged around those family stories that every family has, the catch phrases and private jokes that come from long-ago experiences, misheard things, eccentricities of family members and so on. Stories that are told over and over, expressions that have a particular meaning only to family members, all of these reflect the personalities of the individuals in her family but also the larger family unit as a whole. 

I found it fascinating. Her style appeals to me, and the wry reflection of in-jokes on wider life is interesting. Her family seems to know everyone in Italy who is intellectual or involved in the literary or scientific worlds, and the constant stream of visitors to their house gives her a lot of material. 

That said, there are elements to her vague, rather ditzy mother and her over-the-top Italian father that put me off a bit. I have issues with the racist terminology used continually by her loud, yelling, bully of a father, and resented his selfishness of behalf of the rest of the family. I didn't see him as the colourful hero she presents him as. Times change, I suppose. 

However, as a glimpse into the life of an Italian family in a time of crisis, and the responses they made to Fascism, not just in discussion or philosophically, but in real action, this was compelling. It shows how Fascism creeps into everyday life and must be routed in each instance, not allowed to twine around regular life and routine. And the level of homesickness Ginzburg was feeling for her large family comes through strongly as she evokes them all while maintaining a personal privacy. It was a very interesting text, with evasions and redirection when it got too close to her, but with a skillful way of making her family and her surroundings leap to life. 


  1. Interesting review! I have this one on the TBR and really should get to it soon - her writing does sond fascinating.


    1. A very interesting perspective, and a sense of privacy even in memoir/fiction like this.


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