An Interview with Natalia Ginzburg


Natalia Ginzburg

Interviewer: Peg Boyers

PB: I’m eager to learn about the Italian literary scene, to know, for example, whether writers think of themselves as belonging to movements or regional groups. Do you consider yourself a Piedmontese writer, for example—having grown up in Torino—or by now do you identify yourself as a Roman writer?

NG: I don’t know. I never felt origins were important or at all interesting. But I admit it was tremendously liberating to write frankly as a Torinese when I wrote Family Sayings…But that doesn’t answer your question. Groups? Movements? I don’t really think these groups exist. I don’t think in Italy there even are such things as currents or trends. The whole scene is really much too chaotic for such groups to form and stay together as separate entities.

PG: In the U.S. there have always been groups, although writers are frequently reluctant to admit their affiliations. Literary historians devote studies to “The Southern Agrarians” or the “Beats” or “The Harlem Renaissance.”

NG: Here there was a great deal more of that in the literary scene during the Fascist era. There were the Ermetici (hermetics) and those who were not Ermetici. And later, in the post-war years there was the neorealist group and the group who opposed the neorealists. But then later all this seemed to have died out. There was a brief period when a group called “II Grupo di ‘63” formed but since then it seems like everyone just writes according to his or her own beliefs and interests. But then I’m a bit outside of the scene and perhaps am not the most reliable witness. It does seem to me that these discrete currents or groups simply do not exist in Italy. There really isn’t any real literary society in Italy any more. There was at one time, but no longer. For a while a group formed around Pasolini. I’d say if there are groups now that they are of a more casual, personal nature: friends who know each other and read each other’s work. But that’s all. This is my impression, anyway.

PB: Those of us who observe or follow Italian literature from abroad sometimes imagine that there must be movements associated with major figures like Calvino, on the one hand, and very different writers—modern realists, if you like—such as you and Moravia.

NG: I know so little about certain kinds of post-modern literature that I can’t even talk about it. And besides, these categories really interest me very little. As for Calvino, I have to say honestly that I love especially his earlier work, his stories, his fiction up to and including Invisible Cities—a very beautiful book which I adore. I love less what came after Invisible Cities. The more recent work seems to me too cerebral. But then, that’s just my personal preference, and it is hard to convince readers about what is most authentic in someone’s work. Recently a book by Calvino was published posthumously, a book called La Strada di San Giovanni. In this book there is a beautiful story—the title story, in fact—which is a sort of memoir written in 1965 or so—which he never thought to publish. And there are other wonderful pieces in that collection.

PB: And Moravia? You’ve written about what an important model he was for you in your youth.

NG: We were good friends. The news of his recent death hit me hard. I still feel the pain of his loss. And of course I remember how I responded to his early writing. When I was very young Gli Indifferenti was of crucial importance as I formed my first views about writing. I’d have to say that for me Moravia’s earlier work was also his strongest. I love the work up to and including Roman Stories. I think he thought they were perhaps too popular, too much in the mode of a sort of national narrative. Whereas for me the stories in this collection are extraordinary. He managed in that book to depersonalize himself in a masterful way.

PB: Depersonalize?

NG: Yes, by that I mean that he recreated himself in the form of many different characters in such a convincing way. His gift for getting inside the personality of characters so totally different from himself was truly remarkable. This was a gift comparable to that of Pascin, a writer who managed to get inside many diverse characters at a time, so as to paint a complete fresco of the France of his period, of the life of the peasants, of the servants, of the city and of the provinces. He was a really great writer who is absolutely forgotten now. I would like somehow to bring him back.

PG: Is his work translated into Italian?

NG: Yes, but now it is totally ignored. There is a work of his which I particularly love, a novel called A Life, which I’m in the process of translating now.

PG: From the French?

NG: Yes. I find it very easy and even pleasurable to read and translate French.

PG: How about English? Do you read much in English? You refer more than once to English and American authors in your essays—Ivy Compton Burnett, for example.

NG: Ah, yes, La Grande Signorina! There was a time when I had an appetite to read her novels. I read them all as they appeared and loved them very much in the original. But I confess I’m very bad at reading in English so I don’t really do it much any more. The truth is I’m lazy and reading in English is work for me. The English and American writers I love I read mostly in translation. Sometimes I receive in the mail reviews of the English language editions of my books and I can’t even tell for sure whether they are favorable or not. And I’m too embarrassed to ask for help.

PB: Sometimes one is better off avoiding one’s reviews. But from what I’ve seen of the reception of your work in the United States, at least, the reviews would not much distress you.

NG: Perhaps. As I said, I’ve not been terribly confident of my comprehension of the reviews. Maybe it’s just as well not to understand. I admit, though, that when I’m stumped by a certain word here or there I suddenly want very much to know whether I am considered boring or whether the reviewer likes me.

PG: Are there other English language writers who mean a lot to you?

NG: Well, of course, Shakespeare. And I love George Eliot as well. I’ve read the major authors, but in Italian, not English. Perhaps my favorite English novelist is Jane Austen. I hardly know contemporary American literature. The two American authors I love most, who are by now dead, alas, are Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor. And then I love Fitzgerald and Hemingway—especially the Hemingway of the stories.

PG: Yes, it makes sense that Hemingway’s clear, direct style would appeal to you, although the sensibility of Hemingway is so at odds with that of your own work.

NG: I wasn’t alone in being influenced by Hemingway. He had a great impact, I think, on modern Italian writing. When Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology came out in Italian, suddenly there was widespread interest in North American writing. But even before that Pavese was busy introducing us all to the great American writers.

PB: Is that when Einaudi began pursuing Hemingway?

NG: Well, of course the war intervened around then. By 1946 one book—I forget which—by Hemingway came out, and by 1947 Einaudi had published three others.

PB: I saw some correspondence between you and Hemingway in a recent exhibition of Einaudi letters. They were fairly business-like. Was your correspondence with him ever more personal? Was he interested in your ideas about his work? Were you friends?

NG: Hardly. I was his Italian editor e basta. He was a prickly character and rather exacting about financial matters in a way I found tiresome.

PB: I’m wondering if Hemingway translates well into Italian. Your own work, I think, has been very successfully translated into English, perhaps because your Italian is so accessible to foreigners.

NG: Yes, I know that my books are easy for foreigners to read in Italian and I’m very glad about this. As for Hemingway, I don’t know if his works are well translated or not, since my English is so deficient. Nor can I judge how well my own books have been translated into English for the same reason. I have a feeling Lessico Famigliare, or Family Sayings, is not well-translated, however. This may have to do with the fact that some of it is in dialect and dialect is really impossible to translate adequately. As for my other works, I’m not sure that the fact that they are simple matters. Sometimes I feel I’m too bound by subtle details of style or tone in my work and that this is a liability.

PB: But isn’t this a problem all writers face in one degree or another?

NG: Yes. You’re right. It’s needless—even stupid—pretention to say otherwise. In fact I have been lucky both in English and in German. But translating is always so limited…

PB: And yet, you say you enjoy translating from the French?

NG: I do. But I know that while I’m doing it I’m missing so much. At least I don’t translate poetry.

PB: I remember reading an early poem which you wrote right after the war, in memory of Leone Ginzburg who had died in prison. It was terribly sad, as I recall, in your characteristically understated way, but very evocative of what must have been the mood for so many people who had lost their loved ones in the war. Did you write other poems after that?

NG: Very few—not enough to collect. I’m not really a poet. It’s only once in a while that what I have to say seems to find its best expression in a poem. But I do read a number of poets—Montale, Sandro Penna, Sabba.

PB: Besides the English writers whom you named earlier, there must have been other writers whom you regarded as models.

NG: In my adolescence, the Russians were tremendously important to me. More than anyone, Chekhov. Of the Italians, Svevo, the Moravia of Gli Indifferenti. When I started writing these were the writers I kept before me.

PB: Did you ever feel these influences interfered with your writing?

NG: Well, I don’t know. I think it’s important for a young writer to keep certain models in mind, and to read a tremendous amount. One remains very attached to the formative figures, but at the same time, little by little, one finds one’s own voice through them. At a certain point one understands how one wants to go about writing and emerges with some sort of personal style. But this is a slow process of maturation, not a fast one. What I find among young writers is that they read very little. They skip over that very important and necessary stage, that kind of passionate, visceral reading one does during the formative years. It happens that I still read a lot of manuscripts so I see what young writers are up to, and usually I’m disappointed.

PB: You read for Einaudi?

NG: I’m not a formal consultant for them anymore, but nevertheless I receive many manuscripts. I get the impression sometimes that these young writers haven’t read many books, that they write in order to pass the time. They don’t have a good literary background on which to build. Style is not something that can be improvised: one has to construct it, to make it.

PB: Do you feel that this lack you find in young writers is a function of the Italian educational system? Is it the case in Italy as it is in the United States that the young are not required to read much?

NG: Alas, yes. Literature is simply not given to them. The schools in general are very weak in this sense. Students are not asked to read whole books. The anthologies that are used as textbooks in the schools contain tiny excerpts of larger works. This is not reading. Once a friend of mine and I put together an anthology for the schools using complete works of literature, but it did terribly.

PB: Wasn’t it adopted by the schools?

NG: Only by a few and then it died out. Our goal was to provide the students with real readings of some length. We included short stories that were complete works despite their relative shortness—eight pages or so. But the anthology was not successful. The current anthologies sometimes provide students with as few as twenty lines of an author and call that ‘reading’.

PB: The idea that a voice or a style is not improvised but rather made or constructed interests me. Did you deliberately ‘make’ your own style, fashioning it one way rather than another? Your characteristic avoidance of the third person, for example—is this a deliberate element in what you regard as a chosen style?

NG: It’s hard to say what is chosen and what is—fate. Look at the third person! I simply can’t seem to make it work for me. When I’ve tried, it just hasn’t come out right. I’ve attempted it here and there. I do use it occasionally, referring to “him” or “he” or “she” but only with a single passing gesture. What I can’t get is the panoramic view of things. I’ve tried to get around this problem in various ways—for example by writing plays and by writing a long epistolary novel in which I was able to employ many voices. In this way through the use of characters in plays and by means of letters in my epistolary novel, The City and the House, I am able to get inside more “I’s”. In this way I arrive at a sort of panoramic view by using a variety of first persons. I’m sure this was my main purpose in writing the plays and also in writing the epistolary novel: the desire to explore more “I’s” who were different from myself. Have you read the plays?

PB: Yes, but only last week, I confess, since they are unavailable in the United States. In fact, after reading the first play in your recent collection, Teatro, about the young journalist who makes three different appointments to interview a famous writer and who is repeatedly stood up, I admit I was a little nervous about the prospect of traveling from Florence to Rome to interview you. I very much hoped that the particular “I” who eludes the interviewer in that play was a totally different “I” from Natalia Ginzburg.

NG: Well, you see, you needn’t have worried!

PB: In the preface to the plays you speak of your friendship with Elsa Morante and of the way you depended upon her to give you an honest—even if overly harsh—reaction to your work. Besides being a great friend to you, was Elsa Morante a writer whose work you admired and do admire still?

NG: I still feel the tremendous loss of Elsa Morante. It was not only a personal loss to her friends, but a great loss to the world. She was, I believe, the greatest writer of our time. I don’t know how much her work is valued in your country, but here while she had great success she was also rejected by a number of people. And this rejection caused her much suffering. There were those who believed her works to be of a texture deliberately designed for consumption.

PB: Accessibility is not always a virtue, I suppose, and it’s a real problem when it’s achieved at the expense of other literary virtues. But I read—in English—Morante’s novel, History, and I can’t imagine what the Italian critics would have objected to in that work. It’s quite a demanding novel, a novel of great textural and thematic range.

NG: I’m glad these qualities come through in the English version.

PB: Do you read Italian literary magazines much? Are there important magazines in which one would look to read the work of new authors?

NG: There’s the magazine Nuovi Argomenti and there’s Paragone. Both are good and contain fiction by new writers. Paragone is edited by Cesare Garboli and is really excellent, but it is badly distributed. Nuovi Argomenti is the one that Alberto Moravia started and which is now edited by Francesca Sanvitale. This is much more famous and well distributed. It’s a shame that we really only have these two literary magazines. One feels the need for others. Perhaps there are other small circulation journals which have escaped my notice, but if they exist their marginality says something about our literary culture as well.

PB: Have you ever been tempted to run a magazine of your own?

NG: I wouldn’t know where to begin. It’s really not my sort of thing.

PB: How about poetry? Is the situation more or less the same with regard to magazines for poetry?

NG: Perhaps even worse. There’s one magazine, Prato Pagano, for poems, but to tell you the truth, I don’t see it often. There are so many poets, you know, and so few places which publish them. Most publishers would rather not publish poetry, so it falls upon poets themselves to finance editions of their own work.

PB: The situation is much the same in the United States, where very few firms have poetry lists. NG: Here the publishing houses have a hard time selling the books they do publish. Garzanti has a very substantial poetry list, but it’s strictly a place where established poets are published. Einaudi has a small but very good poetry line as well. But it’s very small.

PB: What poets do you read besides the three you already named?

NG: I love poetry written in dialect. The poems of Tonino Guerra are among my favorites. He’s from Sant’Arcangelo di Romagna and his poems in dialect are very beautiful. A collection of his called I Bu, I Buoi is a particular favorite of mine.

PB: I know his name, but from the movies.

NG: Yes, that’s right. He’s more famous as a film person. But in fact he’s a better poet. I first discovered his work years ago when I worked for Einaudi in Torino. He had sent in a fiction manuscript which I didn’t care for much, but which I felt Vittorini might like, so I passed it on. Later Vittorini published it and other stories as well. He’s gone on to publish two novels, which resemble the sort of thing everyone today is writing.

PB: When you say that Guerra’s fiction is like everyone else’s today, what do you mean?

NG: It seems to me that people don’t write about what is authentic in their experience any more. Tonino Guerra, who comes from Sant’Arcangelo di Romagna, comes disguised as something entirely different in his prose. He has taken up the task of depicting a world that is squalid and he does this in a way that goes against his past, against everything that he has been or is. It’s false. His poems have nothing to do with that; they are honest and natural, full of details which make a vivid, brilliant poetry.

PB: Do you speak Romagnolo?

NG: Not really. When I read Guerra’s poems in Romagnolo dialect I have to read them in editions with facing translations. The dialect is very difficult. Pasolini also wrote wonderful poems in dialect and put together a great anthology of dialect poems.

PB: Have you ever wanted to write for the movies?

NG: I’ve made many attempts, but I’ve never succeeded in it.

PB: When I read the plays it occurred to me that film might be a medium you’d want to try some day.

NG: In fact I’d like to be able to but I just don’t know how to go about doing it. I love going to the movies, much more than I enjoy going to the theater, actually. I think perhaps I don’t have enough of a visual imagination to write for films. I see what I invent, but in a very private, probably incommunicable way. It’s hard to explain…

PB: In some writers the visual imagination doesn’t seem to count for much. But then there is Henry James, or Proust.

NG: Yes, in Proust one sees everything. But I hope that in my own work—not that I want to compare myself to Proust in any way—there’s an important sense of the visual, of the visualized. I see it all so vividly. It’s not that I don’t see what I imagine. If I don’t see it then I can’t write anything. What I mean to say is that I don’t have a very detailed vision, and perhaps that’s what is needed to write well for the cinema. Tonino Guerra has that kind of vision in his poems and at his best it comes through in the movies he makes. But I really don’t have what it takes to write film scripts.

PB: You were close to Pasolini, and I recall that you even appeared in at least one of his films. Did you learn any of the practical side of movie making at that time?

NG: No, I never learned any of that. I did know Pasolini well, yes. But the technical aspect of film never interested me. I do go to the movies all the time, though. I love Fellini. And Bergman is a great master. I just read his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, and enjoyed it tremendously. It’s such an honest book, I feel. And one understands so much more about the art by reading about the man in this case: his boyhood, his father. So many great films he made. Scenes from a Marriage is a masterpiece. Shame is another.

PB: That’s a hard one to take. Possibly the most painfully revealing film I’ve ever seen.

NG: Yes, painful and very hard. The hardest. Desperate. He is a great, great director. Only Fellini in my country seems to me a comparably great figure. Others are interesting in their own way, but usually without the poetry. I know that it is customary to say that Fellini is poetry, but it’s true, as it is true that others lack that quality.

PB: Forgive me if I shift rather abruptly to another matter I’d like to discuss with you—namely, your Jewish identity. There aren’t many Jewish characters in your work—the rather unattractive Polish doctor in La strada che va in citta and Franz in Tutti I Nostri Ieri are the only two that come to mind. Has your Jewish identity been important to you?

NG: My Jewish identity became extremely important to me from the moment the Jews began to be persecuted. At that point I became aware of myself as a Jew. But I came from a mixed marriage—my father was Jewish, my mother Catholic. My parents were atheists and therefore chose not to give us, the children, any religious instruction. They were totally non-observant. You might say that a Hebrew spirit dominated the household in the sense that my father had a very strong, very authoritarian character. And I suppose it’s true that many of the family friends were Jews, but many were not. So, while I did not have any sort of formal Jewish upbringing, I nevertheless felt my Jewishness very acutely during the war years (my first husband, Leone Ginzburg, was a Jew) and after the war, when it became known what had been done to the Jews in the camps by the Nazis. Suddenly my Jewishness became very important to me.

PB: In your essay on the Jews, written after the massacre at the Munich Olympic Games in ‘72, you speak of an involuntary identification with Jews despite your inveterate resistance to the idea that they or any other people are unique. And yet the essay develops a harshly anti-zionist position.

NG: My criticism extends to the terrorists and fanatics on both sides. It’s a terrible world we live in. But of course one can say that without being able to do anything about the sort of involuntary identification you mention. Others, for a variety of reasons, feel the identification in a very different, perhaps more powerful way.

PB: Surely that was true of Primo Levi.

NG: Yes, yes. He was another sort altogether. His death was a terrible blow for all of us. We never thought he would kill himself. He was a kind of reference point for us, a model of great serenity and balance. After he killed himself I realized that of course the memory of the camps can never be effaced in any survivor. So many of our great witnesses to that horror have committed suicide. But for every suicide there are always undoubtedly countless factors which must be appreciated. These are never simple matters. But I’m sure that the memory of the camps makes it impossible for one to completely accept life afterwards. And yet he was a person, as I remember him, who was extremely serene and ironic. In the end, though, the torment of his experience in the camps was intolerable.

PB: Would you say that in Italy he was chiefly appreciated for his writings on the holocaust?

NG: No, not only for those, but in general. He was recognized as an extremely important figure. He hated the word ‘holocaust’, though, and so do I. In Italian, at least, it has the distinct effect of ennobling something which cannot be ennobled. I feel “genocide” is a better, more accurately descriptive word. But, yes, he was recognized and respected in every imaginable sense.

PB: What are your feelings about suicide in general?

NG: I think that one can’t judge it as something good or bad. I think that suicide, in general, comes as a result of so many tiny matters and so many large matters which together make life intolerable. I don’t think it can be called an act of courage or an act of humility or cowardice. It’s really beyond the realm of judgment. So many survivors of the camps have killed themselves: Bettelheim, Amèry, Celan and Primo Levi. But each case is different, involving a variety of personal motives. The case of Pavese, for example, although he was not a concentration camp survivor, is one which was discussed a lot after his death. Pavese had a propensity for, an attraction to the idea of suicide all his life, from the time when he was a young man. But since he talked about it all the time we all thought that he would never go ahead with it. And even in his case there were so many different motives. Eventually they all added up and he must have felt there was no other escape.

PB: When Primo Levi died one person who wrote about him in The New York Times said—I still find it hard to believe—that Levi’s act was a great disappointment to us all and that this act of cowardice inevitably forced us to re-evaluate all of his work.

NG: But these are the words of a cretin! Also in Italy there were idiotic things written at the time.

PB: I wanted to ask you about your public life. Would you tell me about the elected government position you occupy?

NG: Well, I’m a member of the “Camera dei Deputati”—the Italian equivalent, I think, of your House of Representatives. I was elected by the Party of the Independent Left and now I’m serving my second and last term.

PB: How did you become involved in politics?

NG: Well, when I was asked to run for office I immediately said “No, I’m not a political person. I could never do such a thing because I don’t have the necessary qualities that one would need to perform well in office.” But they persisted, saying that I should try anyway, so I agreed to it with the understanding that I would be useless. But it turns out that despite the fact that I have no head for politics, I have become very passionately involved in my role as representative. By being a member of the Camera I come to learn about certain areas where much needs to be done in order for justice to prevail. It’s not that I intervene all the time. In fact, I intervene seldom since I detest speaking in public. Furthermore, I know my limitations and there are certain issues about which I know nothing and to which I am incapable of responding intelligently. But I’ve learned a great deal, and this knowledge has enabled me to write certain articles which I couldn’t have written before without having had this sort of profound understanding of certain matters. Of course I’m more passionate about some issues than others. The issue of adoption in this country, for example, has been very much at the center of my concerns for the last several years. I wrote a book about this problem, Serena Cruz1, because I felt that in this case there was an important battle to fight. And the battle must be fought.

PB: Did you first hear about the Serena Cruz case in the Camera?

NG: Yes, first and most forcefully in the Camera, but then it became such a famous case that I read and heard about it everywhere. The general response when the first interrogations regarding the case were made before the House was absolute silence. Even the president tried to intervene on behalf of the adoptive parents because she felt an injustice had taken place. But it was all for naught. Nothing could be done. The terrible thing is that cases like this continue to come up. I hear about them because ever since I wrote the book on Serena Cruz people write to me about their troubles. Desperate parents whose children have been taken away from them send me letters. Many of them are child-mothers whose babies are taken away from them simply for the reason that the mothers are poor. And this is wrong.

PB: I still don’t understand how the agency has the power to do this. The Giubergia, for example, Serena Cruz’s first adoptive parents, were never proved guilty. Isn’t that so?

NG: Whether they were guilty or not we still don’t know. Probably some illegality was committed. But, my God, punish the parents, not the child for the illegality! Even the father begged to be put in jail in order to spare the child. He was ready to serve a jail sentence.

PB: But how is it that legally the judges were able to take away the child?

NG: Because they are terribly powerful. And it’s right that they should be. It’s right that one should not be able to interfere with the decisions of judges. But the law should allow for the possibility of judging cases one at a time so as not to make children suffer.

PB: Do you know where Serena Cruz ended up or how she is doing?

NG: It seems that she was given to another adoptive family and that she’s happily relocated to this other set of parents. Let’s hope for her sake that this is true. But the trauma she’s suffered is there and there’s no denying it. And these poor unlucky people who first saved her from the orphanage in the Philippines where she had been sexually abused, half-starved, and allowed to remain so filthy that ear mites infested her ears, these people who did their best to nurse her back to good health have no recourse. This is not justice.

PB: The subtitle of your book is “The Real Justice”, and certainly you succeeded in persuading this reader at least about what the outcome of the case should have been. But I’ve spoken to some Italian friends of mine who feel very strongly that, in fact, justice was done, that the judge acted correctly.

NG: In my opinion justice was not done, and yet I’ve been savagely attacked for taking this position. There’s no doubt that somehow the Giubergia made a mistake. These are not sophisticated people; nor could they afford good lawyers. If they had received better advice, both initially when arranging to bring the child to Italy, and later when the investigation began, perhaps they would have fared better. But for a mistake, my God, you don’t make a child suffer! And the little boy, Serena’s foster brother, has in a sense been punished, too, since it was his sister that was taken away. Since then he has been terrified the same fate might befall him and refuses to go to school. I’m in touch with the family and they say that only now he is beginning to come around. To lose one’s little sister in such a brutal way is a serious matter.

PB: In your book you speak harshly about Italy. You say Italy has become a tepid country.

NG: Yes, but I also mention that there were people, as well, who tried to intervene. Even the Minister of Justice tried to intervene on her behalf. A great many people tried to save Serena, but we all failed. There was nothing we could do.

PB: Have you had the urge to write on behalf of other such cases?

NG: I write articles about this and that, but this case took me over in a special way. And it has had at least one good effect. An association for the protection of children is starting to get organized.

PB: But wasn’t the whole Serena Cruz horror the result of a so-called effort to “save children” on the part of the Agency to Protect Minors?

NG: Ironically, yes. But the Association that is being formed now is a private organization of parents of adopted children. It’s important to have such groups to work outside the official system, free from the judicial system. It must be noted, by the way, that there were judges who were absolutely opposed to the decision of the judges who decided the Serena Cruz case. But, unfortunately, a great number of judges and social workers are rigidly unable to judge cases in a human way. I’ve just heard of a case of a child-mother of nineteen with a seven month old baby. The mother was too poor to afford regular housing. When she received an eviction notice she applied to the housing authorities for free housing and instead of helping her they told her she was not entitled to have custody of her child because she could not afford to support it. They were about to put her child up for adoption. The girl is now in hiding, terrified that her baby will be taken away. Instead of trying to help her they thought it more efficient to take her baby. And there are plenty of such cases. The prevailing mentality sees that the solution of such cases lies in taking the child away from its parents without the consent of the parents. And this is unacceptable. You can’t take a child away from its parents unless there’s a serious reason—child abuse, for example. A civilized society should be able to offer such people help in the form of housing, stable employment, and so on.

PB: In your book you talked about how a certain kind of forward thinking Italian ridicules the Italy of tears, of obsessive idealization of the mother, and so on.

NG: Yes, the people who made a fuss about the loss suffered by the Giubergia family and so on were considered regressive in this sense, overly sentimental. And so now, instead of a society which values familial feeling, we have a cold society which is embarrassed by it.

PB: Your work has always turned on the subject of the family, almost as if you were always deliberately re-thinking family life, meditating on this or that aspect of marriage, friendship and infidelity and seeing how these affect families.

NG: Yes, I believe the family to be terribly important, even when it is obsessive or repressive or full of insidious germs which can pollute life. But it’s a necessary institution, a way in which children become adults, for which there’s no substitute.

PB: It’s certainly a great literary subject which has served authors for a long time. Have you ever thought of writing a family novel à la Tolstoy, for example, with lots of families?

NG: I’m no Tolstoy, that’s for certain! I’m a minor writer.

PB: Well, Chekhov was a major writer and he didn’t feel called upon to write huge Tolstoyan novels.

NG: I don’t know if I could write such a book. Every time I sit down to write a book I feel that I have to start from zero, that I have to re-learn how to write. Society is different now. By now the family is so disintegrated and so isolated. In the 1800’s it made more sense to write novels about large interconnected families. Perhaps this is another reason I don’t write such novels. Values have changed so much.

PB: So you feel that the only way to write about the family now is by writing short works about very particular situations?

NG: At least that’s my solution.

PB: When you wrote the book on the Manzoni family did you think first of writing it as a novel?

NG: Not at all. I wanted to plunge into a different kind of work altogether, to write something based entirely on fact, on research. I was not only intrigued with Manzoni himself, but with the whole family. The family’s story is what strikes me as more meaningful, painful, even tragic. I had to consult documents, read letters and so on. I didn’t invent anything in that book. I tried to refrain from commenting on the facts as much as I could because I wanted to present an accurate portrait of this unfortunate family. This family, and Manzoni himself, too, was truly unlucky. Many of his children died at an early age; others gave him cause for unhappiness in other ways. He had two wives; the second one turned him against the children of the first marriage. She only loved her own child who, by the way, was not without his own qualities. In short, I wanted to create a sort of fresco of the whole family, a family biography.

PB: When I read the Manzoni book the project reminded me in ways of the sort of thing your son, Carlo Ginzburg, might have undertaken. Not that he’s a biographer, or that you are an historian. But do you think you were aware of undertaking something more or less within the realm of your son’s work?

NG: Yes, it could be that I thought of Carlo and that his work influenced me. I’m very taken with the books he’s written.

PB: Have you ever been tempted to write an historical novel?

NG: No, I’ve never even used historical references in my novels. I was a terrible student of history in school. I’m not a good scholar. And I’ve always had a sort of inferiority complex about history. In writing The Manzoni Family I wanted to try something new and I really enjoyed myself doing it.

PB: For readers of my generation a book like All My Yesterdays reads like an historical novel, although for you it was something different.

NG: Of course. For me it was simply writing about the things I had known and experienced. It’s history now, but for me it was really a matter of dealing with my own time.

PB: You wrote your essay “The Little Virtues” a long time ago, really in another age. A number of American readers are very much taken with the piece while finding it a direct challenge to their familiar assumptions. Would you still offer parents the same advice with regard to the upbringing of their children or have your thoughts changed?

NG: I’m sure that I would write exactly the same thing; even in these difficult times one should only teach the big virtues, generosity more than anything else. The rest can be learned later on.

PB: Have you written about the virtue of generosity as a component of adult relationships? I think I can infer a good deal on this score from your writings on friendship, but I don’t recall that generosity is itself a theme of your essays.

NG: As you know, generosity is a complex idea, and I’ve thought about it mostly in connection with particular relationships or issues. Because I have known so many different writers I have often thought about what generosity means in a writer. Sometimes, as with other people you meet, you can tell about a writer at once. Though I only met her on one occasion I knew immediately that Nadine Gordimer was an enormously likeable, generous and admirable person, and that is what I felt over many years reading her work. On the other hand, I am not fond of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

PB: Do you mean you’re not fond of him as a person or that you don’t care for his work?

NG: No, not as a person and not as the author of the absurd declarations he’s made recently, criticizing Gorbachev and advancing irresponsible proposals. They haven’t convinced me one bit. I really wish that no one would interfere with Gorbachev in any way or try to place obstacles in his way. I feel that Gorbachev is a political genius and should be given more time to work out solutions that will keep his country viable. Solzhenitsyn’s anti-communism is a visceral thing and one can almost understand it. But the things he says about Russia are often absurd. And they don’t help matters. Sometimes one has a first reaction to a person which turns out to have been mistaken. But I have never liked Solzhenitsyn, and recent events don’t persuade me to revise my estimate. But there is a Russian whom I’ve read recently with great pleasure and that is Tsvetaeva. I’ve just read her two volumes of letters straight through. What a horrible life; my God, what suffering! Now there’s a suicide that doesn’t surprise me. Who could go on with such a life? And the additional posthumous blow: she asked a writer to care for her son after her death and then he didn’t lift a finger to help the child. A truly atrocious life. During the Revolution her life was horrendous, and afterwards, in exile as well. And then when her friends turned their backs on her, she was so alone. Terrible! Serena Vitali has translated her into Italian exceptionally well and the notes are very helpful and informative.

PB: Do you like to read biography?

NG: I adore biographies. But only true biographies: “so and so was born on such and such a day and died on such and such a day.” I don’t like embellished biographies.

PB: Do you wonder what your biographer will say about you eventually, how your story will be ‘embellished’?

NG: No, never. I honestly never think about such things.

PB: Often in the United States readers come to feel that they know something about writers by watching them in action at public events. Can you tell me a bit about the relationship between writers in Italy and the university? Do writers frequently get invited to universities to read their work or to give lectures?

NG: Not much. It’s not really done in general. For some reason, however, I’ve been invited many times, but I’ve always refused.

PB: Why?

NG: Because I prefer not to. I detest speaking in public. A few times I’ve gone to the schools to speak with students. And while I don’t love this either, I do it occasionally. Once I’m there answering their questions, engaging in a discussion with them, I’m fine. But it’s a strain for me and if I can avoid such occasions, I do. A journalist recently said in the newspapers that writers should keep their mouths shut as much as possible and I think he was probably right. Better to write than to speak.

PB: Do you feel it is a responsibility of the writer to write for the newspapers or in other ways to respond to contemporary events?

NG: I feel the need to do so. But I don’t feel it’s necessarily something all writers should do. Before writing the book, Serena Cruz, for example, I first wrote several articles on the subject for the newspapers. Every once in a while I feel compelled in this way to respond.

PB: When you are angered by something?

NG: Yes, I’m afraid these articles are usually born out of a sense of anger. When I hear in the Camera about something that enrages me I feel a responsibility to write about it in the newspapers.

PB: How long will you continue to serve in the Camera?

NG: After this term, I quit. I’ve served two terms already, which for a person like me, with no head for politics, is a lot.

PB: Can we hope to see anything new of yours in the bookstores before too long?

NG: Over a year ago I completed a translation from the French of a short book by Saul Friedlander, When Memory Comes, which I love very much. It should be coming out pretty soon. I wasn’t sure how to translate the title, however. In Italian the literal translation—Quando Viene il Ricordo—didn’t sound right. At first I thought to use Conoscenza e Ricordo, but it sounded too much like a collection of essays. Finally I settled on Poco a Poco, la Memoria. In Italian that sounds much better: Little by Little, Memory.

PB: I’m happy to know that you are translating what is one of my most treasured books.

NG: I saw the Salmagundi symposium on kitsch built around another book by Saul Friedlander. He seems an enormously kind and interesting man. I look forward to meeting him when he’s in Italy in December.

PB: He’s exactly as you imagine him from the book you’ve translated.

NG: I only hope the book will be out by then. I’m afraid I’m responsible for the most recent delay in its publication, however. The publisher had chosen a really hideous cover for the book and I complained so much they agreed to change it. Now the cover will be a wonderful painting by Egon Schiele of a little boy with another, smaller, more ghostly image of a boy next to him. That image represents for me an imaginary figure, or perhaps a memory. I’m actually a little nervous about the translation; I hope it came out well. Sometimes I think that French and Italian resemble each other too much, so that the obvious translation is sometimes misleading.

PB: I’ve wondered why, after you translated Swann’s Way, you didn’t go on to translate the whole of Remembrance of Things Past?

NG: Well, when I undertook to translate Proust I was very young. In 1937 Giulio Einaudi and Leone Ginzburg (whom I married in ‘38) proposed the project to me. It was crazy of them to propose that I do it and crazy for me to accept; nevertheless, I did. It was a crazy time and one projected crazy things. Leone, who was already a professor at the university, promised to help me. In fact the first sixty pages or so were done under his supervision. But then he became very busy with his resistance activities and he didn’t have time to oversee the work. And then, of course, he died and I had to carry on by myself. Anyway, I never went beyond the two Gallimard volumes of Swann’s Way. After that I gave up and others finished the job.

PB: So you were translating Proust all during the war?

NG: Well, I was supposed to be. The contract I signed in 1937 with Einaudi promised to deliver the entire manuscript by 1947. But I did other things as well during the war. My children were small and we had to move about quite a bit. While Leone was confined in the Abruzzi—in a little town called Pizzoli—in 1940 I managed to get through a large portion of the translation. I had brought with me the first two Gallimard volumes and felt that if I ever got through them it would be a miracle. I must have understood at some level that I wouldn’t go on after that, even then. Besides, I hadn’t been paid anything (the press was very poor then) and this gave me a certain freedom, I felt, to quit when I wanted.

PB: But you said you enjoy translating.

NG: I do, but I’m not a natural at it. And then I was just a beginner in every sense. Leone was really a gifted translator, but I knew from the start that I wasn’t. When I handed him my original draft of the first two pages he turned them back to me saying they were not very good. He told me that I should look up every single word, even those I felt I knew, just to be sure I had the best translation possible. I took his advice very literally and looked up every single word, even maison, from then on. I understood, finally, what a job of ants and horses translation is.

PB: Ants and horses?

NG: One has to be as exact and industrious as an ant and have the impetus, the strength, of a horse to pull ahead. But I was in love with Proust and this really carried me through the job.

PB: Is that the handsome edition of the book over there which I noticed when I came in?

NG: No, no. That was given to me in 1938, when Leone and I were married, by Santorre Debenedetti. But I didn’t dare carry anything so splendid with me to Abruzzo. I used a raggedy edition which I felt free to mark up.

PB: So you carried the Gallimard books and your translation around with you, even when you went to the Abruzzi?

NG: Yes, that and the Ghiotti dictionary.

PG: And when you had to leave Pizzoli in a hurry?

NG: Well, that’s another story.

PG: Go ahead. Tell me.

NG: Well, as I said, I had managed to translate quite a bit while we were in confinement. Then suddenly Mussolini fell and we were not constrained to remain in Pizzoli. Immediately Hitler took advantage of the unstable situation and invaded Italy. Leone went to Rome to continue his clandestine political activities and I stayed behind with the children. But I soon received word that the Germans were headed in my direction and Leone said that I should join him in Rome. I left the house in a hurry with the children and moved to the local pensione until I could make the next move. Of course, I took very little with me, certainly no books. The Germans arrived shortly thereafter, but my hosts at the pensione told them I was a Neapolitan cousin of theirs whose house and possessions—including, of course, all identity papers—had been destroyed by a bomb. They said I needed to get to Rome and asked the Germans to give me a lift. So I was taken to Rome with my children in a German military truck!

PB: And what happened to the manuscript?

NG: A neighbor went to the house right before the Germans ransacked it and took my books and papers and saved them for me until after the war. She hid them all that time under a sack of flour. Meanwhile, I hardly thought about those papers, and when I did I thought of them as lost like so much that was precious to me during that period.

PB: So when did your translation of the first two volumes appear?

NG: In 1946. And although I was greatly relieved, I was also disappointed. Certain mistakes had been corrected, but I wasn’t consulted about the corrections. There were many changes of which I didn’t approve.

PB: Like what?

NG: Oh, small matters, but nevertheless important. I had called the famous madeleine a “maddalenina,” which is really not at all ugly. But the editors decided to keep that word in French. Why, I don’t know. But last year Einaudi came out with my original translation, in which only the mistakes have been corrected. So I’m happy.

PB: You’ve translated Flaubert, too, haven’t you?

NG: Yes, in 1983 I translated Madame Bovary for an Einaudi series called “Writers Translated by Writers.” It was a wonderful project. Primo Levi translated Kafka’s The Trial, Calvino did Raymond Queneau’s The Blue Flowers.

PB: What are you working on now?

NG: Oh, small projects, introductions to new books or new editions of old books that I feel it’s important to somehow endorse. Things like that.

PB: Can we hope for more works of fiction?

NG: Yes, let’s hope…

Salmagundi #96 (1992)


  1. Serena Cruz is a Philippine girl whose Italian adoptive father claimed that she was his illegitimate daughter conceived on an earlier trip to the Philippines during the Marcos era when he had adopted Serena’s older foster brother. The Italian Railroad employee had, after her third birthday, returned to the Philippines to claim her and sign paternity papers. Since there was no adoption, per se, of the child, there were no adoption documents. When the Italian Agency to Protect Minors heard there was a Philippine child in their county and found there were no adoption papers, they prosecuted the father for illegal adoption and took the child away from the family. It was never established whether or not the father was indeed her legitimate father or whether this had just been a ruse to circumvent the very cumbersome and costly adoption laws both in Italy and in the Philippines. For example, since Cory Aquino was elected to office in the Philippines, it has been the law that adopting parents must reside in the Philippines at least six months—hardly a possibility for most working people—after adopting a child before taking the child out of the country.