FAMILY LEXICON, a novel by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Jenny McPhee, reviewed by Robert Sorrell

by Natalia Ginzburg
translated by Jenny McPhee
New York Review Books, 224 Pages

reviewed by Robert Sorrell

Right before falling asleep, my father becomes totally incoherent. If you speak to him, he will respond with words, they just won’t make any sense. Neither will he have any memory of your conversation. (He passed this trait on to me; often to my detriment, I employ it regularly.) Once, when my dad had floated off into this near-unconscious state, he started talking about the Secret Service. From that point on, to spout these nocturnal babblings has become known in my family as “Secret Servicing.”

Families, social groups, and even workplaces often have phrases and words just like these. “Inside jokes” is a common term for some of them, but not all fall neatly into this category. For many of these words and phrases, a new definition or usage, with nuance beyond the punchline, has been created for a small group of people. This idea is the cornerstone of Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon.

Now in a new translation by Jenny McPhee (and with a new English title), Family Lexicon is Natalia Ginzburg’s Strega Prize winning memoir/novel of life in Italy before, during, and after World War II, Lessico famigliare, first published in 1963. Ginzburg is known mainly in this country for being a “writer’s writer,” a phrase which is often used to compensate for an author’s lack of fame. But in Ginzburg’s case, perhaps there’s a bit more to it; her essays are often assigned on writing workshop syllabi alongside favorites like Joan Didion, James Baldwin, and George Orwell. A quick Internet search for  “Natalia Ginzburg” and “syllabus” turns up countless options. In fact, it was in a creative writing class where I was first introduced to her work, the devastatingly simple essay “He and I.”

The essay begins, “He always feels hot. I always feel cold. In the summer when it really is hot he does nothing but complain about how hot he feels. He is irritated if he sees me put a jumper on in the evening. He speaks several languages well; I do not speak any well.” Ginzburg continues this way for a few paragraphs. Yet somehow out of these clichés and simple sentences, Ginzburg draws a complicated portrait of a relationship. As in Family Lexicon, the way Ginzburg is treated by men is disturbing. And in her exacting narration, it’s never clear whether if the relationship produces much love.

But as simple as much of Ginzburg’s prose may be, she has a great ability to slip in poetic sentences or paragraphs that cut straight to the emotions of a piece. She writes later, in Dick Davis’ English translation of “He and I,” of her first meetings with her husband (“he”), the intellectual Gabriele Baldini:

If I remind him of that walk along the Via Nazionale he says he remembers it, but I know he is lying and that he remembers nothing; and I sometimes ask myself if it was us, these two people, almost twenty years ago on the Via Nazionale, two people who conversed so politely, so urbanely, as the sun was setting; who chatted a little about everything perhaps and about nothing; two friends talking, two young intellectuals out for a walk; so young, so educated, so uninvolved, so ready to judge one another with kind impartiality; so ready to say goodbye to one another for ever, as the sun set, at the corner of the street.

Natalia Ginzburg

Ginzburg is often lauded for her prose’s “artlessness,” a trait which makes her ever more fashionable in creative writing circles given the current fetishization of “spare” writing, prose without an extra comma, or god forbid, an adverb. It is true that Ginzburg’s prose is, for the most part, quite spare, and in her nonfiction it is remarkable how little she shares about herself. She serves, most often, as narrator, not protagonist, of her essays. Her own personal thoughts, actions, or words don’t intrude on the narrative of Family Lexicon until around page 120, and she only uses one sentence to tell readers of her courtship and marriage to Leone Ginzburg. And yet, despite this extreme simplicity and her almost monotone narration, as in “He and I,” every now and then she slips in moments of reflection. This is particularly true of her writing on the war. World War II remains in the shadows for most of the work but in moments it appears, as in this paragraph right above a conversation between Natalia and her brother about whether they feel more or less rich now that they are married. She writes:

For years now, Turin was full of German Jews who’d fled Germany. Some of them were even assistants in my father’s laboratory. They were people without a country. Maybe, soon, we too would be without a country, forced to move from one country to another, from one police station to the next, without work or roots or family or homes.

Ginzburg intersperses little paragraphs and sentences like this throughout the book, and they are in part what allow her to do so much with so little. She doesn’t reflect much, but when she does, she makes sure it counts.

In Family Lexicon, Ginzburg also proves to have been a keen observer from a young age. The work (which has alternately been called a memoir, a novel, and an autobiographical novel but, for all intents and purposes is “true”) covers around thirty years of Ginzburg’s life, from her childhood in Turin in the 1920s and 30s, through her first marriage to anti-fascist Leone Ginzburg, through Italy’s reconstruction and reorganization after the end of World War II. Along the way, the story of the Levis (Natalia’s parent’s name and hers until her first marriage) and their wide circle of acquaintances and friends is narrated chronologically, with the “family sayings” acting almost as mantras throughout the work.

These sayings are part of what must’ve made Family Lexicon a particularly difficult book to translate, and are certainly part of what makes it an odd book to read in translation. Many of the sayings consist of puns, plays on the way a word is spelled or sounds (the Levis say “lend gear” for “lend an ear”), and silly or nonsense words. In Jenny McPhee’s translation a choice selection of these come across as “nitwittery,” “dribble drabble,” and “doodledums” (as well as the word “taradiddling” which to many readers, myself included, may seem to be a made up, but is not). Many come out of the mouth of Ginsburg’s father, Giuseppe Levi, a man who looms large in Family Lexicon and contributes more than his fair share to the long list of family words and phrases, one of his personal favorites being “Jackass!”

Giuseppe is a bit of a tyrant, a contrarian with the loud mouth and strong hand to ensure that he is heard over all others. He is constantly criticizing his children and his wife, Natalia’s mother, Lidia. He is also resistant to almost any idea had by someone else. After one of his sons Alberto becomes a doctor and Lidia says she should visit his office for some ailment, Giuseppe says things like, “Do you think that klutz Alberto knows anything? … I’ll give you a pill!” Late in the book he is asked to hold a political rally since he is running for office. He was told he only had to lead one rally and could say whatever he liked. A prominent biologist, he decides to spend the entire speech talking about science. The crowd is totally bewildered until at one point, Ginzburg reveals, he “happened to mention Mussolini and the fact that he usually referred to him as the ‘Jackass from Predappio.’ The audience erupted into resounding applause and my father looked around him, now stupefied himself.”

An equally idiosyncratic moment occurs during an air raid, when Lidia begs Giuseppe to come down to the cellar. “‘Nitwitteries,’” he replies, “‘If the building collapses, the cellar will certainly collapse too! The cellar is hardly safe! This is an utter nitwittery!’”

This moment is an accurate portrayal of their relationship, which is both combative and oddly loving. The book’s great mystery, as discussed in Peg Boyer’s afterword in this edition, is how Giuseppe becomes in many ways the story’s hero. Toward the book’s end, his sheer exuberance and energy overcome his despotic tendencies, making his outbursts oddly endearing. Yet while Giuseppe is an intoxicating character, I think Boyer and others don’t give credit to Lidia and the other members of the Levi family who are occasionally pushed off the page by Giuseppe’s loud voice or strong arm. They are, nonetheless, what gives the story its texture and its unexpected insights. Giuseppe is a cartoon; Lidia is a person. Lidia is also the source of much of the text’s joy. While Giuseppe is busy giving his opinions (usually negative) on anything he sees, Lidia sings made-up songs like the family favorite, “I am Don Carlos Tadrid, and I’m a student in Madrid!” And left untouched in the Giuseppe-friendly afterword is the strange fact that a prominent anti-fascist led his family in such a (there’s no other word for it) fascist way.

In McPhee’s translation, Giuseppe’s rantings, Lidia’s songs and jokes, and the rest of the Levi family’s sayings are vivid and entertaining. The characters leap off the page in 3-D, making the experience of reading Family Lexicon far more enjoyable than what one might expect of a memoir about the life of a family of Italian Jews under fascism and German occupation. This new edition also comes with extensive notes, which anyone without an encyclopedic knowledge of Italian political and cultural figures of the time will find very useful. It is also useful in explaining some of the more uncomfortable word choices, particularly the word “negro.” Giuseppe throws this word constantly at his children at his wife, at strangers, and its use is frankly alarming in the work. (Past translations have taken steps to avoid this particular word, rephrasing it as “yahoos”–Woolf’s 1997 translation entitled The Things We Used to Say–or using the Italian “negrigura”–D.M. Low’s 1967 translation, Family Sayings–in Italics.) McPhee explains her choice in the endnotes, noting that while “negro” and “negrigura” were commonly used in the Judeo-Italian Venetian dialect Ginzburg’s father absorbed as a child, and that according to the director of the Venice Center for International Jewish Studies, Shaul Bassi, the words “never had overtly racial content,” Ginzburg “was very aware of the words’ racial significance,” and McPhee didn’t want to lose any of this potential meaning. McPhee took a similar approach with the title. Originally titled Lessico famigliare, the work has previously been translated as Family Sayings or The Things We Used to Say. McPhee’s title, Family Lexicon, has a certain technicality to it, but it also manages to capture the simplicity of the original while squeezing a bit more meaning into those two words.

This characteristic gives the text a somewhat academic feel in its approach to language and its extensive notation, but the tone and character of McPhee’s prose is airy and crystal clear, just like Ginzburg’s, or at least, just like translations of Ginzburg’s work I’ve read by other translators. And this is good because Family Lexicon is a deeply funny, charming, and human work. There is hardship, plenty of it—Natalia’s first husband, Leone Ginzburg is tortured to death by Nazis towards the end of World War II—but at its core Family Lexicon is written with the kind of humor and deep humanity that could only be mustered about such topics by someone who’d actually lived through them.

Early in Family Lexicon Ginzburg writes, “If my siblings and I were to find ourselves in a dark cave or among millions of people, just one of those phrases or words would immediately allow us to recognize each other. Those phrases are our Latin, the dictionary of our past.” Family Lexicon brings the reader inside the family, teaching us this personal Latin. What Ginzburg achieves in the work is not necessarily a triumph of pathos or empathy, or even one of intellect. She simply allows us to feel that we are part of an experience. She welcomes us into her family, through language. And yet, at the same moment, this closeness is mitigated by the fact that we are reading in English. Don’t get me wrong, I deeply enjoyed McPhee’s new translation. But maybe one day I’ll learn Italian, so that maybe I too can speak out and be recognized as part of the family.

robert-sorrellRobert Sorrell is a writer and photographer living in Philadelphia. He recently graduated from the University of Chicago’s English program and has a piece of narrative nonfiction forthcoming from Mosaic Art & Literary Journal.



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