JUDY KRAVIS

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Monday, 29 July 2019

I set into Natalia Ginzburg's Family Lexicon one night and gasped, without knowing why.

I was inside a family constructed around their habits and the way they talked, the bumpy rhythms of recollection, the tedium of what you find there: you always say the same thing, it's boring, jackass. But it's consistent, it's voiced, it forms bedrock.

Having grown up in a family beset by silence more than by speech, I move into this household in Turin in the 1930s, listen to these people, move about their world, breath drawn, disbelieving—that anyone could say this much, this clearly, without emotion, without judgement.

The habits of our language are the habits of our world. Discuss.

I first read Natalia Ginzburg when I was twenty-something and found her writing dull, but, as with Schubert songs, which my mother said I might like better when I was older, now she seems lucid and brave, her rhythms her own.

No, not brave. Honest. No, not honest, free. Not free, freed. This is family plainspeak. She had to be this blunt and if you're patient you'll find out why.  Her family was italian jewish catholic anti-fascist and that's enough for anybody in this life. She doesn't judge, she releases her family life through the things they said to each other, the clothes they wore and what they had for breakfast.

Halfway through the book we read, in mid-page, in a sentence, that the narrator married Leone Ginzburg. This is not a 'reader, I married him'. Her father flew into a rage as he did when any of his children got married, and that's it, she becomes his Ginzburg daughter.
We got married, Leone and I, and we went to live in the apartment on via Pallaglio.
Twenty-five pages later, Leone is dead.
On the wall in his office the publisher had hung a portrait of Leone; his hat slightly at an angle, his eyeglasses low on his nose, his thick black hair, his deeply dimpled cheeks, his feminine hands. Leone had died in prison, in the German section of Regina Coeli prison one icy February in Rome during the German occupation.
By the time Natalia Ginzburg enters her own story, by the time she grows up, we realise we have been curious all along, waiting for her to emerge from a hundred pages of watching and listening to her family and their friends, neighbours, absorbing the talk in which she grew.

Family Lexicon won the Strega Prize For Fiction in 1963. That was a day for truth.

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