JUDY KRAVIS

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Wednesday, 28 December 2022

WOMEN IN 1944

In 1944 Natalia Ginzburg published an essay about women in the short-lived Italian journal Mercurio. This was recently republished by The New York Review of Books together with a letter from the journal's editor, Alba de C├ęspedes. These are women of my mother's generation, or a little older, and, while I can more easily read Natalia Ginzburg's novels as independent of era, an essay plants itself in its time, speaks clearly from my mother's generation despite the fact I never heard my mother talk of the position of women, except insofar as she provided a foil, a milder cushion for the views of her friend Gertie, who never married or had children and was vehement on the subject of men.  

The image that dominates Natalia Ginzburg's essay and her friend's response is the well of melancholy into which women fall, which accounts both for their pain and for their complicity.

The truth is two women will understand each other thoroughly when they start to talk about the dark well they fall into, and they can exchange many impressions about wells and the absolute impossibility of communicating with others, of accomplishing something worthwhile, no matter how hard they try, and about the floundering to get back to the surface.

Her friend Alba responds warmly to the essay, but adds a note of disagreement.

But—unlike you—I think these wells are our strength. Because every time we fall into the well we descend to the deepest roots of our being human, and in returning to the surface we carry inside us the kinds of experiences that allow us to understand everything that men—who never fall into the well—will never understand.

The gender porosity of our era may dull the force of their debate. The well is open to all these days. Which is probably a good thing, even if an unwieldy means to achieve the privilege of melancholy.

I would like to speak to you at length about the suffering (women) experience in the well, because all suffering is in a woman's life; but then, to be perfectly honest, I should also talk about the joy they find there. 

But I can't talk to you about that today because I find myself—as is so often the case— in the well.


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