This is the fourth book by Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1991) to be published by Daunt Books, following on from Family Lexicon, The Little Virtues and Voices in the Evening. Essayist and novelist, Sicilian-born, Ginzburg was an extraordinary writer, being able to get under the skin of family life, public and private connections, in a deceptively simple prose style marked by clarity, precision and humour. Her unmistakable style emerges regardless of the translator. Ginzburg wrote Family Lexicon in London in the early 1960s, and pointedly about the English and their ways in The Little Virtues at the same time. With that other Sicilian writer, Andrea Camilleri, known for his Montalbano novels, their near contemporary, Cesare Pavese, and the younger Elena Ferrante, Ginzburg has a growing readership in the UK. An anti-fascist, member of the Italian Communist Party, Ginzburg worked for the publisher, Einaudi, in Turin in the Forties, published early and continued to develop her style over the years. She was elected to the Italian parliament as an Independent in 1983.
Happiness, as Such is partly an epistolary novel, in the tradition of Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771), where comedy arises from the differences in descriptions and understanding of events and places from letters sent home by Squire Bramble and members of his entourage as they tour the country. Here the letters sent arise from an absent son, Michele, who has left Rome for London to escape the dangers of his radical political connections, and the comedy arises from the characters observations and one-liners and, as in Camilleri’s novels, in the fringe characters and action elsewhere. Michele belongs to a large, dysfunctional family, and his absence somehow manages to link his dispersed relatives, friends and lover into complicated web of events revealing how they cope in adversity.
Minna Zallman Proctor has translated Caro Michele (1973) into Happiness, as Such and the English title works brilliantly as it addresses Ginzburg’s attempt to reveal the diverse ways in which people cope with disappointments and mistakes. Deborah Levy’s back cover observation on the effect of reading Ginzburg as both calming and thrilling is spot on. The writing is profoundly alive from the short sentenced opening page into Adriana’s first letter to her son. The reader immediately hears and gets the character, a bossy, melancholic woman with a pithy turn of phrase and the origins of much humour and perception. Here she is in full flow:
‘When you go to see him, don’t take your usual twenty-five pairs of dirty
socks. The butler, I can’t remember if his name is Enrico or Federico,
isn’t up to the extra burden of managing your dirty laundry right now.
He’s exhausted and overwhelmed. He doesn’t sleep at night because your
Father keeps calling him. And it’s the first time he’s ever been a butler.
He was a mechanic before. Plus, he’s an idiot.’
This is essentially a letter of complaint and Ginzburg draws in a great deal of social detail into her characterisation and subsequent action. The reader is carried along by the narrative force and almost misses the relentless candour and deft one-liners, such as her observation on Osvaldo, Michele’s friend, that ‘He’s polite. It’s the kind of politeness that makes you feel full, as if you’ve eaten too much jam.’ Whilst Adriana’s letters are startling, and full of life, Michele’s are brief, evasive and can be read for what they don’t say. His mother in contrast has much to say.
Gradually the complexity of Michele’s life and habits emerge. The absent centre is diffused throughout a set of connections laid bare before and after his death. Ginzburg uses this platform to evaluate what it is to be happy and the various states of happiness, as such, and is never short of new revelation and comic insight.
The exchange between Michele’s sister Angelica and his ex-girlfriend, Mara, who is an unpleasant deceiver and on the make shows how generosity can elicit honesty from a scoundrel. Angelica writes ‘I think that we should care about your baby and not worry about whether or not it’s his baby, by us I mean me and my mother and sisters, and I don’t know why I feel that way, but not everything a person feels has to have an explanation, and to be perfectly honest I don’t believe that obligations should have explanations.’ Mara responds that although she is broken and unreliable, she must tell her that the baby is not Michele’s. She writes: ‘I don’t want to deceive you. You said it so well: we don’t need reasons for what we feel we need to do or not do.’ She then proceeds with her tale of disaster, bored but happy, to emphasise her need for assistance in the face of uncertainty.
I don’t want to reveal too much of the narrative and spoil what is a great read. I shall end by stating that Ginzburg is adept at the gradual filtering of salient detail and, like Chekhov and Carver, at the unsaid, as well as like Ferrante at the full and rounded revelation. This extraordinarily tender and life-affirming novel, by one of the great Italian writers, repays rereading.
David Caddy 22nd October 2019