The Little Virtues

Natalia Ginzburg was an Italian novelist and essayist whose work I have long admired. She lived both before and after the Fascist years in Italy. Her first husband, Leone Ginzburg, was tortured and executed in 1944 for his anti-fascist activities; her second, Gabrielle Baldini, was a professor of English and is described in several of the essays in her collection, The Little Virtues.

This collection is divided into two parts, written a various times during these two marriages that on my recent reading seem to account for their different styles and moods. Whereas the first set is composed of short, lively, upbeat paragraphs, the second consist of long, monotonous opinionated ones. In “My Vocation” about her life as a writer, she says:

“But whether we are happy or unhappy leads us to write one way or another. When we are happy our imagination is stronger; when we are unhappy our memory works with greater vitality. Suffering makes the imagination weak and lazy…it is difficult for us to turn our eyes away from our own life and our own state, from the thirst and restlessness that pervade us.”

Perhaps the most widely anthologized of her essays included in this volume is “He and I” that I first read in Philip Lopate’s classic collection The Art of the Personal Essay. The following excerpt is the way she describes her long relationship with her second husband.

“He always feels hot, I always feel cold….He speaks several languages well; I do not speak any well…He has an excellent sense of direction, I have none at all…He loves museums, and I will go if I am forced to but with an unpleasant sense of effort and duty. He loves libraries and I hate them…He loves traveling, unfamiliar foreign cities, restaurants. I would like to stay at home all the time and never move…He is not shy; I am shy…I don’t know how to dance and he does. I don’t know how to type and he does….I don’t know how to sing and he does.”

Each time I read this and other such comparisons in “He and I,” I am reminded of a similar comparison Woody Allen made of his relationship with Mia Farrow that I've mentioned before. “She doesn't like the city and I adore it. She loves the country and I don't like it. She doesn't like sports at all and I love sports. She loves to eat in, early -- 5:30, 6 -- and I love to eat out, late. She likes simple, unpretentious restaurants; I like fancy places…. She would love to take a boat down the Amazon or go up to Mount Kilimanjaro; I never want to go near those places. … She has raised nine children now with no trauma and has never owned a thermometer. I take my temperature every two hours in the course of the day."

But at the end of “He and I” Ginzburg describes a walk she and Baldini took before they were married that casts another light upon their differences.

“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.”

Viva le differenze!

At a glance you can tell her essays are moody, some reflecting periods of a suffering that can never be overcome no matter how many years go by. She says she will never get over the war years in Italy. And yet some of her essays depict days of sunshine, cherished friends, and “a certain climate in which feelings, instincts and thoughts can flourish.

This was the spirit conveyed in her first essay “Winter in the Abruzzi,” written when, together with their children, she and her first husband were exiled to this remote section of Italy away from books, friends, the cinema and the many events that filled their days, including their anti-fascist activities. “There are only two seasons in the Abruzzi: summer and winter. The spring is snowy and windy like the winter, and the autumn is hot and clear like the summer.”

In spite of the sadness that took hold of them there, their lives unfolded much as before, with new friends who offered them protection and the resources they needed to live relatively comfortably. In spite of the isolation and hardships they endured during their three years in the Abruzzi, she concludes,

“But that was the best time of my life and only now that has gone from me forever—only now do I realize it.”