“Family Lexicon” by Natalia Ginzburg

224 pp. New York Review Books Classics

Afterword by Peg Boyers, translated from the Italian by Jenny McPhee

Reviewed by Natalia Nebel  Family_Lexicon_1024x1024 (1)

Natalia Ginzburg (née Levi, 1916-1991) is one of Italy’s most important 20th century writers, a master of many genres who is just as valued for her essays and plays as for her fiction. She received Italy’s Strega Prize for the novel Family Lexicon (1963), and the Bagutta Prize for the novel The Manzoni Family (1984). In addition, she was an activist, as her three brothers and her first husband Leone Ginzburg were. She experienced the painful loss of her husband in 1944: Leone was tortured to death by the German forces occupying Rome. Like many anti-Fascists during the 1930s, Natalia Ginzburg became a Communist, but her political views changed as Italy’s post-war circumstances changed, and the Communist meetings that she attended seemed to her “profoundly sad and boring.” In 1983 she was elected to the Italian Parliament as an Independent and served a brief term.

Ginzburg’s family moved from Palermo to Turin when she was a child, and Family Lexicon is a fictionalized view of her life growing up in that northern city within an intensely intellectual and creative home in the 1930s and 1940s. Her father, Giuseppe Levi, was an important histologist whose relentlessly logical way of looking at the world made for a household in which no idea or ideal went untested. An atheist of Jewish heritage, Giuseppe was a brilliant, demanding man who ruled his household in authoritarian style. Natalia’s Catholic mother Lidia Tanzi was his opposite — a lighthearted, warm and forgiving woman who loved language and stories. In Family Lexicon, it’s easy to see that Natalia Ginzburg inherited her father’s intellectual independence and her mother’s creativity and passion for language.

This New York Review of Books 2017 publication of Family Lexicon couldn’t be more timely given its setting in an Italy facing and fighting Fascism, authoritarianism, antisemitism, and destructive nationalism.

Natalia Ginzburg’s siblings – Gino, Paola, Alberto, and Mario – were older than she and her first-person description of family life is from the point of view of a youngest child who hears and observes all that her unconventional parents and siblings say and do. Language is central to her family’s identity, and the guiding thread in Family Lexicon. The Levi family’s private language consists of half-remembered songs, nonsense verses, Lidia’s childhood poems, and the nick-names  given to neighbors and family. A psychologist uncle of theirs is called the Lunatic because of his patients, and Lidia consistently breaks into songs that she composed when young such as, “I am Don Carlos Tradid, and I’m a student in Madrid.” In contrast to Lidia, her husband Giuseppe chooses words to belittle everyone, including his children. Family Lexicon begins, in fact, with Ginzburg describing the derogatory words that her father invariably turns to when being critical, “nitwit” and “negro.”

Ginzburg’s decision to write an autobiographical novel from the heart of domesticity means that the outside world penetrates only a little at a time. Through observing her family and their interactions outside their home, she gives us an unvarnished picture of pre World War II Italy, its politics and art scene. Readers who aren’t interested in European history will become interested in Ginzburg’s family, and through this learn about the Italy of the time. When her parents hide the socialist politician Filippo Turati in their home while he waits for the finalization of his escape plans to Corsica, Ginzburg writes about how difficult it was for her not to tell anyone, including her friend Lucio, who one day says to her, “There’s a man in your apartment with a beard who rushes out of the living room whenever I go in.” Two children could have put an important Italian leader at risk: history as everyday life. Ginzburg’s response to her friend Lucio becomes part of Family Lexicon’s charming humor: “…He’s old, sick, and in hiding! He mustn’t be disturbed!”

Soon after, her brothers Gino and Alberto are arrested and held in prison for several months, and Mario is forced into exile in France–all for anti-Fascist activities. Giuseppe Levi is also arrested and held in prison for two months because of his three sons’ actions. Despite these crises and the increasing power of Mussolini’s government, war takes the Ginzburg family by surprise. Until then, Lidia, whose temperament is as inclined to happiness as Giuseppe’s is to surliness, would say when she headed out of their home, “I’m going to see if fascism is still on its feet.”

A comparison to Giorgio Bassani’s novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1962) is appropriate here, in that the Finzi-Contini family is destroyed because it takes too long to accept the realities of racial laws even though they are Jewish.  In contrast, the Levi family is not destroyed: Lidia rises to the challenge of meeting the new Italian realities. After Natalia marries the prominent anti-Fascist writer and activist Leone Ginzburg, Leone is forced into exile (1941-1943) in a poor town in the Abruzzo region as punishment for his activities. Natalia follows him into exile, accompanied by their two children, and Lidia often visits them. She brings them clothes and food, and despite the hard circumstances, she begins to expand the lexicon, calling the field in which Natalia found a dead horse, “the dead horse field,” and nicknaming another exile “Shinny Shins.”

Leone’s exile comes to an end in 1943 after Italy’s surrender to the Allies. Soon after, Natalia relocates with him and their two children to Rome. Natalia begins to work for the Einaudi Press, which goes on to become one of Italy’s biggest publishing houses. Leone begins printing an underground newspaper. After the Italian surrender, the German army moves north from southern Italy, and begins its occupation of Rome and northern Italy. In 1944 Leone Ginzburg is arrested and tortured to death by the German occupying force. Natalia and her children flee.

Ginzburg writes about the loss of Leone and the terrible times that she, her family and country go through with a passion that’s always girded by restraint. She describes both her father’s hiding from the Germans and the lack of food in Italy with her consistently light touch. Rather than going into detail about when and why her father is eventually forced into hiding, she describes how Giuseppe for all his brilliance is incapable of remembering that he’s in hiding:

“He (Giuseppe Levi) was advised to hide because the Germans were searching for and deporting Jews… his new name was Giuseppe Lovisatto. When he went to visit friends… he always gave his real name. ‘Levi. No, I mean, Lovisatto,’ he’d say. He was then warned that he’d been recognized and left for Florence.”

And in the next paragraph, when referring to lack of food:

“There was little to eat in Florence and my mother would say, as she gave each of my children an apple at the end of a meal, ‘An apple for the little ones and a devil to peel them for the big ones.’ And she also told them [about former neighbor] Signora Grassi who every evening during the other war would divide a walnut into four pieces…And she gave her four children… a piece each.”

Ginzburg never emphasizes her losses above the losses of others, and it’s thanks to her self-effacing nature that Family Lexicon attains its universality. That the world Ginzburg discovered outside of her home is one in which cruelty and loss are commonplace is Ginzburg’s tragedy, which in turn becomes ours. Jenny McPhee’s sensitive translation captures the pain beneath the family’s strength and humor perfectly.

Late in the book, as Ginzburg along with the rest of Europe adjusts to peace, she writes of what she calls the “burden, the exhaustion, and the loneliness of the daily grind, which is the only way we have of participating in each other’s lives, each of us lost and trapped in our own parallel solitude.” Despite her intimate knowledge of despair, Ginzburg affirms life and survival by becoming a prolific writer, maintaining her involvement in Italian political life despite her disillusionment, eventually remarrying and having another child.

While this isn’t the first translation of Family Lexicon, the fact that it’s been given such an outstanding re-translation and that it’s been published by New York Review Books confirms its international importance. That it seems written precisely for our times is more evidence of Family Lexicon’s staying power.


Natalia Nebel previously reviewed The Communist for ACM. Jenny McPhee recently made the shortlist for the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA)  2018 Italian Prose in Translation Award for her translation of  Family Lexicon. The award judges hailed McPhee’s translation as “the best English version yet of this genre-defying classic.”

The winner of the award will be announced during ALTA’s annual conference, which runs from October 31 through November 4, 2018.