More On and From Natalia Ginzburg: One of the Great Writers of the 20th Century


Reintroducing Natalia Ginzburg, One of the Great Italian Writers of the 20th Century

CreditPatricia Wall/The New York Times

By Parul Sehgal


The voice is instantly, almost violently recognizable — aloof, amused and melancholy. The metaphors are sparse and ordinary; the language plain, but every word load-bearing. Short sentences detonate into scenes of shocking cruelty. Even in middling translations, it is a style that cannot be subsumed; Natalia Ginzburg can only sound like herself.

Ginzburg died in 1991, celebrated as one of the great Italian writers. Her work is making its way again into the Anglophone world, encouraged, perhaps, by the popularity of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Ginzburg’s 1963 autobiographical novel, “Family Lexicon,” was published in an agile new translation by Jenny McPhee two years ago, and two other works of fiction, “The Dry Heart” and “Happiness, as Such,” have just been reissued, one in a new translation.

The family was her great obsession; it is “where everything starts,” she once said, “where the germs grow.” The families in these newly available books are petri dishes of fizzing dysfunction.

“The Dry Heart,” a novella translated with mirrorlike polish by Frances Frenaye, had fallen out of print. It begins bluntly: “I shot him between the eyes,” the narrator tells us, after killing her husband. “I had known that sooner or later I should do something of the sort.” There was a mistress; a baby that died; desperate and failed attempts to conceive another — we learn all this in the first few pages. The mystery of the novel, its coiling allure, is not what happens or why but how. How does this woman, so dazed and daffy (like many Ginzburg heroines) — a woman prone to napping, not decisive action — arrive at this murderous point?

We are presented a portrait of marriage in its loneliness and awkwardness, a dense braid of ambivalence. What truly terrifies the narrator, we learn, is not that she hates her husband but that after everything — after the grief and infidelity — she finds herself falling in love with him again, and more wretchedly dependent than ever.

Natalia GinzburgCreditArchivio Storico Einaudi

This book is a Roman candle — quick and explosive. “Happiness, as Such,” translated by Minna Zallman Proctor, burns slower and reveals more of Ginzburg’s natural sympathy and wit. A family discovers that its beloved only son, Michele, has fled town, leaving chaos in his wake: debts, a girlfriend who might have just given birth to his child, a male friend who was possibly also his lover and the small matter of a machine gun that needs disposing.

The novel is told in letters, mainly to Michele from his mother — a savant of passive aggression who bullies and wheedles and bleeds onto the page. “I sometimes think about how little time we’ve spent together, you and me, and how little we know each other,” she writes. “I think you’re a moron. But I don’t know if you’re a moron or maybe secretly wise.” We’re all suspended somewhere between these poles, the writer included; few writers make as liberal and effective use of the first-person-plural narration.

Where does style come from? Is it knowingly constructed or unconsciously secreted? Invented or inherited? These questions dog me whenever I read Ginzburg, whose thumbprint is so unmistakable, so inscribed by her time, yet whose work stands so solidly that it requires no background information to appreciate. “Of course I wrote about the war,” she once said. “I was formed by the war because that was what happened to me. I think of a writer as a river: you reflect what passes before you. The trees pass, and the houses; you reflect what is there.”

Ginzburg was born in Palermo, in 1916, to a prominent family of left-wing intellectuals. Their home was a raucous salon, memorialized in “Family Lexicon.” It was the family dinner table, she said, that was the source of her famously direct style; as the youngest of five children, she learned to get her point across quickly and crisply. She married Leone Ginzburg, a teacher and leading antifascist organizer who was sent into internal exile, in Abruzzo, during World War II. Natalia and the couple’s children spent much of that time in Abruzzo with him, and she turned to writing. “Dear Natalia, stop having children and write a book that is better than mine,” her friend Cesare Pavese goaded the 25-year-old Ginzburg by postcard. She did, publishing her first novel, “The Road to the City,” in 1942 under a pseudonym to circumvent laws that banned Jews from publishing.

Leone Ginzburg was arrested in 1943 and tortured to death in a Nazi prison. “I got to know grief very well — a real, irremediable and incurable grief that shattered my life, and when I tried to put it together again I realized that I and my life had become something irreconcilable with what had gone before. Only my vocation remained unchanged,” Natalia later recalled. “At first I hated it, it disgusted me, but I knew very well that I would end up returning to it, and that it would save me.”

The war is not merely her subject, however; it is the weather in her work, the foundation on which her stories are based — the randomness, confusion, lack of resolution or explanation. And above all, her skepticism of happiness — and her passion for writing about it. Her characters are forever wishing each other happiness “if there is such a thing as happiness,” or noting that it exists only in recollection. “It is like water, one only realizes when it has run away,” she wrote in her novel “Voices in the Evening.” But water can be caught; these books snare so much of what is odd and lovely and fleeting in the world. It is work that saved and sustained the writer after unimaginable loss. It buoys us up, too.

Follow Parul Sehgal on Twitter: @parul_sehgal.

The Dry Heart
By Natalia Ginzburg
Translated from the Italian by Frances Frenaye
88 pages. New Directions. $12.95.

Happiness, as Such
By Natalia Ginzburg
Translated from the Italian by Minna Zallman Proctor
162 pages. New Directions. $15.95.

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Notes from BookExpo via @ShelfAwareness (I jump at any chance to promote translation!)

“We are here to talk about some trends and exciting projects in international literature with five very different perspectives,” said moderator Karen Phillips, executive director of Words Without Borders, to open yesterday’s panel discussion on the new wave of international fiction. “This is hopefully not the typical discussion in which we kind of wring our hands and moan and groan about how hard it is to publish and promote international literature. I think we all have heard that story and we know it well. This is instead a time to talk about what’s happening next, the exciting challenges and opportunities that you’re facing.”

Left to right: Karen Phillips, Johanna Castillo, Yuma Terada, Jenny McPhee, Juan Mila, Heddi Goodrich

Panelists were Heddi Goodrich, author of Lost in the Spanish Quarter(HarperVia, September); Juan Mila, executive editor of HarperOne Group; Jenny McPhee, author, translator and director of NYU Center for Applied Liberal Arts; and literary agents Yuma Terada, co-founder of CTB, and Johanna Castillo of Writers House.

Goodrich wrote the original manuscript of her novel in English a decade ago, but after extensive rewriting and re-editing, she still felt something was missing. Ultimately she realized that “I had the wrong language the whole time. And since I had learned Italian as a teenager, it was deeply ingrained in my brain and in my heart. And once I started rewriting the book in Italian, everything just came together magically…. So for me finding my voice in Italian was a real amazing moment in my life. This is me; this is what I was supposed to be doing.” She now writes in Italian and translates her own work.

Mila noted that with HarperVia, which is part of HarperOne Group, “We are creating a new imprint that will be very international…. There are wonderful stories out there to be published in translation and Heddi is a great example–the first book we acquired for HarperVia. We read it in Italian almost a year ago and we understood immediately that this was the kind of story that was going to help us bring these projects to readers in English…. And it had all the elements that kind of embody what the imprint wants to do.”

McPhee shared insights she gained while teaching literary translation to undergraduates at Princeton this past spring: “The exposure to world literature across time and geography was thrilling. And our discussions of the translation work showed how language difference shapes cultural and political difference. We were made acutely aware that the rest of the world does not speak, think and feel homogeneously, but in an infinite variety of ways…. As they continue their studies in various fields and on into their careers, these undergraduates will now be ambassadors for translation, spreading the idea that literature by its very nature is global literature; that it fosters and promotes intercultural communication as nothing else can.”

Terada said that he co-founded CTB six years ago “because we looked at the landscape and noticed that shockingly few contemporary authors of Japanese literature were being consistently translated and read, especially in the English language…. That struck us as quite strange, especially because we as editors work with many young contemporary authors who are commercially and critically successful, not only in Japan but also in many Asian countries compared to some of the authors you might have heard of here…. I think there are a lot of them in Japan, and we look forward to bringing out more of their works here.”

After leaving her previous role as an editor to return to being an agent, Castillo said, “it’s exciting to see what is happening now that I’m back on the other side, what the big publishers are doing. For me as an agent now it’s interesting to see that finally books in translation are being published as any other book written in English. It wasn’t that common years ago, and I think that’s really exciting. It’s probably also an answer to what is happening today in the world where we can communicate with each other in minutes…. I think that will be affecting literature and books in translation in general.”

“We are in the middle of this exciting wave for international fiction and it’s great to know that all of you are part of it,” Phillips observed. “So thank you for being here and celebrating international works.” —Robert Gray

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I will be talking with Rachel Cusk at the New York Public Library on April 2 at 7pm

I have the amazing honor of being Rachel Cusk’s “conversation partner” at the NYPL! I am a great admirer of Rachel’s writing and we share a passion/obsession for the work of Natalia Ginzburg. Rachel wrote an excellent introduction to Ginzburg’s Little Virtues, a collection of stunning and groundbreaking essays. “My Vocation” and “He and I” are fundamental texts to me as a writer and a woman. 

I hope you can join Rachel and me at the New York Public Library! 

Rachel Cusk with Jenny McPhee

Rachel Cusk with Jenny McPhee

The Outline Trilogy—The Novel Reinvented

Tuesday, April 2 | 7 PM

A pioneer of fiction speaks about her characters and herself.

The best-selling British author Rachel Cusk is credited for reinventing the form of the novel, hooking readers with an inimitable voice, and unconventional sense of plot. In her groundbreaking trilogy—OutlineTransit, and Kudos—Cusk explores the nature of family, art, love, and suffering as her protagonist, a writer named Faye, encounters friends and strangers in the course of her daily life. Through a series of conversations that read almost as oral histories, Cusk reveals a panoply of people and places who cross Faye’s path and shape her world.

As the final volume makes its paperback debut, Cusk looks back at the trilogy as a whole to discuss her unique brand of suspense and storytelling. She will be joined in conversation by author and translator Jenny McPhee.

Get tickets.

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Refreshing A Mother’s Memory With Love, Read by Zoe Saldana–The Podcast from NYTimes Modern Love


Wow. It was pretty incredible for me to hear this piece read brilliantly by Zoe Saldana. She is amazing. And so is Mom, still, two years later. Recently, she said to me, “I don’t know who your parents are, but they did a really fine job.” Yes they did.

Brian Rea for The New York Times
Brian Rea for The New York Times
(Fabuloulsy produced by Caitlin O’Keefe)

Dementia can alter someone’s personality and change how how they interact with the world. But sometimes, it can also lead to moments of profound connection. Jenny McPhee writes about one of those moments, in her piece, “Refreshing a Mother’s Memory with Love and Stories.”

It’s read by Zoe Saldana. She has starred in “Avatar” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and you can see her next month in “Missing Link.” And she’s also the founder of the new media platform BESE.

Where Are They Now?

Jenny McPhee’s essay came out in 2017. Since then, her mother’s dementia has progressed further, and she doesn’t recognize Jenny anymore. And her mother has also lost her sense of the passage of time.

“Most of the time she thinks she’s about eighteen. But then she’ll be 35 the next minute. She’s very rarely 82,” Jenny says. “So it all shifts. And you, as her interlocutor, are just trying to keep up. It’s also spatial. She doesn’t recognize that she’s in her own home. She often thinks she’s in her childhood home. So what is the brain doing there? It’s just going all over the place, to memories, or stories, or thought, who knows what it is? But it has very little what we call coherence. And I try to just be with her in it.”

And there have been other changes, and, in some ways, an unexpected silver lining.

“I’m going to be brutally honest: she’s a much nicer person,” Jenny says. “She was always lovely and everybody adored her, but she had a side to her that had an edge, and she could be very manipulative. She cannot be manipulative now at all. So she’s just lovely. And I feel really lucky because I know with dementia that it can go many different ways. But she went soft.”

“Every time I walk into her house in New Jersey she comes up to me and she just throws her arms around me and says, ‘Oh, I’m so happy to see you.’ She has no idea who I am. But she knows something that gives her that impulse to do that with me, and it makes me feel like the most beautiful, important, wonderful person on earth.”

And Jenny still thinks about the moment she wrote about in her piece.

“This experience is heartbreaking from beginning to end. But mom, in this experience with Joan that I then wrote about, kind of showed us how to be with her,” Jenny says. “I feel like she really just wants us to be present with her in the moment. And it’s an incredible gift. At the same time as it being really difficult, it’s also an alternate way of being in our world, and I’m grateful for that experience.”

Voices in this Episode

Zoe Saldana arrives at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)
Zoe Saldana arrives at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last spring, Zoe Saldana is herself the epitome of a true star in Hollywood, earning a reputation as a versatile and respected actress by choosing roles that she feels passionately about. She recently reprised her role as the fan-favorite ‘Gamora,’ in 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity Wars,” which became the first superhero film to gross over $2 billion worldwide and became the fourth-highest grossing film of all time. Saldana is the only actress in history to star in multiple movies that have passed the $2 billion worldwide mark. Additionally, she starred in the independent drama “I Kill Giants” directed by Anders Walter based on the comic book of the same name. Saldana also lent her talents as the voice of Captain Celaeno in the animated Lionsgate film, “My Little Pony: The Movie” and will again lend her voice in 2019 in the animated Laika Entertainment film “Missing Link” as adventurer Adelina Fortnight opposite Hugh Jackman, Emma Thompson, and Zach Galifianakis.

Saldana is currently focused on BESE (prounced “Bee-Seh”), her digital platform reshaping the cultural narrative by shining light on the untold stories that reflect today’s America. This platform provides a voice to Latinx youth through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram as well as YouTube videos and podcasts. BESE fills a niche for young LATINX audiences craving positive portrayals of the modern AMERICAN experience.

Saldana is best known in her starring role as ‘Neytiri’ in the record breaking film, “Avatar,” James Cameron’s sci-fi thriller, co-starring Sigourney Weaver and Sam Worthington. “Avatar” quickly became the highest grossing film of all time, winning the 2010 Golden Globe for Best Director and Best Picture. “Avatar” went on to receive a total of nine 2010 Academy Awards nominations, including Best Picture. Saldana is currently in production on the film’s highly anticipated sequels “Avatar 2, 3 and 4” slated for a 2019 release.

When not in production, Saldana engages in meaningful philanthropic work involving children’s development, well-being and confidence building. Saldana has been very vocal in her involvement with Brave Beginnings. The organization focuses on bringing essential life-saving equipment and services to seriously ill children and their families. Brave Beginnings specifically works to ensure ventilators and life-saving neonatal equipment are always available to newborns in critical need.

Saldana is also the Global Ambassador for Shot@Life. Shot@Life aims to ensure that children around the world have access to life-saving vaccines. Through education, advocacy and fundraising, they strive to decrease vaccine-preventable childhood deaths and give every child a shot at a healthy life no matter where they live. It is a campaign of the United Nations Foundation, which builds public-private partnerships to address the world’s most pressing problems, and broadens support for the United Nations through advocacy and public outreach.

Additionally, Saldana also lends her support to The Step Up Network – an organization which works to propel young women from under-resourced communities to fulfill their potential by empowering them to become confident, college-bound and career-focused leaders. The organization offers effective after school programs as well as influential mentorships. Each year the organization holds their Annual Inspiration Awards Gala in which Saldana was honored in 2014.

Saldana was born and raised in New York. When not on location, she resides in Los Angeles with her husband and three boys.

Jenny McPhee is the author of the novels The Center of Things, No Ordinary Matter, and A Man of No Moon, and she co-authored Girls: Ordinary Girls and Their Extraordinary Pursuits. Her translations from the Italian include books by the authors Natalia Ginzburg, Primo Levi, Giacomo Leopardi, Curzio Malaparte, Anna Maria Ortese, Paolo Maurensig, and Pope John Paul II. She is the Director of the Center for Applied Liberal Arts at NYU’s School of Professional Studies. She teaches literary translation at NYU and at Princeton University. She co founded the Bronx Academy of Letters, an NYC public high school and middle school.

Caitlin O’Keefe  Producer, Podcasts & New Programs
Caitlin O’Keefe is a producer of podcasts and new programming at WBUR.



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Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice) Screening on November 19


I will be introducing Giuseppe De Santis’ quite extraordinary neorealist noir Bitter Rice (Riso Amaro) starring the amazing Silvana Mangano in a free screening at NYU’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò in conjunction with Grey Art Gallery’s really terrific exhibition: NeoRealism: The New Image in Italy 1932-1960

at 6:30pm on November 19th

riso amaro

Click here for further details

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A nomination for a prize! Thanks ALTA! But above all, thanks Natalia, for this and so much more.

Announcing the 2018 Italian Prose in Translation Award Shortlist

The American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) is delighted to announce the shortlist for the 2018 Italian Prose in Translation Award. Starting in 2015, the Italian Prose in Translation Award (IPTA) recognizes the importance of contemporary Italian prose (fiction and literary non-fiction) and promotes the translation of Italian works into English. This prize is awarded annually to a translator of a recent work of Italian prose (fiction or literary non-fiction). This year’s judges are Geoffrey Brock, Peter Constantine, and Sarah Stickney.

The award-winning book and translator for 2018 will receive a $5,000 cash prize, and the award will be announced during ALTA’s annual conference, ALTA41: Performance, Props, and Platforms, held this year in Bloomington, IN from October 31 – November 3, 2018. If you can’t join us in person, follow our Twitter (@LitTranslate) and Facebook ( for the announcement of the winners!

♦ Family Lexicon By Natalia Ginzburg Translated from the Italian by Jenny McPhee (NYRB Classics):

Jenny McPhee’s pellucid new translation of Natalia Ginzburg’s 1963 masterpiece, Family Lexicon, is the best English version yet of this genre-defying classic. “The places, events, and people in this book are real,” Ginzburg tells us in her famously monitory preface; “I haven’t invented a thing.” And though she calls it “the story of my family” and claims to have written “only what I remember,” she insists we read it “as if it were a novel.”

Family Lexicon

♦ The Breaking of a Wave By Fabio Genovesi Translated from the Italian by Will Schutt (Europa Editions):

Fabio Genovesi’s novel, Chi Manda Le Onde, has been skillfully translated into English by Will Schutt under the title The Breaking of a Wave. The sprawling novel with its cast of charming misfits won the Strega Prize for Young Authors in 2015. Marked by irony and tenderness, the story swirls among various perspectives.

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♦ For Isabel, A Mandala By Antonio Tabucchi Translated from the Italian by Elizabeth Harris (Archipelago Books):

Translated by Elizabeth Harris, Antonio Tabucchi’s For Isabel, A Mandala leads the reader through a “mandala of consciousness.” This novella is at once a mystery, a magical-realist fairy tale, and a travelogue.


♦ These Possible Lives By Fleur Jaeggy Translated from the Italian by Minna Zallman Proctor (New Directions):

Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives, translated by Minna Zallman Proctor, is a book of three short but labyrinthine biographical pieces that recreate in intricate distilled detail the lives of the British literary giants Thomas De Quincey and John Keats, and the French Symbolist writer Marcel Schwob. Jaeggy, a Swiss author who writes in Italian, is a virtuoso stylist, her prose crossing genres from biographical essay to prose poem to literary criticism.


♦ Ties By Domenico Starnone Translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri (Europa Editions):

Jhumpa Lahiri’s much-discussed love affair with the Italian language has born welcome new fruit: in her debut as a translator, she offers a stylistically and tonally assured version of Domenico Starnone’s harrowing thirteenth novel, Ties, about the effects of an affair on a Neapolitan family.

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Obituary of the Last Radium Girl (#2)

Mae Keane

Obituary of the Last Radium Girl
Mae Keane dies at 107

She stunk at the job. Faster, fast, faster,
the boss barked. No slacking slacker
at eight cents a dial. She watched
the clock her small hands made glow–
a face incandescent, luminescent with radio-
active radium paint.

Here’s a tip, use your lips
to sharpen the bristles. Dip
your brush in the glow,
suck, suck, &
wrist watches will flow. But she
grimaced, told the boss “lip-pointing, no!”

He barked her out of a job.
That was 1924. In ‘27
the dying began gums
bleeding, bones
jaws Mae, mostly
spared, lost her

then came colon &

But on she ticked. What luck!
She’d stunk at her job.

(David Owens, The Hartford Courant, March 3, 2014)


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