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The Unbearable Happiness Of Natalia Ginzburg

The publication of a newly translated novel by the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg is a major literary event — as the blurbs from Italo Calvino, Rachel Cusk and Zadie Smith festooning “Happiness, As Such” attest. Ginzburg’s American admirers include Sigrid Nunez, author of “The Friend,” the National Book Award-winning novel which includes an epigraph from Ginzburg. It seems reasonable to surmise that Ginzburg’s focus on Fascism and its effects — along with her lifelong fascination with what morality is — will bring her a new audience of readers outside the world of literary writers.

Readers of Jewish literature and history should rush to Ginzburg, but despite Ginzburg’s given name, her family history, her inability to publish at times during her career because of anti-Semitism, and her husband’s death from torture — including crucifixion — for anti-Fascist activities, Ginzburg isn’t completely embraced as a “Jewish” writer. Maybe that’s because she converted to Catholicism, and told friends she saw Jesus as a persecuted Jew. And maybe it’s because Ginzburg can’t be categorized.

Perhaps this very uncategorizable element of Ginzburg’s writing is what makes her so beloved to writers. Ginzburg has, above all, a recognizable personal style, what might be called a “voice” that comes through no matter what she is writing. So who was she exactly?

Ginzburg was a mother of five; her son, the historian Carlo Ginzburg, formally petitioned the Pope to open up the Inquisition Archives in 1979. And an illustrious family history preceded her; her father, whose specialty was in vitro fertilization, taught three future Nobel Prize winners. Her second husband was a scholar of English literature. How to translate all of these layers of complexity into English?

Minna Zallman Proctor, the award-winning translator of “Happiness, As Such,” is the author of “Landslide: True Stories” and “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and her translations include Umberto Eco’s essays, Fleur Jaeggy’s “These Possible Lives,” and a biography of Fellini. Proctor’s connection to Italy is long and deep; in her book “Landslide,” she describes how her mother, a composer, flew to Italy the day school was over each summer. Proctor’s mother’s eternal gift to her is the Italian language, and a feeling of home within it. In this translation, we are all the beneficiaries of that eternal gift. The Forward’s Aviya Kushner spoke with Proctor about the singular experience of translating Ginzburg, and what makes Ginzburg so difficult to categorize — in any language.

Let’s start with the title of the book, “Happiness, As Such.” It’s a beautiful title — hinting at the indefinability of happiness, along with its ephemeral nature. And I noticed that while happiness is discussed in this novel, the exact phrasing “happiness, as such” never appears in the text. Instead the closest is this unforgettable passage from a goodbye letter from a man, nicknamed The Pelican, to a woman, which in typical Ginzburg fashion starts out plain and seemingly ordinary, then veers into the profound: “I wish you all the best opportunities for the future and I wish you happiness if there is such a thing as happiness. I don’t believe there is, but other people do, and who am I to say they are wrong.” What is the original title in Italian, and how close is your translation?

The title was probably the biggest translation challenge of the whole project. The original title is ”Caro Michele,” which can be literally translated as “Dear Michele”. Michele is the enigmatic son at the center of the book, the vexing absentee character who links all the other characters together, not just because they all have some kind of intense relationship with him but because of the degree to which his decisions influence them. The book is predominantly epistolary, hence the “dear.” But “dear” carries the same double meaning in Italian as in English; it’s how you formally open a letter and it also means “close to my heart.” Everyone who writes Michele loves him more than he is able to love them in return, so the imbalance of affection is also a part of the original title. It’s a perfect title in Italian. In English it presents problems.

Michele is not an English name; it’s a little hard to pronounce (which isn’t good for marketing) and it’s easily mistaken for the girl’s name, Michelle. If the second word is difficult to pronounce and identify, that obfuscates the first word — risking the clarity of both letter-writing and affection. So the title had to be changed entirely.

One subtler aspect of the title, and the book generally, is that the driving perspective belongs to the matriarch, Adriana. She is the first character you meet, the author of the first letter. She has an extraordinary way of seeing her son; she loves him desperately, but she also sees through him — his selfish youth. She is self-aware and comically, almost the picture of a Jewish Mother. To my mind, she owns the book and so it seemed to me that the title had to be in “her voice.” As you say, all the characters at one point or another talk about their happiness, but it’s always in terms of how mitigated it is — as happy as a person can be under the circumstances.

All of Ginzburg’s titles all extremely direct, as is her aesthetic, so it made sense to be direct: Happiness. I played with different configurations of mitigated, or qualified, happiness. Happiness, as Such captures the sentiment and is also a little harsh — both in its meaning and its sound. It also does away immediately with the prospect of a happy ending. Ginzburg is a stern writer, and I don’t think her writing ever once committed to such a banal and uncomplicated notion as “pure happiness” — that’s just a principle that doesn’t exist in her cosmology.

I love how this novel admits that sometimes reasons are boring; characters here do things for bad reasons, no reason, and inexplicable reasons. The effect is that cruelty becomes normal, sudden and almost expected, and that goodness also begins to seem ordinary and often without clear reason — or sometimes, performed with a flimsy justification. I found myself wondering if this lack of explanation, this comfort with non-understanding, is what makes Ginzburg compelling. There is a certain it factor to Ginzburg, and I wonder if you could comment on what you think it is. Why does she hook us so deeply? Which parts of that addictive Ginzburg-ness are rooted in Italian language and culture, and how did you try to move those parts into English?

What an extraordinary thing to identify in this novel. You’re absolutely right about “reasons.” I feel as if everyone (whether fictional or real) in Ginzburg’s world is rolling around in a muck of consequences. The reasons themselves are incidental. If you kill a nun by accident (as Michele does in the novel), the nun isn’t less dead because it was an accident. Perhaps it’s this sternness, her relentless pragmatism, that I mentioned before that captivates us in her work — and is also a quality you will find in her, the person, as seen in her interviews and biography. It seems to me that Ginzburg is a uniquely astute observer of human behavior and emotion and also a uniquely straightforward reporter. In that way, we read characters who do good things and selfless things and do stupid things and cruel things — none of which defines them. As portraits, they are the sum of their actions, but as humans, they exist in relation to others. Michele is a hot mess, but he is loved. His friend Mara (probably my favorite character in the book, if not of all time), is a hot mess but is loving, true, and lovable for it.

I don’t know if I can make an argument for any part of Ginzburg’s Ginzburgness coming out of the Italian language. Her sensibility is fully literary and she always related her sensibility to her limits. She wrote what she could, in the way that she could, always pushing herself against those limits — against, but never beyond, lest she seem foolish. For example, she struggled for years to write in the third person, the omniscient, which she considered to be a pinnacle achievement for a novelist — “to see the world from the top of a mountain” — but she never managed it. Her epistolary novels, “The City and the House,” and “Happiness, As Such” represent a back-door strategy to write in the third person. Her Italian is direct and pared down (hardly a prevailing literary value in Italy); the worlds of her novels are compact and specific but leave ample room for the reader.

She translates beautifully into English because her sentences aren’t complicated and her words aren’t fancy. Those are values that work extremely well in English. Her amazing droll humor is perhaps the only quality that gets sometimes lost in translation, but again, that sense of humor is hers, not Italian.

This is such an unusual novel. I empathized with whoever wrote the jacket copy and was handed the impossible task of categorizing Ginzburg; it feels somewhat reasonable to call it an “epistolary novel” but that’s not really sufficient, because of the occasional elements that aren’t in letter form, and because anything Ginzburg does doesn’t fit into normal categories anyway. There is almost no traditional exposition; instead we are plunged into a world of letters — and what turns out to be a dangerous political landscape. The characters themselves seem to not know what’s going on, and that feels deeply true; I wondered whether any of us really understand the world around us, anyway, and whether other readers will be comforted by Ginzburg’s comfort with this. How do you think these letters create a sense of intimacy, and at the same time, form a narrative structure? Are there particular challenges of translating letters set in places that may not be familiar to English-language readers?

When I tried to first describe the novel to my editors at New Directions, I said it was totally unconventional because it is 85 percent epistolary. Most epistolary novels are either all epistolary, like “Dangerous Liasions” and build plot through the letters, or half epistolary, like A.S. Byatt’s “Possession,” where the letters are a kind of framing device, an artifact that the body of the novel is responding to. “Happiness, As Such” is far more incidental: a letter here, some dialogue there. There is, as you say, no exposition, and absolutely no background information. We’re just dropped into the middle of this family.

It’s very realistic in the sense that you can only know what you know, what someone tells you and what’s observable. There is no mediating force, no master storyteller — that in itself is intimate. And too, letters are almost more intimate than the first person because they are directed at another character. The reader is always reading over someone’s shoulder, spying on something not meant for them.

What’s more, letters don’t contain everything, but only what’s relevant for that particular letter. Letters try to make some impression: they try to be brave, or articulate, or tender, but don’t always succeed, so the reader can understand the character in terms of what’s not on the page, not in the letter — the reader is invited to see past the letter. But I don’t think this is meant to be comforting at all; quite the opposite. Not only are the events of the novel, entirely contingent (reasonless, as you’ve said) but the novel refuses to behave like a traditional novel — no reassuring dramatic arc. This narrative structure, in as much as there is one, is totally diffuse, barely perceptible. It’s rather organic, actually. The world is chaotic and people endure. The comfort, if there is any, is in the familiarity of the chaos, and the bonds of friendship and family.

The political implications of the novel become clear at the end. Finally, finally, we fully see what is happening, and why a young man left his native country and his family and made some seemingly difficult-to-understand choices. The themes of violence and Fascism seem especially and eerily relevant right now—especially the seeming suddenness of it all. What are your thoughts on how Ginzburg unfolds the danger? And how did it feel translating this account of violence, and its effect on loved ones near and far, at this political moment?

Ginzburg’s life had violence in it. She lost her first husband to fascist thugs who tortured him to death when he was a political prisoner. She lost two dear friends, Cesare Pavese and Primo Levi, to suicide; she lost another, Pier Paolo Pasolini, to a gory murder. She lived through the Holocaust and wrote this novel in the middle of a period of violent radical anarchist politics — known in Italy as the “years of lead” because of all the bullets.

I think Ginzburg had a keen sense of actual deadly violence, determined by her moment in history. Not to be contradictory, but I understand Michele’s choices less and less the more that I read the novel. I think there’s an implicit criticism of his dilettante politics: one minute he’s married, the next he’s going to the movies and plotting against Fascists in Bruges. I might feel that way because I know that Ginzburg was critical of the anarchist youth movement and felt that only a naive generation born in peacetime would decide to agitate with violence. I find it hard to draw correlations between that moment and her experiences and this moment of ours, perhaps because I see so much rage in the politics of our time and in the senseless violence of our time—the terrorism and the psychosis of mass shootings.

Despite everything that Ginzburg lived through she doesn’t write about rage. Even in more sensationalistic books, like “The Dry Heart,” which opens with a murder, her betrayed and abused women aren’t full of rage; they’re resilient and calm. Their abusers and betrayers aren’t full of rage; they’re flawed and weak. The grief that you ask about, on the other hand, is something that hangs like a shadow — clear-eyed and broken — over all of her writing. I think it’s something she understands excruciatingly well. You could perhaps say that grief and endurance is perhaps the subject of her work. Which brings us back to the title, doesn’t it?

Yes, it does. So let’s turn to the subject of love. What do you love about how Ginzburg writes about love? There are so many fascinating permutations of it here, and I wonder if you have a favorite example.

One of my favorite “truisms” about love is: You like because. You love despite. Which is something my 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Dixon, said — I always attribute it to her though I’m not sure she originated it. Ginzburg, especially this book, is all about the “despite” and in that respect, it’s all about true, honest love. I’m fascinated in this book by the divorce in the family. Interestingly, divorce only became legal in Italy in 1970 — this book is set in 1971 and was written in 1972. There are actually two divorced couples in the book. Perhaps it was on her mind. But I do love the way that Adriana writes about her ex-husband. He’s a blowhard and a fool, he’s capricious and often cruel about his family—overtly hostile to his two youngest daughters, negligent about his older ones, estranged from his sisters. Yet Adriana knows him and has shared so much with him that he is still a big part of her emotional landscape, and she never denies that to herself or to her family. That, to me, feels extremely true and unselfconsciously compassionate.

The subject of Ginzburg’s Judaism is complicated. Ginzburg was born Jewish, and her husband was murdered by Fascists — after a period of torture that included crucifixion. And yet she is not immediately thought of as a “Jewish” writer, the way other writers who lived during the Holocaust such as, say, Primo Levi or Isaac Bashevis Singer are. Why do you think that is? Is it her conversion to Catholicism, or is there something else? And I hope you don’t mind this impossible question: What is Jewish to you, about Ginzburg?

I have more answer to this question than I could fit here. As a Jewish woman writer, it’s difficult not to look for the Jewishness in Ginzburg, and for that matter in all of the great Italian Jewish writers of her period — Carlo Levi, Primo Levi, Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, Umberto Saba — mostly frustrating in their resistance to being Jewish writers. Ginzburg came from a prominent Jewish family and married into one as well, but always took great pains to remind interviewers that her mother was not Jewish.

She has said more than once that she only felt a connection to Judaism after she discovered the atrocities of the Holocaust in the years after the war. She was supremely atheistic, like many Jewish intellectuals, and, publicly more antagonistic to Judaism than I would like — when I’m trying for personal, or selfish, reasons to draw on that connection with her. She defined herself in terms of her politics and her intellectual life, and felt that religion was antithetical to that. Even her conversion to Catholicism she couched in terms of her friendship with Pasolini — so as to emphasize that there was nothing spiritual in her choice.

I think there is something characterological in her that makes her suspicious of transcendence, which is intriguing because so much of modern literature turns on transcendent moments. Yet transcendence itself is not a prime mover in modern Judaism. Whereas that ability to sit in not-knowing that you referenced earlier is distinctly Jewish. Also Jewish to my mind: Ginzburg eschews answers, absolutes, and New Testament style dramatic arcs. She builds worlds of questions and challenges. She asks her readers to wonder, to question, often alongside her. She is stern. She favors strong conceptual architectures, precisely because they frame and support all of this unknowningness, the patient compassion, the primacy of family. Her world is plain spoken and often harsh, abundantly intelligent, wickedly humorous, and supremely grounded. I’m not sure if those values are Jewish, but if no one were to argue the point, I’d claim them as such.

Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of “The Grammar of God” (Spiegel & Grau) and “Eve and All the Wrong Men” (Dancing Girl Press). Follow her on Twitter @AviyaKushner

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