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A masterpiece of European literature that blends family memoir and fiction
An Italian family, sizable, with its routines and rituals, crazes, pet phrases, and stories, doubtful, comical, indispensable, comes to life in the pages of Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon. Giuseppe Levi, the father, is a scientist, consumed by his work and a mania for hiking—when he isn’t provoked into angry remonstration by someone misspeaking or misbehaving or wearing the wrong thing. Giuseppe is Jewish, married to Lidia, a Catholic, though neither is religious; they live in the industrial city of Turin where, as the years pass, their children find ways of their own to medicine, marriage, literature, politics. It is all very ordinary, except that the background to the story is Mussolini’s Italy in its steady downward descent to race law and world war. The Levis are, among other things, unshakeable anti-fascists. That will complicate their lives.
Family Lexicon is about a family and language—and about storytelling not only as a form of survival but also as an instrument of deception and domination. The book takes the shape of a novel, yet everything is true. “Every time that I have found myself inventing something in accordance with my old habits as a novelist, I have felt impelled at once to destroy [it],” Ginzburg tells us at the start. “The places, events, and people are all real.”
The lore of her large, loving, and discordant family provides rich material for Ginzburg's engrossing autobiographical novel, covering the years of the Italian writer's childhood in 1920s Italy, her adolescence, first marriage, World War II, and her involvement in postwar literary society. As a child growing up in a Turin apartment, the narrator is a frequent witness to conflict: her scientist father's "sudden outbursts" and the "fights between Alberto and Mario," two older brothers; outside the home, fascism strengthens its hold on Italy. Yet Ginzberg's focus on the fascinating peculiarities of her milieu remains. Another brother, Gino, shares their father's love of mountain hiking and represents a "plausible," scientific way of life, while Paola, a beautiful older sister, prefers Pirandello, Proust, and Verlaine, as does their mother, an optimist whose "curiosity never let her reject anything." As the political situation worsens, the family offers refuge to a prominent socialist, and Ginzberg's father, who is Jewish, is briefly imprisoned, returning with dirty laundry and a long beard, apparently proud of his adventure. The siblings age, migrate, and marry, and the canon of sayings and quotations borrowed from old friends and long-dead relatives becomes their everlasting shared inheritance: "evidence of a vital core that has ceased to exist, but lives on in its texts, saved from the fury of the waters, the corrosion of time."