I first read Natalia Ginzburg’s memoir Lessico Famigliare—Family Lexicon—for a college Italian class. Though that book is in a language I no longer understand as fluidly as I wish I could, it has accompanied me across all my moves since. This re-issue of Voices in the Evening, also translated by D.M. Low and recently released by New Directions, is a welcome and necessary addition to the library. The common thread in all of Ginzburg’s novels—what makes them a singular read in your language of choice—is a linguistic minimalism that platforms her intricate characters and their memorable relationships.
Ginzburg writes in her author’s note: “The places and characters in this story are imaginary. The first are not found on any map, the others are not alive, nor have ever lived, in any part of the world. I am sorry to say this having loved them as though they were real.” By the end of the novel, many readers will love them as though they were real, for who they are and what they represent, about their era, and about us.
Reading Ginzburg in translation is ironic as one of her talents is in exploring what can’t be directly expressed. She investigates the layers of meaning behind even simple communications between family, friends, and lovers. These are people whose lives intersect and push boundaries constantly, yet even with such intimacy—often stifling geographically—there is distance between them.
There is no distance at all, however, with the reader. In Ginzburg’s careful hands, one quickly forgets there’s an authorial voice as her characters are engaging storytellers themselves. This intimate web of tales makes readers guests at these family events, overhearing secrets and watching their inconsistencies and peccadilloes that makes them as alive as the author states they are.
Our primary narrator in Voices in the Evening is Elsa, an as-yet-unmarried woman of a certain age—dismaying her hypochondriac mother—who describes the colorful natives of this small village. Her dialogue is rich, ranging from amusing character studies to heartbreaking developments, all of which subtly reflect a society rebuilding itself after tremendous loss. Ginzburg’s work often focuses on individuals in the time around World War II, when many isms—Communism, Fascism, Catholicism, Nationalism—provided conflicts across Italy, and within communities and families. Though the political context is important in understanding the nuances of her work, Ginzburg’s talent, and how fresh these stories still feel, is in her note-perfect characterizations. The many political frictions offer a context, but it’s these imaginary/real people who are front and center.
Ginzburg melds these characters’ lives seamlessly; we move in and out of different perspectives and locations with delicate jump cuts and continuities. A central tenet of this novel—indeed, life in small towns—is the conflict between rumor and secrets, what is said and what is hidden, and Ginzburg is an acknowledged expert at dancing on this tightrope. The novel and its language are economical, and perfectly flavored, as is a meal made with seasonal ingredients, with a flavorful simplicity that is unforgettable and crafted with love, about those who seek, who yearn, who survive.
Ginzburg also explores the psychology of the inner world, in which so much is left unsaid, especially for and through Elsa. For most of the novel, we learn more about these individuals’ lives—full of infidelities, passions, lost loves, professional betrayals and political standings—than we do about Elsa’s internal monologue, yet her voice, intelligent, yearning, thoughtful, and wry, colors much of what we learn.
Elsa is pragmatic, yet she is still unable to put herself in a suddenly loveless relationship even if it allows her to fulfill societal norms. Through Elsa and her affair with Thomassino, a scion of the village, we see how the pressure of closely investigating the meaning of their relationship destroys the delicate balance of shadow and veil that is necessary to accept each other. What do we hide from ourselves? And how could we go on if we didn’t do so?
Several of the characters move away, ostensibly to lead more satisfied lives elsewhere, yet that glimmer of happiness is suspect (and typically off-page). One of Ginzburg’s repeated themes is how few individuals—and nations, for that matter—are able to leave their past behind, whether it’s because of familial destiny, or an inability to effect real change. The past—personal and political—is another character in this novel: the town’s, the characters’, and post-war Italy herself. Each of these entities is followed by the shadow of what is no longer possible, somehow with continued hope, if ill-advised, if dimmed, for a better future.
In his excellent foreword Colm Tóibín notes: “Ginzburg did not overdramatise the war in her writing, but sought to integrate it into daily life; it seemed part of normality until it came close and then it tore the lives of her characters asunder.” Ginzburg asks: Can we escape our past? How do our communities support or stifle us? What are we willing to sacrifice to satisfy cultural expectations, and what is the ultimate cost of stifling one’s desires and voice?
As Vincenzino says, “‘Happiness…always seems nothing. It is like water; one only realises it when it has run away.’ His experiences, like that of many other characters serve as soft metaphors about a post-war country, still conflicted, and regretful: “And now of all that great hatred there remained nothing at all any more, and even that was saddening.”
Ginzburg is also exploring—and commenting upon—our brief human existences and the ways in which we survive and if we’re lucky, savor the ephemeral life we’re given. There are rarely fairytale endings, or straight demarcations of good and evil. In this novel alone, we see the political detritus of a war that seemed to result only in loss; no true win in sight. Ginzburg’s strength in storytelling—of both those stories we tell each other and ourselves—is paralleled by nuanced characterizations that makes the quotidian unique and the unique memorable.
Elsa reports: ‘You have told this story to me millions of times,’ said my father. ‘Why do you want to bother Tommasino with it, with persons he has never seen and never will see?’ ‘It serves to make a bit of conversation,’ said my mother. ‘Do you want us to sit here all evening gazing into each other’s eyes? One tells stories and talks, someone says one thing, and someone else another.’
Whether it’s over Zoom or our ancestors sitting around a fire, gesturing, we survive because we commune as a civilization over the stories we share, the memories we maintain, and how we choose to move forward despite our losses.
Voices in the Evening
By Natalia Ginzburg (translated: D.M. Low) (Introduction by: Colm Tóibín)
New Directions Publishing Corporation
May 4, 2021
Mandana Chaffa is founder and editor-in-chief of Nowruz Journal, a periodical of Persian arts and letters and a finalist for the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses’s Best Magazine/Debut; and an editor-at-large at Chicago Review of Books. Her writing appears in a wide array of publications, and she serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and is president of the board of The Flow Chart Foundation. Born in Tehran, Iran, she lives in New York.