Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg; translated by Jenny McPhee

Family Lexicon (New York Review Books Classics) BY Natalia Ginzburg. NYRB Classics. Paperback, 224 pages. $14.
The cover of Family Lexicon (New York Review Books Classics)

Dribbledrams! Doodledums! Nitwitteries! Fools! Thugs! Jackass! Moron! Buffoons! Cowards! Delinquent! Old biddies, the mulligrubs, to motturize. These are among the words and phrases—a litany of family sayings coined, inherited, and appropriated—that are repeated throughout Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon. They accrue as the book goes on, evoking a vivid and particular linguistic world: A Barbison, most eminent Signor Lipmann, white lady cutlet, don’t say it’s the teeth, that girl’s going to marry the gasman, I cannot go on painting, sulfuric acid stinks of fart, you too have your little things, the Brot shot in the pot, I don’t recognize my Germany anymore!

Originally published in Italy as Lessico famigliare in 1963, the book was first translated into English in 1967 as Family Sayings. Jenny McPhee’s new translation, just published by New York Review Books Classics, reads as more contemporary, immediate, and dynamic. Critically, McPhee’s translation emphasizes how language operates within the closed system of a family. Idiosyncratic grammar and syntax, as well as personal terminologies and definitions, bind the family together, giving voice to a shared past that has been collectively experienced and recounted. This language can only be fully understood by its initiates, and it instantly defines them as such. “If my siblings and I were to find ourselves in a dark cave or among millions of people,” Ginzburg writes, “just one of those phrases or words would immediately allow us to recognize each other.”

Those phrases are our Latin, the dictionary of our past, they’re like Egyptian or Assyro-Babylonian hieroglyphics, evidence of a vital core that has ceased to exist but that lives on in its texts, saved from the fury of the waters, the corrosion of time. Those phrases are the basis of our family unity and will persist as long as we are in the world, recreated and revived in disparate places on the earth whenever one of us says, “Most eminent Signor Lipmann,” and we immediately hear my father’s impatient voice ringing in our ears: “Enough of that story! I’ve heard it far too many times already!”

The book chronicles the life of an Italian family as it branches out in many directions—sometimes pruned and cut short—under the rise and fall of European Fascism and World War II. Father, mother, and five children are tethered and twined by a private language that, over the course of the narrative, is enriched and emptied of meaning—the same words and expressions complicated and challenged by increasingly fraught political circumstances.

Throughout the text we are enfolded in the intimacies of this family lexicon and its endearing solecisms. Father insists on his daily “stroll,” on which only his mother will ever accompany him; mother has a great fear of being “bored,” about which she complains as she lies on the sofa; children are “hooligans” and “rapscallions”; the family is fixated on healthy digestion and foods that “stimulate peristalsis”; lending an ear is “lending gear,” which all of the children are accused of failing to do: “You don’t lend your gear. You never tell us anything, and don’t eat so much bread or you’ll get indigestion!” As with “stroll” and “bored,” single words frequently appear in quotation marks, reminding us that through habitual usage, language can become highly personal. Even within the family, the same words mean different things depending on the speaker, and a single term can stand in for a broader context or an entire sequence of past events. This is equally true of the poetry verses, opera libretti, and literary phrases that the family members repeat to each other. This chorus, voiced in times of humor and distress alike, are a reminder that—con brio!—we carry on in the face of uncertain futures, lest our voices be lost.

If the family’s lexicon is joyful and enduring, it is also troubled, incomplete, pockmarked, and pitted with silences. Ginzburg is writing about her own family, the Levis, of whom Natalia is the youngest. The paterfamilias, Giuseppe Levi, whose repetitions and exclamations resound with greatest force, was a well-known academic, and the Levi family travelled in prominent intellectual and political circles: The book’s endnotes read like a who’s who of progressive Italian culture of the early to mid-twentieth century. The household was resolutely anti-fascist and fiercely non-sectarian. All of its male members, involved in the resistance to varying degrees, were arrested and imprisoned during the war; the entire family had its travel restricted and passports confiscated; and Natalia and her husband Leone Ginzburg, a Jewish writer and anti-fascist activist, were interned outside Rome with their three children from 1940 to 1943.

These events are sparsely detailed between what might otherwise seem like relatively normal details of family life. The increasingly sinister nature of their situation is hinted at with new lexical entries: “in cahoots,” “compromising,” “tailed,” “under surveillance.” Each word appears with its stubborn quotation marks, a reminder that the terms themselves are mired in suspicion and are terrifyingly indefinite and looming to those who employ them. And, naming becomes an important, if suspect, aspect of identity—political affiliates are invoked in order to vouch for the safety of new acquaintances, exiles return under different guises, and Natalia’s father is given a false identity, which puts him at risk of being apprehended and imprisoned.

It is that which is not said, however, that speaks with the greatest volume. Characters disappear, die, or are killed and tragedies are mentioned with little explanation. We find out that Natalia’s husband is dead long after the fact, when the war is over and she works in a Turin publishing house:

On the wall in his office the publisher had hung a portrait of Leone: his hat slightly at an angle, his eyeglasses low on his nose, his thick black hair, his deeply dimpled cheeks, his feminine hands. Leone had died in prison, in the German section of Regina Coeli prison one icy February in Rome during the German occupation.

This is the most detailed account of Leone in the entire book, and it is mentioned only in passing, between elaborate descriptions of the publishing operation itself. (Although it is not named in the book, the publisher is Einaudi, where Ginzburg worked closely with Cesare Pavese, among other prominent authors.) Ginzburg’s writing has often been described as terse or stoic, but one might argue—particularly in the context of an autobiographical novel—that this is an artful telling of events, experiences, and memories that aptly retains the quality of their passing. Death is brief and it pierces an otherwise legible sequence of events; there is no adequate language to describe solitary confinement and torture; traumatic loss remains silent in the margins; and our memories attempt to trample grief by recounting other stories, which doggedly unfold in spite of it all.

Family Lexicon deliberately worries classification. In her author’s preface, Ginzburg writes that all the events, people, and names in the book are real. The narrative, however, comes with a caveat:

I have written only what I remember. If read as a history, one will object to the infinite lacunae. Even though the story is real, I think one should read it as if it were a novel, and therefore not demand of it any more or less than a novel can offer.

What does it mean to truthfully remember, and to recount accordingly, the story of a real life? How might a narrative evince the gaps and fissures of memory—accidental, willed, deliberate, inevitable; how might its details warp and fray? A mother’s history may be entirely absent, evoked only in passing reference to occasional slips in dialect, when her adult Turinese reverts to childish Milanese; one might never have the words to describe the harrowing death of a loved one, even if it is the most irreducible event in a whole life; people are married and divorced and married again, decades span within a sentence; a narrator never mentions her age, so that growth is evident only through slight shifts in attention to detail and characterisation; children suddenly appear fully grown, their births having passed unmentioned, subsumed by surrounding political narratives; characters come and go, without introduction or farewell, like a cast of marginal misfits; we end back where we began, with the recitation of old family poems and complaints: “How many times have I heard her tell that story!”

Towards the end of Family Lexicon, Ginzburg visits an old friend with whom she speaks about the old days. “Do you remember when we used to do self-criticism?” she asks:

During the postwar years, self-criticism was a popular practice. Whenever one of us made a mistake, we would analyze it and pull it apart out loud to the point where the mistake became confused with and inextricable from the self-criticism—a bit like when the music in an opera engulfs the libretto so that the meaning of the words is lost, carried away by the music’s glorious rhythm.

What remains in both memory and in recounting are the many ways in which we use language to speak ourselves into being, to ourselves and to others. Like language, being is complex, contradictory, and can be defined in many different ways; it alters depending on context, and can be silenced or distorted when subject to insurmountable pressure. Identity is imagined and codified, reinforced as well as reflexively challenged through language, allowing us to adapt to the present while insisting we remember the past. “Memory is ephemeral,” Ginzburg writes, and “books based on reality are often only faint glimpses and fragments of what we have seen and heard.” In Family Lexicon, familiar words and phrases are the fragments that conjure glimpses of a more complete world, summon what and who has been lost and allow them to continue, to coalesce, condense, collapse. To be carried away, yes, and to carry on.

Emily LaBarge is a writer based in London.