In Family Lexicon, tr. Jenny McPhee (2017. Original: Lessico famigliare, 1963), we have the impression of having been accepted as guests at your family’s dinner table: as we walk in, we know that the conversation has been underway for a while. The characters keep interrupting each other, and cannot avoid telling the same stories over and over: “How many times have I heard her tell that story!” Soon, we cannot help but feel as much part of the conversation as any of the people around the table.
The book is a hybrid of memoir and autobiographical novel, centred on your immediate family and their acquaintances. It spans the period from the rise of Mussolini through World War II to Italy’s postwar reconstruction, and is told through snippets of conversation shared over the dinner table or overheard during your childhood and early youth, and repeated throughout your life. “A lot of my mother’s memories were like this: simple phrases that she overheard”.
At the heart of the book, we have an idiosyncratic, ever-expanding lexicon: a collection of family sayings, invented idioms, inside jokes, and puns that, repeated throughout the story, shape the novel as much as they shaped you and your family. “Nitwittery,” “dribble drabble,” “doodledums” – expressions as these recur here and there, as the basis of your family unity. The more we read them, the more intimate we become with the Levis – so much so that, by the end, we almost feel like part of the family.
These shared stories, rendered in their peculiar idiom, are not only the building-blocks of your book, but also its vital core: memory is given life through language; recurrent sayings convey character and depth; we see ourselves immersed in dialect and wordplay, and those become gradually inextricable from the affection we come to feel for each family member.
Looming large in the story, we have your father, the Jewish-born scientist Giuseppe Levi, a domineering figure given to sudden outbursts. He is passionate about skiing, mountain hiking and science, and for him practically everyone is a jackass. You manage to retain the character’s complexity by rendering him at once despotic and endearing. Late in the book, when Giuseppe is asked to hold a political rally after the war, he spends almost the entire speech talking about science, to the bewilderment of the audience, which remains quiet, without understanding anything, until he happens to casually mention Mussolini as the ‘Jackass from Predappio’ – at which moment the audience finally erupts into resounding applause, leaving him stupefied.
Your mother is also rendered in a rich, complex way, full of contradictions: Lidia is of a joyful nature, at once passive and determined, and is constantly balancing herself between indolence and enthusiasm. Despite being a self-proclaimed socialist, she cannot for the life of her envision parting with her maid: “‘If Stalin came to take away my maid, I’d kill him,’ my mother said. ‘What would I do without my maid? I, who don’t know how to do a thing?’”
We follow your parents, siblings and friends as they grow increasingly drawn into the antifascist movement in Turin. At one point, the family hides a man and helps him escape. Not much later, your brother Mario is caught by the police, and manages to run away to Switzerland. Your brother Gino and your father are jailed, and everyone in the family seems to secretly harbour a combined feeling of pride and terror for their involvement in the antifascist scene. You seem to have known all of the most prominent members of the Italian Resistance, and the family home was the meeting place of several intellectuals.
Loss, pain and hardship are a strong undercurrent in your book, but you deliberately chose to dwell as little as possible on them. Instead, we have a nostalgic portrait of everyday life, in which endurance is built up with everything that you shared as a family – the unspoken as well as the spoken, the family sayings repeated over and over, binding you together, and providing an invisible but most needed sustenance.
Faced with so many limits of public and self-expression under fascism, the Levis find the source of their endurance on the shared lexicon that, by its very nature, escapes any form of control: the family sayings, language as the means of recovery of time past, words as the embodiment of memory, and storytelling as the process by which experience is given new life again and again.
You and your siblings get married, have children, migrate; you struggle to adjust to the “burden, the exhaustion, and the loneliness of the daily grind, which is the only way we have of participating in each other’s lives, each of us lost and trapped in our own parallel solitude”; and some of you eventually face death. Your family lexicon, however, goes on far beyond the dinner table where it started, and constantly borrows from new stories, new friends and acquaintances, as if it were alive – or made more alive through the simple but vital act of storytelling, the evidence of something “that has ceased to exist but that lives on in its texts”, like an ancient language, or an ever-growing, indomitable beast.
Fascism didn’t appear to be ending anytime soon. Indeed, it appeared to be here to stay indefinitely. (…) For years now, Turin was full of German Jews who’d fled Germany. Some of them were even assistants in my father’s laboratory. They were people without a country. Maybe soon, we too would be without a country, forced to move from one country to another, from one police station to the next, without work or roots or family or homes. – Natalia Ginzburg, Family Lexicon
“My parents had five children. We now live in different cities, some of us in foreign countries, and we don’t write to each other often. When we do meet up we can be indifferent or distracted. But for us it takes just one word. It takes one word, one sentence, one of the old ones from our childhood, heard and repeated countless times. All it takes is for one of us to say “We haven’t come to Bergamo on a military campaign”, or “Sulfuric acid stinks of fart”, and we immediately fall back into our old relationships, our childhood, our youth, all inextricably linked to those words and phrases. If my siblings and I were to find ourselves in a dark cave or among millions of people, just one of those phrases or words would immediately allow us to recognise 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.” Natalia Ginzburg, Family Lexicon
“These were people impossible to meet now, impossible to touch, and even if I were to meet them and touch them they were not the same as the ones I imagined and even if they were still alive they were in any case tainted by their proximity to the dead with whom they dwelled in my soul; and they had taken up the step of the dead, light and elusive. – Natalia Ginzburg, Family Lexicon
“I remembered my father running like a buffalo with his head down through the streets during the war whenever there was an air raid. My father wouldn’t go down into the shelters and whenever the sirens sounded he started to run, not to a shelter but towards home. Under the roar and whistle of planes, he ran hugging the walls with his head down, happy to be in danger because danger was something he loved. “Nitwitteries!” he’d say afterward. “No way I’d ever go into a shelter! What do I care if I die!” – Natalia Ginzburg, Family Lexicon
About the book
- NYRB Classics, 2017, tr. Jenny McPhee, 224 p. Goodreads
- Daunt Books, 2018, tr. Jenny McPhee, 224 p. Goodreads
- Original title: Lessico famigliare
- First published in 1963
- The book was previously translated as Family sayings, tr. D.M.Low (1963. Original: Lessico famigliare, 1963); and The Things We Used to Say, tr. Judith Woolf (1977)
- The book won the Strega Prize in 1963
- Natalia Ginzburg begins A Family Lexicon with a disclaimer: “The places, events and people are all real. I have invented nothing. 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 everything thus invented.”
- My rating: 4,5 stars
- I read this book for the European Reading Challenge