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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this interview to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This interview is taken from PN Review 49, Volume 12 Number 5, May - June 1986.

in conversation with Natalia Ginzburg Tim Parks
After a hopeless night in a couchette the train was two hours late arriving. I had to rush across a Rome I don't know to get to my appointment on time. My tape recorder had already decided not to work and I was relieved. My motive, anyway, in arranging this interview had been more to have an excuse to meet a writer whose work I admire than to achieve a journalistic scoop, and tape recorders are embarrassing. Thus the interview was noted down immediately afterwards between showers of spring rain on the steps of Piazza di Spagna.

Ginzburg was not disappointing. Small, white-haired, bright-eyed and modestly dressed, she met me in her office at the publishers Einaudi. Forthright in general and self-effacing as far as her own work was concerned, she was quick to say she didn't know as soon as anything was a shade outside her field. The comments she made on other Italian writers she asked me, for the most part, not to mention. The problem with the conversation was to get her to talk about her own work, since her curiosity constantly prompted her to turn the questions back on me, to ask about England etc. Hence what follows is a text shorn of numerous digressions, and reported from memory at an hour's distance
.


Tim Parks - What exactly do you do at Einaudi?


Natalia Ginzburg - I read manuscripts, two days a week. I do the second reading as it were after the first screening. The rest of the week I spend in Parliament.


What percentage of what you read is good?


Very, very little. With most manuscripts I only read ten, twenty pages, a chapter or so. If I have any doubts at all I read right to the end. The younger generation seems to have forgotten how to write. Many of the manuscripts are abstract or experimental in a very vague kind of way, without direction. Then they seem to have no sense of place, they are not located anywhere. When I start a book myself I start with a place, Rome, Turin. I feel the book must be rooted somewhere. Not that this place has to be described in detail, you understand, but its presence will be felt. Very few of the manuscripts I get here have that. They seem to take place nowhere, in the air.

Then there are mistakes. I mean spelling mistakes, grammar and so on. I find this disturbing. If you write a book you must love it, re-read it three, four, any number of times. It's inconceivable that somebody who loves their work should send a manuscript full of mistakes.


The Italian fiction market is being almost taken over by foreign writers, particularly at the popular end, but on the literary side too nowadays, with more and more translations and very few new Italian writers. Why do you think this is?


The Italian books are written badly!


As simple as that?


I don't know. I don't think there are very many good new writers anywhere. Perhaps other countries with bigger markets can afford to publish more of what is not very good. Sometimes it is easier for our publishers to buy successes from abroad, rather than find them here.


Renato Besano, the acquisitions editor at Rusconi, suggested to me recently that the problem lay in the Italian language itself. That the difference between spoken and written Italian tends to make it difficult for a popular writer to achieve the same relaxed straight-forward style that American writers have.


That's completely ridiculous. Italian is perfectly capable of producing any kind of book.


It does seem to be true, though, that there is a tendency to write either in an extremely rhetorical style, or alternatively to use dialects which are so local as not to have wide appeal.


I think that is simply a question of bad writing. Elsa Morante for example is a great popular writer whose work is neither overblown nor dialect-ridden.


One gets the impression in Italy that there is no, or very little, independent criticism, that it's difficult for the public to get any clear idea of a book. The publishers and press are owned by the same big companies and everything inevitably gets praised.


It's true. The critics are not independent as a rule and there are very few good ones. There's a great deal of favouritism, of convenient arrangements. Certain writers can produce books that are completely cretinous and be praised everywhere. Especially if they do a lot of publicity for themselves, appear on television, go to bookshops, you know the kind of thing. There is no independent criticism of these people's books.


You don't do a great deal of your own publicity.


No. [A big smile] No, I don't. I am happy if I can be read by a small public who like my work.


It never worries you, for example, that your books are not as well read as they might be in England, in America?


Not at all. I am always delighted and surprised to hear that foreign publishers wish to do my books. I was most surprised, for example, when Carcanet asked for the rights to my work, much of it written many years ago. As long as the material reaches a small appreciative public I am very happy.


Despite your success in Italy, you have always left very long spaces between your novels, so that one quickly gets the sense that you're not seeking fame, or even a full-time career from your writing, and certainly never capitalizing on the success of one when you write the next. What is it makes you write?


It is true that I write infrequently, a book every five or six years. And when I do write I write fast, very fast I think. So it's not as though I'm writing and correcting books all the time. I don't write for years together and then I feel the desire to do so as a vague uneasiness, a vague impulse, and I sit down and write. After just a few pages I can tell whether the book is going to work or not, and I either throw it away or continue. I don't have any unfinished or failed works in the drawer. Either it works from the start, or it doesn't get written at all.


Aren't you afraid, during those years without writing, that you may never write again?


Yes, I am. Very afraid. But it isn't that which prompts me to write again. I write, above all I think, to be understood. That is the driving impulse behind what I do. Certainly not to be famous, and not even to please I don't think. I write to be understood. Each word, when I write, each sentence, is chosen extremely carefully to be as simple, as direct as possible. Every sentence must say something and get it across. Every sentence. This is very important for me.


You talk of simplicity of style, and in fact from your very first novel in 1942 right up to La città e la casa the style is remarkably consistent, lucid first-person narrative voices, seeing, listening, recording. Even in your non-fiction pieces the style is very similar.


Yes, people are always asking me why I don't change my style, why I don't write a different way, or about something different. What can I say? I think the best answer I can give is one that an English writer, Ivy Compton-Burnett, one of my favourite English writers, gave to the same question. 'I started that way and I never found it opportune to change.'


Your methods have also remained the same. I'm thinking for example of the way character is described with details of habitual gestures, physical features, patterns of speech, whereas you avoid any kind of psychological interiorization, even on the part of the first person telling the story. The narrator doesn't analyse herself.


No, I don't do psychological analyses. I suppose you can say that I continue to use the tools I know best. The character is seen as others see him. He is weighed up, his actions, what he says. We feel his human weight.


I notice that in your prose and biographical pieces we never have a critical appraisal of anybody's professional qualities. Despite, for example, your friendship with Pavese and Einaudi they receive no more attention in Family Sayings than your housemaid, or nanny. Perhaps less.


No, why should they? When I write about a person I am not interested in their cultural or social baggage, their literary achievements or special talents. On a simple human level there is no reason why Pavese should have more space than my housemaid.


Is this why you chose to write about the Manzoni family as a whole, rather than the man himself alone?


I do believe Manzoni was great. But I wanted to bring out this quality away from his work, in his day-to-day life, in his dealings with other people, business, love. This meant writing about the entire family so that this greatness could be felt, so that he could be seen together with others.


To go back to the characters in the novels. You almost always write with a wide range of people, particularly in Caro Michele and La città e la casa, and then you include all kinds of the smallest details that are in no sense central to plot. Doesn't a problem of credibility develop? Why this character, rather than another, why this coloured shirt rather than that (you describe clothes a lot)?


My characters are made up partly from the traits of acquaintances, partly from imagination and I must say I have no difficulty in believing in them. I believe in them entirely and I try to know everything about them, including things that aren't in the book, where they live, what they do in the morning, what they wear. I write notes about them and I feel I know them, so that each detail is the right detail.


I get the impression, particularly in your last two novels, that your characters have something stubbornly perverse about them. The Michele of Caro Michele persistently follows a course of action that all his friends see as folly. And likewise for the two main characters of La città e la casa, Giuseppe and Lucrezia.


Yes. I feel this is a modern phenomenon. Directionlessness. People who take major decisions carelessly, who persist in what is obviously a mistake, who surrender their lives to chance. Michele's careless marriage. I see this all the time. In the past I don't think this was the case: people had more direction. I want my books to hold up a mirror to modern life and this kind of carelessness with one's own happiness is a characteristic feature. In going to America, for example, Giuseppe makes a mistake and then he continues with it. He is rather a flat person, tame, spiritless. Lucrezia also seems to throw her happiness away in her affair with Fegiz, but she has more spirit, more passion.


I felt Alberico was the most attractive character.


Yes, yes he is. He finds direction and vocation, he is generous. And Lucrezia and Alberico recognize each other's qualities when they meet towards the end and become friends.


Don't you feel that you are judging these characters? I mean Fegiz is extremely . . .


No, I don't judge my characters at all. The reader senses that Fegiz is a negative influence, but that is not my judgement. I present my characters, I do not want to judge them.


One objection people have raised to your most recent novels is the similarity between the deaths of Michele and then of Giuseppe's son Alberico and his friend Nadia. All of them die quite unexpectedly in street fights. Isn't this a bit too much?


A number of friends have said the same thing to me, so there must be something in this. Again, it was the casualness of the deaths which was important. Lives thrown away at random. Alberico, as you say, is the most attractive character in the book. He runs into a street fight to save a friend who we know is worth nothing. He is killed. This kind of thing is happening every day.


We've said that style and theme have remained much the same throughout your literary career. But recently the structure of the novels has changed radically. Both Caro Michele and La città e la casa are epistolary novels.


The earlier novels were all first person, except for All Our Yesterdays - though even that was the kind of third person which most resembles the first, everything seen through the main character. Of course these first persons were personas, not my own voice, and I felt very much at home with them. Then I wrote Family Sayings which again was first person, but this time my own voice, and after that I felt I had exhausted the first person, that it would be impossible to write in a first person that wasn't my own voice. At the same time I have never felt confident with the third person. So I turned to the letter form. Here I was using first person, but in a different way, fragmentary, in a conventional form of self-presentation, where there was no danger of slipping into my own voice.


It's a reply that surprises me. I mean your books have always dealt with large groups of characters, tried to create a collective spirit if you like, where each person lives very much in the minds and memory of others; I felt perhaps you saw the epistolary structure as offering a more complex way of looking at those groups.


There were other reasons too, of course, yes. And advantages, each person commenting on the others. But the most important thing was the chance of using the first person in this new and different way, in small doses.


Of course with the epistolary structure, action and dialogue are out.


This was not a problem. Action has never been important in itself in my novels. What is important is the way it is remembered and related, how one person tells another about it, the impression it has made.


Apart from working at Einaudi you are also a member of parliament sitting with the Independent Left, although you stood in the Communist list at the last elections. Why don't you sit with the Communists? What is your opinion of them?


Let me say that I love the Communist party. I really do feel that they are the best party here in Italy and I accepted to stand in their lists because I was urged to do so at a moment when they were going through a difficult period, and felt they could use whatever public influence my name has. I am not officially a party member because with any party there are always policies one disagrees with and I don't want to be bound. The Independent Left is a loose grouping that usually votes with the Communists but not always. I should say, though, that I don't feel cut out for politics, not in parliament. I don't feel I am being terribly useful. Perhaps in one or two of the parliamentary commissions. I sit on a commission for handicapped children. But otherwise no. I do not think I will stand at the next election.


Despite this activity, politics is never central in your novels.


No, I simply don't feel my novels are the place for politics.


A last couple of questions: are you writing anything at present?


No, no I'm not. I'm in an in-between phase.


And do you have a favourite amongst the novels you've published?


Yes. I think Le voci della sera was perhaps the most successful.

This interview is taken from PN Review 49, Volume 12 Number 5, May - June 1986.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this interview to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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