The Side Dishes, Part 2
J.S. DeYoung reviews Natalia Ginzburg’s Happiness, as Such
(trans. Minna Zallman Proctor)
This is part two of a two-part essay on two recently reissued novels by Natalia Ginzburg.
The first part discusses Ginzburg’s The Dry Heart.
“You Need Material Affection”
With a few exceptions, tales of household dysfunction became Ginzburg’s focus for most of her career. Novels like Valentino, The City and the House, and Voices in the Evening describe one couple after another thoughtlessly poisoning their marriages and mistreating their children, often with catastrophic results. Happiness, as Such (trans. Minna Zallman Proctor) is another example, but with an epistolary twist.
When reading Happiness, as Such, make sure pen and paper are nearby to keep an outline of who is who, because this story follows a family with five children, some of whom have children of their own, and friends, and lovers, and housekeepers, and numerous interlopers. Originally titled Caro Michele — and published in English as Dear Michele in 1975, but smartly changed by New Directions to stamp out confusion about whether this reprint might be a collection of Ginzburg’s personal letters — the novel is primarily an epistolary exchange between members of Michele’s family. Michele is a sort of absent protagonist — think Caddy in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury — and, much like Alberto in The Dry Heart, he is another aimless man. Truant, reluctant men are, in fact, one the character types Ginzburg was concerned with while conceiving Happiness, as Such, as she revealed in an interview a year before her death:
Above all, I thought that young people were dying, young people were risking death. For political reasons and pseudo political ones; but they were in danger. And then in the prevalently female world that is the world of [Happiness, as Such], there’s just one straight man, who is Michele, whom we never see. … Then there’s the other one, who is homosexual.
She goes on to say she sensed a vacuum in the space once occupied by masculinity.
Since there is very little plot to Happiness, as Such, giving on outline of the novel, and a sense of its scope, means discussing desire and its patterning. The book opens with a set of rather low-resolution (but oddly captivating) descriptions of Adriana, Michele’s mother:
A woman awoke in her new house. Her name was Adriana. It was snowing out, and her birthday, she was forty-three years old. The house was in the country. The village was visible from the house, on a hilltop, two kilometers away. Fifteen kilometers to the city. Adriana had moved in ten days earlier. She pulled on a light, tobacco-brown robe. Slid her long narrow feet into a pair of slippers that were also tobacco-brown and trimmed with dirty white fur. She headed to the kitchen and made a cup of instant coffee to dunk biscuits in.
And so on, until she writes to her son: “Dear Michele,” the letter begins, “I’m writing primarily to tell you that your father is sick. Go visit him.” One of the primary patterns in the novel is that almost all of the letters contain a request of some sort: send me a book, bring me a scarf, find me a place to live, sell the real estate, visit your father, don’t visit me, et cetera. Each character has his or her own plot and what’s revealed is a very fractured and unhappy family. Nevertheless, among the array of characters, a few begin to surface as central to the overall novel. Aside from Adriana, there is also Mara, who may or may not have had Michele’s baby, and Angelica, Michele’s older sister. And there’s Osvaldo, the aforementioned “homosexual”, who among all the characters is the most given and humane, as he tries to help Mara and is a regular visitor to Adriana, unlike Adriana’s own erstwhile children.
Michele, a failing painting, we know only through letters. His mother’s letters to him are warm at times, but mostly they are informative, caustic, and passive: even in the first letter she ridicules Michele for not coming to see her on her birthday and insults his paintings of owls. Where Adriana’s letters are long and informational, Michele’s are short and frantic. Here’s one from Michele after he resurfaces in Leeds, England:
I’m marrying a girl I met in Leeds. She’s not actually a girl, because she’s divorced and has two children. She’s American. She teaches nuclear physics. The children are sweet. I love children. Not when they’re very little, but once they get to be six or seven like these ones. … She’s third. She’s not beautiful. She wears glasses. She’s very intelligent. I love intelligence.
His mother pokes fun at his newfound love of intelligence, and says that of course he’s marrying an older woman: “You need maternal affection”. As we learn, the marriage between Michele’s parents blew apart early in his life and he went to live with his father, while his sisters lived with their mother. His father, a first-rate asshole, thought only Michele was worth his time and parenting.
In addition to Michele’s immaturity, the complicating factor in the novel is Mara, who is helpless, inconsiderate, and clueless. The sentiment that “you can’t marry a girl like that” clings to Mara like a spoiled perfume as she bounces from one handout to another with her baby in tow. Whether the baby is Michele’s is of great consternation to the characters in the novel, and it still up for question at the end.
Although Happiness, as Such tells a scattered story, there are structural details that pull the narrative together. Adriana and her daughter Angelica are clearly mirrors, with the novel almost starting over in the middle with a scene of Angelica puttering around the house, wanly reminiscent of Adriana’s opening scene. And Michele and Mara are also mirrors. Both are fleeing each other and responsibility, and just as Mara tries to find comfort in an editor for a publishing house, Michele tries the same with his “ugly” American wife in Leeds. One survives, the other parishes. And underneath all of the family drama runs an oblique political plot. Michele is mixed up with some sort of anti-government movement, though the details of the situation are never made clear. His political comrades are shadowy characters, and it’s a testament to Ginzburg’s faith in domestic narratives that she gets away without explaining what’s going on outside the family structure.
“I knew all sorts of things about tomato sauce”
Ignoring certain crucial plot points, such as the politics in Michele’s life, is one of Ginzburg’s signature moves; in Family Lexicon, too, her own character is nearly invisible. Instead, her novels focus on concerns traditionally associated with femininity. In her great essay on writing, entitled simply ‘My Craft’, she spells out her starting point for writing her novels the way she does: “I didn’t long to write like a man anymore, for I had had children and knew all sorts of things about tomato sauce, and even if I didn’t put them in the story, simply knowing them was useful to my craft”.
Wisely, then, Ginzburg saw in her own experiences enough to write novels of beauty and understanding, and therefore saw no need to follow the rules of masculo-sexual compositions. True, her prose is often cold and avoids false sentiment — it is more conventionally “masculine” in its tone — but in the objects of its focus, it is warmly attentive to home and hearth. In The Dry Heart, the narrator does not want to be the woman she turns into. She would much rather have had a more conservative family life, and she tries very hard to attain it. In Happiness, as Such, Adriana tries her best to cultivate richer connections with her children, although she is selfish and cruel, twisted by age and feelings of abandonment. These women, like Ginzburg, know a lot about “tomato sauce” as well: the unforgivable behaviour of their husbands, the long, unsatisfying days raising ungrateful children, the years that flash by quickly and turn the last of one’s girlhood to cinders. Why write like a man, indeed, when there are such honest bellyfuls of wisdom in both of these novels?
But let me be clear: these novels are the side dishes. One might consider The Dry Heart like a long-chilled gazpacho; Happiness, as Such, zietta’s antipasta. Strong and hardy, a second helping of both is enjoyable. I recommend them. But for those who haven’t read Ginzburg before, Family Lexicon is where you want to take your first bite. It’s the one with the most savory marinara: delectably written, singular in its conception, it remains the centerpiece, the dish with which Ginzburg’s other novels are best paired.