A Poor Sort of Pain
Writing on Natalia Ginzburg and some of her shorter works and essays, three things come to mind. One is the question of perspective; another the suicidal and the suicided, and the third the idea of Ginzburg as a minor figure in literature a self-diagnosis evident when she says "I'm no Tolstoy that's for sure. I am a minor writer." (Salmagundi) Starting with the latter first, a minor writer needn't always be seen as an insignificant one, just as there can be writers who appear to be major but who appear finally not at all important. After Ginzburg insists Tolstoy is a major writer and she isn't, the interviewer Peggy Boyers invokes Chekhov and says that he is a master who nevertheless didn't write gargantuan novels. If from a certain point of view major writers write big books and minor writers write shorter works, then significant writers would seem to write long or short the significance lies elsewhere. It would appear to us that Chekhov, Borges and Carver, for example, are more significant writers than many a figure who writes at great length, but Ginzburg's self-appraisal doesn't appear inaccurate while it may come across as overly modest. There is a line in the novella 'Borghesia' that captures very well the tone and purpose of Ginsburg's work: "it was a poor sort of pain" the narrator says, speaking about a character whose cat has died. "To have lost him was a slight thing...but, all of a sudden, she was discovering that even poor sorts of pain are acute and merciless, and quickly take their place in that immense vague area of general unhappiness."
Searching out these poor sorts of pain, even if they include within them, and beyond them, pain that can hardly be called poor often happens to be Ginzburg's purpose as she explores them in a minor way. A good example of this can be found in a short Ginzburg essay on an unnamed writer that cursory research reveals to be a figure of immense importance in 20th-century Italian literature: Cezare Pavese. Ginzburg knew him well, her husband taught him at university, and Ginzburg worked alongside him at the publisher Einaudi. Part of Pavese's unhappiness lay "...in his refusal to love the daily current of existence which flows on evenly and apparently without secrets. He had not as yet mastered day to day reality, but this for which he felt a simultaneous desire and disgust was impregnable and forbidden to him; and so he could only look at it from an infinite distance." ('Portrait of a Friend') Ginzburg sees in Pavese not great tragedy (though great tragedy there may have been), but the accumulation of poor sorts of pain that could not quite make life worth living.
It is here we can see the question of minor literature and the poor sort of pain segueing into each other and forcing upon us that of the suicidal and the suicided. In both 'The Mother' and The Family, for example, characters take their own lives, while Ginzburg speaks of the suicide of Primo Levi, Bruno Bettelheim, Pavese and others in the interview with Boyers. But she seems to notice that these are determinate on situations and circumstances that are quite distinct, while also acknowledging a suicide is both complex and neither courageous nor cowardly. When Boyers quotes a New York Times writer who said that Levi's believed-suicide was a great disappointment, the usually generous Ginzburg says, "but these are the words of a cretin." (Salmagundi) The idea that suicide is a monumental act that must speak for itself and speak for others is one Ginzburg questions, not least because her work isn't too interested in the monumental but instead the incremental. When in The Family the characters discuss a country doctor, who took his own life, one says he'd have liked himself to have been a country doctor, while the other character says, "he liked it so much that he killed himself." "Oh, but he was just a great big neurotic" the first character insists, aware, however insensitively, that it wasn't the pastoral that killed him but the mindset he possessed. Many people survive the most harrowing of experiences; others succumb to the mundane inexplicably, or perhaps more appropriately, manifoldly. Who is to decide what reasons are behind a self-administered death and how many such deaths are less those of suicides than the suicided? Someone who has been tortured, who has seen their loved ones killed, and their beliefs undermined might appear suicided. Someone who cannot find anything to believe in and who has lived a comfortable existence would appear a suicide. Such categories have been well-explored sociologically going at least as far back as Emile Durkheim, who broke suicide down into three chief categories the egoistic, the altruistic and the anomic. Religions that admire self-sacrifice could pass for an example of the former; societies and situations that respect the latter can be seen as an instance of the altruistic: the person who gives his life for a friend on the one hand; someone who admits to crimes he didn't commit to protect the social order another. The anomic will be where great change takes place and the son doesn't know how to cope: a society greatly transforming around us, a loss of a fortune, even the gaining of one, can throw us out of our habits and perceptual expectations. (Suicide)
But what interests us more is Antonin Artaud's differentiation between the suicidal and the suicided, seeing in an essay on Van Gogh the degree to which the painter was an example of the latter, saying "he did not commit suicide in a fit of madness, in dread of not succeeding, on the contrary he had just succeeded, and discovered what he was and who he was, when the collective consciousness of society, to punish him for escaping from its clutches, suicided him." ('Van Gogh: The Man Suicided by Society') Perhaps from a certain angle all suicides are suicided, but for our purposes, and to understand an aspect of Ginzburg's work, there are those who are suicided like the people who would throw themselves at the wires in genocidal camps, and those who though no particular tragedy befell them couldn't seem to get the suicidal out of their heads. When writing on the unnamed writer who was clearly Pavese, and the writer's fame, Ginzburg says "when we asked him if he enjoyed being famous he gave a proud smirk and said that he had always expected to be; sometimes a shrewd, proud smirk childish and spiteful used to flash across his face and disappear. But because he had always expected it, it gave him no pleasure when it came, since as soon as he had something he was incapable of loving or enjoying it." ('Portrait of a Friend')
But what of Ginzburg's own life? In 'Winter in the Abruzzi', she discusses the time she and her husband and their children spent exiled in the countryside her husband wanted by the Fascists. The sketch ends with Ginzburg telling us that "my husband died in Rome, in the prison of Regina Coeli, a few months after we left the Abruzzi. Faced with the horror of his solitary death and faced with the anguish which preceded his death, I ask myself if this happened to us to us, who bought oranges at Giro's, and went for walks in the snow." Ginzburg adds, "at that time I believed in a simple and happy future, rich with hopes that were fulfilled, with experiences and plans that were shared. But that was the best time of my life, and only now that it has gone from me forever only now do I realise it." Ginzburg struggled on; she had kids to bring up and would marry again. Another person might have been defeated by such a loss but Ginzburg would be as resistant to the suggestion that she was courageous as she would be with the idea that Pavese was cowardly.
How do such thoughts fit in with the short story 'Mother'? Interviewing Ginzburg, Laura Furman asked, "did you feel like that character, so desperate and separate, when you were living as a widow with your children and your parents after the war?" Ginzburg replies: "Possibly. I think that there is always something autobiographical in what one writes. At times it's more overt, at other times it's hidden; however one writes, in my opinion. At least I write this way. Something autobiographical is always there ." ('South West Review') Reading her autobiographical essay, 'He and I', we can notice an incompetence towards a certain type of living that the story explores too. Ginzburg reckons in the essay that "everything I do is done laboriously, with great difficulty and uncertainty. I am very lazy, and if I want to finish anything it is absolutely essential that I spend hours stretched out on the sofa." While 'He' can get numerous things done in a day, Ginzburg says, "if I am alone and try to act as he does I get nothing at all done, because I get stuck all afternoon somewhere I had meant to stay for half an hour, or because I get lost and cannot find the right street, or because the most boring person and the one I least want to meet drags me off to to the place I least wanted to go."
In 'Mother', the story is not only in the third person but viewed from the most unflattering of angles towards the eponymous character: the perspective of children who rely on their grandparents far more than their mother. "Their mother was not important. Granny, grandpa, Aunt Clementina...were important." Sure, their mother looked quite different from the other mothers they would see: "she was very young; how old, they didn't know, but she seemed much younger than the mothers of the boys at school; they were always surprised to see their friends' mothers, how old and fat they were." The boys' mother plucks her eyebrows every day, keeps her hair oiled and puts yellow powder on her face. She is clearly not a typical mother and is this not what the boys wish for when they see more conventional parenting in their grandparents and their aunt? But perhaps the boys have just absorbed the perspective of their grandfather, who would yell at the boys' mother insisting "a fat lot you care what happens to your children. Don't say anything because I know what you are. You're a bitch. You run around at night like the mad bitch you are." Like Ginzburg, the mother is 'hopeless' as the story reveals that she left her drawers untidy, tended to lose things, came home late at night and got cheated at the butcher's. These are qualities one wouldn't expect from a mother, and the boys "thought it strange to have been born of her. It would have been much less strange to have been born of granny or Diomira [the maid], with their large warm bodies that protected you from fear, that defended you from storms and robbers." But the problem with too easily equating Ginzburg with the character is that we are no longer reading what is in the story but instead what we can find in it that relates to Ginzburg's life. However, while we always want to keep in mind the Ginzburgian (the vision that holds a writer's work together and which is so much greater than the autobiographical yet not necessarily completely detached from it), we also want to acknowledge in a story like 'The Mother' the complexity of the perspective offered in the work itself. Ann Marie O'Healy reckons that 'the boys relate their impressions of their mother with a mixture of bewilderment and shame, for they have absorbed the stereotypical prejudices of the grandparents with whom they all live.' However, quoting O'Healy, Aldagisa Giorgio reckons, there "is not an exact distinction between 'voice' ('who speaks?', 'who is the narrator?') and 'focalization' ('who sees?', 'who is the character whose point of view orients the narrative perspective?')." ('La Madre: Exposing Patriarchy's Erasing of the Mother'. What is interesting about The Mother, perspectivally, is that there is no speaker narrating the story but there are two boys who are viewing their mother's life. The story isn't at all like Heart of Darkness or The Great Gatsby where the narration is held together by Marlow or Nick Carraway. It is disembodied all the better to indicate the boys' feelings about what a mother should be rather than what their mother is. We notice this clearly in the use of negation when it comes to her hopelessness. Other mothers were those that "didn't make mistakes; people who didn't lose things, who didn't leave their drawers untidy." It isn't so much the boys who express such beliefs, but these notions permeate the household and perhaps also the culture, taking into account Giorgio's claim: "here Free Indirect Discourse effectively conveys the children's conscious and half-conscious thoughts, but also communicates a note of irony emphasising the sadness of a situation in which a mother is perceived as being of less importance than even servants."
For Giorgio, the story is a feminist account of how narrow the required options for mothering are, and that the story's mother falls outside these expectations. "By scrutinizing the mother through the children's eyes and the opinions of the community, the story slowly reconstructs an abstraction, the ideal mother. The mother of the story fares very badly against the backdrop of this implied perfect mother. Her physical, emotional, and behavioural traits are reported as atypical, a departure from the characteristics common to all other mothers and women present in the story." We needn't disagree with Giorgio's insistence that 'The Mother' can be read as a feminist tale, but what interests us more is our idea of the suiciding and the suicided. The mother will take her own life before the end of the story due ostensibly to an unhappy love affair. It seems Max has deserted her, a man the boys remember visiting them and whose company they also enjoyed. "They were happy, they wanted to talk about Africa and the monkey, they were extraordinarily happy and couldn't really understand why: and their mother seemed happy too and told them things..." But Max, who was going to take them to the cinema, never does, and the mother appears no longer to see any more of him either. They find that she has taken poison in a hotel room and an old lady the floor below reckons: "heartless, leaving two babes like this."
If the story superficially indicates she takes her life because of Max's desertion, Giorgio reads it as a tale about a woman's constrained expectations. Our approach to the story taking into account Ginzburg's comments on suicide and our own thoughts on the subject is that the mother is suicided without quite claiming that a less patriarchal society would make her feel any the happier. She does appear neglectful of her children, selfish in her needs and vain as she prioritises her appearance. But many a person has survived quite comfortably in the world with such an attitude to life. The problem is when such a lifestyle meets with such strong judgements upon it. It is here where perspective matters not just in a technical sense (as Giorgio indicates, using Genette), but in an existential one too. This concerns however not only how does one live, but how one is perceived. To continue living amongst people whose judgments constantly condemn you is to struggle to live at all. By focalising the story around the general perceptions of the two boys makes the story much harsher than if it were viewed for example from that of the grandfather or even that of the old lady. By seeing things from the boys' perspective we can see how embedded in the community the values happen to be. The grandfather's is an opinion, and the old lady's too, but taken together, bolstered by others and felt by the sons', such an opinion becomes doxa.
We are using here Pierre Bordieu's term. "By using doxa we accept many things without knowing them, and that is what is called ideology...That was a very strong experience for me: they put up with a great deal, and this is what I mean by doxa that there are many things people accept without knowing. I will give you an example taken from our society" he says in an interview with Terry Eagleton. "When you ask a sample of individuals what are the main factors of achievement at school, the further you go down the social scale the more they believe in natural talent or giftsthe more they believe that those who are successful are naturally endowed with intellectual capacities. And the more they accept their own exclusion, the more they believe they are stupid, the more they say 'Yes, I was no good at English, I was no good at French, I was no good at mathematics.'"(New Left Review) The mother may not be an ideal parent, might be by many people's reckoning not even a good one, but for the purposes of her survival, the answer wouldn't be to improve her mothering skills but to extricate herself from a milieu that judges her so harshly that suicide appears a viable option.
One needn't read the story too much against the grain to make such a claim. We have acknowledged that Ginzburg has returned on several occasions to the issue of suicide, and the writer makes clear her failings in areas that many people would be inclined to see as qualities of value. The 'Mother' doesn't have be read autobiographically as Furman suggests, but it seems to us very thematically apposite. What matters is to live by one's own values rather those of another. It isn't even as if the children disrespect their mother, it is more the impact of the opinions of those around them. When their mother is happy and they are with their mother they are happy too, evident when she, Max and the boys are together. They don't dislike her and they aren't at all frightened by her; she just doesn't at all conform to the expectations of what a mother happens to be in the environment in which the kids are brought up. The narrative position the story adopts (viewing things from the boys' perspective without quite allowing them narrative agency a la Marlow or Nick) means we have a value system offered upon her without quite a person's individual claim. Such a value system is harder to reject than an opinion one person's claims can be argued with or contradicted; doxa, however, is much harder to counter. It can become a view that the mother herself internalises evident when the younger boy says to his mother that he saw her in a cafe with a man, and she turns and looks nastily at the boy insisting it wasn't her, "I've got to stay in the office till in the evening as you know. Obviously you made a mistake." "...Both boys realised the memory must disappear; and they both breathed hard to blow it away." She can't be herself and the boys can't claim their memories and observations as their own. We could say this is the mother failing her children, lying and denying their truths, but that would be half the story; the other half that Ginzburg tells is about a mother who can't be herself in the milieu in which she lives, and children caught between a mother they judge and a mother they wish to love. By the end of the story, they will have no mother at all.
In some ways, the novella 'Sagittarius' is the inverse of 'The Mother'. Here a woman with two grown-up daughters moves from the suburb into the town and befriends a woman she becomes a little bewitched by and who will eventually cheat her out of her money. The woman, Cilla, suggests they should open a shop (to be called Sagittarius), but it all turns out to be a swindle at the mother's expense. Here we have a mother who isn't judged but is inclined to do the judging: someone who when she sees how beautiful Cilla's daughter Barbara is cannot help but see her own daughters as plain while also looking back on her own life before meeting Cilla "as drab and empty'. Watching Barbara, the "mother suddenly became very unhappy: she had always thought Giulia was beautiful, but now that she had seen Signorina Fontana's daughter she had to concede that there was no comparison." The story is in turn narrated by the other daughter, less beautiful still, a narrative perspective in this instance that is first-person as everything is seen through her eyes and in her own voice. Yet it would be unfair to say that the mother gets her comeuppance, as though the trick played on her is exactly what she deserves. Ginzburg is a kinder writer than that and her narrator a single, young woman who shows consideration for others rather than schadenfreude. After this misfortunate over the con trick, a tragedy befalls the family. Giuila dies in childbirth and the story ends with the mother wishing for nothing more and nothing less than to have her little girl back, with comparative beauty or money no longer of much importance. If the mother in the titular story takes her own life and is thus suicided, the mother in Sagittarius doesn't but she might be close to what we would usually call suicidal. Yet it has been her own values that have damaged her rather than the values of others. She has lived in a state of disappointment and covetousness, it would seem, and now at least lives with that realisation.
When we talk about the poor sorts of pain Ginzburg so frequently examines, it resides in a proper sense of perspective. She comprehends that the monumental events of a life and the apparently secondary ones aren't always easy to separate. The gap between a bit of gossip in 'The Mother' and her suicide can seem enormous from one point of view but barely separate at all from another. The mother in 'Sagittarius' getting ripped off by a woman whom she admires not so different from a daughter dying who she never really has loved or understood enough. Bringing together the great and the apparently small, in suggesting that the poor sorts of pain and the large sorts of pain have a lot in common, is central to the wisdom of Ginzburg's fiction. As she says, "egotism has never solved despair" when she discusses the reality that "it is strange but true that men find themselves intimately linked to one another's destinies to such an extent that the fall of one sweeps away thousands of others..." ('Silence') It is this sensibility, one that knows that a great pain for another is small for someone else, and vice versa, and yet also linked, that we often find in her fine, minor work.
© Tony McKibbin