Growing pains

Thoughts on Natalia Ginzburg’s All Our Yesterdays.

“Fui il tuo esilio. Ripenso
anche al mio, alla mattina
quando udii tra gli scogli crepitare
la bomba ballerina.”

Eugenio Montale, 1934

Somewhere in Northern Italy lies a seat in a public garden. Two figures rest on this seat, their coats touching. They have spent the morning wandering through bookshops, and their fingerprints now mark the satin pages of the town’s magazines. Now, they are eating roasted chestnuts. The shells of the chestnuts fall into the wool of the girl’s coat. The boy, one-by-one, removes the shells. He reads her Montale’s poem, smiling as the final words bounce off his lips — la bomba ballerina. They kiss. 

At the heart of Natalia Ginzburg’s 1955 novel All Our Yesterdays, we find this portrait of young love. The novel is set in the midst of the Second World War, and depicts an eccentric family of socialist dissidents. In its opening, a man pens an antifascist manifesto; later, another is imprisoned for his revolutionary associations. Characters are sent into confinò, the regime’s practice of exiling enemies of the state to impoverished villages. A brother-in-law changes his semitic name to escape persecution, and the novel’s basements are places to hide from the encroaching Nazi front. 

In such a deeply political work, what place is there for love?

The beauty of this novel, recently republished in English for the first time in decades, lies in Ginzburg’s representation of how politics seep into everyday life. In her introduction to the new edition, Sally Rooney writes of how Ginzburg renders war a backdrop; the intimate lives of her characters take the foreground, as “radical social and political changes” unfold around them. Through Ginzburg’s love for what is human, we see the moral complexities and little idiosyncrasies of her characters: the family friend who exclusively eats canned tuna; the hypochondriac maid always bearing a wine flask of coffee and milk; the fugitive next door with a knack for ping-pong. 

However, as the story unfolds, we begin to see through the eyes of Ginzburg’s teenage protagonist: Anna. We read as Anna attempts to understand the “dangerous, secret thing” conspired by her socialist brothers. We watch as she learns the pain of grief, and falls in love: her first dates at the local cinema, the cups of gelato at a café that “seemed just like Paris.” When Anna begins to realise that this first love is crumbling apart, Ginzburg’s words perfectly encapsulate the truth of young adulthood:

“Anna plunged her head into the sweet-smelling, moist grass, and fear and silence increased within her. She had made love with Giuma and she knew that he did not love her, she knew that he felt rather sad and humiliated after they had made love together, and she would have liked to go back to the times when they used to read Montale’s poems and eat chestnuts, and the war was still a cold, distant war, the Germans hadn’t won yet.”

What we learn from Anna, though, is how growing up accelerates with war. Ginzburg’s talent is depicting how we mature more rapidly with chaos as a backdrop, and how that chaos disrupts the way we live. Where her brothers and playmates are conscripted or imprisoned, where her own schooling is cut short, and where a pregnancy at seventeen threatens to affect the course of her entire life, Anna’s pain brings her to a moral awakening that is ultimately premature. As her world falls apart, we watch a child grow up far too soon — love, and any sort of intellectual and emotional enrichment, just disappears. 

It’s no surprise that Ginzburg’s own experience of the war enriches its characterisation in the novel. Like Anna, Ginzburg’s childhood was marked by political engagement: her family were embedded in Turin’s socialist subculture, and her brothers frequently imprisoned by Mussolini’s apparatus for their seditious tendencies. When the war hit, politics cut into Ginzburg’s life with a particularly sinister edge. Not only was she obliged to conceal her Jewish faith, she was persecuted for her editorship of an antifascist Roman newspaper; by the time the war ended, her co-editor, husband, and father to her children, Leone Ginzburg, had been tortured to death. In a way, Ginzburg bestows upon her novel’s characters the tragedy that befell her. Speaking to the New York Times, she lets us consider this influence:

“Of course I wrote about the war. I was formed by the war because that was what happened to me. I think of a writer as a river: you reflect what passes before you. The trees pass, and the houses; you reflect what is there.”

When All Our Yesterdays was first translated into English, it carried another title: A Light for Fools. We must take heed of this indictment against fascism, and the foolish hurt it can bring. As fascism rises in Italy yet again, we see a leader who fetishises Mussolini, vilifies queer communities, and advocates for the same nationalistic parochialism that characterised Ginzburg’s world. The republication of her novels is timely and necessary, and hopefully, through Natalia Ginzburg, we can see what fascism takes away: the roasted chestnuts on a park bench, the poems of love, and youth itself.