“Lessico Famigliare” (Family Lexicon) by Natalia Ginzburg, was written in a few months between October 1962 and February 1963 and is a book that is difficult to categorise in a precise genre: it is a great mixture, part memoir, part novel, part essay.
“Lessico Famigliare” is a title that speaks for itself and captures the essence of the novel itself.
- Famigliare (Family) because Ginzburg recounts her own family.
In the author’s preface, Ginzburg states, ‘The places, people and events in this book are real. I haven’t invented a thing, and each time I found myself slipping into my long-held habits as a novelist and made something up, I was quickly compelled to destroy the invention.” The title of the quirky book might presage pages of barely malleable linguistic lucubrations. Instead: no syntactic-grammatical explanations regarding the Italian language, the Piedmontese dialect or the variants of the Hebrew language, but rather a writing that bears witness to the author’s love for her family, producing a work that lies somewhere between a chronicle and a novel in which Ginzburg recounts the events of her family in a surprisingly dry and meagre, almost telegraphic manner.
Natalia Ginzubrg reports, relates, describes, and does not comment. Through the eyes of the little one of the house who seems to be outside of everything and yet who escapes nothing, she tells of her family, the Levi family who live in Turin and are composed of three sons and two daughters; the father, Giuseppe, is a gruff university professor and the mother a bourgeois housewife.
The narrative is therefore a family saga told from Ginzburg’s very personal perspective over a time span from when Natalia Ginzburg was a child in post-war Turin until she moved to Rome in 1950. As is often the case in memoirs, there is no precise time frame, and one is confronted with a past that is not always well defined
- Lessico (Lexicon) because the way the author tells the story is made special by the idioms of the various characters. In the speeches of the Levi family, Natalia’s father, mother and siblings, there are recurring words, and phrases repeated daily, words that become symbols of a particular situation. It is through idioms, family tales, and names of relatives, uncles, brothers, and friends, that Natalia Ginzburg retraces memories, events and authentic dramas with a lightness that is synonymous with great, great dignity. They have a language all of their own: idioms, fancy words, neologisms and dialect terms make up the Levi’s Family Lexicon – Sempiezzi, sbrodeghezzi, spussa
What Ginzburg allows us to establish with her family is a special intimacy, because she makes us participants in something that was only theirs.
This is how Natalia’s gruff father marked his children’s youth with terrible shouts: ‘Don’t misbehave! Don’t lick the dishes! Don’t do slops! Don’t do potacci!” Or “You people don’t know how to sit at the table! You are not people to take to places’. Grandma also often had something to say: ‘You people make a mess of everything. In this house, you make a brothel of everything.
The author describes, expertly, but there is one thing it is useful to know before you start reading: she hardly ever talks about herself. There is everything about Natalia’s life in this book, but there is no Natalia herself, except in relation to others. She herself tells us in the small preface: ‘I didn’t really want to talk about myself.
“Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I always set out to write a book about the people who lived, then, around me. This is, in part, that book: but only in part, because memory is fickle, and because books drawn from reality are often but slender glimmers and splinters of what we have seen and heard.”