Small essays on big themes by Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg

The Little Virtues, by Natalia Ginzburg. Translated from the Italian by Dick Davis. New York: Seaver Books. Distributed by Henry Holt & Co. 110 pp. $13.95. Novelist, playwright, critic, editor, translator, and currently a member of the Italian Parliament, Natalia Ginzburg writes with a directness that instantly captures our attention. Her brusqueness, however, is never merely erratic, but has a rhythm of its own that keeps us listening.

The rhythm is in the paragraphs and the sentences, but more important, it is in the meaning, the logic, the emotion, the sententia of the sentences:

As far as the education of children is concerned, I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one's neighbor and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.

This collection includes two essays on England; a tribute to poet and novelist Cesare Pavese (1908-1950) all the more poignant for its sharp insights; a meditation on ``Worn-Out Shoes''; a marvelous piece on ``Human Relationships,'' tracing the changing patterns of the connections we form in the course of our lives; and a catalog description, ``He and I,'' a study in contrasts that manages to capture the uniqueness of a particular relationship without reducing it to the enfeebling generalizations of contemporary encounter-group talk.

For Ginzburg - as for so many other Europeans of her generation - the central experience of her life is World War II. Her first husband, the writer Leone Ginzburg, active in the resistance, was arrested, tortured, and killed by the Fascists. Several essays in this collection reflect what it is like to live through events that change forever the way one sees everything.

The earliest of these essays, ``Winter in the Abruzzi,'' recounts a period spent in limbo, when the Ginzburgs were exiled to the Abruzzi, a primitive, isolated region of Italy, where they waited for their real life to resume. But this interim of exile and waiting takes on new significance: They leave the Abruzzi, her husband is imprisoned and dies. The period of waiting turns out to have been an end of something. The still young woman writes:

Our dreams are never realized and as soon as we see them betrayed we realize that the intensest joys of our life have nothing to do with reality.

That's from the close of the earliest essay. As Ginzburg writes in the foreword, these essays have not been revised in light of what happened after they were composed.

In an essay entitled ``The Son of Man,'' she writes eloquently of war's destruction:

Someone who has seen a house collapse knows only too clearly what frail things little vases of flowers and pictures and white walls are.

Ginzburg's sensitivity to the ``frail things'' marks what she calls ``my vocation.'' In a later essay of that title, she movingly conveys its hardships, its satisfactions, its demands, and its surprising rewards in strong, deceptively simple terms that memorably express what would take a lesser writer twice the space to convey with half the forcefulness. Even her modesty has verve:

But there is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am ... a small writer. ... [I]f I am asked ``a small writer like who?'' it would sadden me to think of the names of other small writers. I prefer to think that no one has ever been like me, however small, however much a mosquito or a flea of a writer I may be.

Size is comparative. Whatever her ultimate place in the literary pantheon, Ginzburg is assuredly a voice to reckon with among writers of the postwar period. Two of her widely acclaimed novels, ``Family Sayings'' and ``All Our Yesterdays,'' have recently been reissued in paperback and should win her still more admirers.

``The Little Virtues,'' 11 essays written for newspapers and magazines in the years 1944 to 1962, may well serve as a more immediately accessible introduction to her work than either of the novels. This is not only on account of the brevity of the essays and the variety of topics they engage, but also because her distinctive voice sounds even more arresting when she speaks directly, without the intervening medium of fiction.

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