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Family Lexicon
Cover of Family Lexicon
Family Lexicon
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A masterpiece of European literature that blends family memoir and fiction

An Italian family, sizable, with its routines and rituals, crazes, pet phrases, and stories, doubtful, comical, indispensable, comes to life in the pages of Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon. Giuseppe Levi, the father, is a scientist, consumed by his work and a mania for hiking—when he isn’t provoked into angry remonstration by someone misspeaking or misbehaving or wearing the wrong thing. Giuseppe is Jewish, married to Lidia, a Catholic, though neither is religious; they live in the industrial city of Turin where, as the years pass, their children find ways of their own to medicine, marriage, literature, politics. It is all very ordinary, except that the background to the story is Mussolini’s Italy in its steady downward descent to race law and world war. The Levis are, among other things, unshakeable anti-fascists. That will complicate their lives.

Family Lexicon is about a family and language—and about storytelling not only as a form of survival but also as an instrument of deception and domination. The book takes the shape of a novel, yet everything is true. “Every time that I have found myself inventing something in accordance with my old habits as a novelist, I have felt impelled at once to destroy [it],” Ginzburg tells us at the start. “The places, events, and people are all real.”
A masterpiece of European literature that blends family memoir and fiction

An Italian family, sizable, with its routines and rituals, crazes, pet phrases, and stories, doubtful, comical, indispensable, comes to life in the pages of Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon. Giuseppe Levi, the father, is a scientist, consumed by his work and a mania for hiking—when he isn’t provoked into angry remonstration by someone misspeaking or misbehaving or wearing the wrong thing. Giuseppe is Jewish, married to Lidia, a Catholic, though neither is religious; they live in the industrial city of Turin where, as the years pass, their children find ways of their own to medicine, marriage, literature, politics. It is all very ordinary, except that the background to the story is Mussolini’s Italy in its steady downward descent to race law and world war. The Levis are, among other things, unshakeable anti-fascists. That will complicate their lives.

Family Lexicon is about a family and language—and about storytelling not only as a form of survival but also as an instrument of deception and domination. The book takes the shape of a novel, yet everything is true. “Every time that I have found myself inventing something in accordance with my old habits as a novelist, I have felt impelled at once to destroy [it],” Ginzburg tells us at the start. “The places, events, and people are all real.”
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About the Author-
  • Natalia Ginzburg (1916–1991) was born Natalia Levi in Palermo, Sicily, the daughter of a Jewish biologist father and a Catholic mother. She grew up in Turin, in a household that was a salon for antifascist activists, intellectuals, and artists, and published her first short stories at the age of eighteen; she would go on to become one of the most important and widely taught writers in Italy, taking up the themes of oppression, family, and social change. In 1938, she married Leone Ginzburg, a prominent Turinese writer, activist, and editor. In 1940, the fascist government exiled the Ginzburgs and their three children to a remote village in Abruzzo. After the fall of Mussolini, Leone fled to Rome, where he was arrested by Nazi authorities and tortured to death. Natalia married Gabriele Baldini, an English professor, in 1950, and spent the next three decades in Rome, London, and Turin, writing dozens of novels, plays, and essays. Lessico famigliare (Family Lexicon) won her the prestigious Strega Prize in 1963 and La famiglia Manzoni was awarded the 1984 Bagutta Prize. From 1983 to 1987, she served in the Italian parliament as an Independent (having left the Communist Party), where she dedicated herself to reformist causes, including food prices and Palestinian rights.

    Jenny McPhee is a translator and the author of the novels The Center of ThingsNo Ordinary Matter,and A Man of No Moon. She is the director of the Center of Applied Liberal Arts at New York University and lives in New York.

    Peg Boyers teaches poetry and translation at Skidmore College and at the Columbia University School of the Arts. She is the executive editor of Salmagundi Magazine and the author of three books of poetry published by the University of Chicago Press. One of those books, Hard Bread, is based on the life of Natalia Ginzburg.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    February 13, 2017
    The lore of her large, loving, and discordant family provides rich material for Ginzburg’s engrossing autobiographical novel, covering the years of the Italian writer’s childhood in 1920s Italy, her adolescence, first marriage, World War II, and her involvement in postwar literary society. As a child growing up in a Turin apartment, the narrator is a frequent
    witness to conflict: her scientist father’s “sudden outbursts” and the “fights between Alberto and Mario,” two older brothers; outside the home, fascism strengthens its hold on Italy. Yet Ginzberg’s focus on the fascinating peculiarities of her milieu remains. Another brother, Gino, shares their father’s love of mountain hiking and represents a “plausible,” scientific way of life, while Paola, a beautiful older sister, prefers Pirandello, Proust, and Verlaine, as does their mother, an optimist whose “curiosity never let her reject anything.” As the political situation worsens, the family offers refuge to a prominent socialist, and Ginzberg’s father, who is Jewish, is briefly imprisoned, returning with dirty laundry and a long beard, apparently proud of his adventure. The siblings age, migrate, and marry, and the canon of sayings and quotations borrowed from old friends and long-dead relatives becomes their everlasting shared inheritance: “evidence of a vital core that has ceased to exist, but lives on in its texts, saved from the fury of the waters, the
    corrosion of time.”

  • Kirkus

    February 1, 2017
    An autobiographical novel from one of Italy's leading postwar writers.During her life, Ginzburg (The Little Virtues, 1989, etc.), who died in 1991, wrote essays, novels, and short stories; worked for Einaudi, the publisher behind Primo Levi and Italo Calvino, among others; was an anti-fascist and communist activist; and, in 1983, served in Parliament. But these other accomplishments shouldn't obscure the first: Ginzburg was a masterful writer, a witty, elegant prose stylist, and a fiercely intelligent thinker. This 1963 novel, newly translated by novelist McPhee, is a genre-defying work. It reads like a memoir, but it doesn't adhere to the conventions of either fiction or nonfiction. In it, Ginzburg describes her family's experiences before, during, and after World War II; she uses their real names as well as the real names of well-known figures like Cesare Pavese and Adriano Olivetti, with whom her family was intimately acquainted. But Ginzburg herself doesn't appear until more than halfway through the book. Until that point, she describes her siblings, their friends, their mother, and their volatile father. As a framework for all this, Ginzburg returns again and again to inventory the family's "lexicon"--the words they used as a kind of shorthand, to call forth shared memories, or to indicate private meanings. Ginzburg's father, for example, referred to modern paintings (like the paintings of Modigliani), of which he generally disapproved, as "dribbledrabs" or "doodledums" and to those he found stupid as "nitwits," their actions "nitwitteries." Ginzburg writes, "If my siblings and I were to find ourselves in a dark cave or among millions of people, just one of those phrases or words would immediately allow us to recognize each other." It's a poignant thought that grows ever more poignant as Ginzburg goes on to describe the limits to expression under fascist leadership. Ginzburg's "lexicon" is a valuable addition to an already burnished body of work in translation.

    COPYRIGHT(2017) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Emily LaBarge, Bookforum "Jenny McPhee's new translation... reads as more contemporary, immediate, and dynamic. Critically, McPhee's translation emphasizes how language operates within the closed system of a family... In Family Lexicon, familiar words and phrases are the fragments that conjure glimpses of a more complete world, summon what and who has been lost and allow them to continue, to coalesce, condense, collapse. To be carried away, yes, and to carry on."
  • Hilma Wolitzer "The raw beauty of Ginzburg's prose compels our gaze. First we look inward, with the shock of recognition inspired by all great writing, and then, inevitably, out at the shared world she evokes with such uncompromising clarity."
  • Phillip Lopate "There is no one quite like Ginzburg for telling it like it is. Her unique, immediately recognizable voice is at once clear and shaded, artless and sly, able to speak of the deepest sorrows and smallest pleasures of everyday life."
  • Kate Simon, The New York Times "A glowing light of modern Italian literature...Ginzburg's magic is the utter simplicity of her prose, suddenly illuminated by one word that makes a lightning stroke of a plain phrase...As direct and clean as if it were carved in stone, it yet speaks thoughts of the heart."
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