Family and Borghesia is a collection of two novellas by neorealist Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg. Each novella features a large cast of characters trying to navigate the changes in family life in post-war Italy. Ennui is the dominant emotion; The characters are empty and dissatisfied with their lives, but they don’t want anything else either.
Why, where would you rather be?’ asked Carmine.
“I don’t know, but not here.”
“That happens to me too, all the time,” said Carmine. “I’m not happy where I am, but I haven’t the faintest idea where I would rather be, nor, most important of all, who I would rather be with.”
Both novellas feature suicide, death, and affairs, but they all seem inconsequential - Ginzburg writes in a chatty, gossipy style. She gives the same level of detail to the uselessness of a servant as the main character’s death. Her prose is deceptively simple, hiding the complexity of her characters and story.
Family follows Carmine, a middle-aged architect, and Ivana, an freelance translator. Carmine and Ivana once lived together and had a child, but the child died of polio and their relationship fell apart. Carmine married Ninetta and had another son, but is unhappy in the marriage, and Ivana has a daughter with another man. Carmine neglects his family and spends his evenings with Ivana’s family. His relationship with Ivana, however, is purely platonic - they only reflect on the past to express surprise they ever worked as a couple.
The characters of Family mostly dislike each other - the most common description someone thinking another person is an imbecile. When someone does love someone else, that love is unrequited. They seem to hang around each other because there’s nobody else they’d rather be with. Relationships are fluid: people break up and get together without attaching any significance or deeper meaning to the relationship. It speaks to Ginzburg’s strength as a writer that she makes us sympathetic to people who are mostly selfish and unsympathetic. That’s not to say they have no redeeming qualities whatsoever - when Ivana’s boyfriend kills himself, they go out in the middle of the night to arrange his funeral.
In opposition to Tolstoy, all families are unhappy in the same way - they suffer from a desire for something else, nostalgia for what they used to have. You don’t notice happiness when you have it, Ginzburg once remarked: happiness, she said, is like water. Carmine is constantly ruminating on the past, not just on what he wasted, but the day-to-day as well. When Carmine dies at the end of the novella, he reflects on a memory as a child:
He was a child then, and his mother was young. She had a full, pink face and white teeth. Her thick black hair was gathered into a fat bun studded with steel hairpins, and protruded from underneath her headscarf. He remembered one occasion when he was very tiny, still in his mother’s arms, and they were in town, at the station. It was night time and pouring with rain. There were crowds of people with umbrellas waiting for the train, and mud was running between the tracks. Why on earth his memory should have squandered and destroyed so many days and so many events, and yet preserved that moment so accurately, bringing it safely through the years, tempests and ruins, he did not know. At that point, he could not remember anything about himself, what clothes and shoes he had worn, what wonder and curiosity had woven and unwoven itself in his thoughts at the time. His memory had thrown all that out as useless. Instead, he had retained a whole pile of random detailed impressions, that were hazy, but light as a feather. He had kept the memory of voices, mud, umbrellas, people, the night.
Carmine doesn’t attach much significance to this memory. I think it’s significant that Carmine remembers things external to him but not the things about himself when he dies. None of Carmine’s life, feelings or ambitions mattered - what mattered was the things outside of him. For such a self-absorbed man this feels a profound shift.
Ginzburg’s descriptions of people and objects stands out in Family. The characters wear the same clothes, as if they were cartoon characters. Ivana wears a T-shirt that was once blue, but has since faded to white. Carmine’s parents’ teeth are blackened and rotting from age. In typical Ginzburg style, these descriptions are understated but bring the world and characters to life.
Next to the settee was a lamp with a furry white paper shade. Ivana said it looked like a silkworm. Dangling from the ceiling, above the table, was a long, smooth, white paper lampshade. She said it looked like a contraceptive. The two comparisons were not appreciated.
She remembered saying that there were three things in life you should always refuse: hypocrisy, resignation and unhappiness. But it was impossible to shield yourself from those three things. Life was full of them and there was no holding them back. They were too strong and too cunning for mere humans.
Borghesia is the story of a widow, Ilaria, who gets and loses a series of cats in a desperate bid to give her life meaning. Unlike the emotional complexity of Carmine in Family, Borghesia emphasizes the emptiness omnipresent in Ilaria’s life.
Ilaria is supported by her brother-in-law, Pietro; Her daughter and aimless son-in-law live in the apartment below hers. However, the relationships in the book are never taken seriously by the characters. Her daughter quickly leaves her husband and hops off to the country, never even bothering to get a legal divorce. Pietro gets married to a much younger woman, but for the wrong reasons. Pietro constantly puts off the marriage for trivial reasons, and when they do get married the wife quickly cheats on him.
Unlike Family, which takes place over a week, Borghesia takes place over many years. The novella uses repetition to create a sense of monotony in Ilaria’s life. The months and years pass on, but the characters constantly make the same mistakes over and over and over again. They never talk about the painful things that happen to them. After the breakup of his marriage, Pietro remarks that he only wants to remember light-hearted, tranquil things. Ginzburg writes that “unhappiness was not only a very complicated thing to talk about, it was humiliating too”. Like infants, the characters lack object permanence. As soon as someone leaves, they are immediately forgotten and never talked about again.
And yet the characters are capable of tenderness when they do notice another is suffering. To Ginzburg, affection is not expressed in words but in noticing the details of another person’s life. Ilaria’s friend caresses her when her daughter’s marriage breaks up. When Ilaria dies at the end of the novella, her daughter returns and cleans out her house, making sure her kittens have good homes to go to. It is not lost on her daughter that her mother kept her things from her childhood, a testament to her love.
In Borghesia, Ginzburg’s dry wit really shines. She writes in a emotionless style that lampshades the character’s absurd decisions:
He did not understand her, and he was marrying her in order to be able to understand her. Ilaria said, but would it not be better to understand her first, then marry her?
While Family is emotionally more complex, I liked the simplicity of Borghesia better. I found the characters much more sympathetic, sad and even funny at times.