During World War II, Natalia Ginzburg’s husband was sent into internal exile in Italy, and Natalia and their children moved to the poor village of Abruzzo with him. In the first part of her essays, collected here in ‘The Little Virtues’ Ginzburg touches on this time, their poverty and the difficulties they suffered. Mentioned only in passing, Ginzburg’s husband died in prison and she was left to raise the children alone. It is, then, perhaps not surprising that the first section of essays deal with exile, with lack, with being outside your usual culture, but far from being melancholy the resilience of the Ginzburgs run through them like an iron core. She writes about having worn out shoes, about the churches and the local people, she writes a long love letter to her husband ‘He and I’ which is extremely beautiful. The first section is both personal and impersonal. She writes about her husband, about the intimate details of their lives, and then follows it up with a eulogy to England, our sad cafes, the melancholy aura, its virtues and vices. It’s an amusing essay:
“In London, which is a black and grey city, man has placed a few colours with precision and forethought. You can suddenly find a blue of red or pink front door among its black brothers. The buses that pass by in the grey air are painted a vivid red. These are colours that would be cheerful anywhere else, but here they are not cheerful; set in place in such an exact and deliberate way they know they are like the weak, sad smile of someone who doesn’t know how to smile.”
I’m sad to say I recognised many aspects which still apply, yet it seems we have lost all of our virtues and none of our vices. What a shame.
The second part of the book is a much more mixed range of essays. In The Son of Man, Ginzburg reflects on the horrors of war, the difficulties in getting past it. In My Vocation, she addresses her relationship with writing, her difficulties in doing anything else and the way she is beholden to it. It is a fascinating read.
“And you have to realize that you cannot hope to console yourself for your grief by writing. You cannot deceive yourself by hoping for caresses and lullabies from your vocation. In my life there have been interminable, desolate empty Sundays in which I desperately wanted to write something that would console me for my loneliness and boredom, so that I could be calmed and soothed by phrases and words. But I could not write a single line. My vocation has always rejected me, it does not want to know about me. Because this vocation is never a consolation or a way of passing the time. It is not a companion. This vocation is a master who reviles and condemns us. We must swallow our saliva and our tears and grit our teeth and dry the blood from our wounds and serve him. Serve him when he asks. Then he will help us up on to our feet, fix our feet firmly in the ground; he will help us overcome madness and delirium, fever and despair. But he has to be the one who gives the orders and he always refuses to pay attention to us when we need him.”
The final essay, The Little Virtues, from which the collection takes its title discusses the merits and challenges of educating children. Ginzburg counsels teaching them the ‘great virtues’ instead of the ‘little virtues’, as she outlines here:
“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; nor shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one’s neighbour and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.”
She argues that children are taught the wrong virtues, and put forwards suggestions for teaching them not to value money (value things, not money), to be generous, brave and truthful. She argues that by focusing on the small virtues, and expecting them to extrapolate the larger ones, this encourages meanness and fearfulness and by instead focusing on the great virtues the lesser virtues are implied. It’s an interesting message. Ginzburg has a way of elucidating virtue even whilst writing about the intricacies of human relationships, each of her essays has at its core a kind of virtue whether that’s valuing your old worn shoes (and not focusing on acquiring new ones), paying attention to your neighbours, recovering from war or facing up to silence. I wonder how much of her work is influenced by her experiences during the war, the hardships she faced and the need to confront them with humour and humility. I wonder if that is part of the reason for her perception of England as a thin, superficial kind of place. Irrespective of the cause, The Little Virtues is a compelling, vivid and very humanistic collection of essays. Ginzburg is humble but observant, and rigorous in her search for truth. Whether or not you agree with her conclusions, there’s such veracity in her writing that it must, at least, be respected. But I felt more than that. I loved her warmth and directness, the penetrating nature of her gaze and willingness to follow what she believes is true rather than the expected. It’s a lovely little collection, full of the great virtues she counsels us to attain.
The Little Virtues is published by Arcade Publishing