Sunday, December 10, 2017

Family Lexicon

Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Jenny McPhee, 224 pages

Ginzburg’s family in this book, and the family here is her own in this novelistic memoir, are filled with odd passions, strange bits of anger, and the shared lexicon of  the title; words and phrases used by the family members, most often creations of the author’s father, Giuseppe Levi. Giuseppe uses his comically harsh vocabulary to condemn those who like the wrong books, or paintings, or who dress inappropriately when hiking. Giuseppe, who is Jewish, is married to Lidia, a Catholic. Neither practice their faith and both are ardent socialists. The author herself is an observer through the first half of the book, recounting and repeating the family stories, poems, and songs and exploring the family’s interactions with one another and with their neighbors in pre-war Turin. As Mussolini and Italy draw closer to alliance with Hitler and nearer to war, the tone of the book shifts and Natalia becomes a character as well as the narrator. Where Natalia’s brothers have had to flee and hide from Mussolini’s government for political reasons since the fascists had come to power, once the war began the family must scatter, Natalia’s own situation more dangerous because the man she has married, Leone Ginzburg, is also Jewish. A memoir presented as a literary novel that evokes the author's memories through the character's spoken words. It is also a book that toys with one's sense of time, fear, and memory.

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