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The Great Lady

by Natalia Ginzburg

translated from the Italian by Lynne Sharon Schwartz


The English novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett, whom Alberto Arbasino (a well-known Italian novelist) used to call “the great lady,” died in London last August. I found this out a few days ago in an article by Arbasino. To say I was sorry to hear of her death might sound foolish: she was, I believe, almost ninety years old, she lived alone, and she must have led a fossil-like existence. And yet the news of her death saddened me. So she is no longer writing her dry, brilliant novels. And I never saw her; now I’ll never see her. I wanted so much to meet her and always envied Arbasino because he knew her and had even visited her two or three times in her London home.

What little I know of her, I know through Arbasino. But I had pictured her exactly as he describes her: very, very old; very, very small; a shawl wrapped around her knees; her hair tidily arranged “like a little wig” over her wrinkled, freckled forehead; her shriveled hands icy and stiff with arthritis; and on a stool beside her, a basket from which she plucked leaves of lettuce at tea time, nibbling them “like a little turtle.” Thus Arbasino saw her and thus she must have been for many years; indeed maybe she had been that way forever. A cross between a small bird, a mouse, and a turtle.

There were no men in her life, and no children. According to the brief biographical notes on her book jackets, she lived first with a brother, then with a woman friend. When those two were gone she was alone. The life of an old unmarried English lady: it’s easy to imagine. Tea, embroidered doilies, coal, the mail slid under the door, the coin-operated “launderette” once a week; a dignified, well-ordered solitude, a genteel, minimal existence. Yet all the while she was writing those novels. She said of herself, “I started out writing the way I wanted to, feeling that that was my style, and later on I found no reason to change.”

She wrote a great many novels, all so much alike that it’s difficult to single out and recall any one in particular: complex, meticulous mechanisms that, taken as a whole, form an immense, tortuous structure. She was rather like a clear-sighted, industrious engineer.

In childhood she lived in the country, surely in one of those houses to be found in her novels, crammed with children, dogs, cats, and servants; spacious, uncomfortable, ancient, badly heated by scanty fires, and nestled in a verdant, rainy countryside. Houses where, in her novels, people are consumed by secret incestuous passions and murder infants and burn wills. Yet not a single cry breaks the silence, not a single drop of blood stains the walls. The landscape is the English countryside, thickly settled yet reclusive and lonesome; cultivated yet desolate; wooded, boundless, and somber. Nature and places are invisible in her novels, since she never spends a single syllable describing them; they’re invisible, but we feel them all around us as if she had drawn them in detail.

Once in a great while she may linger an instant to describe her characters, but barely, in passing, with only a few brief strokes. It’s not haste or lack of patience that makes Compton-Burnett so rarely pause to describe faces and places; it is rather a disdainful frugality, a fastidious rejection of anything superfluous. The pace of her writing is neither slow nor swift, but the even, precise, and inexorable pace of one who knows just where she has to go. Her patience is relentless, infernal.

I discovered her novels about ten years ago, during a period when I was living in England. I stumbled upon them by chance. Reading one for the first time, I had the unpleasant sensation of being caught in a trap. I felt pinned to the ground. I looked for them everywhere. I don’t know much English; I read those novels with extreme difficulty, and every so often I wondered why on earth I so stubbornly and laboriously persisted in reading a writer I might well detest.

At first, reading her novels, I seemed to be moving through a landscape of fog. I couldn’t quite tell if the fog came from the fact that I understood English with difficulty, or if the fog shrouding those wintry places was genuine, created by the author. They are novels made up almost entirely of dialogue; through the fog I could hear the measured beats of the dialogues striking, bouncing from one point to another, dry and precise as Ping-Pong balls. At that point, I hadn’t been writing for quite some time, and suddenly I felt something reawaken in me that had been long dormant: those precise, dry sounds suddenly and imperiously brought me back to the lost path.

And still I kept telling myself that I didn’t like her novels at all and might even loathe them; they evoked things so remote and alien to me: a Ping-Pong game, a chess game, a geometrical theorem. Then all at once I realized that in fact I loved them wildly; I took joy and comfort in them; I could drink them in like water from a fountain—no matter that they were dry and airless. There wasn’t any kind of fog, I was mistaken about the fog; on the contrary, a dazzling clarity, naked and inexorable, suffused them, and in this inexorable clarity, impenetrable creatures sat riveted in their ruthless conversations, exchanging words like serpents’ bites. Yet no tears or blood or sweat ever flowed, nor did the characters ever grow pale, maybe because they were already very pale; the wounds produced a piercing but dull grief, and even this was immediately engulfed by new serpent bites. In such a world, no happiness of any kind was possible; for such creatures, happiness didn’t exist even as a lost realm; happiness could only take the shape of a grim triumph of money or pride.

I could never grasp where, in such novels, the poetry might reside, and yet I felt it must be somewhere if, dry and airless as they were, one could breathe and drink them in, and feel, in their midst, a profound, comforting, and redeeming happiness. Then I understood that poetry was present the way nature was present: the poetry, totally invisible, totally unwilled, neither offered nor intended for anyone, was there in the same way as the dull, limitless sky that stretched behind those malicious, isolated strokes. And so a diligently constructed mechanism was miraculously transformed into something in which any casual observer could recognize his own face and his own fate.

While I was spending my days in London reading her novels Mother and Son, Brothers and Sisters, Elders and Betters, A God and His Gifts, I was always hoping to meet Ivy Compton-Burnett walking down the street. I had been told she lived in my neighborhood. So I studied all the little old ladies walking up and down the avenues. One day I went to a brunch I had heard she was invited to. She didn’t show up. She talked only of trivia anyway, my hosts said; her conversation was of no interest. But I didn’t care anything about her conversation. I simply wanted to see her, and to tell her somehow, in my crude and meager English, how immensely important her books had been to me.

Of course she would have found me absurd. Someone like me could only have struck her as absurd—gratuitous and sentimental. She would have found words like gratitude or love for her books quite superfluous. She was probably as completely unegotistical as a turtle or an engineer: in that lay her greatness. Still, I would have liked, if only for an instant, to live in her field of vision. As far as her conversation being trivial, as they claimed, that didn’t surprise me. Surely she wouldn’t waste any words in social chit-chat; for ordinary conversation, she would dole out a suitably ordinary voice, a trifling, querulous whisper, just as she would dole out a few coins to buy her newspaper, counting them in her worn-out glove. Maybe she released her real voice, loud, violent, and tragic, only in the dark recesses of her soul.

December, 1969

 

Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1990), one of the most renowned and distinctive voices in postwar Italian literature, was revered for her inimitable style and her unforgettable depiction of private lives in a disrupted social landscape. A prolific novelist, drmatist, and essayist, she is best known in this country for her novels All Our Yesterday, The City and the House, and Voices in the Evening, and her autobiographical work The Things We Used to Say. The essays here are taken from A Place to Live: Selected Essays of Natalia Ginzburg, published this spring by Seven Stories Press and translated by Lynne Sharon Schwartz.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz's books include the novels Disturbances in the Field (Harper Collins, 1983), Leaving Brooklyn (Houghton Mifflin, 1989), and In the Family Way: An Urban Comedy (William Morrow & Co., 1999) and a memoir, Ruined by Reading (Beacon Press, 1996). Her first collection of poetry, In Solitary, appeared in February 2002 from Sheep Meadow Press. She won the 1991 PEN Renato Poggioli Award for her trnslation from Italian of Liana Millu's Smoke Over Birkenau, and her translation A Place to Live: Selected Essays by Natalia Ginzburg, will be published in May 2002 by Seven Stories Press. (5/2002)


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