Voices in the Evening

Natalia Ginzburg, whose first novel was published in 1942, and her last over forty years later in 1983, was widely translated into English at the time but, until recently, had largely fallen out of print. Voices in the Evening is the third of her books to be reissued by Daunt Books, following on from The Little Virtues and Family Lexicon last year, though it predates them in its original date of publication, 1961. The translation, by D. M. Low, is from 1963, and Ginzburg’s reappearance in English seems to be a mixture of old and new translations (Family Lexicon, for example, is a new translation by Jenny McPhee; The Dry Heart, which New Directions will publish in June, is the original 1949 translation by Frances Frenaye).

Voices in the Evening is a novel which can reasonably be divide into two parts. In the first part Elsa, the narrator, is largely an observer, presenting us with a picture of the small town where she lives, a town where the past is often as alive as the present. Her role as recorder is amusingly demonstrated in the opening pages as her mother talks on paragraph after paragraph without so much as an interjection or response form Elsa:

“Couldn’t we sometimes have the miracle of a word from you?”

Her reliability is reinforced when she responds to her mother’s comments, for example in relation to the new doctor’s marital status, with more accurate information than her mother possesses. The new doctor is discussed as Elsa’s mother is concerned that Elsa remains unmarried at twenty-seven:

“…my mother’s most persistent worry is that I do not get married. This is an annoyance which depresses her, and the only consolation she gets lies in the fact that the little Bottiglia girls at the age of thirty have not got married either.”

In the chapters which follow, Elsa describes the inhabitants of the town, which itself centres on the factory where her father is the accountant: “The whole neighbourhood lives by the factory.”

Ginzburg’s work was greatly influenced by her experience of the war and the stories of the inhabitants of the town remain overshadowed by the war years. Balotto, the owner of the factory, we are told, was a Socialist:

“He always remained one, although after the coming of Fascism he dropped his habit of uttering his thoughts aloud.”

Purillo, a distant relative brought up by Balotto, on the other hand, displays “a large photograph of himself in the dining room wearing a black shirt and raising his arm to the salute among some Party officers who had come to visit the works.” It is Purillo, however, who drives Balotto and his wife to safety when he fears the Fascists are coming for them. Nebbia, the unrequited love of Balotto’s daughter, Gemmina, is killed by the Germans. Balotto’s other daughter, Rafaella, returns at the end of the war a Partisan, “wearing trousers, a red handkerchief round her neck, and a pistol in a holster.”

The novel’s second half focuses on the relationship between Elsa and Balotto’s son, Tommasino. It is hinted at earlier in the novel when her friend, Giuliana tells her, “They saw you, with Tommasino,” but Elsa merely replies, “And then?” before changing the subject. The chapter ‘Elsa and Tommasino’ cleverly begins, like the others, with a dispassionate description of Tommasino’s daily life, before Elsa reveals:

“Tommasino and I met every Wednesday in the town.”

They have been meeting every week (sometimes twice a week) for months, going to the library, buying any messages Elsa must return home with, and then retiring to a room Tommasino has rented for them. Within a page of our discovery of their relationship Tommasino is telling her:

“I am not marrying you… I don’t want to marry; if I did, I should probably marry you.”

Not only does this arrangement seem to suit Elsa as well as Tommasino, she is the most disparaging of convention. When Tommasino worries about them being seen together she tells him:

“My reputation! I don’t care a rap for that, not I.”

It is Tommasino rather than Elsa who changes things when he brings the brewers’ yeast which Elsa bought for her mother but left behind to her house, thus entangling their relationship with their other lives, and making Elsa question whether they can continue as before.

The novel’s second half deepens into an examination of the expectations placed on love by men, women and society, but Voices in the Evening does not feel at all disjointed, the same themes having been touched on in the first half, though more briefly and with more variety. Together they emphasise the complexity of relationships and the interconnected nature of our lives in an enjoyable and accomplished narrative. It is easy to see why Ginzburg is being read again.

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10 Responses to “Voices in the Evening”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    That’s interesting, Grant – I didn’t realise Daunt had released some of her works. I have at least one of hers in NYRB I think – somewhere – and another title had been going to come out from Apollo but never did. It seems a little piecemeal and the purist in me wants a nice matching set! That’s by the by – she sounds excellent and I shall have to dig out whichever one I have lurking!

    • 1streading Says:

      The NYRB one is probably Family Lexicon which Daunt have published here. New Directions seems to be the next publisher to take her on so I don’t think you’re going to get your wish for a nice unified edition!

  2. winstonsdad Says:

    I read the non fiction book by her last year and was reading article the other day about her influence on Ferrante nice see an older writer getting books out again

    • 1streading Says:

      I saw that too. I’d been meaning to buy her two earlier books but hadn’t got round to it – ironically by starting with this one I’ve started with the book which was published first originally!

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    You’re right, this does appeal to me! I think I read the same article as Stu, a piece in The Guardian at the weekend – Pavese was an influence on her work.

    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/25/if-ferrante-is-a-friend-ginzburg-is-a-mentor-the-rise-and-rise-of-writer-natalia-ginzburg

    These Daunt Books reissues are beautifully produced – stylish cover designs, high quality paper and French flaps. Very covetable indeed.

  4. juliana brina Says:

    I’ve just read Family Lexicon this month, and Voices in the Evening sounds like a nice follow-up. Thank you for your review, Grant 🙂

  5. Caroline Says:

    Thanks for reminding me of her. I haven’t read her in ages but she’s such a fine writer. I liked Caro Michele very much. It’s great she’s rediscovered. This sounds very good.

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