"As far as the education of children is concerned," states Natalia Ginzburg in this collection of her finest and best-known short essays, "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; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not ta"As far as the education of children is concerned," states Natalia Ginzburg in this collection of her finest and best-known short essays, "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; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but a love of ones neighbor and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know."
Whether she writes of the loss of a friend, Cesare Pavese; or what is inexpugnable of World War II; or the Abruzzi, where she and her first husband lived in forced residence under Fascist rule; or the importance of silence in our society; or her vocation as a writer; or even a pair of worn-out shoes, Ginzburg brings to her reflections the wisdom of a survivor and the spare, wry, and poetically resonant style her readers have come to recognize....more
Paperback, 110 pages
Published October 18th 1989 by Arcade Pub (first published 1962)
Back in 1944 when Ginzburg wrote about herself and her husband living in the country, in that false exile, raising the children, taking those twilight walks, surely it must have seemed that the precarious peace of family life could never, in any way, measure up against the great press of nations elbowing rudely for more room on the European continent. And yes, Ginzburg's husband died--but so did Hitler and Mussolini and many of the things they stood for. Children and twilight walks, all the simple-seeming strands of family life remained, to lend her their steady strength.
"The Little Virtues" is a collection of 11 autobiographical essays written over a period of 18 years--from 1944 to 1962. They are divided into two sections, and, for this reader at least, it took some pondering to figure out why they might have been divided in such a way. Six essays in part one: that first about the idyllic winter in World War II, then a few pages on living with a woman friend in poverty, then a portrait of Cesare Pavese--with, however, his name or his writings never mentioned and only his virtues as a "friend of the family" remembered. Then two silly, carping essays about England and how intensely uncomfortable it is to live there: "To me it seems that even some of the words they use to indicate food and drink have an unpleasant sound and reveal hatred and distaste: 'Snacks, Squash, Poetry.' Don't such words sound like insults?"
And finally, a small act of bravery that is one of the largest gestures the human soul can encompass--another essay, written in 1962 and never published: "He and I," the story of a second family life, built of squabbles and incompatibilities and humor--a series of domestic trivialities that delicately mask the enormous personal decision to love again. Part one, then, is a record of personal choices; personal life. But Ginzburg is a writer, and her strolls, her snacks, her husbands, even her children are cradled in a larger snare, a wider way of looking at things--that frame of mind which she refers to as her "vocation," her decision to write.
The second five essays, then, set every domestic and personal detail against a larger scrim--a wide, blue backdrop that has to do with telling the truth about life as she sees it. In "The Son of Man," Ginzburg once again recalls World War II, and suggests that though it was an unspeakable experience, it at least brought home to parents and children the truths of existence--that peace and quiet nurseries and games are illusory; that the havens of safety we fashion for ourselves can be brought down at any time.
Against the inevitable streak of destruction and chaos that rips through the world, Ginzburg has only one real weapon: "My Vocation," she calls it, her life's work, her decision to write. In perhaps the longest essay here, she works out the specifics of that artistic life. Then a piece on "Silence," another on "Human Relationships," and finally, "The Little Virtues": "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; not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one's neighbor and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know. . . ."
All these abstractions are then brought down to two parallel articles of faith: Ginzburg's "indifference to money" is best practiced by spending it instantly like water flowing through one's fingers; And if there is a constant in our lives, let it be--not money or possessions--but our vocations; our lives' work: ". . . What is a human being's vocation but the highest expression of his love of life?"
These little virtues then, this little book, pack a tremendous punch. By loving life, Ginzburg suggests, by working with love and enthusiasm, by embracing the homeliest details of daily existence with astonishment and joy, we may legitimately hope to conquer--or at least break even against--the worldly and leaden forces of materialism and fear.
The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg (Seaver Books: $13.95)
A young Italian-Jewish wife lives in the Abruzzi with her husband and small children while World War II buzzes along some distance away. The family is fleeing the fascists, but here, all is peace. The children play, the young mother and father go for their daily walks at twilight: But soon all this will change.
"Our lives unfold according to ancient, unchangeable laws, according to an invariable and ancient rhythm. . . . My husband died in Rome, in the prison of Regina Coeli, a few months after we left the Abruzzi. Faced with the horror of his solitary death, and faced with the anguish which preceded his death, I asked myself if this happened to us--to us, who bought oranges at Giro's and went for walks in the snow. At that time I believed in a simple and happy future, rich with hopes that were fulfilled, with experiences and plans that were shared. But that was the best time of my life, and only now that it is gone from me forever--only now do I realize it."
An Elegant Double Message
Thus are individual treasures versus national tragedies set in opposition, in the first essay of this slim, deceptively unpretentious collection by Natalia Ginzburg, Italian essayist and critic. We live in horrendous times: What, then, shall save us? Ginzburg conveys an elegant double message here. It has to do with--what really is little, what really is big? This book, for instance, is tiny, minuscule, but jam-packed with information on how to live life in a correct way.