Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

The Maternal Lineage: Orality and Language in Natalia Ginzburg's Family Sayings

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

The Maternal Lineage: Orality and Language in Natalia Ginzburg's Family Sayings

Article excerpt

We are made of time. We are its feet and its voice. The Feet of time walk in our shoes. Sooner or later, we all know, the wind of time will erase the tracks. Passage of nothing, steps of no one? The voices of time tell of the voyage.

"Time Tells" in Voices of Time. A Life in Stories by Eduardo Galeano

Natalia Ginzburg's preface to Family Sayings is presented to the reader as an instruction on how to read the rest of the book, as well as a justification for the gaps and falls that memory may have left in the process of recording this family history. Ginzburg confirms that there are two parallel processes occurring in writing her family history, one based on reality and one on memory. Neither is completely reliable in rendering a story, as reality appears to be only "faint reflections and sketches," while memory in Ginzburg's words "is treacherous." Therefore, she advises her readers to consider the book as a novel, "without demanding of it either more or less than what a novel can offer." (2) Ginzburg has created in the very first pages of her book a mode of reading, a pact that will enable to submit all preoccupations on factuality or truth. As readers we are asked to access the text as "the record of a family" (a biography?) and a novel, while, as critics, we are faced with the impossibility of locating the text into a genre.

   I have set down only what I myself could recall. Consequently, if
   this book is read as a chronicle of events it may be objected that
   there are omissions. Although the book-is founded on reality, I
   think it should be read as though it were a novel, that is, read
   without demanding of it either more or less than what a novel can
   offer. (3)

In this sense with Family Sayings, Ginzburg abandons any assumption about the genre of auto/biography. Reading it as a novel, Ginzburg imagines, will allow the reader to navigate through the text not as a detective but rather as a witness who participates in the unfolding and repetitions of a collective history. Now a classic of autobiographical studies, (4) Philippe Lejeune's definition of autobiography as "the retrospective prose narrative that someone writes concerning his own existence, where the focus is his individual life, in particular, the story of his personality" is transgressed by Ginzburg's work. Family Sayings may fulfill the requirements of Lejeune's standard model of autobiography in its narrative chronological intention and in its desire to historicize, but it escapes its requirements by being an auto/biography propelled towards the "other" where the self is disclosed/undisclosed within the sketches, the voices and the stories of others.

Despite the author's instructions, I propose a reading of Family Sayings as an example of an autobiography that in fact subverts the definition of the genre as individualistic. Natalia Ginzburg takes the role of the storyteller who retrieves a language no longer existent in her time and space and residing solely in her memory as a collective history. In her recreation of voices she ends up reproducing the world of storytelling whose main voice and transmitter in her lifetime was represented by the mother. Through the repetition of sayings and sketches, Ginzburg presents a work partly oral, partly written, blurring once again, as in the preface of the book, the relationship between author/reader and storyteller/listener. In a time when consumerism is rampant in postwar Italy, when the family entity and unity are threatened by consumerism and capitalistic models of modernity and maternal relationships are being put to the test by feminist agendas attempting to liberate women from the binding of traditional and patriarchal family relations, Ginzburg talks about words, sayings and stories as the essence of life, offering not only a testimony of loss but also a reevaluation of maternal lineages in collective autobiography.


Family Sayings is, in part, the story of the Levi family before, during and after WWII. …

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