Natalia Ginzburg was an Italian author, playwright, translator and political activist. She was exiled during the Second World War but secretly returned to Rome with her husband to edit an anti-fascist newspaper until he was arrested and murdered by police in 1944.
Ginzburg’s own life story stands in stark contrast to the life and characters she presents in Famiglia, which has been published in Europe and under the name Family in her English-language collection Four Novellas. Carmine, the protagonist of this sixty-page novella, is almost defined by his apathy. His idle days are hot and listless, as he falls in and out of love with his wife and his ex-girlfriend and her friends.
The simplicity of the story is duplicitous; the apathy only a shroud. In the final pages of the novella, it is ripped away to reveal a well of pain and passion, leaving the reader with a disconcerting and sudden ending. Looking at the story through the lens of gastronomy provides a new understanding of the text. Not only does it encapture a very specific moment in time and location (Tridente Rome in the mid-1970s), Ginzburg uses it to comment on the ironies of middle-class Roman culture.
“Food and eating is portrayed as a statement of power and status within the Roman middle-class. More than that, it symbolises the nourishment of the spirit and acts as a social unifier or divider.”
Food and eating is portrayed as a statement of power and status within the Roman middle-class. More than that, it symbolises the nourishment of the spirit and acts as a social unifier or divider. Above all, gastronomy is a means of communication for Carmine, whose ability to understand and express his emotions is highly flawed and leads directly to the novels gut-wrenching conclusion. Gastronomy provides a key to unlock the meaning behind the long hot days and strained relationships depicted in Famiglia.
Natalia Ginzburg, Italian author of Famiglia.
“A Gypsy Sundae in a tall glass, with a mountain of whipped cream, topped by three glacé cherries, some pistachio nuts, and a wafer stuck right in the middle.”
Amid the disorder of the characters’ lives, the story is symmetrical. It begins and ends with the eating of a Gyspy Sundae on a hot Sunday afternoon. The characters Carmine and Ivana, who used to be lovers but now have their own separate families, share the dessert with their children.
Homemade Pasta with Aubergines in Oil
Meeting again after ten years, Carmine walks Ivana home. He attempts to impress her by telling her about his wife’s cooking ability. Annoyed, Ivana calls him the next day to say: “I don’t care a fuck about aubergines in oil.”
Takeaway Roast Chicken from Via Del Babuino
Even though Carmine decides Ivana is extremely boring, he brings over a roast chicken as a peace offering. Ivana prefers bread with butter and milky coffee for supper, but she invites him in anyway, and so begins a friendship between them.
Risotto and Courgette Mould
Ivana comes over for a dinner party at Carmine’s house. His wife is frustrated by her abrupt manners and spends the whole night focussing on what she will do with the leftovers. Once their guests leave she is so frustrated that she ends up throwing the leftovers away.
A Parcel of Nourishing Food with Cheese that Tastes Like Soap
Ivana’s new lover gives his wife a food package to eat on the bus. She calls him to tell him the marriage is over, not to return her things and that the cheese in the package tasted of soap.
Semolina or Cauliflower with Vinegar
Carmine gets into an argument with Ivana’s landlord about what is better to feed their children. She insists that, though her son is overweight, there is nothing wrong with him eating cauliflower with vinegar. Carmine insists he never tasted a drop of vinegar as a child. His son eats only semolina, sometimes with a litre of milk.
Homemade Sandwiches and Oranges
At a fancy dress party, Carmine’s wife falls in love with a forty-year-old journalist while making sandwiches in the kitchen. Later, she goes to buy oranges to make Carmine orange juice because he is sick. She returns hours later with the oranges, and Carmine knows she was seeing her lover. He tells her he no longer wants orange juice.
Roast Chicken, Mozzarella, Boiled Potatoes Fried in Butter and Runner Beans with Wine
Deciding that his marriage is officially over, Carmine and Ivana make a feast with their friends and family. Each person brings a different dish, made up of takeaway and leftovers, so together they can create a feast. The characters find peace with each other, if only for a few hours.
Famiglia by Natalia Ginzburg, 1977, 115pp.