Book reviews

The Little Virtues is a collection of essays by Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, written between 1944 and 1960. I bought my copy from one of my favourite Melbourne bookshops, Hill of Content, because I liked the cover.

The Little Virtues was the stand-out essay in the collection for me, inspiring but also unrealistic. It suggests that as parents, we should teach our children the great virtues instead of the little ones. In opposition to what we presently do, the author wants our children to learn to be generous instead of thrifty, courageous instead of cautious, truthful instead of shrewd and to value learning and knowing things instead of seeking success so they can follow their life vocation fearlessly. All very well in words, but in real life? We do our best. I think I would prefer my children to have a roof over their heads and to enjoy their vocation in their spare time if they can’t make a living from it.

Winter in the Abruzzi was a nostalgic look at a time in the author’s life when she had her husband and children at her side while living in exile during World War Two. Learning about her husband’s death in a Roman prison several months after they left Abruzzi, in a simple, unemotional sentence towards the end of the essay gave me a physical jolt.

Worn-out Shoes could have been maudlin, but the story of the author living as a widow apart from her children and talking with her friend about what kind of shoes they wish they could have if they could afford them is full of an almost black humour. I particularly liked the author’s certainty that when she is able to return to her children she will need to resist the temptation to let her life go to pieces.

Portrait of a Friend is about the life and death of a family friend, an unnamed famous poet and writer who suicided alone, “like a stranger in the city to which he belonged.” This essay made me uneasy as the subject was complicated and the friendship often unsatisfying on both sides, but as a testament to a character it was fascinating to read.

My Vocation tells of the author’s vocation, which is of course, writing. She wrote poems as a child and a novel called Molly and Dolly which was a humorous detective story, then stories which frightened her and lines that brought tears to her own eyes. By the age of 17, she wrote a story which once finished, left her feeling happier about it than she had anything in her life before. Later, when she had children, she missed writing desperately, unable to balance their needs with her own. She writes that her vocation brings her in very little money and that it is always necessary for her to earn her living in other ways. Incredible.

The emotions that this author describes and evokes in the reader in this set of essays are timeless. Her subjects are interesting even when they are ordinary. Her writing style is simple, as if she is talking to the reader directly. I’d like to read some fiction by Natalia Ginzburg if I can find it.

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