By NATALIA GINZBURG.
Translated by Nicoletta Asciuto.
JUST THE OTHER day I came across an article I wrote shortly after Liberation Day, and I got a bit miffed re-reading it. It was rather idiotic: first of all, it was all “done up”, with nice turns of phrases and stilted sentences; I no longer wish to write like that. Plus, I was arguing fiercely the most obvious things: it is true that this was happening to many of us at the time, immediately after the liberation from the Fascists—we got all warmed up arguing for the most glaringly obvious things. In a way, this felt fair, because over those twenty years of fascist government we had lost the true meaning of our most basic values, and we needed to start afresh. We had to start calling things by their names, and start writing again for the sake of writing, just to see if we were still alive.
That article I wrote was about women in general, and stated things everyone knows about women, like for example that women are not worse than men, and they can also do something good with their lives if only they try, if only our society helps them, and so on and so forth. The article was idiotic indeed because I did not care to see women as they actually were: the women I was writing about were completely made-up characters, not at all like me or like the women I came across in my life. It was not difficult to rescue that kind of women from subjugation: it was easy to set those women free. And yet, in that article I neglected to mention something very important with regard to women.
Women have a bad habit: they sometimes fall down a well; they are seized by a horrid sense of melancholia, drown in it, and struggle to come back to the surface. This is the real problem afflicting women. Women are often ashamed of having this problem, and pretend not to have any issues whatsoever and to be energetic and free, and walk around with steady steps and enormous hats and pretty dresses and painted lips and an assertive and scornful attitude. However, I never got round to meeting a woman who did not, after a little while, reveal something painful and pitiful that simply cannot be found in men – a continuous falling down a deep, dark well, something that is typical of feminine disposition and perhaps originates from an age-long tradition of subjection and subjugation which is not easy to win over. Even in the strongest and most disdainful women, I would find something that made me pity them, and I would understand them very well because I had been feeling the same kind of suffering for many years and only recently I have realized it stems from the fact that I am a woman and I will never get rid of this painful feeling. Two women sympathize with one another very well when they start talking about the dark well they have fallen into and they usually exchange many observations about the wells and the absolute inability they feel they have to communicate with other people and to be up to anything good and about the struggles to come back onto the water’s surface.
I have known many, many women. I have met women with children and women without children. I prefer women with children because I immediately know what to discuss with them, how long they have been breastfeeding for and what they fed them afterwards and what they are giving them now. Two women together can talk about this for endless time. I met women who could just catch a train for some faraway place and leave their children behind for a while, without experiencing a terrible anguish and the feeling of doing something against nature, capable of living quietly for many days, far away from their children, without having that sudden gut feeling that something horrible must have happened to them, like I always feel, every single time I leave my children behind. And those women did love their children, just like I loved mine but they were simply better, and braver than me. I have met quiet, relaxed women, but only very few of them, the majority is like me, they just cannot win that innate, excruciating fear and the idea of doing something against nature every time they go to bed in a foreign city many kilometres away from their children. I tried to be smarter than I could, I tried to control myself as well as I could and every time I got on a train without my children I told myself: “This time I shall not be afraid”, but fear is always within me and what I have not understood yet is whether this is going to fade when my children have become grown-ups; I do hope this will fade away. I just cannot think of travelling easily around all the countries I would like to visit, actually I think about this all the time but I know too well that I cannot do it. Similarly, there are some women who behave like kangaroos and some who simply cannot, although it must be said that the kangaroo-women are many more.
DURING MY LIFETIME, I have met many women, calm women and restless women, and even calm women fall into the well: every woman falls into the well from time to time. I have met women who think they are very ugly and women who think they are really pretty, women who know their way around abroad and women who do not, women who get headaches at times and women who never do, women who wash their necks and women who never do, women who own a lot of nice white linen handkerchiefs and women who never have handkerchiefs on them or if they do they generally lose them, women who wear hats and women who do not, women who are afraid of being too fat and women who are afraid of being too thin, women who work hard in the fields all day and women who can break wood over their knee and at the same time cook polenta and feed their children and lull them to sleep, women who are bored to death and go and walk their dog and women who are also bored to death and go pester whoever happens to be around them, their husband, their son, or their maid, and women who leave their house in the morning with only a tiny scarf around their neck and their hands are purple because of the cold, and women who leave in the morning moving their hips and looking at their reflections in the shop windows, and women who lost their job and have a sandwich sitting on a bench in the gardens by the train station, and women who have been just dumped by a man and sit down on a bench in the gardens by the train station and powder their face.
I have met so many women, and now I always find something worthy of commiseration in every single one of them, some kind of trouble, kept more or less secret, and more or less big: the tendency to fall down the well and find there a chance for suffering, which men do not know about — maybe because they have a much stronger health or they are smarter in forgetting about themselves and fully identifying with their jobs, they are more assertive and actual owners of their own body, and of their life, and are freer in general. Women start suffering in their teen years, crying in secret in their rooms, crying because of their nose or their mouth or some other body part they think is not nice enough, or they cry because they think no one will ever love them, or cry because they are afraid of being stupid, or they worry they will get bored during the holidays, or because they do not own enough clothes. These are the reasons they give themselves but they are mere excuses, and the actual reason they cry is they have fallen into the well, and understand this will happen again in their life, and often, and that this will make it harder for them to be able to do anything good with their lives. Women think a lot about themselves and they do that in a painful and frenzied way which is totally unknown to men. It is very difficult for them to properly identify with their career, and it is difficult that they should manage to emerge from those dark and painful waters of their own melancholy, and forget who they are.
Women give birth, and when their first child is born they start feeling a new kind of sadness—a mixture of tiredness and fear, which is always there, even in the healthiest and quietest of women. They worry that their child could fall ill, or that they have not got enough money to buy everything the child needs, or that their milk is too fat or too fluid, they feel they can’t really travel around anymore whilst they could before, or they feel they can’t get involved with politics anymore or they can’t write anymore or paint like before or climb mountains like before because of their child, it is the feeling they can’t do what they wish with their life, it is the fatigue of having to protect themselves from illness and death because a mother’s health and life is necessary to her child.
Then some women do not have children at all and this is a real misery, this is the worst misery for a woman, because it means she has become a desert, boredom and a sense of dullness for all those things that first were done with enthusiasm, like writing and painting and politics and sport and it all turns into ashes in her hands. A woman, whether consciously or unconsciously, is always ashamed of not having kids and so she starts travelling around but even travelling is not that easy for a woman, because sometimes she feels cold or her shoes hurt her feet or her tights get runs or because people are amazed to see a woman nosing around like that. And while all of this can be overcome, she is still left with melancholy and ashes in her hands, and a feeling of envy when she sees the brightly lit windows in the cities overseas; and maybe for a little while these women manage to win their own melancholy and walk in the sun, assertive, and make love with men, and earn money, and feel they are strong and clever and beautiful, not too fat not too thin, and they buy strange hats with velvet bows and read books and write, but then the moment comes when they fall down the well again with fear, and shame, and self-deprecation, and they cannot write books and cannot even read them, they do not feel interest for anything apart from their own personal ill which they cannot really explain most of the time, and they call it different names, ugly nose, ugly mouth, ugly legs, boredom, ashes, kids, no kids. Then women age. And so they start looking for the white in their hair so that they can pull it out, they check the tiny lines under their eyes, and start having to wear terrible huge corsets with two sticks on their belly and two on their bottom, and they feel squeezed and suffocating in there, and every morning and evening they observe how their face and their body are slowly transforming into something new and painful which soon will be good for nothing, it won’t be good for love-making, nor for travelling or doing sport, it will be instead something that they will have to look after with hot water and massages and creams, or just let it shrivel up come rain or shine and forget that it was once beautiful and young.
Women have an unlucky and unhappy ancestry, with many centuries of subjugation on their shoulders and what they need to do now is start scratching with their nails and biting with their teeth, to defend themselves from the unhealthy habit of falling into the well every so often, because a free individual hardly ever falls into the well, and does not think about themselves this much, but rather is preoccupied with all the important and grave things happening in the world and is only preoccupied with themselves in order to try and become freer and freer every day. I must learn to do this too in the first place because if not I shall never be able to do anything worth being taken seriously and the world shall not carry on in the best of ways until it is inhabited by a host of individuals who are not free.
Translator’s note: This essay by Natalia Ginzburg, which appears in an English translation here for the first time, was first published in Italian as ‘Discorso sulle donne’ in the final joint issue (March to June 1948) of the magazine Mercurio. Mensile di politica, arte, scienze. Mercurio was founded in Rome in 1944 by Alba de Céspedes (1911-1997), a Cuban-Italian novelist, journalist, and political activist, who was working both during and after World War II. Ginzburg’s essay was published alongside a fascinating response from her editor. Taking the form of an open letter, de Céspedes’s confesses that she also writes from the ‘well’ Ginzburg theorises. Despite that, de Céspedes believes women’s freedom consists precisely in being able to go down into these emotional and psychological wells, which are for her a strength, rather than a curse. ‘Every time we fall down a well’, de Céspedes writes, ‘we descend to the deepest roots of our being human; when we come back to the surface, we carry such experiences with us that enable us to understand everything men never will — since they never fall into any well’. In the same issue of Mercurio, de Céspedes published an essay by Maria Bassino, one of the most important criminal defense lawyers of the time, entitled ‘La donna magistrato’ (‘The Woman Magistrate’), on women’s rights to be magistrates. In her letter to Ginzburg, de Céspedes explains how she wanted Bassino’s and Ginzburg’s essays to be published in the same issue so as to denounce the injustice done to women when they are tried by magistrates who cannot understand women’s reasons to ‘kill, steal, and commit other humiliating actions’; they are, ultimately, men who never experienced the depth of wells. Her discussion of women, family issues, and politics was unique for Italy at the time and it still feels extremely fresh and acutely relevant today.—NA
Natalia Ginzburg (née Levi; Palermo, 1916 – Rome, 1991) was one of the most influential Italian writers of the twentieth century. Her contribution to literature is extensive. Over her lifetime, Ginzburg wrote many novels, short stories, novellas, plays, essays, contributed to literary and political magazines, and was an accomplished translator from French. In 1963 Ginzburg won the prestigious Strega Prize for Family Lexicon, an autobiographical novel about her family’s everyday life under Fascism. Other notable works to have appeared in English include Voices in the Evening, All Our Yesterdays, and The Little Virtues.
Nicoletta Asciuto is an expert linguist and enthusiast polyglot, with knowledge of eight languages. She is currently Lecturer in Modern literature at the University of York, where she teaches and researches comparative modernism, twentieth-century literature and culture, and translation. Her undergraduate module on literary translation (“Found in Translation: The Practice of Translating Literature”) promotes translation as a creative and critical practice in the English Literature degree. Aside from her academic work, Nicoletta has published literary translations from Spanish into English and is currently translating a selection of early twentieth-century Italian texts on the radio for Emilie Morin’s Early Radio: An Anthology of European Texts and Translations, forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press in 2022.
Note: We thank the Estate of Natalia Ginzburg for their cooperation and permission to publish this work.