Jhe great memoirist and writer Tobias Wolff once complained about the “essentially anonymous” gestures used in fiction and drama to delineate characters: “the mixing of drinks, the crossing of rooms, the lighting of cigarettes.” The problem, he says, is that these details “don’t tell us much. What you want is a gesture that tells you something special.
Natalia Ginzburg seems to me to be a master of the gesture that tells you something special. In his 1952 novel All our yesterdays, the latest welcome reissue of his work by Daunt Books, there are many, many characters, but each one is drawn with a beautiful particularity. The father of one of the two central families wrote his memoirs, entitled Nothing but the Truth, which “contained fiery attacks on the fascists and the king. The old man used to laugh and rub his hands at the thought that the king and Mussolini knew nothing about it, while in a small town in Italy there was a man who wrote fiery remarks to their subject. Everyone gets this affectionate treatment: even a local dog is “curly-haired and stupid”.
The setting is set in 1930s northern Italy, where the central character, 16-year-old Anna, navigates life and love via her family and the family in the house opposite. The texture of the story is that of domestic life – friendships rising and falling; pregnancy; a marriage of convenience – but meanwhile the war begins to darken the blue sky.
Ginzburg’s brilliance is in rendering the war as a background, a secondary topic of conversation, brought up through Anna’s limited knowledge. Yet it’s unignorable – her sister’s boyfriend Danilo is imprisoned for spreading seditious literature – even when the effect is comical, like villagers refusing to take fascists seriously because they know the one of them as the son of the local chemist. “He’d better get back behind the counter and weigh his little scales again.”
Sally Rooney, in her introduction to this edition, says she hopes new Ginzburg readers will fall in love with her through All our yesterdays, but for me this is not the book for newcomers to Ginzburg. The way of telling – long paragraphs, long sentences and little direct speech – and the way the story moves from one character to another, the points of view overlapping like tiles on a roof, make it a dense, yet rewarding reading experience. A better place to start is with your essays The little virtues or the memories Family lexicon.
Emeric Pressburger novel from 1966 The glass beads, now reissued, is a very different kind of war-themed fiction. Pressburger is best known as the screenwriting half of one of the great filmmaking duos of the last century: with Michael Powell, he produced masterpiece after masterpiece in the 1940s, from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp at The Red Shoes.
The glass beads, his second novel, is structurally less innovative than his screen work: it’s a fairly straightforward thriller. Where the novelty comes into play – and would have contributed to the book’s failure when first published – is that the central character, whose hopes the reader must hold on to for the story to work, is a criminal of fleeing war.
The year is 1965 and Karl Braun – formerly Dr Otto Reitmüller – is living in low London, earning a living as a piano tuner. His position in rented accommodation makes the book feel like a classic boarding house novel, where lives jostle: in Braun’s case, he meets other German émigrés, who assume he fled Hitler like they (and indeed Pressburger himself) did. In fact, Braun was a Nazi doctor, enthusiastically experimenting on concentration camp prisoners. (“Another part of their brain was ripped out.”)
If Braun does not seem to regret the horrors he perpetrated, he is at least traumatized by the death of his wife and child, killed during Operation Gomorrah, the Allied bombing of Hamburg in July 1943. His mental balance begins to be upset: he discovers himself the number one target of the German authorities, becomes more and more paranoid towards informants, is suspicious of his lover and finally decides to flee to the safety of Argentina. .
Pressburger doesn’t make us want Braun to succeed exactly, but he expertly ramps up the tension, so we just have to find out what deserved outcome awaits us, as Braun gets closer to and learns from Europe’s escape and justice. simultaneously more about their proximity. catch it. This is a welcome repost from Faber Editions, a series best known for its modernist titles and underrepresented voices. As a masterclass in the pure pleasure of storytelling, The glass beads might be its most radical reissue yet.
All our yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg is published by Daunt Books (£10.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
The glass beads by Emeric Pressburger is published by Faber (£8.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply