By sheer coincidence I’ve been reading books set during the Second World War that view events from the Italian perspective – Iris Origo’s two diaries, important pieces of work because they are a first-hand account that captures the immediacy of the events unfolding around her; and All Our Yesterdays, a work of fiction by Natalia Ginzburg also set during the same period but written in the years following the war. Both are simply brilliant. Ginzburg, especially, is turning out to be another favourite author and I’ve read and throughly enjoyed her books – Family Lexicon and The Dry Heart – in the past.
Set in a smaller town in Italy before and during the Second World War, Natalia Ginzburg’s All Our Yesterdays is simply wonderful; a big-hearted, bustling novel of family, friendships, politics, and war pitted against a backdrop of immense turbulence, and narrated in a style that captures Ginzburg’s customary dry wit.
Essentially a family saga, the book is divided into two sections. In Part One, Ginzburg focuses her gaze on an ensemble cast – two families living in a smaller town in Northern Italy. We are introduced to our protagonist Anna whose father, an ageing widower, is moody, temperamental, and a staunch anti-Fascist engrossed in composing his memoir most notably his harsh views on Fascism. Despite these big ambitions, the book is nowhere close to complete, and yet the father labours on. It’s the elder son Ippolito who bears the brunt of his father’s tyranny, forced to assist him with his writing and various other tasks. Yet Ippolito doesn’t outwardly complain; he suffers instead in silence.
Then there’s Ippolito’s sister Concettina, a young woman who has many men vying for her attention, of which one is Danilo – a man who stands by the gate of the house in a manner that disconcerts Signora Maria, their housekeeper. Concettina is a tad vain and frivolous, engaged in myriad fleeting affairs, and always in a sour mood. Rounding off the family are two of its youngest members – Guistino followed by Anna.
Much of the story then is told from Anna’s perspective although this is not a first-person account. Shy and reserved in nature, Anna’s very young age and reticent demeanour mean that she is hardly noticed in the house, but she notices various aspects of her family the significance of which she does not always comprehend.
Residing opposite them is another family – Mammina, the second wife of an old man, along with their two sons, the down-to-earth Emanuele, and the snobbish, uppity Guima. Their step-sister Amalia also lives there and frequently visiting them is a seemingly flighty man called Franz on whom Mammina has her designs. Franz, we later learn, is a Jew and deeply worried about the fate of his Jewish parents who have most likely perished in the Holocaust.
Once the fathers of both households die, the sons start taking an interest in politics, more specifically in anti-Fascist activities. Anna observes Ippolito and Emanuele having spirited, intense discussions furtively and they also bring Concettina’s suitor Danilo into their fold. But subsequently, Danilo is arrested, whipping up a frenzy in the family to burn all evidence and material pointing to their dissident activities in which Anna also takes part.
Ginzburg seamlessly places these family dynamics against a wider political backdrop – Fascism, the approaching rumblings of World War Two with the big question of the mode of Italy’s participation, and later on the horrors of the Holocaust.
While initially focusing their energies on devising the mechanics of a revolution that would overthrow Fascism, Ippolito, Emanuele and Danilo realise that an even bigger threat has entered the picture – Hitler and his frightening vision of Nazi Germany. As Germany steadily begins invading countries beginning with Poland and moving westwards, Emanuele et al are wracked with tension, and the fall of France is the final straw precipitating Ippolito’s descent into a crippling depression.
We are also introduced to the rather colourful character Cenzo Rena, an older friend of the family rumoured to be rich with his own house and estate in Italy’s rural south. Cenzo Rena’s sudden appearances are often chaotic, uprooting the rhythm of the house, but he livens up the household becoming a sort of mentor to Guistino who values his company.
Meanwhile, Anna is beset by troubles of her own that no one in the household is aware of. Her brief fling with Guima results in a pregnancy that she is at pains to terminate. Guima, unsurprisingly, turns out to be a coward with no inclination of assuming any responsibility and Anna is in despair. Unexpectedly for her, she finds herself confessing to Cenzo Rena who suggests that they marry so that she can keep the child. Thus, in a move that greatly bewilders Anna’s family, Cenzo Rena marries Anna and the couple moves to his house in the village of San Costanza which becomes the central focus of Part Two of the book. This section also gets much darker – we see Italy declaring war, the fall of Mussolini, the signing of the armistice followed by German occupation and all the chaos and terror that came with it. These developments in various ways affect the inhabitants of Cenzo Reno’s village too.
In Part Two, many of the characters who had a minor presence in the first part become central to the story, while the central figures in Part One get pushed to the periphery although never entirely forgotten. Thus, the spotlight shifts to Cenzo Rena and he becomes the axis around which much of the plot of Part Two revolves. Cenzo Rena goes through a gamut of emotions – boredom, anger, despair, fright, and remorse. He is tormented by the news of Jews being packed off in trains; he resists the idea of lodging refugees at his home because he hates people staying with him but later relents and willingly provides shelter to a slew of fugitives in his house cellar.
Thus, in All Our Yesterdays, through the lens of two families, we get a broader glimpse of a country at war – Italian civilians engulfed by tension, anxiety, and mounting uncertainty given the events unfolding around them and on the world stage. Amidst a continuous barrage of air raids and bombings, genocide and violence, the new normal way of life carries on in whatever way it can.
The essence of the themes covered includes the impact of war on society, the constant nerve-wracking tussle between the brutal reality of daily violence and trying to lead some semblance of a normal life despite it all, how the worldview shrinks to everyday existence coupled with an all-pervading sense of stasis. But it is also a novel about family and relationships – individuals grappling with their insecurities on a personal level, struggling to adapt to larger events beyond their control, and the inability of members of the same family to communicate and connect during moments of immense upheavals particularly in their private lives. There’s a sense that Anna and her siblings despite living under the same roof in the first part of the novel essentially lead different lives, unaware of each other’s innermost thoughts or feelings. What’s more, as if the frightening global scale of war was not enough, the book’s characters, both major and minor, also have to contend with unexpected deaths, suicides, quarrels, boredom, anxiety, adultery, betrayals, and abandonment.
But what is truly astonishing about All Our Yesterdays is the sheer range of humanity on display – each of the characters is beautifully etched, they are endearing in different ways despite their flaws and foibles. We see the darkness of Ippolito’s depression, we get a taste of Anna’s loneliness when her marriage geographically separates her from her family, we are beguiled by Cenzo Rena’s eccentricity and we feel Guistino’s torment at the hopelessness of falling in love with a friend’s wife and his frustration at being abandoned by Cenzo Rena, a figure he revered. In those troubled times, we see the fortunes of these characters change dramatically, they drift apart fuelled by marriage and the men inevitably heading off to war, but these longer periods are also punctuated by brief moments of reunions. We also see many of them display considerable moral courage to the best of their abilities, striving to do the right thing even if it means endangering themselves in the process.
At present, when he happened to hear cries and lamentations from the contadini in the lanes, Cenzo Rena would go out and look, and it would be Germans searching the houses for young men to put on lorries and send off to work in Germany, and Cenzo Rena would start talking German and sometimes he had succeeded in getting the Germans away from the houses and telling them some kind of tall story to get them to leave people alone. It wasn’t much, Cenzo Rena said to Giuseppe, it wasn’t much but it was all he was able to do.
The culmination of war brings great relief and joy to the surviving characters, normal life can finally resume but will it ever be the same? In the post-war world, some form of emptiness also gnaws at these survivors, who otherwise used to rebellions, revolutions, and political turmoil, must navigate a welcome but substantially altered and unknown era of peace.
But in a short time he would be giving up the newspaper and leaving Rome for good, because he did not know how to produce newspapers. He could produce secret newspapers but not newspapers that were not secret, producing secret newspapers was easy, oh, how easy and how splendid it was. But newspapers that had to come out every day with the rising of the sun, without any danger or fear, that was another story. You had to sit and grind away at a desk, without either danger or fear, and out came a lot of ignoble words and knew you perfectly well that they were ignoble and you hated yourself like hell for having written them but you didn’t cross them out because there was a hurry to get out the newspaper for which people were waiting. But it was incredible how fear and danger never produced ignoble words but always true ones, words that were torn from your very heart.
Another singular feature of the novel is Ginzburg’s wry humour and deadpan wit as reflected in her striking prose style. The tone of the narrative is often light-hearted and funny that blunts the impact of the darkness at the heart of the novel and there is something unique about the portrayal of her characters, in how they come across as both comic and tragic at the same time.
And they laughed a little and were very friendly together; and they were pleased to be together, the three of them, thinking of all those who were dead, and of the long war and the sorrow and noise and confusion, and of the long, difficult life which they saw in front of them now, full of all the things they did not know how to do.
All Our Yesterdays, then, is another superb novel by Ginzburg; a seamless blend of the personal with the global, where the comparatively smaller dilemmas of families and relationships can be as debilitating and crushing to individuals as the bigger, large-scale dramas of politics, war and violence. Highly recommended!