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Natalia Ginzburg Defeated by the Manzoni : THE MANZONI FAMILY by Natalia Ginzburg; translated by Marie Evans (Seaver Books: $19.95; 358 pp.)

December 27, 1987|Peter Brunette | Brunette is the author of the recently published "Roberto Rossellini" (Oxford University Press)

Having outlived any possible rivals, Natalia Ginzburg is, at 71, the undisputed doyenne of contemporary Italian letters. Both a successful playwright and essayist, in addition to being an acclaimed translator of Proust and Flaubert, she has also become, through a steady outpouring of quietly memorable fiction over the last four decades, a world-class novelist. She is not yet nearly as well known in America as she deserves to be, but this will change as her books continue to be translated. Unfortunately, "The Manzoni Family," a nonfiction biographical study of the famous 19th-Century Italian novelist Alessandro Manzoni and his family, will not do much to further her reputation in this country.

Manzoni, the book's central figure, is the author of "I promessi sposi" (The Betrothed), a long historical novel first published in 1828. Though perhaps seldom read outside of Italy, it is universally recognized as a masterpiece of European Romanticism and, in terms of its influence, occupies roughly the same position in Italian literature as, say "War and Peace" does in Russian. Ginzburg's group portrait of Manzoni's colorful extended family begins in 1762, with his formidable mother Julia, and continues to the death of the last of his children in 1907. The entertaining and highly individualized cast of characters includes hypochondriac wives, spendthrift sons, and sickly daughters--enough fascinating human raw material, in other words, to make the book much better than the severity of Ginzburg's method ever lets it become.

Her intent is clear. By quoting almost exclusively from the participants' letters and memoirs, she is able to impart a vivid sense of the mundanities of daily life in early 19th-Century Europe, now of course grown delightfully strange to modern readers. The amount of detail is in fact overwhelming at times, but only through such apparently "irrelevant" information can the portrait of an age be rendered in three-dimensional terms.

In spite of these often fascinating external particulars, however, the reader finally comes to feel starved for substance, for inner life. The problem is that Ginzburg's method never allows her to probe deeply enough into the characters to make us care about them; the figure of Manzoni himself gets completely lost amid the debris of domestic history. And her decision to rely primarily on letters results in our 1650813294the banalities of existence--house moving, travel, vacation plans, home remedies, and so on--the stuff of most correspondence, surely, but only the merest surface of lives.

Actually, the most powerful thing in the book is the constant presence of illness and death (most of Manzoni's children and even some of his grandchildren die before he does), a fact of life in earlier centuries that is fortunately alien to most modern readers. Horrible to say, when the deaths start coming thick and fast in the second half of the book, one's interest picks up dramatically.

Ginzburg's fiction is noted for its laconic style, full of thudding short sentences that have a powerful cumulative effect, suggesting a whole world never directly expressed. In her recently translated novel, "The City and the House," in fact, this effect is quite brilliantly accomplished solely through a series of letters. The heavily rhetorical mode of the letters offered in "The Manzoni Family," however, quickly tires the contemporary reader with a surfeit of religious piety and polite sentimentality. The difference of course is that in fiction, such letters can be imaginatively and consciously crafted so as to resonate far beyond what they seem to be saying on the surface. In a work of nonfiction, however, the wri1952805408record.

For reasons of her own, Ginzburg indulges only intermittently in her own analysis of character motivation, preferring, apparently, to let the letters speak for themselves. Sometimes they do, of course, and quite eloquently. Most often, however, they don't, and, instead of offering her own views, Ginzburg limits herself to the deadening task of providing enough of the requisite factual details to insure that the letters make sense on a literal level. Conveyed in her typically sparse style, these details quickly dull the reader's sensibilities. (A random sample: Vittoria, Bista and Matilde were at Viareggio. Massimo d'Azeglio joined them. The Arconatis and Collegnos were there. Here they heard Milan had surrendered.") In short, Ginzburg seems to have assembled the materials for a biography without actually having written one.

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