“In Italy a tree in blossom at the roadside would be a delightful surprise. It would be there by chance, having sprung out of the earth in sheer joy, and not because a calculated decision had been made that it should be there.” – Natalia Ginzburg
In celebration of entering my fifth decade of living and loving books, I took a much-dreamed-of trip to Italy. Naturally, I overpacked reading materials – my literary appetite far outstripped my reading time (or at least my reading energy after 10 miles of walking and a bottle of wine each day). In a little over a week in that storied land, I finished two short works by two Italian women – “The Little Virtues” by Natalia Ginzburg and “Follow Your Heart” by Susanna Tamaro.
Natalia Ginzburg’s lauded little book of essays was a sometimes delightful, sometimes chiding experience to read. Ginzburg writes with minimalist sobriety, her role as a survivor embodied in her work.
“There is a kind of uniform monotony in the fate of man. Our lives unfold according to ancient, unchangeable laws, according to an invariable and ancient rhythm. Our dreams are never realized and as soon as we see them betrayed we realize that the intensest joys of our life have nothing to do with reality. No sooner do we see them betrayed than we are consumed with regret for the time when they glowed within us And in this succession of hopes and regrets our life slips by.”
“There has been a war and people have seen so many houses reduced to rubble that they no longer feel safe in their own homes which once seemed so quiet and secure. This is something that is incurable and will never be cured no matter how many years go by. True, we have a lamp on the table again, and a little vase of flowers, and pictures of our loved ones, but we can no longer trust any of these things because once, suddenly, we had to leave them behind, or because we have searched through the rubble for them in vain.”
Not exactly upbeat messages to read, particularly on one’s fortieth birthday, but the language of the messages is superb and the sentiments are clearly heartfelt.
“As far as the education of children is concerned I think they should be taught not the little virtues but the great ones. Not thrift but generosity and an indifference to money; not caution but courage and a contempt for danger; nor shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth; not tact but love for one’s neighbor and self-denial; not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.”
Natalia Ginzburg’s essays were stark, quiet, and often somber. Her tone struck a delicate balance between wisdom imparted and prescriptive chiding. “The Little Virtues” was a carefully crafted work with a seriousness I appreciated but which rang with dissonance in a setting of escapism and celebration.
Susan Tamaro’s “Follow Your Heart” is an epistolary novella, written in the voice of a cold, stoic woman to her tormented, rebellious granddaughter. The entire work is conceived of as one long letter, part explanation and part goodbye, from a woman with regrets and a fairly scarred history.
“Unhappiness is generally transmitted through the female line, passing from mother to daughter the way some genetic abnormalities do. And instead of diminishing as it passes, it steadily grows more intense, more ineradicable and profound. ”
I found Tamaro’s story a bit flat, her characters unappealing and her plot squishy. The best moments of “Follow Your Heart” were passages paradoxically trite and true; they were ably writ cliches, eloquent aphorisms. What follows is a selection of these passages, in my mind a reasonable abbreviation, a shortcut in place of wading through the sentimentality and made-for-television aura of the book.
“The idea of destiny comes to one with the years. In general, nobody your age ever thinks about it, you see everything that happens as the result of your own will. You feel like a highway worker laying out the road you have to travel down, stone by stone. It’s only much later that you notice the road’s already there, someone has marked it out for you, all you have to do is go forward. One usually makes this discovery around forty, that’s when you start to realize that things don’t depend on you alone. It’s a dangerous moment; many people slide into a kind of claustrophobic fatalism. You’ll have to let more years pass before you an recognize the reality of destiny. Around the age of sixty, when the road at your back is longer than the one in front of you, you see something you’ve never seen before: the road you’ve traveled wasn’t straight, but forking constantly, at every step there was a turning, an arrow indicating a new direction – a footpath veering off on one side, a grassy lane disappearing into the woods on the other. …At the forks in your road you encounter other lives. Getting to know them or not, merging with them or passing them by, depends solely on the choice you make in a moment; though you may not know it, your whole life and the lives of those close to you are at stake when you choose whether to go straight or turn aside.”
“[H]appiness is to joy as as electric light bulb is to the sun. Happiness always has an object, you’re happy because of something, it’s a condition whose existence depends on external things. Joy, on the other hand, has no object. It seizes you for no apparent reason, it’s like the sun, its burning is fueled by its own heart.”
“The mind is a as modern as the heart is ancient. These days people who follow their hearts are considered to be close to the animal world, to uninhibited nature, while those who follow reason are close to the upper spheres of reflection. But suppose things aren’t like that, suppose they’re just the opposite? Suppose it’s this excess of reason that’s staring our lives?”
“Every time you feel lost, confused, think about tress, remember how they grow. Remember that a tree with lots of branches and few roots will get toppled by the first strong wind, while the sap hardly moves in a tree with many roots and few branches. Roots and branches must grow in equal measure, you have to stand both inside of things and above them, because only then will you be able to offer shade and shelter, only then will you be able to cover yourself with leaves and fruit at the proper season.”