The late Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg is one of my favorites. Ginzburg, who died in 1991 at the age of 75, was born in Palermo, Sicily, into a family of Jewish intellectuals. Gifted and uniquely brilliant, Ginzburg, who was born Natalia Leví, wrote 12 books and two plays—some of them under a pseudonym because of crushing anti-Semitism. She raised five children and won a seat in the Italian parliament when she was in her 60s.
The book of hers that I always return to is a slim volume of essays entitled, “The Little Virtues.” The earlier essays in the book cover Ginzburg’s fascist-imposed exile from Rome to Abruzzi during World War II. In later essays she evokes her life in Turin and Rome, as well as her extended time in England.
With my 25th wedding anniversary around the corner, I went back to my all-time favorite Ginzburg essay, “He and I.” It’s a straightforward, black-and-white portrait of a marriage presented in quick, deft strokes. Ginzburg is ostensibly conveying the differences in temperament and outlook between her and her second husband. (Her first husband, a writer and resistance leader, died in 1944 at the hands of the fascist police.) But like a developing photograph, the more you read the essay, the more you realize that you see a bigger picture of a beautifully imperfect love. It’s also an homage to daily life, to routine and to the happiness embedded in them.
The essay starts out simply, directly: “He always feels hot, I always feel cold.” Her husband speaks several languages well; she doesn’t speak any well. This is a marriage that exemplifies the old chestnut that opposites attract. But not exactly. Although it’s a study of stark contrasts, Ginzburg goes further and explores what happens after these opposites come together.
Every time I read through Ginzburg’s essay, I see more shades of my husband, Ken, and me. When we were first married, I gave him a jokey greeting card that illustrated a meeting convened for people who had normal childhoods. There were two people in the picture. Ken could have been the third. He is that person who is calm and steady and kind even in the roughest of times. When I fall apart, he puts me back together.
On our first extended trip together, he did not so much astonish me for driving perfectly through the west country of England on the opposite side of the road. He astonished me because not once did this man, to whom I was engaged, yell at me for reading the map wrong or, quite frankly, not knowing how to read the map at all. (These were pre-GPS and cell phone days.) He gently took the large crumpled, accordioned paper from me, neatly folded it up, took my face in his hands and said the most gorgeous words I have ever heard, words that have come to evoke our life together: “Don’t worry. A car goes backwards and forwards.”
Like Ginzburg’s husband, Ken takes his time in a museum. He goes beyond the audio guide to understand the exhibition at hand. Natalia and I are zoomers. That is, we rush through an exhibit, taking it all in through a whirlwind of anxiety and curiosity.
And speaking of anxiety, I am a hot, anxious mess. Ken is not. He says “I love you” after every phone conversation, even if we’ve had a fight. Even though I’ve held a few grudges since third grade, I can’t stay mad at him for more than a couple of hours. He hates to clothes shop. I can spend hours going through racks of clothing. He sweetly defers to my taste when I bring things home for him to try on. But he was stricter with the children when they were little than I was. He thinks it’s a hoot that I’m still a pushover with our 14-pound dog. I think it’s a hoot that the dog is kind of afraid of him.
He knows everything about Gilbert and Sullivan and Bob Dylan. Me? I’m a child of the ‘70s. I like Donna Summer and the Bee Gees. We love going to the movies together, but he respects that I can’t abide violence or science-fiction—two things he tolerates very well. He takes his time forming a thought. I’m reactive. He can do differential equations and edit my essays with equal aplomb. I wait for his insightful comments. And as I’ve been doing for 25 years, I learn from him again and again. And I love him more for that each time.