A Review of 3 Notable Book Reviews

NOTE: Like, I suspect, many of us, I read more reviews of books than I do books themselves. And today I found three reviews that were particularly striking, and seemed valuable to share. I’d like to read all these books; but the mundane truth of my life is that I want to read many more books than I actually do. So I’ve compiled extensive excerpts.  

‘This is a perfect novel’: Sally Rooney on the book that transformed her life

Published 70 years ago, All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg is a secret the Normal People author had been waiting to discover

Sally Rooney

en I first read Natalia Ginzburg’s work several years ago, I felt as if I was reading something that had been written for me, something that had been written almost inside my own head or heart.

I was astonished that I had never encountered Ginzburg’s work before: that no one, knowing me, had ever told me about her books. It was as if her writing was a very important secret that I had been waiting all my life to discover. Far more than anything I myself had ever written or even tried to write, her words seemed to express something completely true about my experience of living, and about life itself.

Natalia Ginzburg

This kind of transformative encounter with a book is, for me, very rare, a moment of contact with what seems to be the essence of human existence. For this reason, I wanted to write a little about Natalia Ginzburg and her novel All Our Yesterdays. I would like to address myself in particular to other readers who are right now awaiting, whether they know it or not, their first and special meeting with her work.

A new occasional feature

Ginzburg was born Natalia Levi, the daughter of a Jewish father and Catholic mother, in Sicily in 1916. She and her four siblings grew up in Turin in northern Italy, in a secular and intellectually lively home. In 1938, at the age of 22, Natalia married the Jewish anti-fascist organiser Leone Ginzburg, and they went on to have three children together.

In 1942, she published her first novel, La strada che va in città (The Road to the City). Due to the legal barriers imposed by the fascist government on publications by Jewish writers, this novel was printed under the pseudonym “Alessandra Tornimparte”. The Ginzburgs were sent into internal exile during the war, in the south of Italy, because of Leone’s political activities, but they travelled to Rome in secret to work on an anti-fascist newspaper.

In 1944, Leone was imprisoned and tortured to death by the fascist regime. The war ended a year later, when Ginzburg was still in her 20s, a widowed mother of three small children. These experiences – her upbringing, her marriage, her motherhood, her husband’s death and the political and moral catastrophe of the second world war – would shape Ginzburg’s writing for the rest of her life.

All Our Yesterdays, Ginzburg’s third novel, was originally published in Italian under the title Tutti i nostri ieri in 1952. It begins in a small town in northern Italy, in the years before the war, with a family: an ageing widower, his four children and the family’s companion, Signora Maria.

Across the street, in the “house opposite”, lives the owner of the town’s soap factory, with his wife, his children and “a person that you couldn’t be quite sure who he was” named Franz. Gradually, from the hectic and comical jostling of family life in the opening chapters, a protagonist begins to emerge: the widower’s youngest daughter Anna.

The novel goes on to follow Anna’s relationships with her family, with the inhabitants of the “house opposite” and with an older family friend named Cenzo Rena, before and during the war.

Sally Rooney, Irish novelist

But Anna’s status as the protagonist remains a partial and contingent one. The narrator often leads us away from her without warning, relating events to which she is not a witness, describing with sudden compassion the thoughts and feelings of other, seemingly minor figures, their desires, disappointments and dreams.

The great emotional power of this novel springs from the depth and truth of each one of its characters. As readers we grow to know and love Anna deeply, but we cannot help loving at the same time her cantankerous father, her sombre and beautiful brother Ippolito, the fretting Signora Maria and all the other complex and interesting people that populate the world of the book.

After the death of Anna’s father, near the beginning of the novel, Ippolito befriends Emanuele, one of the boys from the house opposite. The two of them have “great discussions” together, “but no one knew quite what they were about, because if anyone else was present they started talking in German”.

They are soon joined by Danilo, a suitor of Anna’s sister Concettina, and the three young men take to shutting themselves up in the sitting room together, talking. The adolescent Anna is mystified by these developments: are Emanuele and Danilo both in love with her sister? Why do they spend so much time with Ippolito speaking German? Then her brother Giustino whispers one word to her, a word that will change the course of the novel and Anna’s life: “Politics.”

“Politics,” thought Anna. She walked about the garden, amongst Signora Maria’s rose-trees, and repeated the word to herself. She was a plump girl, pale and indolent, dressed in a pleated skirt and a faded blue pullover, and not very tall for her fourteen years. “Politics,” she repeated slowly, and now all at once she seemed to understand …

Ippolito, Emanuele and Danilo, we learn, are anti-fascist dissidents, gathering in secret to share and discuss prohibited political literature. Soon, Danilo is taken to prison, and Ippolito and Emanuele enlist Anna’s help to burn the newspapers and books they have been hiding behind the piano.

As war breaks out in Europe, the moral world of the novel becomes increasingly haunted by the brutality of fascism, and by the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust. Ippolito sinks into a morbid depression at the German occupation of Poland, “with the Germans taking people away to die in the concentration camps … his will to live left him at the thought of those camps, where the Germans put their cigarettes out against the prisoners’ foreheads”.

In the second part of the novel, Italy too is at war. Anna is by this time married, a young mother, helping to conceal fugitives from the fascist regime in the cellar of her home. In one long tumbling sentence, from the point of view of the man who has become Anna’s husband, Ginzburg evokes the catastrophic unravelling of ordinary life:

He looked out of the window at the refugees from Naples who were now going hither and thither about the lanes of the village, carrying mattresses and babies, he looked and said how sad it was to see all these mattresses carried about here and there all over Italy, Italy was now pouring mattresses out of her ravaged houses.

Politics for Anna is no longer a daydream among the rose trees, but a question of supreme moral urgency. In times of crisis, she learns – and we learn along with her – that there can be no ethics without politics.

Ginzburg’s work is concerned, it seems to me more than anything, with the distinction between what is right and what is wrong. All Our Yesterdays approaches this question intellectually and ideologically, with an interest in the development of moral theories and belief systems; and it also and equally approaches this question from a practical and human point of view. In other words, it poses two questions of equal significance.

Firstly, how do we know what is right? And secondly, how can we live by that knowledge? Reading this novel, we get to know its characters as if they were our own friends, or even ourselves. Many of them are trying hard in various ways to figure out what is right and resist what is wrong.

As the war penetrates further into their lives, some must make terrible compromises in order to survive, while some cannot survive at all. But as readers, we have the chance to see a few of these people, under unimaginable pressure, with chaos and violence everywhere around them, responding with transcendent and unforgettable moral beauty.

These are not people born with special moral qualities, people who find it easy to be brave and honourable. We know them: we know quite well that they are just as irritable and selfish and lazy as we are.

As Anna’s husband tells her: “No one found himself with courage ready-made, you had to acquire courage little by little, it was a long story and it went on almost all your life.” Ginzburg shows us the possibility of this courage, she bears witness to the possibility, and reading her work we know and believe also.

This is not a novel that turns its face away from evil. Like any story of the second world war, it tells of almost unendurable grief, loss, violence and injustice. But it is also a story about the possibility of knowing what is right, and living by that knowledge, whatever the consequences.

As readers, we understand and love the novel’s characters in all their humanity – and for a moment or two, their courage seems to illuminate, in a flash of radiance, the meaning of human life. And yet, at the novel’s close, after the war has ended, Ginzburg is careful to show the difficult task that awaits those who survive.

A character who has spent the war editing an anti-fascist publication struggles to adjust to his new working conditions:

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 you knew 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.

These are characters from whom the war has taken a great deal, almost everything. But the challenge that faces them in the end is to make sense of a world that is no longer at war, a world in which heroic acts of courage are no longer necessary or even possible, a world in which newspapers have to “come out every day with the rising of the sun”.

All Our Yesterdays was published seven years after the end of the war, and it is difficult not to hear Ginzburg’s own voice in this passage, sitting and grinding away at her desk, “without either danger or fear”, trying to make sense of what remains.

To me, All Our Yesterdays is a perfect novel, which is to say, it is completely what it is attempting to be, and nothing else. It is a book that shows in simple and intelligent prose both how large and how small a novel ought to be. Its stakes are as high as the most cataclysmic crisis of the 20th century, and as low as the marriage of one young woman, the fate of one family dog.

As readers, we come to see and feel the inextricable relations between the inner and outer worlds of human beings. Ginzburg’s novels manage not only to accommodate, but to place into a meaningful relationship the intimate lives of fictional characters and the radical social and political changes unfolding around them.

This accomplishment is made possible by Ginzburg’s extraordinary understanding of the human soul, by her brilliance as a prose stylist and above all by her incomparable moral clarity. All Our Yesterdays is among the great novels of its century, and Ginzburg among the great novelists.

Speaking for myself, as a reader, as a writer and as a human being, her work has touched and transformed my life. I hope that you might give it the opportunity to do the same to yours.

All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg, translated by Angus Davidson, is published by Daunt.

Brainwashed: A New History of Thought Control, by Daniel Pick review

This brilliant exploration of psychological manipulation takes in both Mao’s China and the American dream

Kathryn Hughes —
At the end of the Korean war in 1953, 21 American former prisoners of war chose to settle in the People’s Republic of China rather than return to the Land of the Free.
The US government reacted with astonished horror at the way that these unfortunate dupes had been “brainwashed” – a term adapted by western journalists just three years earlier from the original Chinese – by their jailers. It had entirely missed the point that each man had arrived at a considered, individual, decision about why his life might be nicer under Mao than Eisenhower.

Take Clarence Adams, an African-American soldier who had experienced vicious racism growing up in Tennessee and was in no hurry to return for an encore. Adams chose to settle in Bejing instead, worked as a publisher, married a university professor and enjoyed being called “comrade”.

Only after 12 years did he start to feel that the time was right to return with his new family to the country of his birth. Far from being welcomed home as a man who had gone looking for opportunities in the approved American way, the FBI regarded him as somewhere between a psychiatric patient and a political traitor. Yet if anyone had shown evidence of being able to think for himself it was surely Adams.

Daniel Pick

In this frankly brilliant book, Daniel Pick sets out to explore why the idea of mind control became such a contested topic during the second half of the 20th century. His skills as a historian and a practising psychoanalyst allow Pick to move beyond a methodology in which human subjects are either reduced to data points or inflated into grand actors.

In other words, he shows us Adams as neither a powerless pawn nor a figure of heroic resistance, but rather someone who muddled through the bewildering world as best he could, changing his mind certainly but never giving it away.

One of the reasons the US government was so quick to accuse the communist bloc of brainwashing was a sneaking awareness that it was doing something similar to its own population. By the early 1960s a template of the “American dream” had emerged, consisting of a corporate job for him, a kitchen bristling with mod cons for her, and a college education for their sporty children.

Even the dog appeared to have been picked from a mail-order catalogue. In a certain light it’s hard to see how this vacuum-sealed system was any different from life on a collective farm or state-run assembly line.

That is not to suggest that no one dared speak out. Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique alerted middle-class women to the fact that they had been duped into a life that was not of their own choosing. Nine years later, Ira Levin satirised the whole domestic-drone trope in his novel The Stepford Wives.

In Europe the discourse tended to be pitched higher, with intellectuals including Foucault, Adorno and Marcuse all publishing books that revealed how the west achieved its cultural hegemony by eliminating dissent in ways that could have been taken from Mao’s playbook.

One of those ways, ironically, was the harvesting of insights from psychoanalysis and its associated discipline of psychology. The pioneer here was Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, who had emigrated with his family to the US at the end of the 19th century and virtually invented the public relations industry between the wars.

Using his knowledge of how the human mind worked, Bernays hired himself out to corporate America to help it sell everything from cigarettes to disposable paper cups. Yet before we write him off as brainwasher-in-chief, Daniel Pick wants us to understand what had driven Bernays into the persuading business in the first place.

As a Jew whose extended European family suffered dreadfully under the Nazis, Bernays was painfully aware how cruelty and madness lurk in even the most civilised minds. All it took was for a gifted PR man such as Joseph Goebbels to give a shape and form to these inchoate feelings, and horror could result.

Even well-established liberal democracies were clearly not immune to brainwashing, and Bernays worked hard in books such as Propaganda to alert Americans to how their minds could be perverted, poisoned, confused or invaded by bad actors in sharp suits.

It is a warning that Pick believes is as urgent now as it was more than half a century ago. We are all susceptible, he says, to being washers of our own brains, building booming echo chambers in which we hear only voices with whom we already agree. We start mistaking opinion for fact, finding it impossible to imagine that there might be a reality beyond the one we have curated for ourselves.

In a passionate concluding section, Pick urges us to make a point of exploring difference and difficulty wherever we encounter it. Only then, depending on what we discover, may we choose either to change our minds or stand our ground.

Brainwashed: A New History of Thought Control by Daniel Pick is published by Profile (£20)

The Washington Post

Auden was more than a great poet. Two books remind us why.

Volumes I and II of ‘The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Poems’ delve deeply into the masterful works I have long admired.

By Michael Dirda
 — June 29, 2022 .

I was doggedly answering the questions on a standardized high school achievement test when I was asked to identify the poetic device employed in the following stanza:

“ ‘O where are you going?’ said reader to rider,

‘That valley is fatal when furnaces burn,

Yonder’s the midden whose odours will madden,

That gap is the grave where the tall return.’ ”

Alliteration was presumably the answer wanted, but I’m not sure I knew that. I do remember wondering what a “midden” was. Still, the first line and its pleasing singsong of “reader to rider” stuck in my mind. Only later did I learn that they were the opening words of a poem by W.H. Auden, who would become one of my favorite writers.

Princeton University Press has just published “The : 1927-1939” and “The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Poems, Volume II: 1940-1973,” edited by the poet’s indefatigable literary executor, Edward Mendelson.

Together, the linked pair reprint each individual collection issued in the poet’s lifetime, as well as uncollected or rejected works and fragments. Meticulously detailed endnotes supply every poem’s bibliographical history and track Auden’s obsessive tinkerings and revisions. The two volumes — priced at $60 each — clock in at 2,000 pages and are a true bargain, as well as a dazzling, scholarly triumph for both Mendelson and Princeton.

What’s more, they form the capstone to the monumental “The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose,” which includes six previously issued volumes gathering all the British American poet’s essays, talks, plays and juvenilia.

Many readers, admittedly, will be happy with just the Vintage paperback “Selected Poems of W.H. Auden,” also edited by Mendelson. Still, it’s easy to become an Auden completist. My own passion really caught fire at Oberlin College after I made the acquaintance of Robert Phelps, the literary journalist father of one of my roommates.

Not only did Robert teach a course on Auden at Manhattan’s New School, but his Greenwich Village apartment also housed copies of all the poet’s books, as well as much associated material.
Through Robert’s influence, I began to discover the breadth of Auden’s genius. I remember opening the 1962 essay collection “The Dyer’s Hand” one Sunday morning during a breakfast at South Hall that featured hot, freshly made doughnuts.

Much later, after Robert’s death, I inherited his copy of “The Enchafèd Flood” (1950) — Auden’s thrilling study of the romantic iconography of the sea — as well as his jacketless, scribbled-in first editions of the poetry. Nearly all these feature pictures of the author taped to the endpapers, and in “Another Time” (1940) — probably Auden’s greatest single collection — Robert left a postcard of Bruegel’s painting “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus,” which inspired the famous “Musée des Beaux-Arts”: “About suffering, they were never wrong/ The Old Masters.”

While the meanings of Auden’s poems can sometimes be elusive, nearly all of them contain lines and passages that take your breath away. In his earliest efforts, the poet almost seems to be channeling T.S. Eliot:

“It is time for the destruction of error.

The chairs are being brought in from the garden,

The summer talk stopped on that savage coast

Before the storms, after the guests and birds:

In sanitoriums they laugh less and less,

Less certain of cure; and the loud madman

Sinks now into a more terrible calm.”

At other times, Auden’s phrases approach the surreal: “In the infected sinus, and the eyes of stoats” or “A crack in the teacup opens/ A lane to the land of the dead.”

A master of light verse, he can also be very funny:
“Goddess of bossy underlings, Normality!”

Some poems, like “Epitaph on a Tyrant,” remain sadly all too relevant:

“When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,/ And when he cried the little children died in the streets.”

In his youth, Auden planned to become a mining engineer, and he’s always terrific at depicting industrial landscapes — he gravitates to tram lines and slag heaps — but he can also survey rough terrain through the eyes of a secret agent:

“Control of the passes was, he saw, the key” or “Watching with binoculars the movement of the grass for an ambush,/ The pistol cocked, the code-word committed to memory …”

[‘The Complete Works of Auden’ showcases writings beyond the poetry]
 Of Auden’s book-length works, I most love “The Sea and the Mirror” (1944), built around poems in various styles spoken by the characters from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” The barroom ballad “Master and Boatswain” starts this way:

“At Dirty Dick’s and Sloppy Joe’s
We drank our liquor straight,

Some went upstairs with Margery,

And some, alas, with Kate …”

After that roistering swagger, the poem unexpectedly closes with the conjunction of the wistful and worldly:

“The nightingales are sobbing in

The orchards of our mothers,

And hearts that we broke long ago

Have long been breaking others.”

In the second, American half of his life, Auden grew “ashamed” — his word — of several of his most revered works of the 1930s, calling them “dishonest” rhetorical trash. Victims of this aesthetic puritanism included “Spain 1937” (” Today the struggle”), “Sir, no man’s enemy, forgiving all,” and “Sept. 1, 1939.” The opening of this last always feels timely, but seldom more so than now:

“I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-Second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low, dishonest decade.
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth …”

Mendelson notes that the poem was actually begun on Sept. 2 in New Jersey — at the home of the dentist father of Auden’s partner Chester Kallman — and finished by Sept. 7. So in one sense, it is dishonest. According to another revelatory note, Auden actually planned to drop his most tender lyric, “Lay your sleeping head, my love,” from his collected shorter poems, until Kallman insisted he keep it in. Great artists aren’t always the best judges of their work.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Auden hoped he might be regarded as “a minor Atlantic Goethe” even as his poetry grew loose and talky, his diction occasionally recondite. One poem from “About the House” (1965) ends with the line “the true olamic silence.” (Olamic refers to a vast period of time, eons.) Appropriately, in “The Cave of Making” — also from “About the House” — Auden lovingly describes his dictionaries as “the very best money can buy” and stresses that the windows of his study in Austria admit “a light one could mend a watch by.” Here, he concludes, “silence is turned into objects.” Need one add that those objects, wherever they were handcrafted, stand high among the best and most enjoyable poems of the 20th century?

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.
 The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Poems, Volume I: 1927-1939
, Edited by Edward Mendelson
. Princeton University Press. 848 pp. $60
The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Poems, Volume II: 1940-1973
 Edited by Edward Mendelson
. Princeton University Press. 1120 pp. $60

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