A look at Natalia Ginzburg’s “He and I”

In an English class recently, we went over some classic personal narratives, and the teacher assigned Natalia Ginzburg’s “He and I.” I’ve never heard of Ginzburg before the class, so “He and I” was the first of her works I came across – and it may not have been the best starting place for a Ginzburg neophyte.

The story (if one could call that) starts off as compare/contrast – Ginzburg writes of her husband – English scholar, Gabriele Baldini – the structure is “He does X, I do Y…” She initially defines herself in the context of what she’s not, in comparison to her husband. It’s not a terribly compelling read at first – especially since it feels self-deprecating to a fault. Where Baldini was cultured, dashing, intelligent, and interested, Ginzburg writes herself as being a pale shadow of her husband – she admits that when she is forced on cultural outings, she inevitably dozes off.

It’s only when about half-way through the story that we get a fuller picture of Baldini, and he’s not a great guy, despite Ginzburg’s praise. He comes off as a bit of a jerk, going out of his way to make her feel bad about herself.

Most of the class felt that Ginzburg’s story was both irritating and lacking – and I’m not so sure that the instructor was pleased. She defended the author, pointing out that context was important: Ginzburg was an Italian woman in the 1960s, operating in a patriarchal society. The instructor made a good point, but unfortunately, Ginzburg doesn’t seem to transcend the limitations of her times or surroundings enough to create a compelling work.

In my comment during class, I mentioned this, wishing that if she was writing from a point of view of a woman in a patriarchal world – which, by the way, still exists today – she could’ve taken a more interesting take on it – I mentioned Jane Austen. Austen, a conservative writer by most accounts, still managed to tweak the patriarchy of Georgian England. No one could call Austen a feminist, but her characters challenged a lot of the conventions.

But in Ginzburg’s “He and I” the point of view is so zeroed in and personal that it’s difficult to figure out the “so what?” Why – aside from being assigned – was I reading Ginzburg’s writing?

There is a lovely bit at the end of the story (I’m forever almost referring to “He and I” as a poem), where she reminisces about her relationship with Baldini when they first met, when they started courting. He wasn’t the seeming boor he turned out to be, belittling and condescending. Some of the students found this passage a redeeming feature of the story, except I didn’t – what I found was that the Ginzburg was really duped by her husband – like most of us when we’re just starting to date someone, we put on our best face, but then once the “honeymoon is over” we show who we really are – and I’m not sure Baldini was someone I’d like to hang out with.

Thoughts? Am I being too hard on Gizburg, or am I just not getting the story?

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Filed under Book, classic literature, Nonfiction, What I'm Reading, Writing

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