‘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

When 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. 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.

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.

“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 …

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.

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