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Family Lexicon


An NYRB Classics Original

An Italian family, sizable, with its routines and rituals, crazes, pet phrases, and stories, doubtful, comical, indispensable, comes to life in the pages of Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon. Giuseppe Levi, the father, is a scientist, consumed by his work and a mania for hiking—when he isn’t provoked into angry remonstration by someone misspeaking or misbehaving or wearing the wrong thing. Giuseppe is Jewish, married to Lidia, a Catholic, though neither is religious; they live in the industrial city of Turin where, as the years pass, their children find ways of their own to medicine, marriage, literature, politics. It is all very ordinary, except that the background to the story is Mussolini’s Italy in its steady downward descent to race law and world war. The Levis are, among other things, unshakeable anti-fascists. That will complicate their lives.

Family Lexicon is about a family and language—and about storytelling not only as a form of survival but also as an instrument of deception and domination. The book takes the shape of a novel, yet everything is true. “Every time that I have found myself inventing something in accordance with my old habits as a novelist, I have felt impelled at once to destroy [it],” Ginzburg tells us at the start. “The places, events, and people are all real.”


It’s life-changingly good. It’s a lesson in how to live.
—Monica Ali, Elle

Jenny McPhee’s new translation . . . reads as more contemporary, immediate, and dynamic. Critically, McPhee’s translation emphasizes how language operates within the closed system of a family . . . In Family Lexicon, familiar words and phrases are the fragments that conjure glimpses of a more complete world, summon what and who has been lost and allow them to continue, to coalesce, condense, collapse. To be carried away, yes, and to carry on.
—Emily LaBarge, Bookforum

The raw beauty of Ginzburg’s prose compels our gaze. First we look inward, with the shock of recognition inspired by all great writing, and then, inevitably, out at the shared world she evokes with such uncompromising clarity.
—Hilma Wolitzer

There is no one quite like Ginzburg for telling it like it is. Her unique, immediately recognizable voice is at once clear and shaded, artless and sly, able to speak of the deepest sorrows and smallest pleasures of everyday life.
—Phillip Lopate

Her simplicity is an achievement, hard-won and remarkable, and the more welcome in a literary world where the cloak of omniscience is all too readily donned.
—William Weaver, The New York Times

Family Lexicon recalls the great modernists’ reimaginings of childhood—Joyce, Compton-Burnett, Katherine Mansfield, parts of Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience, and, farther back, Swann’s Way.
—Eric Gudas, Los Angeles Review of Books

Ginzburg was a masterful writer, a witty, elegant prose stylist, and a fiercely intelligent thinker. . . . This 1963 novel, newly translated by novelist McPhee, is a genre-defying work. It reads like a memoir, but it doesn’t adhere to the conventions of either fiction or nonfiction. . . . Ginzburg’s ‘lexicon’ is a valuable addition to an already burnished body of work in translation.
Kirkus starred review

The lore of her large, loving, and discordant family provides rich material for Ginzburg’s engrossing autobiographical novel.
Publishers Weekly

The atmosphere of the book is so clear and immediate that reading it is like being there or seeing a film.
The Christian Science Monitor

A glowing light of modern Italian literature . . . Ginzburg’s magic is the utter simplicity of her prose, suddenly illuminated by one word that makes a lightning stroke of a plain phrase . . . As direct and clean as if it were carved in stone, it yet speaks thoughts of the heart.
—Kate Simon, The New York Times


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