Go ahead and love something an embarrassing amount, Volume II: Italian grammar

Natalia Ginzburg’s Lessico famigliare begins like this:

Nella mia casa paterna, quand’ero ragazzina, a tavola, se io o i miei fratelli rovesciavamo il bicchiere sulla tovaglia, o lasciavamo cadere un coltello, la voce di mio padre tuonava: “Non fate malagrazie!”

In my father’s house, when I was a little girl, at the table, if I or my brothers upset our glass on the tablecloth, or if we let a knife fall, the voice of my father would thunder: “Non fate malagrazie!”

One of the reasons I love teaching Natalia Ginzburg to non-native Italian speakers (and possibly the reason I so appreciate her as a non-native Italian speaker) is that if we use what we know of Italian, if we forget what we don’t know and focus on the fundamentals, we see the intentionality of this prose at work.

Furthermore, the very beginning of Lessico Famigliare, Family Lexicon, gives us everything beautiful about the book; it doesn’t hold out. I could read the first ten pages over and over without ever getting any less pleasure from them with the repetition; in fact, the more I reread the more I bask in how good, how precise, how perfect the characterizations are, how well chosen each little morsel. This first sentence goes right to the words that the family speaks, right to the lexicon. The sentence slowly makes its way to its main clause (the voice of my father thundered), taking us through some subordinate “if” clauses on its way. That first verb, thundered, is the first main verb of the book; its subject, the first main subject, her father’s voice. This is a book about voices and about words, not just what they were but how they were said. 

Se inzuppavamo il pane nella salsa, gridava: “Non leccate i piatti! Non fate sbrodeghezzi! non fate potacci!”

Sbrodeghezzi e potacci erano, per mio padre, anche i quadri moderni, che non poteva soffrire.

If we dunked our bread in sauce, he would, “don’t lick the plates!” and “Non fate sbrodeghezzi! non fate potacci!”

For my father, modern paintings were also sbrodeghezzi and potacci; he could not stand them.

In these first three paragraphs, we get our first three key phrases of the family lexicon: “Non fate malagrazie!”, “Non fate sbrodeghezzi!” and “Non fate potacci!” Let’s first get into the “easy” part: “Non fate” means “Don’t do.” Fare (the infinitive of “fate”) is a verb that all beginning Italian students know well, because it is so widely applicable that they end up resorting to it all the time when they can’t think of the specific word they want. “Fare” means to do or to make, but the Italian language is littered with delightful little phrases that depart from the literality of doing and making even as they depend on “fare” for their meaning. “Fare la spesa” means to go shopping; “fare due chiacchiere” means to have a chat (two chats?); “fare bella figura” means to show off or to make a good impression. 

Now for the tricky part. The closest I can get to “Non fate malagrazie!” is “don’t be rude!” but I would be tempted to say something more like “Don’t do rudenesses!” This sounds funny in English because it actually sounds funny in Italian, too – “malagrazia” is a real word, a noun that means “bad grace,” but as far as I can tell, “fare malagrazie” is not a phrase that exists outside of this father in this family. As for “sbrodeghezzi” and “potacci,” don’t bother looking them up in the dictionary, because you won’t find them. My Italian edition of Lessico famigliare makes liberal use of footnotes to help readers decipher the strange words in the family lexicon, because they don’t exist in standard Italian. For “sbrodeghezzi” the given translation is “porcherie,” meaning anything from “embarrassing mistakes” to “dirty business” and for “potacci” the footnote suggests “pasticci,” meaning “messes” or “trouble;” two words with quite a wealth of meanings in their own right.

So what I tell students is to forget all that. If you want to read the footnotes and say “ah, that’s what a sbrodeghezzo is,” go right ahead (though you’ll still need a dictionary for the supplied synonyms). But try to remember that Natalia Ginzburg did not put those footnotes there, and she does not need you to know what these words mean in a literal sense. Just go ahead, say it to yourself: “z-bro-de-GHE-tsi!” Now say it and roll the R. “Sbrrrrodeghezzi!” That is a goddamn great word. You know some things about this father now. Read the passage again. Kids being kids – knocking a glass over, dropping a knife, dipping bread in sauce. The father thunders “Non fate malagrazie!” and “Non fate sbrodeghezzi! Non fate potacci!”

And then, the next paragraph cuts in to give another example of “sbrodeghezzi” and “potacci” – modern art. Do we still feel like we’re missing an exact definition of those words? Do we feel like we have an idea of who this guy is? We go right back to the table.

Diceva: “Voialtri non sapete stare a tavola! Non siete gente da portare nei loghi!”

E diceva: “Voialtri che fate tanti sbrodeghezzi, se foste a una table d’hôte in Inghilterra, vi manderebbero subito via.”

Aveva, dell’Inghilterra, la più alta stima. Trovava che era, nel mondo, il più grande esempio di civiltà.

He would say, “You all don’t know how to be at the table! You are not the kind of people that can be taken places!”

And he would say, “You all – with all your sbrodeghezzi– if you were guests at a meal in England, they would send you away immediately.”

He had, of England, the highest esteem. He found that it was, in the world, the greatest example of civility.

I’m sorry, I can’t bring myself to modify that word sbrodeghezzi in order to translate it; I am scared of ruining it.

Ginzburg, with these six little paragraphs, has established both the content and the form of this book. Look at the rhythm: Two short paragraphs that set the scene at the table for her father’s phrases. A third paragraph that provides additional context for “sbrodeghezzi” and “potacci.” Then two more paragraphs that are almost choral in their repetition: “Diceva ‘voialtri …’ e diceva, ‘voialtri…’.” The sixth paragraph, like the third, gives us a few words of explanation. Just as modern paintings are ‘sbrodegezzi’ and ‘potacci’ on a level with children dropping things on the floor and dipping bread in sauce, England is their opposite: the marker of high society, politeness, and good manners.

Of course, Ginzburg doesn’t need to say any of this. The words are there, and she sets them up to be heard speaking for themselves.

The chorality of “diceva … e diceva” that I mentioned earlier is one of the cornerstones of this book: it is about what Ginzburg’s father – and the rest of her family – said, not just once but over and over. The verbs in the paragraphs I have quoted – with the exception of the ones in the direct discourse, when the father is speaking – are all in the imperfect tense. Midway through their first year, students of Italian must learn to correctly use the past tenses: the passato prossimois for finite actions in the past that were done at a specific time, whereas the imperfetto (imperfect) is for describing or discussing ongoing, continual actions in the past. The passato remoto, the most irregular and hardest to learn, but also the prettiest, is used to talk about the distant, remote past, also sometimes referred to as the literary tense (although this is a copout of an explanation, since people in some regions of Italy use it in everyday speech in place of the passato prossimo). Since we have different ways of separating past tenses in English, these rules seem arbitrary and unnatural to many students, and we try to test them on their understanding of the underlying concepts by giving them sentences with blanks where the verbs should be and asking them to conjugate using the correct tense for the situation. This suggests, though, that the situation dictates which verb tense to use, when really the opposite is true: it’s the verb tense that provides the information we need about the situation. When Natalia Ginzburg uses that choral imperfect: tuonAVa, gridAVa, dicEVa, dicEVa, always the same stressed syllable, she is using the verb tense itself to tell us that these phrases of her father’s were a refrain in her household. Her father didn’t say these things one time; he said them repeatedly, with no beginning and no end. Whereas the other past tenses only come out every once in a while, and when they do, they make an efficient impression:

Mia nonna era da giovane, a suo dire, bellissima, la seconda bella ragazza di Pisa; la prima era una certa Virginia Del Vecchio, sua amica. Venne a Pisa un certo signor Segrè, e chiese di conoscere la più bella ragazza di Pisa, per chiederla in matrimonio. Virginia non accettò di sposarlo. Gli presentarono allora mia nonna. Ma anche mia nonna lo rifiutò, dicendo che lei non prendeva “gli avanzi di Virginia.”

My grandmother was as a young woman, in her own words, beautiful, the second most beautiful girl in Pisa; the first was a certain Virginia Del Vecchio, her friend. A certain Signor Segré came to Pisa, and asked to meet the most beautiful girl in Pisa, so he might ask for her hand in marriage. Virginia did not accept. They presented him my grandmother. But my grandmother, too, refused him, saying that she wouldn’t take “Virginia’s leftovers.”

Specific anecdotes of a fixed point in time are held in reserve for moments when they are particularly needed to supplement the work of the imperfect-tense descriptions, and this is in fact the first one we get, 12 pages in. Note how in English, all these verbs are in the same past tense; in Italian, the switch from the imperfect tense (underlined above) to the passato remoto (italicized) effects a tonal shift as well as a temporal one. It is subtle, embodied within the very structure of the language; it is the signal that we have switched modes for a moment to recount this hilarious little story, which isn’t necessarily presented as a seminal moment in the life of Ginzburg’s grandmother so much as a perfect emblem of who she is. She may be the second-most beautiful woman in Pisa, but she’ll be damned if she’s going to be anyone’s second choice.

“Even though [this book] is about reality, I think it must be read like a novel,” GInzburg writes in the introduction, “and that is to say that we must ask no more and no less of it than what a novel can provide.” I have reflected on and off for many years about “what a novel can provide,” and some part of it is that a novel can take linguistic ambiguity and use it with precision and intention. This is why I like using literary texts to teach grammar: you actually see why ambiguity in grammar can be so useful, and why we should not with for One Rule to Rule Them All. Being fairly type-A and a perfectionist, I as an Italian learner was often frustrated with what I saw as the wishy-washiness of so many grammatical rules. The fact that you sometimes use one tense, but another can be okay too, depending on the context, vexed me to no end, and I would always be the annoying one raising my hand with less than a minute to go in class asking “but WHY.” Reading books that leaned heavily on words that didn’t exist made me uneasy, because they took away my sense of control. When I became a teacher of Italian, though, I started to see grammar as a palette of paint colors and a set of brushes with different thicknesses. You do have to spend some time studying the rules and the accepted practices, differentiating between colors and stroke weights, trying things and having them come out wrong. But you look at the works of the masters and you start to understand that the difference between them and everyone else is that they know all of those rules extremely well, and they put them to good use while not always doing with them what we expect they will do.