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The best books on Family History

recommended by Thea Lenarduzzi

Dandelions by Thea Lenarduzzi

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Dandelions
by Thea Lenarduzzi

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The story of a family never ends, says Thea Lenarduzzi—the literary critic and author of the prize-winning family memoir Dandelions: "It’s always evolving, rewriting itself, long after the protagonists are dead." Here, she recommends five books on family history that illustrate the shapeshifting nature of this hard-to-pin-down subject, in which memories rarely tally with the written record.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

Dandelions by Thea Lenarduzzi

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Dandelions
by Thea Lenarduzzi

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Thank you for recommending these books about family history. Might you start us off by telling us about the appeal of reading and writing about family history?

Well, in terms of writing, it’s that thing: write what you know—or, as it often happens, think you know. Also, by writing about what’s close to you, that you see every day, and trying to see it differently. Tilting it slightly and seeing it from a different angle. Writing focuses you in a different way.

For me, I’d grown up with stories my grandmother told day in, day out. I never really questioned them before, it was like background noise. So writing was a question of putting them centre-stage, and listening and asking the questions that I’d been too lazy or too lulled by repetition to ask before. Doing something like that reenchants you with the whole experience of being part of a family. It makes you part of the family in much more of an existential way, it imbues you with a deeper sense of belonging. Unless, of course, you’re exploring and discovering a family you don’t feel you belong to—or don’t want to belong to. That would be an altogether different experience.

“This idea of objective truth is impossible. There is no such thing. Memory is a construction, it’s a fiction”

Which is also why I find it interesting to read books about family history. It’s about working out how different people fit, or don’t. That sense of belonging. You can think about family as the conventional ‘family’—parents, children, grandparents—but also the broader families that we build for ourselves, from friends and acquaintances. Or, a community, a society, a nation as family. It’s about how an individual finds themselves and explains themselves. It’s an incredibly rich and varied theme.

You’ve said that you’re interested in where the boundary between nonfiction and fiction falls in books about family history. Can you talk a bit more about your choices?

Yes. I have two novels on the list, and we’ll come to talk about why that is. But I just think that this idea of objective truth is impossible. There is no such thing. Memory is a construction, it’s a fiction. Yes, it’s rooted in things that have happened. But the way that it’s glossed in the aftermath of that experience is a creative work, full of feeling and leaps of the imagination. Wherever there’s a gap, the mind rushes in.

What I was saying earlier about belonging—I think you see this particularly acutely when it comes to where memory touches on the idea of belonging. You rearrange, patch things together, to make them fit with the narrative that you want to tell about yourself. That memory becomes your ‘truth’, your story. I think that’s probably why I’m so interested in family stories.

As well as the fictionalising that takes place in our own memories, real events often pass into something like family lore or legend.

Exactly. And when you think about those lives that unfurled against the tumultuous background of, for example, the European twentieth century, when a second world war came hot on the heels of the first, we have the collective imagination. There is the stuff of history—the stuff that mostly white men sit and write about, professing to objectivity—and then we have the way that individuals or families experienced them and tell the story of them. And those aren’t the same thing. Reality and truth are not necessarily the same thing.

I think that’s why something like a novel is often a very compelling way of relating real events—by translating them into fiction, you can get at a truth that you might not be able to otherwise.

Speaking of tempestuous twentieth-century history, can we talk about your first book choice? This is Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg. Elsewhere on our site, Ruth Ben-Ghiat described this book as a “valuable testimony of how private life unfolded during Fascist Italy.” Why do you recommend it now?

This is a book you can read again and again and again, and find something new in it every single time, the way that—if you start really listening—you can hear something new in your family stories. You might hear a new detail, or you might find a new question to ask.

Ginzburg wrote Family Lexicon while she was living abroad, living in England. So it’s a product of longing, a product of homesickness, of her trying to rediscover that sense of belonging. She has this wonderful term: she talks about ‘the dictionary of our past’. She’s talking about how her family had all these phrases, these linguistic tics. And they bind you.

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All families have them. Ginzburg says that one word, one sentence, from her childhood, having been repeated time and time again, can become a kind of distinguishing family feature passed down the generations. She says that if she and her siblings were in a cave, stripped of light, and they heard one of those phrases, they would know exactly who they were in the presence of. They are all, she says, inextricably linked, these words and phrases, to the fabric of that family.

The book is in no way grand, even though it’s dealing with these huge figures (lots of famous faces are involved), a huge time—war comes and goes in a few pages. This is about everyday life, about what happens in houses rather than in government offices. She sees people for what they are. Tim Parks pointed out that, in Family Lexicon, “the way a character dresses gets more attention than his views on fascism.” Which is a much truer way of living through those mad times. Daily life went on. The daily observation of detail. And, weirdly, this precision of detail gives the work this timeless quality. You don’t need to know it was the twentieth century, because of the way that it’s written—it could have been written yesterday, it just feels so fresh.

Ginzburg seems to be having a bit of a revival at the moment. Are you a fan more generally?

Totally. I think it’s very interesting that she’s having this revival. It was the hundredth anniversary of her birth a few years ago, and there were lots of reissues going on, fresh translations. But when Natalia Ginzburg first started writing there was a lot of snobbery about the way that she wrote—certainly in Italy—because she wrote about things so plainly. There were none of the more flowery textures in her writing that Italians at the time tended to think marked out great literature. She was stripping it bare.

It’s taken time for Italian readers to appreciate that, but now I don’t think there would be any question that she’s one of the great twentieth-century writers. She’s really having a heyday now.

One of the things people remark on in this memoir is that she’s absent from the book; they say it’s a memoir without its central figure. But I think that’s a misconception; she’s there on every single page, and that’s something I found really inspiring. This book is a model of how you can be present as an author without constantly forcing your ‘I’ under people’s noses. She’s there in the rhythms of the language, she’s there in the mood, in the observations. But she’s not shoving herself central stage. She’s a presence rather than an appearance, if that makes any sense. She suffuses the whole thing.

The second book about family history that you want to recommend is a novel from another Italian writer, Elena Ferrante’s Lying Life of Adults. Ferrante is probably best known for her Neapolitan Quartet. Why have you selected this newer novel?

Well, everyone knows the Quartet already. This book didn’t get so much coverage, which I found interesting. One of the things recurring themes in the Quartet is how the protagonist dreads becoming her mother, and this is a relationship that Ferrante has worked on through her fiction from the very beginning, and it’s there in The Lying Life of Adults as well.

That’s just one strand here, what it means to be part of a family. The novel captures so much of the fraught subtext, the latent violence that often lies behind the more intense relationships. It’s basically the legacy of a family fallout, and how it trickles down the generations. So it’s familiar Ferrante terrain and she does it really well here.

She follows Giovanna, charting her development from a nice little twelve-year-old to a coarse teenager, but in this coming-of-age story she manages to show a whole social system, its moral codes, and almost the whole history of Italy itself. She maps that onto one family’s relationships, and particularly the relationship between the protagonist’s father and the sister he’s estranged from. In their opposition, you have the bourgeois Italians (‘Italian’ still being a contested concept) versus fierce localism; the Naples of the heights, which is all refinement and manners, versus the belly of Naples, where it’s gritty and vulgar and bodily; a modern outward-looking Italy versus a supposedly backwards, introverted community.

“A family is a kind of microcosm of society as a whole”

I like how this novel focuses on this one moment in time, the coming of age of Giovanna, but has that Ginzburg timelessness, because it’s a sweeping saga of social mobility and the angst that goes with that—the fear that you might betray your roots or slip back down to where you came from. The trials of defining yourself within a family, and more broadly within a society, and the lies you tell to make that happen. The conceit of the book is that all of our lives are based on lies.

I think it really captures that a family is a kind of microcosm of society as a whole—the struggles within the family between man and woman, body and mind, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, are the struggles that have shaped society and family for all of history.

The way you spoke there reminded me a lot of your own very beautiful new book, Dandelions, which was recently released by Fitzcarraldo.  You look at your own family’s story as a proxy for that the Italian diaspora. Could you tell us more?

Like I was saying earlier, it’s about looking at something you’ve seen your whole life, and finally, actually, looking at it properly—acknowledging and studying it, rather than just letting it wash over you. The book is guided by my grandma, my Nonna, who emigrated twice to England. The second time she was successful. The first time was a tragic tale—her dad died very young, she was sent back to Italy. And it’s that thing about using one person’s life to get a sense of what rhythms guide the whole family.

My family has gone backwards and forwards between England and Italy—for work, for love, for any number of reasons. I thought: what happens if you just take one life, one person, and start asking questions? Where will that lead you? What I found was that it quickly becomes a tapestry, with so many threads. You start off looking at one thing, and before you know it, you’re looking at something completely surprising, thinking: ‘how did I get here? How did I get from talking to my Nonna about headaches to learning about theories of homesickness or romance novels, or whatever it is. It’s a kind of an unraveling, or you could look at it the other way—a kind of stitching together.

And, as with Family Lexicon, you have these repeating phrases. What was it? Your grandmother gives these little sighs, and say, ‘Ma no, nina.’ Like: ‘you misunderstand me.’ It’s a lovely dynamic.

Yeah, she calls me ‘nina’—short for ‘bambina’, ‘little girl’, a term of affection but, tellingly, a diminutive of a diminutive—I’ll always be a little girl to her, even though I’m well into my thirties, and she’ll always be the wise, worldly woman—so she’s basically saying ‘no, little girl, you don’t understand, listen while I explain, learn from me…’ I felt it really important to have her voice in it. When we talk about memoirs, we describe someone as a ‘character’, like in a novel or film, even though they’re real. But in that word, ‘character’, there’s a very honest acknowledgment of the fact that all people are constructs, you know? Creations. And I wanted to make sure her character’s voice was there in the book.

Speaking of novels, your third family history book is another work of fiction.

Elizabeth Jane Howard did write a memoir of herself and her family called Slipstream, which is really good. But I’m not choosing that, I’m being guided by Ginzburg, and her seeing fiction as a vessel of truth.

You’ve opted for Howard’s sequence of novels The Cazalet Chronicles.

She draws from her own family story. It’s all true to life. She was born in the 1920s to a family that was affluent and well-connected, and totally, totally unhappy. Her father and his brother were the directors of the family timber firm. Her mother was a retired dancer, who retired too young. There’s all that sort of stuff. But she chose to do it in fiction, because I think that allows you to do so much that you would struggle to do to the same effect in a more conventional memoir.

In Ginzburg’s introduction to Family Lexicon, she makes a point of saying: “Everything here is real. There is no fiction here. And yet, I want you to read it as a novel.” Because people make fewer, or different, demands of novels. They read it with different eyes, and novels give us different kinds of truth.

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In The Cazalet Chronicles, part of the way Howard can do that is by really developing the characters, giving us multiple sides and levels. In a memoir, if the author is talking about someone else, it’s usually about what that other person did to them; how things looked from where they were sitting, figuratively speaking. Whereas with the novel, those other people can talk for themselves. And that makes for a much more lifelike experience, I think. Howard said novels were for showing people what other people are like.

The dialogue in these books is incredible. Especially the children, she writes children’s dialogue so acutely, so well. But again, it’s the details, like Ginzburg. How people eat: whether someone passes the gravy or just pours it all onto their own plate. That can be as clear an indication of character as whether they were fascist or not, or whether they supported Chamberlain’s appeasement policy or not.

The Cazalet Chronicles, as a series of novels, moves through time, and so you see the family members in the round, how they fit into a timeline. You see them and their personalities in context.

Exactly. You see how the decisions that another character made years ago filter down. So, think about The Lying Life of Adults: the lies you tell and their legacy. With The Cazalet Chronicles, it’s the afterlife of lies and mistakes, that ripples through lives—their own, and their family members’.

In a series of novels, there is opportunity for these things to breathe, to happen as if in real-time. It’s not compressed into a single novel. So you can see the distance between cause and consequence. As a result, it feels that much truer to life. Hilary Mantel described how the book charted the varying and repeating errors of this one family; I think that’s a good way to describe it. Because when you read them as a whole, it’s like a musical composition that has its own rhythm. These impulses and decisions just happen again and again and again, in different forms. There’s an overarching pattern.

Maria Stepanova, who we’re also going to talk about today, talks about trying to discern the ‘oval’ of a life. And you can try to do that for an individual, but you can also do that for a family. As you said, you’re looking to see characters in the round. By doing it across time, it’s a bigger round with many more moving parts. It’s there, but it’s hazier. You can stand back and see it for a second, then you look away and it’s gone.

Let’s talk about Maria Stepanova, then. You’ve chosen to recommend her book In Memory of Memory, which I think embodies a lot of what you’ve been saying about the blurred line between fiction and nonfiction. I’ve previously discussed In Memory of Memory on this site when it was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. Can you tell us why you recommend this book in the context of family history?

It’s such a simple conceit for a book, and it’s just so wonderfully executed. In terms of the writing as well, every single line is a kind of perfection. It’s translated into English from the original Russian by Sasha Dugdale, and hats off to Dugdale, because I think to translate something and make it feel so true to itself—so natural and precise, as if it were conceived in English from the outset—is an incredible feat.

The story, if you like, is that Maria Stepanova’s aunt, Galya, dies, and Stepanova goes to clear her apartment. She discovers that Galya was a hoarder: there are cinema ticket stubs and fag ends and photographs, scraps of paper, shopping lists, and—crucially—notebook after notebook after notebook, observing details of a life lived.

“The story of the family can never be still, it’s always evolving, rewriting itself, long after the protagonists are dead”

And so Maria Stepanova decides that she wants to tell the story of her life, and through that, a family’s life. I like how she captures the vampiric act of writing about one’s family. There’s always this unease about your right to do so. Even if you have the person’s permission, as in my case.

The questions Stepanova is turning over in her head all the time are: Who gets to tell this story? What makes someone interesting? Do they have to be an exception, or is it their very ordinariness that makes their story worth telling? She grappled with something that I did as well: the fact that her life, or her family’s lives didn’t really have the conventional elements readers expect, or hope for, in a Second World War story.

I mean, there are tragedies and, perhaps, minor acts of heroism, but they weren’t, you know, executed by the Fascists, or didn’t risk life and limb to smuggle messages to partisans. Stepanova’s family didn’t meet the tragedy that you could have thought they might during the Second World War, because they were Jewish and bourgeois: doctors, engineers and intellectuals. They survived more or less in one piece. She writes about how, when she was younger, this used to embarrass her. She used to find it kind of shameful to admit that her ancestors—how did she put it?—made no attempt to make themselves remotely interesting.

Don’t you feel that when you start thinking about your own family? You’re like, why don’t we have a conscientious objector in our family? They all just went to work and then made dinner. It’s like, well, that’s what people did. That doesn’t mean their lives had less value.

I do always wonder about those shows about family history, like Who Do You Think You Are? I wonder how many celebrities they start looking into the family history of, but give up because they simply can’t find anything that’s going to make them cry on television. But let’s talk about your final book recommendation, which is Ferdinand Mount’s biography of his aunt, Kiss Myself Goodbye.

It’s a great title, isn’t it? It immediately hooks you. It’s a book about family, and the paradox at its heart: that we can know so little about the people who are most familiar to us. I think that’s a theme that’s run through all of my book choices.

It’s difficult to imagine someone better connected than Ferdinand Mount, which to be honest did not particularly endear the book to me. I thought I knew what it was going to be. But I’m really glad someone recommended it, and I overcame that lazy prejudice. It’s not an account of a conventional posh family of old Etonians. It’s actually about how a family worked its way up in society by lying about where it came from. So, similar to Ferrante in that respect, we’re talking about lying and self-fashioning—in this case, to an extreme degree.

The central figure is Ferdinand Mount’s aunt Munca, the wife of his father’s brother Greig. She had as many identities as she had houses. The whole thing is a kind of riddle: how did this former typist, born into a dirt poor family in Sheffield, come to have a Rolls Royce and a permanent suite at Claridge’s? How does an impoverished knife grinder become a millionaire in high society?

“For anyone setting out to find the story of their family: trust nothing”

It’s a really compelling story, because—again—the history of one family is also the history of history, the history of relationships and events driven here by a kind of class war. The glossy, gilded life that Aunt Munca has crafted for herself was seen as really vulgar by Mount’s more traditionally genteel parents. There was a conflict there, within the family, about who they were and where they’d come from.

The aunt had named herself—and this is the most telling part, really—after a fictional character from a Beatrix Potter story, ‘A Tale of Two Bad Mice’, in which two vandal mice basically wreck a dolls house and then just move on, leaving the debris behind. It’s interesting that she chose to style herself on a fictional character, and that one in particular, and how that self-characterisation was elaborated and compounded down the years.

On my copy, it says: “Its cryptic and unforgettable protagonist Munca joins the ranks of memorable aunts in literature from Dickens’ Betsey Trotwood to Graham Greene’s Aunt Augusta.” You’re like, yeah, but she’s a real person. The transition from ‘reality’ to fiction is complete. And it’s just a fantastic cautionary tale for anyone setting out to find the story of their family. Trust nothing. I mean, she merrily told lie after lie on official forms. At one point she was married bigamously. She said she was a 28-year-old spinster, when in fact she was around fifty, and onto her third husband. It’s so completely, completely mad. And those lies had a domino effect down the generations.

That might be a suitable end for us: a plangent warning to those exploring their own family history with a view, perhaps, to writing their own books.

Also: don’t ever think that you will have finished. That’s the other thing about family history, the open-ended aspect. You might even say the whole idea of family history is futile, because it’s organic, ever-growing. The story of the family can never be still, it’s always evolving, rewriting itself, long after the protagonists are dead.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

December 12, 2022

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Thea Lenarduzzi

Thea Lenarduzzi

Thea Lenarduzzi is a writer, editor and broadcaster, primarily for the Times Literary Supplement. Dandelions, winner of the 2020 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize, was published in the UK in September 2022 and will appear in the US in spring 2023.

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Thea Lenarduzzi

Thea Lenarduzzi

Thea Lenarduzzi is a writer, editor and broadcaster, primarily for the Times Literary Supplement. Dandelions, winner of the 2020 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize, was published in the UK in September 2022 and will appear in the US in spring 2023.