All Our Yesterdays; The Glass Pearls review – masterly wartime storytelling from Ginzburg and Pressburger

·4 min read

The great memoirist and story writer Tobias Wolff once complained about the “essentially anonymous” gestures used in fiction and drama to delineate characters: “the mixing of drinks, the crossing of rooms, the lighting of cigarettes”. The problem, he said, was that these details “don’t tell us that much. What you want is a gesture that tells you something particular.”

Natalia Ginzburg seems to me to be a master of the gesture that tells you something particular. In her 1952 novel All Our Yesterdays, the latest welcome reissue of her work by Daunt Books, there are many, many characters, but each is drawn with beautiful particularity. The father of one of the two central families is writing his memoirs, titled Nothing But the Truth, which “contained fiery attacks on the fascists and the king. The old man used to laugh and rub his hands together at the thought that the king and Mussolini knew nothing about it, while in a small town in Italy there was a man writing fiery remarks about them.” Everyone gets this loving treatment: even a local dog is “curly haired and stupid”.

Sally Rooney, in her introduction, says she hopes readers new to Ginzburg will fall in love with her

The setting is 1930s northern Italy, where the central character, 16-year-old Anna, navigates life and love via her family and the family in the house opposite. The texture of the story is of domestic life – friendships rising and falling; a pregnancy; a marriage of convenience – but all the while the war is beginning to darken the blue skies.

Ginzburg’s brilliance is to render the war as background, a secondary topic of conversation, hinted at through Anna’s limited knowledge. Yet it is unignorable – her sister’s boyfriend, Danilo, is jailed for spreading seditious literature – even when the effect is comic, such as villagers refusing to take fascists seriously because they know one of them as the local chemist’s son. “He would do better to come back behind the counter and weigh things on his little pair of scales again.”

Sally Rooney, in her introduction to this edition, says she hopes readers new to Ginzburg will fall in love with her through All Our Yesterdays, but for me this is not the book for Ginzburg newcomers. The manner of telling – long paragraphs, run-on sentences and little direct speech – and the way the story flits from character to character, viewpoints overlapping like tiles on a roof, makes for a dense reading experience, though a rewarding one. A better place to start is with her essays The Little Virtues or the memoir Family Lexicon.

Emeric Pressburger’s 1966 novel The Glass Pearls, now reissued, is a very different type of war-themed fiction. Pressburger is best known as the screenwriting half of one of the last century’s great film-making duos: along with Michael Powell he produced masterpiece after masterpiece in the 1940s, from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp to The Red Shoes.

The Glass Pearls, his second novel, is less innovative structurally than his screen work: it’s a fairly straight suspense story. Where the novelty comes in – and reputedly contributed to the book’s failure when first published – is that the central character, to whose hopes the reader must lash themselves for the narrative to work, is a war criminal on the run.

It’s 1965 and Karl Braun – formerly Dr Otto Reitmüller – is living low in London, eking out a living as a piano tuner. His position in rented lodgings gives the book the air of a classic boarding-house novel, where lives are tumbled together: in Braun’s case, he meets other German émigrés, who assume he fled Hitler as they (and indeed Pressburger himself) did. In fact, Braun was a Nazi doctor, experimenting enthusiastically on concentration camp prisoners. (“Another bit of their brain was snipped off.”)

If Braun seems to have no regret about the horrors he enacted, he is at least traumatised by the deaths of his wife and child, who were killed in Operation Gomorrah, the allied bombing of Hamburg in July 1943. His mental equilibrium begins to be overturned: he finds he is the No 1 target for the German authorities, becomes more and more paranoid about informers, distrusts his lover and finally decides to flee to the safety of Argentina.

Pressburger doesn’t make us want Braun to succeed exactly, but he expertly ramps up the tension so we simply must find out which deserved outcome lies ahead, as Braun gets closer to escaping Europe and justice and simultaneously learns more about how close they are to catching him. This is a welcome republication from Faber Editions, a series better known for modernist titles and underrepresented voices. As a masterclass in pure storytelling delight, The Glass Pearls might be its most radical reissue yet.

  • All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg is published by Daunt Books (£10.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

  • The Glass Pearls by Emeric Pressburger is published by Faber (£8.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply