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

Reissues of novels by Natalia Ginzburg and Emeric Pressburger show off their skills at characterisation and narrative drive

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”.

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.

Pushing the boundaries: Emeric Pressburger.
Pushing the boundaries: Emeric Pressburger. Photograph: ullstein bild/Getty Images

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


John Self

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Where You Come From by Saša Stanišić review – memory in the wake of war
Past and present are in a constant state of flux in the Bosnian-German writer’s third novel – part autofiction, part Choose Your Own Adventure

Stuart Evers

09, Nov, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza – review
This outstanding debut novel about a tour guide in Buenos Aires already seems like an important work

Johanna Thomas-Corr

28, Jan, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor review – intense and inventive
A remarkable murder mystery set in horror and squalor

Anthony Cummins

25, Feb, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Minor Detail by Adania Shibli review – between-the-lines horror
An atrocity by Israeli troops begins a sophisticated, oblique novel about empathy and the urge to right wrongs

Anthony Cummins

02, Jun, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Savages: The Wedding by Sabri Louatah review – sharp French political thriller
Tension mounts as the French prepare to elect their first Arab president…

Andrew Hussey

30, Jan, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Greek Lessons by Han Kang review – loss forges an intimate connection
An elegant translation of the South Korean writer’s 2011 novel explores how a teacher losing his sight and a pupil losing her voice form a poetic bond

Em Strang

11, Apr, 2023 @6:00 AM

Article image
Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman review – one of the great novels of the 20th century
Grossman’s 1952 novel is a masterly requiem for the Soviets who died in the battle with Hitler’s Germany

Luke Harding

03, Jun, 2019 @6:01 AM

Article image
Among the Lost by Emiliano Monge review – a rich and shocking tale of human traffickers
The Mexican author’s atmospheric novel is alive with Shakespearean echoes and grim humour

Eileen Battersby

25, Nov, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann review – a singular woman adrift
A new translation of the Austrian writer’s only novel reminds us of her profound and unusual talent

Nicci Gerrard

09, Jul, 2019 @5:59 AM

Article image
Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami review – strange and ruthlessly honest
A sensation in Japan, this two-part novel explores womanhood, bodily disgust and motherhood with a surreal intensity of focus

Holly Williams

05, Oct, 2020 @6:30 AM