In the 1963 novel Lessico Famigliare (known in English-speaking countries as What we Used to Say or Family Sayings, but more readily translatable as Family Talk) Natalia Ginzburg uses her apparently detached and ironically humorous family memoir as a device to highlight the ritualistic importance of words and constructed behavior as driving forces behind familiar unity. By the end of Ginzburg’s dry and discreet autobiography, now unanimously considered a masterpiece of post-war Italian literature, the reader is completely immersed in her family’s recurring jokes, ritual exclamations and ordinary nonsense, a repertoire of assorted little obsessions that stands out as an independent “character” in the novel.

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