I’ve always been a sucker for the epistolary novel—for letters in general, even of the most mundane sort. I had no idea, when I opened up Natalia Ginzburg’s The City and the House, that I would be treated to a tale told through correspondence, and it was a pleasure to let myself settle in to a world shared by friends and family, held together by their common link to a somewhat aimless emigrant, the never-quite-happy Giuseppe.
I almost wonder if it’s simply the form this book takes that made me love it so much; whether it was the feeling of being effortlessly pulled into another time, where there was no such thing as group chat, or cheap international (or long-distance) calling to keep everyone apprised of everything at every minute—when anticipation was simply a part of life, and the uncertainty that arose out of the rule of time just something that had to be accepted in ways we’d scoff at today.
But there’s more to it than that, of course; the book and its author were celebrated long before the advent of the wireless world and its dethroning of time’s limitations. Ginzburg manages to capture, I think, the concerns of this close-knit group, their everyday tasks and burdens and hopes, making them come to life while also giving the reader privileged access to the larger themes that connect them all, and which none of them, of course, sees as they live moment to moment. The ways in which we allow little mistakes or irritants to cascade into disaster, whether in terms of relationships or careers; our ignorance, willed or unintentional, about others’ feelings and understanding of ourselves; our tendency to be blind to our own motivations, the same triggers and tugs that are obvious to those who know us best.
And even as all this activity ebbs and flows and ejects some participants and absorbs others, there’s never a clean end or break; there’s never any true resolution to our interconnected lives, because time—apparently thwarted or not—cannot be kept from flowing. There never has been or will be any such thing as “closure,” for the simple reason that events and the interpretation thereof will continue to present additional faces, will continue to be seen and investigated by and live on in new and different people. When Ginzburg ends this book without any sort of finale or grand announcement, it simply feels true to life, and because of that, true in many ways to literature.
It’s a simple book, and a book now obviously from another era, even if another era not that long gone by. Read it for nostalgic purposes if you must—but don’t let such a motivation keep you from seeing the deep, difficult humanity that pulses its way through a present that believes it has nothing to learn from the past.