The Letters of Others
TURIN, Italy—Something to consider: If you are important, when you die, or maybe even before, most of your papers will be gathered and separated and catalogued. Probably they will be placed with care in chronological order, with thick white pieces of paper separating them in a cream-colored cardboard box. The box may have a white string that fastens it shut and it may live in a place with other such boxes—like a crematorium for your thoughts.
And if you are not particularly important, but rather a 21-year-old college student writing a thesis, you may find yourself in this strange kind of library for the dead’s private thoughts. Someone will have to send a fax explaining who you are. As you are waiting, you may begin to feel simultaneously very small and conscious of every part of your body—in particular, its sudden awkwardness. This whole time, since you arrived in Italy five days earlier, but even before, when you were writing grant applications and talking to your thesis advisor, you have had a creeping suspicion, which has evolved into a definite knowledge: You are a fraud.
No one ever showed me how to handle old papers. There must have been a class I missed; maybe someone mentioned the correct method one of the half a dozen times I went on a class trip to Houghton, but clearly I wasn’t paying attention. So when an archivist handed me a big box of papers that belonged to a man named Leone Ginzburg, a literary scholar and anti-fascist activist who was beaten and killed by a group of fascists in Rome in 1944, I was terrified. But the archivist just suggested that I proceed into the big room with the other scholars (other scholars?) and begin examining the documents.
There’s something inherently strange about reading letters that are not addressed to you. In the past weeks, I have rifled through the personal and business correspondences of both Leone and Natalia Ginzburg, totaling about 1,800 letters. I read exchanges about the deaths of loved ones, politics, literature, and career dissatisfaction. I took note of anything that seemed relevant to my thesis so as to request a photocopy.
But a couple days in something strange happened. I lost the ability to tell exactly what was relevant to my research, which is about Natalia Ginzburg’s translation of Du côté de chez Swann. I started marking down folio numbers of letters between Italo Calvino and Ginzburg about a new novel by Marguerite Duras, a telegram that Natalia received from her boss with condolences for the death of her child, a note from her son Carlo on his first paid job. It all seemed important.
I could read this woman’s handwriting; I knew that she never dated her letters. Armed with a neat little box of 1,400 letters, I had consumed her life. But the more I knew, the less I felt confident that I could judge what was “important,” which documents I ought to have shipped to my home. When you write a thesis about someone’s life, you are in a sense taking ownership of a past that is not your own, but what qualifies you to judge what matters, especially, when what you’re getting is only pieces of the other person?
Now, I know why I felt guilty when I was waiting for the archivist to give me a box: I was embarking on a project that would require me to eavesdrop on someone else’s life. Did the archivists, my thesis advisor, and whatever committee doles out grant money know? Could they tell I wasn’t a scholar, but rather just a little girl listening at a keyhole?
Sofia E. Groopman ’12, a news executive editor, is a History and Literature concentrator in Currier House.