Author, Book review, Books in translation, Daunt Books, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Natalia Ginzburg, Publisher, Setting

‘The Dry Heart’ by Natalia Ginzburg (translated by Frances Frenaye)

Fiction – paperback; Daunt Books; 120 pages; 2021. Translated from the Italian by Frances Frenaye.

The Italians, I’ve discovered, do a nice line in misery. I read a handful of Italian books last year and not a single one was cheery. This novella by Natalia Ginzburg, first published in 1947, exemplifies that.

Portrait of a marriage

The Dry Heart is a portrait of a marriage that goes terribly wrong. In fact, it could be argued that the marriage was never right in the first place, as their relationship is so one-sided: the wife is more devoted to her husband than he is to her. On the opening page, she shoots him dead. They had only been married for four years.

He had asked me to give him something hot in a thermos bottle to take with him on his trip. I went into the kitchen, made some tea, put milk and sugar in it, screwed the top on tight, and went back into his study. […] and I took the revolver out of his desk drawer and shot him between the eyes. But for a long time already I had known that sooner or later I should do something of the sort.

She calmly leaves the house, visits a local cafe to drink a coffee, and then walks haphazardly around the city in the rain reflecting on their relationship. The narrative spools back to explain the early days of their courtship, their eventual wedding and the child they had together. It is not a particularly happy story.

Misplaced romance

The pair met when the woman was living in a boarding house. Alberto was a much older man and she was intrigued by him. They went on long walks together and developed a friendship. But whether out of loneliness or misplaced romanticism, the woman decided she wanted to fall in love with him, almost as if it was a switch you turned on, and they agreed to get married.

But from the outset, it’s doomed to failure. Alberto is a secretive man, who often disappears on so-called work trips using his colleague Augusto as an alibi, but our narrator knows he’s having an affair. The telltale sign is the book of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke that he packs in his luggage whenever he goes away. She knows he is reading those poems to his lover.

The sad thing is that when she first confronts him with the knowledge that he’s lying, he refuses to engage — and then makes a startling admission but won’t elaborate.

“I’m sleepy and tired,” he said. “I don’t feel like talking.”
“Augusto was here all the time,” I said. “I saw him on the street. Who were you with?”
“Alone,” he answered. “I was alone.” We got into bed and I put out the light. Suddenly Alberto’s voice rose up out of the darkness.
“It was anything but a pleasant trip,” he said. “I’d have done better to stay at home.” He edged up to me and held me tight. “Don’t ask any questions,” he added. “I feel worn out and terribly sad. Just be silent and very, very still.”
“Is she as bad as all that?” I asked.
“She’s unfortunate,” he said, running his hands over my body. “She can’t help being unkind.”

Melancholic tale

This novella, written in cold, clipped prose, drips with melancholia and an aching sense of thwarted love and potential. But there’s a sense of mystery, too, which makes it such an intriguing read.

Yes, we can see how Alberto’s absences, his gaslighting and his lies, could contribute to a wife wishing to kill him, but there’s so much more here that remains unsaid. Our narrator never expresses hate for her husband. She always gives him the benefit of the doubt. Her desire to be with him is stronger than her desire to leave him (the pair talk about breaking up but that’s all it is — talk). So what is it that finally pushed her over the edge?

The Dry Heart is described as a “feminist classic”. The blurb on my edition describes it best though when it says it is a “psychologically rich novel that forensically examines how an unhappy marriage comes to end in murder”.

Natalia Ginzburg (1916-1991) was born in Palermo, Sicily and wrote dozens of books, many of which have been reissued by  Daunt Books Publishing, an independent publisher based in London, in handsome livery. If this book is indicative of her style, I’m keen to explore more of her work…

I read this book as part of Reading Independent Publishers Month 3 #ReadIndies, hosted by Lizzy and Kaggsy. This event, which runs throughout February, is designed to showcase the books published by independent publishers across the world. Daunt Books Publishing was set up in 2010 and grew out of Daunt Books, an independent chain of bookshops in London and the South-East of the UK. You can find out more about them here.

16 thoughts on “‘The Dry Heart’ by Natalia Ginzburg (translated by Frances Frenaye)”

        1. Thanks for the link: I will listen. I agree: too many books **are** published. And those that do get published have such a tiny window for promotion that if they don’t “succeed” they don’t get any further marketing push and go out of print. It’s just so wasteful. And so unfair to so many writers who deserve better.

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          1. That’s the thing isn’t it? Too many books are being judged on marketing alone, and the market is flooded which means that they are mostly doomed before they hit the bookshops.

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  1. Shooting your husband is an interesting definition of feminism. I think the blurb writer was in a hurry to find something to say. Not that I am ever a fan of blurbs. The book sounds really interesting, though I may wait until you read your second before I decide whether to chase Ginzburg up.

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    1. LOL. Well, that was from a review that was quoted on the book! Lots of my UK friends hold Ginzburg in high regard but this is the first time I’ve read anything by her… borrowed this one from good ol’ Freo library and think I may well be the first person to borrow it!

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  2. I have read variety reviews of Natalia Ginzburg over the last few years from other bloggers, I shall definitely have to read her sometime. This sounds really compelling.

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