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.

Triple Choice Tuesday

Triple Choice Tuesday: Armen

Triple-Choice-TuesdayWelcome to Triple Choice Tuesday, a regular series that has been on hiatus for about six weeks. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers and other bookish bods to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles and new bloggers.

Today’s guest is Armen, an Iranian-Armenian journalist, who lives in London and is a member of Riverside Readers, the book group I attend.

Armen doesn’t have a blog of his own, but he is staggeringly well read, with a special interest in world literature, history, politics and art.

Without further ado, here’s Armen’s Triple Choice Tuesday selections:


Invisible-cities A favourite book: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

“From now on, I’ll describe the cities to you,” the Khan had said, “in your journeys you will see if they exist.”

But the cities visited by Marco Polo were always different from those thought of by the emperor. This is a very unusual book. It is dialogues between Marco Polo and Kublai khan, the great khan of the Mongol Empire. There is no plot, no characters besides these two. It is very difficult to describe the book, but reading it was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had with a book. The great khan gets tired of stories sent by his messengers but Marco’s stories keep him interested. Marco tells him stories about cities no one has ever heard, the “invisible cities”.

City-and-house A book that changed my world: The City and the House by Natalia Ginzburg

This is the first book I read by Natalia Ginzburg, an Italian author whose books are mostly out of print in English. I’ve read most of her works and it’s such a pleasure when I read her. (I often search her name to see if there’s anything new in English, a book maybe? A play, or even an old interview!) I read this book when I was very influenced by anything Italian, cinema, literature, music and even ice creams! This is one of her last books, written in letter form.

Giuseppe, a middle-aged, depressed journalist, leaves Rome after 20 years and moves to the United States to live with his brother, a move he seems to regret. He writes letters to his cousin, ex-lover and a group of friends. These letters are about failed marriages, unhappy love affairs, frustrated family relationships. There is no hero in this book. The characters are very much like people we meet everyday at home or on the street, with usual highs and lows. The people in this book want to belong to somewhere, but are not sure where.

Death-and-the-Penguin A book that deserves a wider audience: Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

This is an eastern black comedy by a Ukrainian author! The main character is Viktor, a writer, but economic hardship in the early years of post-Soviet Union makes him write obituaries for a newspaper. He writes these obituaries in advance, meaning he’s writing them for Mafia, although he doesn’t know this in the beginning. He shares his life with a penguin, called Misha. Misha is an important figure in the book. This penguin brought lots of smile to my face!

Thanks, Armen, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!

I’ve already got The City and the House in my TBR, after Armen mentioned it at our very first book group back in the summer of 2009. And I’ve promptly added Death and the Penguin to my wishlist as it sounds sort of surreal — and very funny.

What do you think of Armen’s choices? Have you read any of these books?