#RivetingReviews: West Camel reviews THE DRY HEART by Natalia Ginzburg

Ginzburg’s simplicity often sets her readers a puzzle. Her books are written with such clarity, such apparent directness, it’s sometimes a challenge – although a rather enjoyable one – to move past the simple facts of her stories. In The Dry Heart the unnamed narrator shoots her husband – who has been unfaithful to her throughout their short marriage – after their child has died in infancy. 

We learn the entire story of their relationship – how they met at a mutual friend’s; their large age difference; the opinions on their marriage of the small cast of characters around them; the constant presence in their lives of the mysterious Giovanna; and the many times Alberto, in our narrator’s words, ‘goes away’ to be with her. And we hear the details of their child’s short and difficult life, and traumatic death. Ginzburg relates all this with perfect poise – not an excess word, yet every emotion skewered. 

‘…he never set any definite month or day for our wedding. Finally I told him that we must go together to Maona and he must speak to my father about it. He didn’t seem very enthusiastic, but he came. I wrote to my mother to take the garbage pail out of the kitchen and cook a good dinner for Saturday night because I was bringing someone with me.’

And this could be the end of my review: The Dry Heart is a beautifully crafted, perfectly managed novella about how a failed relationship ends in tragedy. But this is not enough for Ginzburg – or me. She elevates this straightforward story into an exploration of human imagination and its destructive effects on our lives. 

Before her marriage, the narrator spends her time imagining her future husband, ‘the man with the broad shoulders and ironical manner’. However, she marries Alberto, not because he matches this ideal, and not because he pursues her particularly vigorously – but because imagining what he is doing when they’re apart has become insufferable. When married ‘we would always be together and even when he was out I would know where he was’. 

The narrator’s imagination pollutes her life. She tortures herself by building an image of Giovanna; her imagination still persecutes her when Alberto is away; and her parenting is fretful and panicky: she is anxious about the child’s weight and sleep, and in constant fear of her becoming ill. 

At the beginning of the book, she describes the lot of the young, single woman: ‘with worn gloves and very little spending money’: 

‘she may … find herself defenceless before all the errors and pitfalls which imagination has devised to deceive her’. 

Yet in our narrator’s case her imaginings aren’t deceptive: all her fears come true. Alberto is having an affair. Giovanna is more beautiful than her, and her child becomes ill with the fever she’s so long feared, and dies. 

In the face of these manifested truths, the murder of Alberto seems somehow inevitable. The narrator has long known about the pistol he keeps in his study drawer – it has been ‘a comfort’ to her. So when she shoots him ‘between the eyes’, she is also taking control of her imagination. By enacting its scenarios, she steps outside of imagination’s trap, in which: 

‘…all of us are always trying to imagine what someone else is doing, eating our hearts out trying to find the truth and moving about in our own private worlds like a blind man who gropes for the walls and the various objects in a room’.  

Reviewed by West Camel

The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg

Translated by Frances Frenaye

Published by Daunt Books (2021)

July 2021 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.

West Camel is a writer, reviewer and editor. He edited Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2015, and is currently working for new press Orenda Books. His debut novel, Attend, is out now.

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Category: ReviewsJuly 2021


One comment

  1. This translation by Frances Frenaye was first published 72 years ago, in 1949. Her translation of “The Road to the City” was published in the same year. It would be interesting to know how well they have aged.

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