Natalia Ginzburg’s novella The Dry Heart famously springs forth from an unnamed narrator’s matter-of-fact statement, “I shot him between the eyes.” But even before we get her pronouncement, our narrator asks this man, her husband Alberto, to, “Tell me the truth,” and he responds, “What truth?” In this brief exchange—in the moment just before such an extreme act of violence—Ginzburg presents the core theme of her story: what truth can be found in this narrator’s life? Can it be found in her marriage? Her motherhood? Her role as a daughter or friend? The simple answer embedded within this shocking, tension-filled portrait of marriage is that truth does not exist for our narrator. It has been, by turns, misinterpreted, morphed, stolen or replaced—an alchemical transmutation, collapsing deceptive imagination and a husband’s fatal weakness of character into an eerily exacting portrait. Our narrator observes, “It’s very difficult…to know what we’re really like inside,” and we see, in Ginzburg’s incisive, direct prose, how an ill-defined life has pernicious and tragic consequences.
Our narrator, a woman in her late twenties, lives a dull life. She dutifully visits her family every weekend and returns to her boardinghouse to read novels in her spare time. When she begins seeing Alberto, an older man who cares for his elderly mother, a new, entirely imagined world opens for her. Ginzburg writes:
When a girl is very much alone and leads a tiresome and monotonous existence, with worn gloves and very little spending money, she may let her imagination run wild and find herself defenseless before all the errors and pitfalls which imagination has devised to deceive her.
-excerpt from The Dry Heart
She and Alberto have no real love for each other, but the anticipation of their meetings—the visions for the future she constructs from the possibilities associated with their pairing—lead to an imagined love, which happens to be as powerful and all-encompassing as the real thing. Of their dates, she says, “We went for long walks along the river or in the outskirts of the city, where lovers go, and yet we exchanged none of the words or gestures of love.” Such is the only excitement she can find, perhaps, within the strictures of Italian society in the 1940s.
Her thoughts are entirely preoccupied with Alberto. Her work as a schoolteacher no longer interests her, and she sits and waits for him to visit or call. Eventually, they marry because, it seems, they have nothing else to do with their attachment, and a child is born. The narrator is uncertain about her relationship with Alberto, the love she breathed into being disappeared with the birth of her child. Although she knows about Alberto’s long, torturous affair with a woman called Giovanna, she carries on with the care of their child by herself while he leaves for extended periods of time.
She obsesses over the child, placing all of her care and affection into the rearing of her daughter’s sickly form. When her cousin Francesca comes to stay, the younger woman’s disregard for social convention reveals to the narrator a different sort of life, jaded as she is trying to understand her own motivations and those of the people around her.
In just under 90 pages, Ginzburg offers up a clean sliver of the human heart, revealing all its frustrations and limitations; its foolish desires keeping us pinioned within worlds we can’t remove ourselves from even if we wanted to. In the end, our narrator’s final act takes on a frightening logic. Why wouldn’t we attempt to break the cycle and free ourselves from these hellish turnings of the mind? Only a writer of Ginzburg’s caliber could turn this simple sketch of life into a trenchant examination of despair.