The Side Dishes, Part 1
J.S. DeYoung reviews Natalia Ginzburg’s The Dry Heart
(trans. Frances Frenaye)
More often than not, the dinner table centrepiece attracts the most attention, and clearly Family Lexicon (Lessico famigliare, 1963) is the centrepiece in Natalia Ginzburg’s oeuvre. It is her masterwork, so to speak. And like other masterworks by other famous authors (Pale Fire, perhaps; The Golden Notebook, certainly; Giovanni’s Room) it casts the proverbial long shadow over Ginzburg’s other titles. Dust is unlikely to settle upon it anytime soon. A deeply personal work (Natalia herself is a character), it ranks as a top-of-the-list example of neorealism, a school of writing Ginzburg gamely worked in, a school of writing she lauded as “a way of getting close to life, of getting inside life, inside reality”. Hence, although not a speck of the fantastical resides in Ginzburg’s work, imagination certainly does, and Family Lexicon gets very close to life through its motif of examining familial bonds by way of cockeyed forms of communication: uncommon phrases, neologisms, inside jokes, expressions known only to kinfolk, ways of speaking just with family or those we love despite their miscues and daft politics. Writing about Ginzburg without writing about Family Lexicon is difficult — it is chef-d’oeuvre, after all — but I’m going to try as I write about new reissues, by New Directions, of two of her earlier books.
Nearly thirty years separate these novels. Natalia Ginzburg first published The Dry Heart (È stato così) in 1947 and Happiness, as Such (Caro Michele) in 1973. The first showcases a relatively young talent, thirty-one years old, a writer who knows her craft and can manipulate a standard form into something riveting and revealing. The latter is by a master craftswoman with skills enough to disregard Aristotelian design for her own patterns and distinctive storytelling. Despite the distance between them, both novels are clearly marked by an old-world wisdom, as Ginzburg, in terse and deadpan prose, never lets her readers forget that human desires — desires you harbour yourself — can be demanding, cold, and foolish: piquing emotional aromatics which might take some readers aback.
Born in Palermo, Sicily, in 1916, Natalia Ginzburg (née Levi) spent most of her youth in Turin, Italy, and would consider herself Torinese her whole life. Her father was a medical researcher and well-regarded professor at the University of Turin. Despite her father’s Jewish heritage and her mother’s Catholic background, Natalia and her three brothers and one sister were raised secularly (Natalia would describe her parents as “old-style Socialists”) and their home was a centre of cultural life, with academics and political activists as regular guests.
In 1933, Natalia married Leone Ginzburg, an Italian editor, writer, journalist — and prominent anti-fascist. In the same year, Leone lost his citizenship and the Ginzburg family received confino, or internal exile, to the remote village of Abruzzi, along the Adriatic Sea. It is worth quoting the final words from Natalia’s essay ‘Winter in the Abruzzi’ because they give insight and inscribe texture over her life and works. After a long sequence of describing the hardships of the season, she writes:
There is a certain dull uniformity in human destiny. The course of our lives follows ancient and immutable laws, with ancient, changeless rhythm. Dreams never come true, and the instant they are shattered, we realize how the greatest joys of our life lie beyond the realm of reality. The instant they are shattered we are sick with longing for the days when they flamed within us. Our fate spends itself in this succession of hope and nostalgia.
This certain dullness, this changeless rhythm, this succession of hope appears throughout all of Natalia Ginzburg’s work. About this time in Abruzzi, she would go on to say, surprisingly, that it was “the best time of my life.” Perhaps she arrived at this judgment in hindsight because shortly afterward, in 1943, when she and her husband were allowed to return to Rome, Leone was arrested in the clandestine printshop of L’Italia Libera, an anti-fascist newspaper, and he would die alone in prison after suffering tortures that included crucifixion. Upon his death, Natalia was twenty-seven and the mother of three children. She had released just one short novella, under the pseudonym Alessandra Tornimparte, in 1942, at a time when Jews weren’t allowed to publish. This was the beginning of her writing career.
“I shot him between the eyes.”
Ginzburg said that she was in a state of “profound melancholy” while writing The Dry Heart (trans. Frances Frenaye). Doubtless, the book arrived during a difficult time for her. Her husband had been murdered four years prior to its publication. She was the sole caregiver to their children (she would later remarry in 1950) and her country was still recovering from the end of the Second World War. To make ends meet, she worked for Einaudi, a publisher in Turin that published some of the leading figures in post-war Italy, including Primo Levi, Italo Calvino, and Ginzburg’s good friend, Cesare Pavese, who encouraged her creative output.
While The Dry Heart isn’t autobiographical fiction, a white-hot rage roils under its concise prose and throughout its cool account of a dysfunctional, bloodless marriage. On its first page, its narrator shoots her husband, Alberto, between the eyes because of a sketch he makes of himself on a “long train with a big cloud of black smoke swirling over it and himself leaning out of the window to wave a handkerchief”. What follows Alberto’s murder is a novel of formal beauty. Casting the revolver aside, the narrator races to a nearby public park to consider her options. It is here that she begins to retell the history of their marriage, starting with their dreary courtship, revealing it as one full of mixed messages and unrequited affections.
When they first meet, in her retrospective account of their lives, she is twenty-six and he is “maybe” forty. She works as a teacher and lives in a boarding home. He is a sometimes lawyer, but because his family is rich, he mostly takes care of his housebound mother (who refuses to wear shoes) and gads about. The unnamed narrator and Alberto meet at Dr. Gaudenzi’s cocktail party, where Alberto makes a sketch of her, which he destroys before finishing. Dr. Gaudenzi whispers to the narrator: “He can never draw the women that really attract him”. Whether or not he is attracted to her is debatable. But after the party the two of them start to see each other regularly. Alberto assumes their relationship is platonic. She doesn’t; but she doesn’t necessarily think she loves him either. Instead, she sees him as a conduit to the rest of her life, a better life that still awaits her:
I imagined his asking me to marry him and the word he would say. I would answer no, and he would ask if we could still be friends. He would keep on taking me to the theatre and one evening he would introduce me to a friend, much younger than himself, who would fall in love with me, and this was the man I should marry. We should have a lot of children and Alberto would come to call. Every Christmas he would bring us a big fruitcake and there would be a touch of melancholy in his enjoyment of our happiness.
If his character is dry, hers is callow. No man has ever shown her attention, she says, and she mistakes their long walks along the river or on the outskirts of the city — “where lovers go” — as signs of affection, yet “not a single word of love” ever passes between them. She likes the attention, but when she tries to imagine making love to Alberto, she finds herself “disgusted” by the thought. Eventually, when she reveals that she is indeed in love with him, he reveals that he’s in love with another woman he can never be with, so Alberto and the narrator part ways for a while. When they begin to accompany each other again on those long walks, he asks her to marry him. She asks how he could live with her, given his feelings for someone else, and he replies, condescendingly, that if she “loved him very much and was very brave we might make out very well together”.
With the exception of the murder, what the novel shows is the narrator’s progression into full adulthood as an independent, clear-eyed woman. Yes, Alberto cheats on her continuously with Giovanna, his paramour with a behind “like a cauliflower” (Ginzburg can be very funny), but the narrator tries her best to see the marriage through, acknowledging her mistake in marrying Alberto and saying that she had to accept him for who he is – as unlikely as it sounds. After a rather brutal exchange in which he reveals that she “disgusts” him, the narrator goes into the lavatory where she undresses:
I looked in the mirror at my naked body, which now belonged to no man. I was free to do what I wanted. I could go for a trip with Francesca and the baby, for instance. I could make love with any man who happened to catch my fancy. I could read books and see new places and discover how other people lived. … If I made enough of an effort I could turn into quite a different woman. After I had gone to bed I lay for a long time staring into the darkness, and I felt the growth of a new cold-blooded resolution inside me.
A scene with a narrator meditating upon her (or his) naked frame might be cliché for modern readers, but both the prose and the clarity of thought still ring powerfully. By the time we get back around to the murder, the narrator’s motives become, if not convincing, then at least compelling, and the significance of her husband’s sketch is made transparent. Much like the naïve male narrative fantasy of killing a wife and family to escape a loveless marriage and undesirable responsibilities, The Dry Heart is premised on a young woman’s revenge fantasy: kill the philandering husband you devoted your youth to loving. But there also seems to be an unobstructed line-of-sight from this novel to the #MeToo movement, and other novels like Lina Wolff’s The Polyglot Lovers, and television shows like Shrill, and podcasts like The Guilty Feminist. If there is a time to reprint The Dry Heart, it’s now.
This is part one of a two-part essay on two recently reissued novels by Natalia Ginzburg.
The second part discusses Ginzburg’s Happiness, as Such.