It was like that

The Dry Heart
By Natalia Ginzburg
88 pp. New Directions. $13.

For the first two or three months, I didn’t mind being locked down at all. In fact, to tell you the truth, I actually enjoyed it. There has always been a part of me — and I’m sure I can’t be the only one — that has wanted to hit “pause” on life, to stop time from moving in order to read more, relax more, stop moving more, and in some ways the coronavirus pandemic has allowed me to do that. I’ve certainly read more in the past three months than I’ve read over any three-month period, and I haven’t even left my house other than to go on the occasional run through the neighborhood. I’m quite fortunate that I work online, as my life hasn’t been affected in the way that the lives of so many have.

But I’m now at that point where, while a temporary break from social obligations was initially much welcomed, I’ve started to somewhat miss interacting with people. Nice people, mind you, not the type who don’t even bother to wave when they walk past where I’m sitting on the patio or whatever. I mean, how hard is it just to wave? It’s not like your odds of contracting something go up by making such a casual gesture, is it?

So when I received in my inbox last week a newsletter from one of the bookshops I visited at some point last year — in this case, the wonderful Rebel Heart Books in Jacksonville, Oregon — I perused it, as I do, and found that their “Book Lights Book Club” was meeting virtually this week to discuss the Natalia Ginzburg novella, “The Dry Heart.”

Now, I’ve got a kind of love/hate thing with book clubs. I love discussing books with people, but I definitely don’t enjoy having to read whatever the club tells me I have to read, at least not when I have 100+ books on my shelf that I haven’t yet read but am dying to get to.

But, as it happens, “The Dry Heart” was both one of the books I had on my shelf that I hadn’t yet read and was dying to get to AND the selected book for this week’s virtual book club. So why not take part?

I’m glad I did. It was nice to speak with people, especially about books, even though Zoom and every other video calling service is a poor replacement for actual face-to-face interaction, but it’s not like we can do much of the latter these days.

Marcella, one of the people in the virtual book club, brought up the fact that “The Dry Heart” reads very much like a police report, and that’s certainly true. It’s not giving anything away by telling you that the book is about a woman who kills her husband, because we find that out on the very first page.

Titles, and naming generally, fascinate me. I love a good title. But more specifically to this novel, which is translated from the original Italian, I’m incredibly curious as to who decides that the title of a foreign work ought to be changed. The publisher, probably, but why? If it’s a play on an expression in that language, or some sort of internal reference point, then I get it. But most of the times this doesn’t seem to be the reason.

I remember reading that the Swedish title of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is actually translated as “Men Who Hate Women.” Now, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is a significant title in its own right, and has spawned an entire genre of (mostly intensely shitty) novels with “girl” in the title (think “Gone Girl,” “The Girl on the Train,” “The Girl With All the Gifts,” etc etc etc) but let’s not kid ourselves — “Men Who Hate Women” is an INFINITELY better title, for reasons I don’t think I have to go into.

The Italian title of “The Dry Heart” is also, I think, a much better title. “È stato cosi” or, in English, “It was like that.” That lends some credence to Marcella’s point that the events of “The Dry Heart” are laid out like a police report, and thus give us a different perspective on them.

Italy, for the somewhat fantastical image that foreigners have of it — cultivated largely by Fellini, ancient monuments, and Italian food — produces some of the world’s best cold-blooded literature. I’m thinking of the novels of Alberto Moravia, whose “Contempt” feels like a kind of companion piece to “The Dry Heart” and Elena Ferrante, whose “Neapolitan Quartet” owes a great debt to Ginzburg.

Our protagonista repeatedly expresses disdain for “the country,” being from a rural village herself, and her greatest fear, it would seem, is to be labeled “a simple country girl.”

Our protagonista is intensely self-loathing, and her strong desire to marry comes not from love, but to “know at every hour of the day where he was and what he was doing.” She expresses similar sentiments on multiple occasions, so that it becomes clear that what she wants most of all is to drown out her mundane existence by attaching herself to someone she views to be interesting.

This novella runs to just 88-pages. It’s an easy read, but it’s also a cold one, as lacking in emotion as the corpse of the woman’s dead husband.

It is, though, worth pausing time for.

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