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Fausta Cialente: Natalia

This novel was first published in 1929, when Cialente was living in Alexandria, Egypt, with her husband, but was banned by the Fascists firstly because there is a strong suggestion of lesbianism in it and, secondly, because it is critical of war.

The story opens when Natalia Fandel, as a girl, arrives with her family (her mother, Nina, her father, an army colonel and her older brother, Jacopo) to live in a flat in an unnamed city. She is called Natalia because she was born on Christmas Eve (Natale is the Italian for Christmas.) She immediately meets and befriends another young girl living there, Silvia. They become friends, despite the fact that Donna Luisa, Silvia’s mother, is critical of them, criticising Nina, in particular, for dressing and using make-up like a young girl. However, it is with Ivan Perlmutter, son of the rabbi, that she finds some books in the attic. One of the books is about the French Revolution and inside it are some love letters. They are from a man writing from another country to a Luisa, exclaiming his love for her and asking after their daughter. From this Natalia and, more reluctantly, Ivan conclude that Luisa had had a love affair and that Silvia is not the daughter of Luisa’s late husband.

We then jump twenty years. Natalia’s father, promoted to a general, had been killed at the battle of Caporetto. Natalia is still living with Nina and Jacopo, who is working as a lawyer and doing historical research on Galla Placidia, among other topics. At the suggestion of a soldiers’ organisation, Natalia has been writing to a soldier, Malaspina, as part of a campaign to raise the morale of soldiers at the front. His service has come to an end and he wants to see her. She is most reluctant. Nina is planning on a trip back to the area where they lived but decides to send Natalia instead. While on the trip she can meet Malaspina who, we learn, is very keen on her, though he has yet to meet her. She goes to stay with Silvia and Luisa, now a very old woman. Silvia had been planning on getting engaged before the war but her intended went off to war and never returned, though he was not killed. Meanwhile, Natalia meets Malaspina who immediately proposes to her. She categorically rejects him. Natalia prolongs her stay with Silvia and there is a strong hint of a lesbian relationship between the two women.

Jacopo has also been having his affairs of the heart. Lorenzo, an old friend of his father, is married to Teodora, a much younger woman. Voldermaro, a fifty-year old would-be poet, who works for Lorenzo, is also in love with Teodora and tries, unsuccessfully, to woo Teodora, little knowing that she is in love with Jacopo. Jacopo, however, has his heart set on Silvia and he tricks Natalia back home, only to go to Silvia and propose to her. Natalia only finds out by chance and is devastated. She immediately writes to Malaspina to renew the relationship. The couple get married. However, Teodora divorces Lorenzo and Jacopo, rejected by Silvia, who marries a cousin, marries Teodora. When Natalia becomes pregnant, she is not happy. As Cialente says, she did not expect and did not want it. However, when the child dies, she is devastated and runs away.

Cialente tells the story of a woman who, as a girl, seems to have much to hope for but, somehow, things seem to slip away from her. She is compared with her brother, who manages a career, his interest in history and, when one love slips away, another one takes its place. Natalia’s only real love seems to be her love for Silvia and she loses to that because of her brother’s machinations. Malaspina – decent, devoted to family, almost noble, even if a bit off kilter because of a war wound to the head – is the only decent man in the story. Natalia’s father is mocked and fun but not a great man. Natalia may well be the only decent woman in the book, as Nina is mocked for her flightiness, Dona Luisa for her old-fashioned ways and Silvia criticised for her two changes of heart. In short, this is a family that has its fair share of faults but it is Cialente’s skill to tell their stories well. However, it is Natalia – the lively, spirited girl who becomes a woman lost – that is Cialente’s great achievement.

Publishing history

First published by Sapienza in 1930
No English translation