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Alba de Céspedes: Il rimorso (Remorse)

This is one of de Céspedes’ longer novels but the subject is still familiar – the unhappiness of marriage. Francesca is married to Guglielmo Antaldi. During the war she had had a long affair with Gianluca. They had, by her admission, not been affected much by the war, making love as they watched the Allied bombers flying overhead. But then she had met Guglielmo, a Resistance hero, and older than her, and she had suddenly dropped Gianluca and married Guglielmo. He had gone on to have a successful career as a newspaper editor and Member of Parliament. But after their son Lionello died, the love dropped out of their marriage. They no longer sleep together and have separate lives, though she does act the dutiful wife of the successful man. Before the start of the novel, she has been on holiday on her own to Isola Rossa. There she met a man, Matteo, who had recently ended a difficult affair and, apart from casual encounters, vows never to have another relationship. They immediately start an affair which continues when both return to their respective homes in Rome. She promises Matteo that she will leave Guglielmo but cannot bring herself to do so, as she does not want to cause a scandal, given Guglielmo’s position and the fact that he is a keen Catholic. At the start of the novel, she is writing to Isabella, her old school friend with whom she had fallen out five years ago, to ask her advice.

Isabella, a happily married woman and mother of two sons, naturally, strongly advises Francesca to drop Matteo at once. Francesca, however, is determined to move ahead with the affair. Most of what we learn about the relationship is in her letters to Isabella, though there are one or two letters from Matteo and Isabella will eventually write to Guglielmo, not to tell him about the affair but to express her concern for Francesca’s state of mind, not least because Francesca hints at suicide. Francesca plans on several occasions to leave Guglielmo and go to live with Matteo. On more than one occasion she actually goes and stays at his house but returns the next day. She just cannot bring herself to break off with Guglielmo, feeling that it will harm his position. De Céspedes describes these events in some detail, both with Francesca’s description of them and Isabella’s reaction to them. Matteo himself becomes tired of these on-again-off-again decisions.

However, there is another story going on at the same time, that of Gerardo Viani. We see his story through his diary so only get his perspective. He is the special correspondent for Guglielmo’s paper, which involves a lot of travel. He wants to give up the position in order to write his novel. (We get excerpts from the novel, which is entirely autobiographical.) Various discussions take place throughout the novel as to what he should do – take sick leave for a few months, take a more subordinate (but lesser paid) post on the paper, work for another paper or leave the paper entirely. We also follow his rather messy love life. He seems to have several girlfriends and often has strong feelings for his former girlfriends. One of his girlfriends is the daughter of a rich industrialist and his friends assume he will marry her (and thereby solve his financial problems).

The decision that both Francesca and Gerardo will make, as well as the reactions of the other characters, is slowly and superbly brought out by de Céspedes and she cleverly gives us a very unexpected solution to all the problems, even if the ending is not entirely happy for any party. But, once again, it is a superb book by de Céspedes and it is only sad that it is out of print in both Italian and English.

Publishing history

First published 1963 by Mondadori
First published in English 1967 by Doubleday