The fifteen short prose pieces in Betrayals delineate the story of a young English man living in northern Italy between Ivrea and Turin in the 1980s. The story is a follow-up and a rewriting of Italian Lessons (Like This Press, 2017) that has a different tone and is from a different perspective. Betrayals is a rethinking that meditates on the perception of relationships in a more personal way. The short prose pieces look like chapters that trace chronologically the Italian experience which is centred on the protagonist’s job as an English teacher in a high school and on his relationship with his Italian lover, Donatella.
The relationship starts as an occasional encounter in a discotheque in an atmosphere of déjà-vu that mimics movies’ romantic scenes:
Her eyes caught mine; she smiled with a strange mixture of shyness and cheekiness. She held out her glass to me. I wasn’t sure I could believe my eyes. […]
I took the glass from her hand, drank a sip, gave her the glass back. Was it my imagination or was she really leaning her face towards mine?
They meet regularly at weekends and spend their time in bed ‘making love, sleeping, making love again.’ For the protagonist, falling in love with Donatella is like falling in love with Italy, with its blue summer sky and its strong coffee. Both Donatella and the protagonist are searching for self-discovery. Donatella works as an accountant but hates her job; she has artistic talents and is well-read but abandoned her dreams as she was aware that she would never have the opportunity to fulfil them. Her father died when she was a little girl and she could not go to university as she has to support her mother and her brother with her wages. The protagonist seems to have a more available future. He completed his university studies before moving to Italy and is free to approach life in a more open way. The Italian adventure seems to give him the answers to his yearnings, though it will soon reveal the incomprehensible side of love. His inexperience exposes his naivete but also triggers a reflection that will lead him to acquire a maturity of sorts. He relies on Donatella’s support as she helps him find a job and a flat, and she also pays the deposit. However, their relationship unexpectedly deteriorates as soon as his life seems to settle. She is trapped in her family, which depends on her, and he is trapped in a job that he cannot quit because he needs to pay the rent and give back to Donatella the money that she paid for the deposit. Their love-making sessions become less frequent and are not as idyllic as before. What can he make of it? Love seemed smooth and clear at first, but it has suddenly become a tangle of misunderstandings; it is elusive and delusive for no apparent reason. Why isn’t life like a Hollywood movie in which everything is finally explained and all ends well? Why are the pains of love so excruciating and unfathomable? The circumstances betray the genuine emotions the protagonist feels, revealing their illusory essence. Therefore, the title of the book not only refers to his cheating on Donatella but more widely to a condition of feeling betrayed that he experiences.
When the protagonist occasionally has sex with women he encounters after the estrangement in his relationship with Donatella, he experiences a sense of displacement, a ‘dérèglement de tous les sens’, as Rimbaud would express it. However, the experience is not poetically dramatic, as it is in the French poet’s work. Instead, he wanders around without a direction, deciding not to choose what to do but to just let things happen to him, like in Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris, though again the exceptional side of the experience is understated and there is no intention to set an example, as there is in Baudelaire’s work. Life flows effortlessly and is unjustified:
This is the first of several betrayals of Donatella since officially we are still together. On my wanderings around the city, chance encounters sometimes happen, and these sometimes lead to sex. They are the only thing that keeps me going. They become my raison d’être. That, and starting to read Italian literature in Italian. Here, I sense, there is a world to keep exploring for a long time to come.
Eventually, Donatella realises he is cheating on her and a melodramatic scene follows in which she weeps and beats his chest with her fists at a bus stop, and he weeps too. The story sounds humorous, like in Commedia all’italiana, comedy in the Italian way. However, there is a pervading sense of a void, an atmosphere of being in limbo that is different from the hell evoked in Rimbaud’s and Baudelaire’s works and is nearer to Eugenio Montale’s collection of short prose pieces Farfalla di Dinard (The Butterfly of Dinard, 1956) in which the Italian poet expresses his disillusionment caused by misunderstandings in relationships and his visceral incapacity to grasp the reason for the different situations he encounters in life. In the end there is no answer and no meaning to our unforgivably misplaced beliefs and unabating faith in trying to make sense of our world and of our life. The protagonist survives the Italian experience, pays back the deposit money to Donatella and ‘cannot wait to go back to England’ with his wealth of unsettling experiences.
Carla Scarano D’Antonio 30th October 2022