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Emilio Brentani is a man of thirty-five, a clerk in an insurance office, who lives in a drab apartment with his sister Amalia; he has literary pretensions and has published a novel which has had at least local success. He has fallen in love with a lower-class girl, Angiolina Zarri, who is remarkable for her blonde beauty and vibrant good health; she seems inclined to accept his attentions, though he is frank about his inability, or unwillingness, to marry. He begins to go for walks with her, during which she is affectionate enough, but already there are hints of trouble. From Sorniani, an older man with a bad reputation, Emilio hears that Angiolina was once engaged to a businessman named Merighi; the engagement was broken off, possibly because of Merighi’s business losses, possibly because Angiolina was detected in an intrigue. Emilio’s friend the sculptor Stefano Balli believes that there is danger in the affair.

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Emilio visits Angiolina at her home and is well received by her mother, who seems a ruined version of Angiolina. The house is thoroughly shabby, except for Angiolina’s bedroom, which is comfortably furnished but displays some photographs which Emilio recognizes as the portraits of some rather fast men about Trieste. He presses Angiolina for complete possession, and she would be willing if there were a third party on whom any results could be blamed.

Shortly thereafter, Angiolina announces her engagement to a tailor named Volpini, a man neither young nor handsome, though jolly and likable. She met him at the Deluigis’, friends for whom she sometimes works. Though still trying to believe in Angiolina’s respectability, Emilio realizes that he cannot “enjoy without suffering,” cannot use Angiolina as a plaything without becoming emotionally involved. Balli refuses to give him any more advice but proposes that they should dine with him and his mistress, Margherita, a girl by no means as attractive as Angiolina, but meek and submissive. Balli treats both women rather coarsely, with the intention of discrediting Angiolina in Emilio’s eyes, but Angiolina shows no resentment and Emilio is merely irritated with Balli.

Balli is in the habit of calling at the Brentanis’, and this becomes the chief event in Amalia’s gray life; she does not even resent her brother’s affair, since it brings her in touch with romance. Balli has discovered that Margherita is unfaithful and in fact may be prostituting herself to support her family. Meanwhile, Volpini writes that he is unable to marry immediately but that if Angiolina will give him immediate enjoyment he will guarantee his good faith by a contract. Emilio still deludes himself about Angiolina and thinks of reeducating her.

It is now January, the time of the carnival, with all its tawdry gaiety, but also a time of wretched weather. Balli sees Angiolina in the company of a girl named Giulia and an umbrella maker, a man even less prepossessing than Volpini. Emilio confronts Angiolina and goes away, but his chief thought is that he could give her up more easily if he had once possessed her. Meanwhile, all is not well with Amalia, who has been talking in her sleep. Emilio discourages Balli’s visits, saying, falsely, that a relative suspects an engagement. Then, when Amalia seems discouraged, he persuades Balli to return, but his coldness does more harm than good. A visit to the opera merely confirms Amalia’s forlorn state.

Emilio begins a new novel, based on the reality of his...

(The entire section contains 897 words.)

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