Fidelity by Marco Missiroli

The Italian writer Marco Missiroli knew he had struck a nerve with his new novel about marital infidelity when the messages started popping up on social media. “I put readers at a crossroads where they were forced to see the dark side of their marriage and many didn’t like it,” he says. “People said the novel wounded them. Others wrote, ‘How can you enter into my marriage like that and insinuate I am unfaithful?’ ”

A best-seller in Italy that is being filmed for Netflix, Fidelity is out in an international English-language edition next month, so American and British readers will get the chance to find out how red in the face it makes them — and Missiroli has little doubt it will. “I imagine someone reading it in England will say, ‘This would be me if I was Italian.’ ”

Italians wrote the rule book on adultery, from the married philanderer Gianni Agnelli, the boss of Fiat, to the actor Marcello Mastroianni, who remained wed while romancing Catherine Deneuve and Faye Dunaway.

The bed-hopping wasn’t stopped by the lockdown. Infidelity is on the rise in Italy according to the top divorce lawyer Annamaria Bernardini de Pace, with women now leading the charge. “They are so much better at hiding it,” she says.

So are Italians betraying their partners more than everyone else? More than the French, the Germans or the British? No, Missiroli says, it just gets talked about more in Italy because filmmakers and writers love portraying it. “In our artistic DNA there is something that makes Italians faithful to depicting life without filters, while there is a kind of veil over betrayal outside Italy,” he says.

Italians wrote the rule book on adultery, from the married philanderer Gianni Agnelli, the boss of Fiat, to the actor Marcello Mastroianni, who remained wed while romancing Catherine Deneuve and Faye Dunaway.

In Fidelity he draws back that veil from the lives of Carlo, a part-time university lecturer in Milan who makes a pass at a young female student in a ladies’ toilet, and his wife Margherita, an estate agent who is falling hard for her physiotherapist and his wandering fingers.

Neither views adultery as destroying their marriage, with Carlo reasoning, “What if betrayal was the way to return to being faithful to Margherita?,” while Margherita decides, “Guilt was a banal business.” After bedding her physiotherapist, she asks herself: “What did that take away from my marriage?”

Each is searching to complete the jigsaw of their identities rather than just have what the Italians call a scappatella, or youthful escapade, argues Missiroli, 40. The book was inspired by his father’s revelation that by staying faithful to his mother he had “given up a part of myself”.

“That’s how the question that dominates Fidelity came to me. If we are faithful to others, do we betray our true self? And if we choose to be faithful to ourselves — truly faithful — how far do we betray the people around us?” No wonder his faithful father had two heart attacks, he adds.

That is why he gave his book about infidelity the title Fidelity. “It’s an uncomfortable book because it goes fishing for those small truths that we have inside us,” Missiroli says. “Marriage can be constricting and prevent a sense of liberation. How can you find your individuality — the ‘I’ — when it is all about ‘we’?” he asks.

The book was inspired by Missiroli’s father’s revelation that by staying faithful to his mother he had “given up a part of myself.”

Asked if he is giving his full backing to betrayal, Missiroli is quick to say no, claiming that discovering a liberating passion outside your marriage need not necessarily mean taking your clothes off. “Your passion can be football, writing, politics — anything that helps you be faithful to your own world. There are things you need to share with your spouse, but there are also things you keep to yourself. If you can achieve that you can achieve universal fidelity,” he says.

Missiroli claims that his passion is sport, and admits that he is a devotee of the Irish cage fighter Conor McGregor. “I have secretly trashy tastes — a betrayal of the passion I share with my wife for books and art,” he says, laughing.

In Fidelity, which begins in Milan in 2009, Carlo and Margherita’s secret passions are decidedly more carnal and their interlocking deceits, fantasies, ambitions and disappointments are illustrated using a powerful metaphor: the streets, piazzas and underground lines in the city that they wander restlessly as they rationalize their need to stray from their marriage.

One address above all represents the challenges their marriage faces, No 8 Corso Concordia, the beautifully illuminated but pricey apartment that Margherita has set her sights on buying. By 2018 Carlo and Margherita are bringing up their young son there when someone starts sending Carlo novels anonymously through the post, dredging up buried tensions and unanswered questions from a decade earlier.

The parcels are linked to Carlo’s lingering obsession with a woman he desired back then, a woman who kept him at arm’s length and whom he cannot forget. The way Missiroli tells it, if Carlo had had an affair with her, his marriage would be on a more even keel ten years later. “If he had consummated his obsession, everything would have been fine,” he says.

Instead, he is still tormented, and Margherita is too since she has been wise to her husband’s obsession from the start. What inflames the crisis is social media, the virtual peephole that allows people to watch other people they should have forgotten about years ago.

“If he had consummated his obsession, everything would have been fine.”

“In Italy we say, ‘Occhio non vede, cuore non duole’ — ‘If the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve.’ Social media increases obsessions. I have Instagram; I check it all the time and I understand how dangerous it is for recalling old affairs, old rows,” Missiroli says.

His attachment to Instagram and his unapologetic passion for cage fighting make Missiroli very different from Italy’s stereotypical, corduroy-jacketed intellectual authors and he is proud of it.

The son of a railway worker who was born and brought up in the provincial seaside city of Rimini, he studied communications at Bologna University then headed to Milan, working as an advertising copywriter and at a psychology magazine before making it as a novelist. In Fidelity he uses his working-class, outsider’s perspective to convey the social mobility of 21st-century Milan and nail down the social mores of Carlo’s bourgeois Milanese family.

The ruminations of those characters are fueled by Missiroli’s keen observations of Milan’s tribes, but it is also clear how autobiographical Fidelity is. Like Carlo and Margherita, Missiroli and his wife have a young child. “The apartment at No 8 Corso Concordia in Milan is real, and my wife and I bought it,” he says.

His wife, who works in PR, was a big fan of the novel, he says. “She loved it, but was also disturbed by it. She said it perfectly summed up previous relationships she had which were characterized by betrayal.”

Which prompts the question, how many scappatelle have there been in their marriage? “My wife helped inspire this book. She was seeing a physiotherapist and always came home happy from the appointments before one day revealing she was slightly infatuated with him.”

Was her obsession consummated? “I don’t believe so.”

Tom Kington is a Rome-based journalist