Monday, August 12, 2019

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

“THE BETROTHED” by Alessandro Manzoni (“I PROMESSI SPOSI” first published 1827; final revised version 1840. The final revised version is the basis for Archibald Colquhoun’s 1951 translation)

Do you know or understand the power of an unread book? It can weigh on your mind like a guilty conscience.

My shelves groan with books that “one day, when I get the time,” I intend to read. Some of them are quite obscure books – in no way “classics” – that for years I have been meaning to read out of sheer curiosity. But a considerable proportion are indeed “classics”, and I will not embarrass myself publicly by noting all those illustrious and well-known books that I have not yet read.

One problem with an unread “classic” is that you get to know, or think you know, things about it without having read it, because “classics” make their way into conversations, or are mentioned in passing by historians, critics and other novelists. So, without having yet read Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi) here are the things I “knew” about it before reading it: That it was considered the great Italian novel, regarded by Italians as Don Quixote is regarded by Spaniards or War and Peace by Russians.  That it was the book which, before Italy was unified and when the peninisular contained many discrete dialects, established the Tuscan dialect as the standard form of the Italian language. That, although Manzoni was a retiring man and eventually a devout Catholic, he was regarded as a hero by the revolutionary nationalists who achieved the Risorgimento; and that, consequently, Verdi wrote an eloquent Requiem for him when he died. Also that, apparently, Italian schoolchildren are still made to read I Promessi Sposi and it has often been turned into Italian movies that have had no impact on the rest of the world. In other words, I knew the things that can easily be found in a history book.

As for the novel’s substance, I had heard here and there comments that it concerned a pair of lovers who wanted to marry but who were thwarted by circumstance, that it involved a great plague, and (to the more critical people who mentioned it) that it was very sentimental.

There now. That is what I already carried in my head before I recently sat down and, over a week-and-a-half, read my way through the nearly 600 closely-printed pages of Archibald Colquhoun’s 1951 translation of I Promessi Sposi.

Here is what I found.

Writing in the early 19th century, Manzoni sets his historical novel in and around Milan in the early 17th century - the late 1620s, when the Thirty Years War was in progress.

The humble young silk-weaver Renzo (Lorenzo) Tramaglino and Lucia Modella wish to marry and have arranged a date for their wedding. But the pusillanimous local parish priest Don Abbondio will not marry them as he is threatened by the “bravos” (i.e. hired thugs) of the local squire Don Rodrigo, who wishes to seduce Lucia himself. At first the devoted lovers attempt to trick the priest into marrying them, but when this doesn’t work, they are helped to flee from their village by the saintly friar Fra Cristoforo. They become separated. Lucia and her mother Agnese are deposited in a convent in Monza. Renzo goes on to Milan, hoping to find refuge in a Capuchin monastery. But he finds Milan (at this stage still ruled by the Spanish) beginning to suffer from famine, with riots over the price of bread. In a moment of drunken indiscretion, the naïve young Renzo spouts a speech about the injustice of the ruling classes and the oppression of the poor. He is therefore marked as a dangerous revolutionary by the authorities. He has to flee to territory beyond the control of Milan, where his generous cousin Bortolo finds him work as a weaver.

So the betrothed lovers are separated, and this sets the pattern for all their following experiences in the novel. He has to hide from the power of the Milanese state and cannot easily re-join Lucia. She is taken under the protection of an aristocrat called only (in this translation) “the Unnamed”, who was once a notorious rake and criminal, but who has had a miraculous conversion and has become a compassionate and charitable man. At one point, in what amounts to her captivity, Lucia vows to the Virgin Mary that she will give up Renzo and become a vowed virgin (i.e. nun) if she is freed. This creates a complication before the novel’s denouement. After other alarums and excursions, after famine and war (the incursion of German and Austrian troops in Italy), when a great plague hits Milan, Renzo and Lucia at last reunite. They have both miraculously made it through the plague. Conveniently, the state is no longer hunting for Renzo, and the young couple’s worst enemies have died. But what about Lucia’s vow? Manzoni contrives a happy ending for the lovers, partly relying on the generosity of the new squire who now rules their village, and partly on the commonsense argument that Lucia’s prior vow to marry overrides her later vow. And besides, the Virgin Mary will forgive her if she becomes a good wife.

Compressing 600 pages of novel into two paragraphs like this may create the impression that the novel is filled with action and subtle turns of plot. In reality, it isn’t. What should be the central narrative thread (lovers separated; lovers seeking to reunite) is overlaid with so much historical material and so many self-contained stories, concerning other characters, that it often gets quite lost. Renzo and Lucia disappear completely from the story for many chapters at a time.

Manzoni deserves credit for the acuteness of his psychology in at least some sections of the novel. The depiction of Gertrude, “the Signora”, a domineering nun in the convent at Monza, is a case in point. Manzoni in two chapters (Chapters 9 and 10) shows “the Signora” as torn between her desires and her sense of duty to her father in becoming a nun in the first place – and how her embittered mind has turned her into a shrew, or worse. But “the Signora’s” story is a self-contained episode (apparently based on historical fact).

Elsewhere the thinness of characters is all too evident. They are strictly one-dimensional. The naïve and upright would-be groom. The pious, prayerful, virginal would-be bride. The villainous and the heroic and the comic-relief characters.  Indicative of this one-dimensionality are the sudden transformations Manzoni has to invent, for lack of a more cumulative view of the way people change. It is at least possible to accept the backstory of how Fra Cristoforo ceased to be a youthful hellraiser and became saintly after being repelled by his own displays of violence. This story is acceptable because it is merely backstory, confined to one chapter (Chapter 4). But what of the miraculous conversion of “the Unnamed”? He has been presented to us as a master criminal of titanic wickedness. Then suddenly, after he converses, in Chapters 22 and 23, with an historical figure, the saintly cardinal-archbishop of Milan, Federigo Borromeo (cousin of St Charles Borromeo), “the Unnamed” becomes a pillar of patient rectitude and generosity. Likewise the naïve Renzo early in the novel rather too readily becomes the competent young man he is towards the end. It could be argued that experience has changed him, but we see no real evidence of his cumulative change. First he is this, then he is that – from being one flat character to being another.

Some of the novel’s social satire is attractive. If Manzoni attacks the boorishness and uncaring attitudes of the ruling classes, he is also aware of the irrationality and violence of the mob, in scenes of rioting and in their busy spreading of wild rumours during the plague – especially the fiction that evil “anointers” are causing the plague by smearing poisoned substances on buildings. In his satire, Manzoni takes a special poke at fake scholarship in the form of the pompous astrologer and pedant Don Ferrante, who uses ingenious arguments to deny that the plague even exists (latter part of Chapter 28).

Manzoni’s attitude towards the church and religion is a little more complex. In the character of Don Abbondio we have a lazy, self-interested and essentially cowardly parish priest who puts his own interests ahead of his duty and his parishioners. Though she is eventually a malign person, the self-contained account of  Gertrude, “the Signora”, could be taken as criticism of the tendency among wealthier families to force some of their children into religious lives for which they have no real vocation. But overwhelmingly, Manzoni is on the side of the church. Fra Cristoforo is an heroic figure who dies of the plague after ministering patiently to the afflicted. Cardinal-Archbishop Federigo Borromeo is the voice of reasoned and measured authority, seen at his best in the chapters (Chapters 25 and 26) where he shames Don Abbondio for failing to live up to his vows. Manzoni takes Lucia’s vows seriously, and his own implicit attitudes are those of a believer. In the face of famine, war, plague (and underperforming priests), Manzoni’s chief message is that we should bear God’s will patiently, and trust that in the end God knows what is best for us. Apparently, despite all their admiration for Manzoni, there were some Italian patriots at the time of the Risorgimento who took this message very badly, and said it was encouraging passivity in the face of those foreign powers who still ruled parts of Italy.  [In the age of Cavour, Mazzini and Garibaldi, Manzoni’s depiction of the Spanish rule of Milan was taken to be referring covertly to the continuing Austrian rule of Venetia.]

I admit that what became my trudge through this novel was lightened by some good moments of farcical physical humour, as in Chapter 8, when the lovers’ attempt to trick the priest into marrying them goes chaotically wrong. There is also a kind of grotesque and sour humour in the episodes where Don Abbondio rushes around in panic as enemy armies approach (Chapter 29); and when he and his housekeeper Perpetua come back to their looted house and lament their losses (Chapter 30). Lucia’s garrulous and sometimes indiscreet mother Agnese is the novel’s most constant figure of comic relief. More often, however, Manzoni’s humour is in the tone of voice he adopts as omniscient narrator. In direct first-person address, he cajoles us with kittenish teasing. Much of this is in the same “Dear Reader” mode that was common in 19th century novels (Thackeray et al), but there are times when it comes close to what postmodernists, who imagine they invented the technique, would call deconstruction. Manzoni more than once “subverts” his narrative by asking us if we are getting bored. (To which I often felt like replying “Yes, I am.”) The novel also follows the convention that its plot is founded on an old manuscript which the author has discovered. This allows him to commently slyly on parts of the story he wishes to elide.

Much of this novel displays historical realism. Manzoni’s descriptions of the poor harvests that led to famine in Milan (Chapter 12) are persuasive and credible, as are his accounts of the “invasion” of north Italy by foraging and looting Germanic troops. Most vivid of all are Chapters 31 and 32, where Manzoni depicts the plague, the overcrowded lazzaretto, the carts for the dead, the desperation of the living, their hysterical rumours as they seek for scapegoats, and the ministrations of the charitable in spite of everything. In fact, as a depiction of the miseries of plague, this is at least as persuasive and nightmarish as Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. But this historical realism is, like the flat characterisation and the frequent melodrama, also part of this novel’s undoing. Manzoni diligently researched history and he fills the novel with many footnotes to tell us so. But the documentary historical parts often overwhelm the narrative. In the end, the story itself is not compelling enough. Often the impression is not of history being seen through the travails of these characters – as is the case in War and Peace -  but of these thin characters having been lightly pasted onto historical events.

I finished The Betrothed thinking this was an interesting book, but under the weight of historical detail, under the thinness of its central narrative thread, and under its simplistic psychology and lapses into sentimentality, it is easy to see why this Italian classic has not gained the international iconic status of other “great books”. It is not Don Quixote, War and Peace or Moby Dick. Some moments engaged me, but in the end I found myself reading The Betrothed as an interesting historical artefact, and lamenting that it wasn’t better.

New Zealand Footnote: While reading Charles Brasch’s journals to review on this blog, I found on page 500 of CharlesBrasch Journals 1938-1957 (entry for Wednesday 27 June 1956) the poet-editor’s opinion of The Betrothed. Given the date of this entry, I assume that Brasch read the same (1951) Archibald Colquhoun translation that I read, as a different translation (for Penguin Classics) was made only years later. I have sometimes criticised Brasch for his mandarin snobbery, but on this novel I agree with him. He complains that historical details hold up the novel for too long; that despite the historical figures that are brought into it, it doesn’t have the same scale or sweep as Dostoievsky or Tolstoy; that “it resembles a series of distinct scenes linked by the single thread of central story” and that it lacks social complexity. With all this I agree, though, surprisingly, Brasch concludes that it is “a wonderful, unforgettable book” and he is especially impressed by the story of the nun of Monza. His final comment is that “Manzoni puts Scott in the shade.”  Again I have to agree. For all the novel’s stiffness, and for all the negative things I have said about it, The Betrothed is a livelier, less pompous, less circumlocutious novel than anything Sir Walter penned, and it has a greater grasp of history.

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