A thousand years ago, an Italian-American friend, a vehement partisan, told me I had to read the Great Italian Novel. Which I’d never heard of.
As I said, she was vehement; there was no room for evasion. So I bought the book, luckily in paperback: it was very very long and very very very thick. It came with an unprepossessing title, although thanks to both Italian and singing lessons, I could pronounce it. I Promessi Sposi, by Alessandro Manzoni. (Because of a quirk of Manzoni’s fate, I’d heard of him, explanation later.)
The English title shades toward being more awkward than the Italian. It is The Betrothed. I believe the proper way of saying this is “The Betrothéd,” which is so stupid.
At the time I attempted to read the novel, I was well versed in 19th Century European historical novels, so the size and sweep of the book did not push me away. Yet, I Promessi Sposi was the first novel I did not finish, and I have a clear recollection of the liberating night when, maybe a quarter of the way through the book, I flung it across my bed. It banged into the wall with a terminal thud.
So terminal was that thud I have never considered trying to read it again.
Let me kill off any rebellious tendencies you might have to ignore my advice and actually buy and start I Promessi Sposi. Guelphs and Ghibellines. Who (which?) provide the historical context. Do you really want to plummet into this?
No, you don’t, but you do want to find the October 17, 2022 New Yorker, and turn to page 74, where Joan Acocella reviews a new translation of the novel. And she’s direct in confronting the, uh, various off-putting propensities. Before she gets into the novel itself, she quotes a number of literary figures who are not appreciative of 19th Century historical novels (“fat masterpieces”). And then she gives us a brief bio of Manzoni himself which should make everyone feel sorry for him.
But compassion is no reason to read a long, boring, absurd, weird romance embraced by both the 17th century bubonic plague and the Thirty Years’ War.
But Acocella did and her recap of the plot is wonderfully dry and blessedly compact. She tells us all we need to know and ends her exploration the way I would end it. More for his political and linguistic activities than his fiction, Manzoni was an Italian hero. When he died, people wept in the streets. Apparently they still do. Acocella writes this about the novel’s ending…
The ending is sentimental: “‘Oh Lord!'” exclaimed Lucia in anguish, clasping her hands together and looking up at the sky.” It is also genuinely affecting. These two people have been through a lot. They both seem older than they were at the start. I cried.
One of the 19th Century weepers was a guy named Giuseppe Verdi who honored Manzoni with a work in his native language, music: The Manzoni Requiem is the correct name for what we all call the Verdi Requiem.
Yeah, that Requiem.
Read Acocella maybe while listening to Verdi’s great work. That’d be a marvelous way of commemorating Alessandro Manzoni.