Saturday, January 11, 2014

Manzoni: I Promessi sposi

Alessandro Manzoni: I Promessi sposi, translated as The Betrothed by Bruce Penman. Penquin Books, 1986.
CHRISTMAS WEEK is for reading, as far as i’m concerned, and last month I gave that week to a book I’ve long meant to get to, Alessandro Manzoni’s I Promessi sposi.

What a book! On the first level simply a long, somewhat rambling historical novel about Milan and its surroundings in the seventeenth century, written two hundred years later, the book — virtually Manzoni’s only extended prose work — admirably integrates historical scholarship, personal observation of character and place, and political philosophy.

The “promised spouses” (the Italian formula for “affianced”) of the title, Renzo and Lucia, are peasants living in a village on Lake Como, near Lecco. Their marriage is prevented by one of the local nobles who has his own designs on Lucia. After a failed attempt to circumvent that, the couple separate: Renzo goes to Milan, is caught up in bread riots resulting from poverty and drought, and escapes to his cousin in Bergamo; Lucia takes refuge in a convent, is abducted…

But enough of plot: I do hope you’ll read the novel, and part of its interest of course is in the suspense. Only a small part, though: those reading the book as a romantic historical novel about a pair of lovers may lose patience with what I think is its true subject-matter, and its intricate interest and importance.
Manzoni begins with a foreword it would be wrong to skip, opening in flowery archaic language purportedly quoting an ancient author:
History may truly be defined as a famous War against Time; for she doth take from him the Years that he had made Prisoner, or rather utterly slain, and doth call them back into Life, and pass them i Review, and set them again in Order of Battle.
After a page of this sort of stuff, set in italics, the author lays down his ancient text and speaks for himself, noting that History too often loses sight of the ordinary men and women who lived through the eras historians deign to consider. He notes, too, the turgid style of the original, alternating between lofty rhetoric and crude dialect. He gives up reading the thing, but quickly thinks
“Why not take the sequence of fact contained in this manuscript,” I thought, “and merely alter the language?” There were no logical objections to this idea, and I decided to follow it. And that is the origin of this present work, explained with a simplicity to match the importance of the book itself.
So immediately Manzoni’s book takes up a number of contexts:
• it was written in 1820-1825 about events of 1620-1630, nearly two centuries earlier (and I read it in 2013, nearly two centuries later)
• It attempts to re-introduce the common man into a context generally restricted to elevated historical figures
• it attends to appropriate language and style

And underneath these evident and acknowledged contexts there is another agenda, not particularly well hidden. The book’s action takes place in a politically eventful moment, when Milan and its duchy are controlled by Spain; Bergamo is part of the Venetian Republic; Austria is threatening from the north and northeast; and France has designs on Monferrato in neighboring Piemonte. Furthermore, the action involves the closing years of the long wars between Catholics and Protestants. And, most importantly, the close of the feudal era when lawlessness and exploitation was an accepted aspect of daily life, and the poor but generally honest and respectable contadini and villager was at the mercy of the rich, powerful “nobleman” in his castle on the hill, and his band of thugs and stooges — the “bravos” who do his dirty work.

I was drawn into the book first by Manzoni’s marvelous description of its physical setting, the mountains and riverbanks to the south and east of Lecco, country not that different from terrain I’ve spent weeks walking in, fifty or a hundred miles to the west., A poor man, Renzo walks when he must go from Lecco to Milan, from Milan to Bergamo. The parish priest rides a mule; ladies are carried in litters; noblemen ride coaches. In every case the tempo is quite different from ours in the 21st century, and climate, physical nature, and observation of the faces and characters of those one meets are taken more slowly, more contemplatively, and therefore more objectively, at a pace giving time to correct immediate impression, prejudice, and>'

The book should be read at a similar pace, I think; and should be considered while reading and afterward, letting the book bloom in the mind, responding to our time and its own, as a good wine is allowed to bloom in the glass and the mouth, and afterward in sensual memory.

The characters in the novel are memorable and attractive, even the villains — stock characters, all of them (young lovers, parish priest and his housekeeper, Cardinal, ruffians, evil nobles), but individuated through description and dialogue. The settings are evoked sometimes through meticulous description, sometimes arresting observation — the Milan cathedral, for example, seen from miles away, at a time when the city was still contained within its walls.

The historical events are exciting and resonant: war, famine, plague, all recounted with both mesmerizing immediacy and resonance that inescapably suggests World War II, the Balkan wars, today’s events in Africa and the Middle East.

And then there’s the language. Manzoni published the novel in 1827, but within a dozen years revised it out of its original dialect of Italian into the Tuscan dialect centered on Florence — thereby cementing that dialect as standard contemporary Italian. The revision seems to involve mostly simply substitutions of vocabulary, with a few additions or clarifications of text, and virtually no cutting.

I haven't yet found what exactly the dialect of the original version is called: it's not Piemontino, though it shares with that dialect certain leanings toward French. "Equal," for example, is eguale in the first version, uguale in the revision. I know this because I found a fascinating edition of the novel online, a facsimile (not e-text or digitized text) of an edition (Milano: Domenico Briola, 1888) of the revised version, with the original text inserted in smaller size between the lines.

Years ago I bought a fine copy of an old edition of I Promessi sposi, and it turns out to have an interesting history of its own. It was published at Firenze in 1845 by Felice Le Monnier, who based the text on the 1832 edition by David Passigli e soc.. Le Monnier was noted for his contempt for author's rights, and merely pirated the Passigli edition, heedless of Manzoni's subsequent revision into the definitive text. Manzoni sued and was eventually awarded a substantial award. I don't know how large the 1845 edition was, or how the copy I have came to whatever used-book store I bought it in — though a recent New Yorker article on such matters does give me some pause.

I read Penman's translation with both the Le Monnier and the interlinear edition at hand, comparing often enough to get the distinct impression that this is a fine translation, idiomatic in English, respectful to the original style, and faithful to the text.

Some have characterized the book as a romantic epic, along the lines of Tolstoy's War and Peace — a book I'm embarrassed to say I haven't (yet) read.  It would be wrong, though, and perhaps disappointing, to think of it as primarily a narrative about the betrothed Renzo and Lucia: instead, it is — as another reader suggested the other day — an epic, a narrative description of the general state of the soul of a nation. I'm hard pressed to think of another prose example, and I wonder if Manzoni weren't channelling such older epics as Aeneid or Chanson de Roland or Orlando furioso. Whatever, I Promessi sposi is essentially Italian; it speaks from an honest and good heart; it is ample, intelligent, poetic, philosophical, evocative, good-humored, and inventive, and I consider it one of the greatest novels I have ever read.


Michael Strickland said...

I read it in the early 1980s at the outset of the AIDS era, after asking an intelligent friend to recommend a book set during the Plague. Gosh, what a revelation the novel turned out to be, an Enlightenment look at a barbarous time that changed the way I thought about the world. And as bad as the modern AIDS plague became, it was somehow cheering to know that things had been much worse not that long ago, with fear of "anointers" at the communion rail and other bits of magical thinking floating around. Also finding out that some people survived the plague even after coming down with the illness was oddly reassuring. Historical epics are not usually my cup of tea, but this book is in a class of its own. Glad you also enjoyed it so much.

Charles Shere said...

The pages describing the plague are electrifying in the immediacy of Manzoni's descriptions, but like the rest of the novel immensely sympathetic. Your having read yhis book at that time shows the utility of great narrative function to our better understanding of the human condition.

I forgot to mention Manzoni's good humor through all the events he treats — another index of his great humanity.