Alessandro Manzoni’s “The Betrothed,” Reconsidered


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A few years ago, reading the introduction to an English-language version of Hugo’s “Les Misérables,” I found the translator, Norman Denny, confessing that he had made a number of cuts in the French text. Certain of them, he said, were for sense. But others, he was not ashamed to say, were due to his feeling that the book was just too long-winded. The great Frenchman couldn’t shut up. He told us things twice, three times. Or he said them too many times the first time. “It is not uncommon to find eight or ten adjectives appended to a single noun,” Denny noted, with wonder. Even after the trims, his version is still more than twelve hundred pages long.

This fullness, overfullness, was endemic to the genre to which “Les Misérables” belonged, the nineteenth-century historical novel, a form that was immensely popular in its day. It recorded sweeping changes: kingdoms rose and fell, peoples were enslaved or freed. For great events, great language was needed. But, from what I can tell, even readers of that time occasionally grew tired of the grandiloquence, and when they did they were not afraid to skip. Likewise their children and grandchildren. A friend of mine told me that once, when he was talking to a group of Russian-literature professors, he confided to them that he and his American colleagues often had difficulty with the many highly detailed accounts of battles in “War and Peace.” Oh, the Russians answered, we skip those parts! So boring! You should skip them, too, they said.

Americans are unlikely to take that advice. Modernism taught us not to. A work of literature was what it was. You didn’t toss out the parts you didn’t like. The assumption was that the author had already pared his novel or poem down to its bare bones, every word of which was essential to the true picture. Ironically, this way of thinking may have emboldened some people to avoid the big books altogether. In recent years, some celebrated writers have come clean about which fat masterpieces they have never read. Jonathan Franzen told a journalist that he had never got past page 50 of “Moby-Dick.” Others have said that they have not read “Vanity Fair,” or “David Copperfield,” and didn’t intend to. I have never heard a modern novelist say that he has not read Joyce’s “Ulysses”—there are limits—but I’ll bet that such a one is lurking out there, waiting to strike.

A writer who belongs at the center of this story is Henry James. On first acquaintance—with his late novels, in any case—he may seem one of those fog-bound fellows whom younger writers feel they no longer have to bend the knee to. In fact, however dense the surface of his texts, James is the captain of the opposing team, the non-meanderers. That is the debate, really. At bottom, it’s not about length but about whether it’s O.K. for the novelist, having dealt with his story from one angle, to wander off and then come back to it from a different angle. In the mind of your typical nineteenth-century historical novelist, this is obviously O.K. He’s a great writer, so why should anyone object if he interrupts his story to give us a lesson on the whiteness of the whale or the succession wars in northern Italy in the seventeenth century? He’ll come back to the main story. What’s the problem?

According to James, the problem was that this was not art. It was basically a picture without “composition,” by which he meant selection, focus. “A picture without composition slights its most precious chance for beauty,” James wrote. “There may, in its absence, be life, incontestably, as ‘The Newcomes’ has life, as ‘Les Trois Mousquetaires,’ as Tolstoi’s ‘Peace and War’ have it; but what do such large loose baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary artistically mean? We have heard it maintained . . . that such things are ‘superior to art’; but we understand least of all what that may mean, and we look in vain for the artist, the divine explanatory genius, who will come to our aid and tell us.” The phrase “loose baggy monsters” has since entered the lexicon of critical vituperation, and the list of indicted books can be expanded well beyond James’s count. Sir Walter Scott was certainly the elephant in this room, accompanied by Balzac, and James Fenimore Cooper. Apropos of the last, a certain corniness—more than the nineteenth-century average—is often to be found in historical novels of the period. For that reason, as well as for the length problem, most of them have suffered a severe drop in popularity. Yet some are still regarded as classics, and others are revived now and then. Last month, the Modern Library added to its list “The Betrothed” (“I Promessi Sposi”), from 1842, by the Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni, in a new translation—the first in fifty years—by Michael F. Moore.

In some respects, this is a curious choice. Most readers outside Italy will not have heard of the title, or even of the author. In Italy, the book is considered a pillar of the national literature, perhaps second only to the Divine Comedy. It has gone into more than five hundred Italian editions, and it is a fixture in schools, where it is studied in tenth grade. In its day, the novel was famous across Europe, and it’s not clear why its reputation ceased to be an international one—why people who know of Dumas or Hugo, even if they haven’t read them, aren’t even aware of Manzoni’s existence. Moore, in his introduction, mentions speculation that the novel is too Italian (for instance, in its preoccupation with the Catholic Church) to travel well. In any case, the Modern Library is right: it is time for the situation to change. “The Betrothed” emerges in the new translation as a work that anyone who cares about nineteenth-century fiction should want to read. It has the great events—war, famine, plague—and the record of their impact on humble people. It has the sentimentality: demure maidens and brave lads and black-hearted villains. It has passages of lyrical description and passages where the specificity of detail verges on the sociological. It has the prolixity, annoying to some, comforting to others. In other words, it is an exemplary historical novel.

Alessandro Manzoni, the child of a genteel Lombard family, lived from 1785 to 1873—that is, through the political turmoil stretching from the French Revolution through the Italian Risorgimento. His lively mother, Giulia Beccaria, was prevented from marrying the man she loved (his family was richer than hers), and so, at the age of twenty, she was forced to marry an older man, Don Pietro Manzoni, who lived with his seven unwed sisters and reportedly cared for little beyond the supervision of his estates. He also, according to one report, had no testicles. Alessandro was born soon afterward, and, in the words of his biographer Archibald Colquhoun, the evidence that he was the son not of Don Pietro but of Giulia’s lover is “as conclusive as gossip can make it.” When Alessandro was six, Giulia finally got a legal separation from Don Pietro and took off for Paris with yet another man. The boy’s childhood was spent first with a wet nurse and later at a number of boarding schools in Switzerland and Italy. Giulia visited him occasionally, if she was passing through. She didn’t come often, though.

According to Colquhoun, Manzoni’s adult life was uneventful, “deceptively like that of many of his class and period: a background of solid squirearchy, youthful revolutionary enthusiasms apparently stilled by re-conversion to Catholicism, a little mild political activity, then long years of studious retirement, country pursuits, and rather melancholy family life.” At twenty-three, he married a sixteen-year-old Swiss girl, Enrichetta Blondel, a Calvinist—a scandalous choice in the Milan of the time. The sons that Enrichetta bore him were so badly behaved, it is said, that for a while he was reluctant to show his face in Milan, Lombardy’s capital. That problem was alleviated, in time, by his offspring’s propensity for dying young. Of the ten children, all but two predeceased him. Furthermore, he was plagued all his life by what Colquhoun calls nervous troubles: “He hated meeting new people, was terrified of crowds. . . . He could never go out alone, and felt voids opening up before him when he had to cross a street. Stories are told of his ordering servants to drive away birds in the trees under his windows, of his weighing his clothes several times a day.”

He thought of himself as a writer, if anything, and in his early years he produced some poems and essays and two verse tragedies—on Lombard themes, prophetically—but he had difficulty putting pen to paper and would leave his desk on any pretext, sometimes for long periods. Finally, however, Italy’s great political cause of the nineteenth century—the Risorgimento, the conversion of the peninsula from a nice kitchen garden for French, Spanish, and Austrian invaders to a single, united nation—galvanized him, and he began a novel in the service of that ideal. “The Betrothed” took place not in the nineteenth century but, rather, in the seventeenth, a terrible time, the period of the Thirty Years’ War and of resurgent bubonic plague. This permitted Manzoni to make his book more sensational and exotic. (The men wear those floppy-cuffed seventeenth-century boots, like Puss in Boots.) It also, by relieving him of the temptation to allude to people in power in his time, kept him out of jail.

Chapter 1 opens like a flower:

The branch of Lake Como that turns south between two unbroken mountain chains, bordered by coves and inlets that echo the furrowed slopes, suddenly narrows to take the flow and shape of a river, between a promontory on the right and a wide shoreline on the opposite side. The bridge that joins the two sides at this point seems to make this transformation even more visible to the eye and mark the spot where the lake ends and the Adda begins again, to reclaim the name lake where the shores, newly distant, allow the water to spread and slowly pool into fresh inlets and coves.

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