Imagine, if you can, a historical novel set in northern Italy. The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi) was written in the 19th century It depicts the 17th century, the time of the 30 Years War and the great plagues. We have the life of 400 years ago as seen some 200 years ago — and in a different language and culture. Given all that, it’s a good book and worth the time to read the over 700 pages — a project I would never have undertaken without the book group.
As someone in the group observed, this is certainly not Jane Austin. No, it’s not. It’s more like Walter Scott with whispers of Dickens and memories of Cervantes. Renzo and Lucia, young and in love, are frustrated in their marriage plans by a succession of events: the malevolence of the local nobleman/gang lord, the bread riots in Milan, the depredations of the invading German armies and the Bubonic plague.
Manzoni’s narrative style is to interrupt one story to tell you another one. So, when young Lucia and her mother take refuge in a convent, we must stop and hear all about the discontented nun and how she came to be pressured into a religious life she did not desire. Or, later in the book, when it appears the young lovers may finally get together, with some 200 pages to go, Manzoni puts Lucia in Milan and Renzo in Bergamo and tells you all about the plaque — how it was spread, who did what on the Health Commission, the stupidities of the bureaucrats, the humanity of the Capuchins, the insane suspicions of the populace. He goes on and on. It has its interest, but I did wonder if he would have enough pages left for a suitable romantic ending.
This novel is a classic in Italy and apparently all students there read it in school. Maybe, like my adolescent experience with Silas Marner, it leaves them wary of the author for years afterward. It’s better to come at it as I did, enjoying the period details and wishing the best to a deserving young couple. And did I mention that Manzoni has a dry sense of humor? He does, mixed in with a cynical view of the politics of the day.
Attilio’s uncle was a lawyer, and one of the senior members of the Council. He had a certain standing among his fellow-members; but where he really excelled as in making his position felt and respected wherever he went. Ambiguous utterances, significant silences, non-committal remarks, a way of closing his eyes which means ‘I can’t comment on that’, a way of flattering hopes without involving himself in a promise, a certain menacing formality; such were some of the means he used towards that end, and all of them met with fair success.
I don’t think an adolescent assigned to read the book is ready to appreciate this sort of commentary.