Sunday, May 29, 2016

Alessandro Manzoni, The Betrothed


Opening Passage:

That branch of the lake of Como which extends southwards between two unbroken chains of mountains, and is all gulfs and bays as the mountains advance and recede, narrows down at one point, between a promontory on one side and a wide shore on the other, into the form of a river; and the bridge which lines the two banks seems to emphasize this transformation even more, and to mark the point at which the lake ends and the Adda begins, only to become a lake once more where the banks draw farther apart again, letting the water broaden out and expand into new creeks and bays. (p. 7)

Summary: The Betrothed takes place in the Duchy of Milan (and parts in the Republic of Venice) in 1628 and the following years. It is a time of war as the great powers of Europe use northern Italy as a chessboard in their power struggles. It is also a time of thuggery, as local nobles hired bravi to be guards, enforcers, and assassins. Amidst it all, Renzo and Lucia are two young people intending on marriage; but their parish priest, Don Abbondio, a timid man, has been threatened by Don Rodrigo's bravi if he marries them. Don Rodrigo has set his eye on Lucia. They eventually have to flee.

Lucia and her mother Agnese end up arranging to hide Lucia in the convent under the protection of Gertrude; since Gertrude is a princess from an important family, even if Don Rodrigo discovered Lucia's location, it would make him hesitate to move against her. Renzo ends up in Milan at exactly the wrong time; the city is undergoing bread riots due to price controls. (One of the interesting things about the book is how much it is about economics, and, in particular, the ills caused by centralized economic planning.) He ends up in the middle of one of the riots and by naivete manages to get blamed for the whole thing. He is forced to flee to his cousin in Bergamo, in Venetian territory.

Don Rodrigo in the meantime makes an appeal to a local warlord, referred to in the text only as l'Innominato, the Unnamed. Through the latter's intervention, Gertrude is blackmailed and Lucia is kidnapped. Despite the way it seems, this ends up being the beginning of the reversal of the misfortunes of Renzo and Lucia. There are still more troubles ahead, but the arrival of Federigo Borromeo, the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, in the village nearby will begin the chain of events that eventually leads to the triumph of Lucia and Renzo.

This is very much a character-focused book. The plot is deliberately episodic in the style of (say) Sir Walter Scott, in which events meander here and there but we learn a lot about our main characters. The book also has quite a few digressions in which we learn about minor characters. I don't think there's any named character for whom we do not get at least some background. Because of this, the characters are all very vivid and distinctive. As with any Scott-style narrative, events move quickly, and despite the digressions don't ever bog you down.

The sheer variety of means and devices that Manzoni uses to tell his story, and uses well, is extraordinary. The most famous passage of the book, for instance, is the Addio ai monti at the end of Chapter 8, which opens:

Farewell, mountains springing from waters and rising to the sky; rugged peaks, failiar to any man who has grown up in your midst, and impressed upon his mind as clearly as the features of his nearest and dearest; torrents whose varying tones he can pick out as easily as the voices of his family; villages scattered white over the slopes, like herds of grazing sheep; farewell! How sadly steps he who was reared among you, as he draws away!...

Or in the Italian:

Addio, monti sorgenti dall'acque, ed elevati al cielo cime inuguali, note a chi è cresciuto tra voi, e impresse nella sua mente, non meno che l'aspetto de' suoi più familiari; torrenti, de' quali distingue lo scroscio, come il suono delle voci domestiche; ville sparse e biancheggianti sul pendìo, come branchi di pecore pascenti; addio! Quanto è tristo il passo di chi, cresciuto tra voi, se ne allontana!...

Most of the book is not in this high-toned poetic prose, but its place here, at this moment in the story, takes an already excellent bit of writing and gives it great power. Manzoni uses many other devices to tell his story. The novel has a framing device -- the narrator claims to be modernizing an old chronicle -- and comments on it throughout the work. There are historical discursions and footnotes. There are ironic comments about human nature and earnest sermons. There are close, intense descriptions and descriptions that are purely suggestive. There are characters that are treated in idealized terms and characters that are comic relief. There are many interwoven themes. The prose swoops high and then low again. This is a virtuoso work, in terms of the techniques of writing.

To make your day even more awesome, here is the Italian group Oblivion giving their comic performance of "I Promessi Sposi in Dieci Minuti" (The Betrothed in Ten Minutes):

Some of the events represented:

0:20 The opening of the book
0:57 Don Rodrigo's bravi intimidate Don Abbondio
2:32 Renzo arrives to finish up the arrangements for the marriage
3:36 Renzo and Lucia discuss what to do
6:16 Renzo gets involved in the Milanese riots
6:45 Gertrude's story
7:11 Lucia is kidnapped
7:32 Lucia vows to give up marriage if the Virgin will save her
7:34 Lucia meets the Unnamed
8:06 Federico Borromeo enters the story
8:29 The plague begins
9:20 Renzo and Lucia meet up again

Favorite Passage:

As soon as she was alone with her mother she told her all about it; but Agnese, with her greater experience, solved all her doubts, and cleared up the whole mystery in a few words.

'Don't be surprised,' said she. 'When you've known the world as long as I have, you'll realize these things aren't to be wondered at. All the gentry are a bit crazy. The best thing to do is to let 'em talk as they want, particularly if one needs them. Just look as if you're listening to them seriously, as if they were talking sense. You heard how she shouted at me, as if I'd said something silly? I didn't let it bother me. They're all like that....' (p. 170)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended; this is an excellent book.

Alessandro Manzoni, The Betrothed, Colquhoun, tr., Everyman's Library (New York: 2013).

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