Sunday, May 15, 2016

Fortnightly Book, May 15

In most languages there is a narrow circle of books that tend to be called great novels in that language, and a few candidates, sometimes one, that repeatedly are regarded as the greatest among those great novels -- as, for instance, Pride and Prejudice repeatedly comes up as an obvious candidate, perhaps the obvious candidate, if you ask, "What is the greatest novel ever written in the English language?" Tastes will vary, favorites will be picked for individual lists, but some books are more than favorites and not merely objects of good taste but definers of it. And if you ask almost anybody which novel is the greatest of all novels ever written in the Italian language, you will find one book mentioned over and over again: Alessandro Manzoni's I Promessi Sposi. For the Fortnightly Book, I will be reading the English translation in the Everyman Library, The Betrothed.

Manzoni (1785-1873) was born to a literary family in Milan. Because of his mother, something of a freethinker (she divorced his father, took up with another man, and ran in freethinking circles in England and France), he grew up in a largely anti-Catholic atmosphere and became a poet. He married a Calvinist girl, Henriette Blondel, in 1808, a very happy marriage. But Henriette in 1810 became Catholic, and this led Alessandro to re-examine his life entirely. The result was that he became Catholic, as well; he took it quite seriously, and lived a life full of penitential practices. His literary work became more experimental and innovative.

In the 1820s he conceived the idea that would eventually developed into The Betrothed and began to shape both the story and the language of it. You must remember that Italy was not yet unified; it was a large number of smaller states. Even today, Italians from northern Italy and Italians from southern Italy speak dialects sufficiently different as to make understanding a bit difficult, but the problem has always been there, and has historically been even more severe. When poets and writers like Dante or Petrarch wrote in Italian they were, to some degree, building their Italian out of a wide variety of conflicting materials. And this too was Manzoni's task. The work was originally written in his Milanese dialectic, but he would in later drafts Tuscanize it in order to build on the strengths of that dialect. He is widely regarded as having succeeded very well, and the result would itself contribute to the shaping of the Italian language as the book became a standard for other Italian works to emulate.

The Betrothed was published in 1827. It is a historical novel, with its events taking place during a time of turmoil and unrest in the 1600s. Renzo and Lucia are a young couple in northern Italy who plan to marry in November of 1628. The trouble and tumult of the society around them, however, will intervene to prevent it. And a great and terrible robber baron in the area, known only as The Unnamed, decides to seize Lucia . There will be famine. There will be war. There will be plague. But some loves do not die and are never conquered.

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