Spent my India trip reading Ippolito Nievo’s Confessions of an Italian

Hey friends, I went to India and then had various weather-related childcare interruptions that've meant I haven't done as much work as I wanted to (and absolutely no posting). I also haven't read that much fiction either (compared to my usual). At some point I wanted to just read a long, complicated classic novel. After reading the recent LRB review of the new translation of The Betrothed (which I think that I liked to in a previous post), I started to feel nostalgic for Manzoni's masterpiece, which I read more than four years ago during a trip to New York. I thought, ahh, perfect, I should read something like that. So I was like, surely there are other long, sprawling 19th century Italian novels I can read.

And in fact there is one other famous one, Ippolito Nievo's Confessions of an Italian.1 One thing that Tim Park's review of The Betrothed noted is that Manzoni's novel is an outlier in its overt embrace of Catholicism. Most Italian literature is pretty secular and is often suspicious of the Church. Manzoni's novel, in bucking that trend, probably made itself more attractive to various state and church institutions that wanted to embrace an Italian national identity without being irreligious.

Confessions of an Italian is nothing like The Betrothed. It's a very long historical novel, but it's all told in the first person, as the memoirs of Carlo Altoviti, a minor member of a minor noble family from the Venetian mainland. He's born in the 1750s or 60s, has a long and turbulent political career, and eventually dies around 1855. The author was a relatively young man when he wrote the book (twenty-six, I think), and it's a remarkable feat of ventriloquism. It's actually a style of novel, I find, when someone from a rural area or a marginalized group manages at a young age to draw on the stories they grew up with--on the tales of housekeepers, retainers, grandparents, and on village folklore and scandals--to create something that seems like the work of someone nearing the end of their life.

The book is ostensibly about the creation of an Italian identity (Nievo himself took part in the Risorgimento, but the book was written before the final unification), but the first third of the book is a very long description of the life in Castle Fratta and the surrounding countryside. Carlino is dumped on the doorstep of the castle while still a baby--his mother dies in childbirth and his father is an adventurer in foreign lands. He's raised by his aunt and uncle in a rather disinterested fashion, and he spends most of his time in the company of a superannuated retainer of the family (whose name I unfortunately forget) and various other characters who hang around the castle.

The book is dominated by his long, passionate relationship with La Pisana, the younger daughter of his aunt (and hence of somewhat higher social status than himself). But, even more than wealth or social differences, they're kept apart by La Pisana's fiery and somewhat perverse temperament. She's flirtatious with many boys and men, she sometimes seems to despise the narrator, and sometimes she herself seems frustrated by her own inability to keep to one path in life. Whenever circumstances force her into positions of great responsibility, whether its caring for her sick husband or caring for a blinded Carlino as they eke out a living in exile, she seems totally self-abnegating and unselfish, and yet whenever she's left to her own devices, she becomes perverse, demanding and helpless. She's undoubtedly the most interesting character in the book.

If I'm being honest, I can't imagine any of my readers getting through the first third of this book. Nor can I wholeheartedly recommend the book to anyone who's not read The Betrothed. The latter is a much faster-paced novel, despite its length, and more likely to hold your interest.

And yet, as the novel progressed, and we started seeing scenes of war, revolution, and social decay, I grew more impressed with the first third. It's really in that third that any of the novel's literary merit lies. Firstly, in its honest description of a boy who really doesn't care for politics or public life or glory--he just wants the love of this girl. Later, when we see this man grown into positions of high authority, it's funny to think about the boy, and how different he was in his concerns, if not in his voice and character. It's a remarkable portrait of someone growing up and aging. In fact, the effects of time on the whole cast are staggering and well-wrought. In general, as people age, they either become the opposite of themselves or they become a caricature of themselves. In exactly the same way, the characters choose their paths and commit to them--so the young girl who's devoted to her grandmother becomes, as an adult, passionately devoted to God, and the young man who's a quick wit and desirous of glory becomes, as an old man, corrupt and venal and without any principles. Every change makes perfect sense, and yet when you look back over the novel, it seems it would've been impossible to predict where everyone ended up.

Secondly, I realized as the novel progressed that the first third is portraying a way of life that, in the author's lifetime, had already vanished. For him to describe life in the 1760s is exactly the same as for me to describe life in a 1950s Levittown. This whole web of connections, with self-governing nobility, and a Venice that held a distant but jealous grip on local affairs, and a proliferation of castles and blood feuds and a rural tenantry who owed their livelihood to local magnates--all of that will be swept away by the halfway point of the novel. The erasure of that rural life is the process of Risorgimento. There is no separating the two. The creation of an Italian national identity required the loss of regional identities and of the freedom and isolation that made those identities possible.

In reading the book I kept thinking back to another I read recently, Julien Benda's Treason of the Intellectuals, which is about the rise of ethnic nationalism as an explicit idea and ideal. Throughout, this book openly advocates for Italian nationalism. There's an explicit disgust at how Italy has fallen from its twin peaks, during the Roman Republic and during the height of the Italian Renaissance, and a desire to come together and build something new and equally great. I can see how exciting that idea would've been at the time. In fact, it's hard to see what else (besides communism) could provide the same meaning that nationalism did. But nowadays the novel carries a quiet foreboding that I'm sure it didn't when it was originally published.

On a side note, the book was only published after Nievo's death (he died at age thirty in a shipwreck), and it wasn't a big success upon publication. Its reputation took some time to grow.

All in all, as I come upon the final chapters of the book, I have to say that I found it thoroughly satisfying. Gave me exactly what I wanted. And though I can't wholeheartedly recommend it to others (after all, I'm not sure anyone else wants to spend a three weeks of their time reading the second-best 19th century Italian historical novel), it's still one that's worth thinking about picking up someday!

  1. The edition I read was the Penguin Classics edition, translated by Frederika Randall. As far as I know, this is the only unabridged English translation.