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. 

The Good Fight, Emily The Criminal, Natalia Ginzberg, and Alessandro Manzoni

Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg - Nowadays when I'm looking for something to read, I just look at the New Directions back catalogue. They're a superb small press that brings over tons of European writers. I love New Directions' tastes. They're aesthetes. They prefer writers who are known as stylists or formal innovators. Their books tend to be short and very compressed. This 'novel' clocks in at, I believe, under a 100 pages in the print version (though I read it as an ebook). Ginzburg is a very famous Italian writer, and she has a devoted following in the US amongst the type of people who read New Directions books. This is the first of hers that I've completed (I was assigned one in my MFA, but I didn't do the reading that month.) This one begins with a wife killing her husband, and then the wife briefly retells the story of their four year marriage. At first I was like, this wife is very flat, there's not much to her. But that's the essence of the book. The wife has a dry heart: she's a woman waiting for a man to give her life meaning. Even though she doesn't love her husband, the idea that he loves her is sustaining. She's happy to finally be wanted. And when she discovers, early in the book, that his love isn't as strong as she imagined, it's a terrible, gnawing truth that eats away at her. The murder at the end is as unnecessary as it is inevitable. It's entirely because this woman really doesn't have anything of her own, she has no self to fall back upon.

The Good Fight - I wouldn't exactly say that The Good Wife or The Good Fight are underrated. Both have been critically acclaimed and did well for themselves. But they're not rated as highly as they should be. These are some of the best shows of the last decade. The Good Fight did itself a lot of favors by focusing on Diane Lockhart and on her partners in a Black law firm (yes, it's absurd that Christine Baranski has joined a Black law firm) as Trump comes into power. The show leans into the increasing lawlessness of our times (amongst other things, the Chicago PD's secret prison makes several appearances). I finally got around to watching the last season, which was great, although it lacked some of the wild energy of the previous two seasons. Was just sad to see it end! Oh, one area where the show shined was in the genuine rapport between Diane and her partners. As opposed to the constant conniving and back-biting in The Good Wife, the partners in The Good Fight are largely teammates. Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald (who joined the cast in the second season) are really great whenever they share a scene (and even better in the season four ARC where they join a secret all-woman revolutionary cadre).

Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Men Tell Tales (Disney Plus)- I have absolutely no idea why I chose to watch this film. I saw a clip on the internet of the scene where the female lead, Kaya Scodelario, banters with Johnny Depp while they're both facing execution. It looked fun, so I watched it. The movie reminded me of the persistently surprising fact that these Pirates movies are actually good. They've got some solid world-building, with very charming performances, even from minor characters. This movie was much stronger in the first half, when the various characters are knocking around trying to figure out what the story is going to be. Once they get together and start doing action, you realize that there's no real character arc for any of them, and it gets a little stale.

Emily The Criminal (Netflix)- I love crime films. I went through one heist film stage where I just watched a ton of heist movies. This falls squarely into the lo-fi, small-scale criminal genre (a la Hustle and Flow or Uncut Gems). Just a regular, slightly-shady person getting sucked in deeper and deeper. The problem with movies and TV shows of this type is that the characters usually have some character flaw (a temper, impulsiveness, drug abuse), but they rarely have any off-setting competence. Like if you watch Weeds or Breaking Bad it's impossible to escape the notion sometimes these people just aren't very good at being criminals and maybe they are a bit overly entitled.

This movie, starring Aubrey Plaza as a twentysomething art school grad with $70,000 of credit card debt, skirts that line. Plaza at times seems to be the loose cannon, the person who gets too greedy and can't control herself and ruins a good thing. All of her problems in the credit card fraud business seem to be self-created: a result of her breaking the rules. But in the end the movie turns that into a strength, and it complicates its own world-building and its own view of criminality. Highly recommend. Plus, she has a lot of chemistry with the male lead, played by Theo Rossi, who inducts her into the life of crime. He's just such a sweet guy, from the first moment he's onscreen you just want to kiss him and bring him home to mama. Also Aubrey Plaza is very attractive and for some reason doesn't wear a bra for most of the movie.

"Alessandro Manzoni" in London Review of Books -- I don't have too much to say about it, but this article, if anything, undersells how wonderful The Betrothed is.1 It's just a genuinely good time, akin to War and Peace or Anna Karenina or David Copperfield. I came upon the book completely by accident, and it was fantastic to have this big, wonderful 19th century novel to get lost in. I really like the second half, where the plague hits. This article is written by Tim Parks, who's a great fiction writer and translator in his own right. He translated Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy, which I also read recently and adored.

  1. I first wrote about The Betrothed way back in 2016

The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni

41jkfjhfj4l-_sx324_bo1204203200_I've been reading a 19th century Italian novel: The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni. It's quite long, but apparently that doesn't matter to me anymore. When I saw it was around 300k words, I was like, "Only that?" I guess Anthony Trollope has made me used to 400 or even 500k novels.

The book is about two lovers in the 1620s, Renzo and Lucia, who want to get married, but are prevented by the machinations of Don Rodrigo: an evil aristocrat who's made a bet that he can seduce Lucia.

Which makes the story sound like a simple adventure tale. And it's mostly that. But there's more to it. The narrator of the book (the conceit is that a modern man is reinterpreting and rewriting an older manuscript) is very witty and insightful. His narration is full of sly humor that he trusts you to catch. For instance, when Renzo goes to a lawyer to complain that Don Rodrigo is preventing him from getting married, the lawyer seems at first to be very helpful, but you realize, a few moments before Renzo does, that the lawyer is confused and that he believes Renzo to be one of Rodrigo's henchmen. As soon as he learns who Renzo truly is, he kicks our hero out.

There's something very simple and direct about the tale. It starts with a priest being met on a mountain road by two henchmen of Don Rodrigos, who tell the priest that he must not marry Renzo to Lucia. The priest is good-natured, but very cowardly, so he begins pondering how to delay Renzo and accede to the Don's wishes. Then the story hops heads, going from person to person.

It reminds me most of Dumas, particularly The Count of Monte Cristo. But the story isn't nearly so tortured, baroque, and hopeless. The hero is courageous and goodnatured. He has shades of Tom Jones. And there's plenty of satire and moral commentary, much like Dickens or Trollope. But it's the sublety that keeps surprising me. There's so much in here about power, and the ways in which it works to uphold itself. The narrator is so finely attuned to exactly why ordinary people allow evil things to happen, and the ways in which evil people don't allow themselves to realize how awful they're being. It's a novel that's all its own thing. Apparently it's very famous in Italy: perhaps one of the most famous Italian novels. But I'd never heard of it before I ran across it in the Strand two days ago.