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.