Monday 13 April 2020

Progress Report: The Betrothed

Rather to my surprise, I am acting on my avowed intent to beguile the long hours of lockdown by reading a big, important novel I'd never read before. Having plumped for Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed, I am already more than a quarter of the way through – that's quick by my standards – and I'm loving it. It's a huge book (720 pages in the Penguin Classics edition), and I was daunted at first – had I made a big mistake? Is this going to end like my failed attempts (long ago) to read Walter Scott? Is a historical novel set in northern Italy in the 1620s really my kind of thing? It seems it is, in Manzoni's hands.
 The opening of the Foreword is hardly inviting:

'History may truly be defined as a famous War against Time; for she doth take from him the Years that he has made prisoner, or rather utterly slain, and doth call them back into Life, and pass them in Review, and set them again in Order of Battle. But those braw Champions, that in such Lists doth reap the Harvests of Palms and of Laurels, may carry off in their Nief only the most pompous and grandiloquent of their Spoils...'
Etc, etc.

  But this is Manzoni quoting the ancient manuscript from which he is supposedly drawing his story. He has soon decided to abandon his project of transcribing this turgid document and publishing it along with a lengthy historical analysis. Instead, he will lift the story from its original source, and tell it in his own way, and in modern language:

'So we abandoned the idea, for two reasons which the reader will certainly approve: first, that a book written to justify another book (let alone the style of another book) might well seem a somewhat ridiculous undertaking, and secondly that one book at a time is quite enough, and may in fact be too much.'

It's a disarming foreword, and reading it made me confident that I was going to enjoy the company of this author as he unfolded his tale, however long it might be. He has a wonderfully light touch,  unlike so many 19th-century writers of historical novels (George Eliot's Romola, anyone?), and a mild, easygoing irony and quiet humour infuse his language, even when the action is going at full pelt. He never once mounts the pulpit or stands in the margin of his text with a pointer to ensure we get the message. If indeed there is a message. Manzoni certainly pulls no punches in depicting the brutal and arbitrary rule of 'noble' families in northern Italy (and the futility of legal decrees aimed at curbing their excesses), but this is not a political novel. It is, at heart, the simple human story of two young lovers, Renzo and Lucia, who are prevented from marrying by the local tyrant, who wants Lucia for himself. They are forced to flee their home, and The Betrothed chronicles their subsequent adventures, creating along the way a vivid panorama of Italian life in the early seventeenth century. It is almost what used to be called a 'rattling good yarn'; Manzoni's skilful unfolding of the tale keeps you hanging on and wanting to know what happens next. Or at least it has with me so far, and I have every faith I'm going to make it to the end of this whopping book.