Thursday 21 May 2020

Finishing The Betrothed

I have now completed my big 'lockdown' reading project. Yes, I've finished reading Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed – and, as my occasional progress reports have made clear, it's been a pleasure. Indeed, I was enjoying it so much that as the end drew near I slowed down to make it last longer. This might seem odd when The Betrothed is, among other things, a 'plague novel', a tale of pestilence – hence its sudden unavailability on Amazon.
  The descriptions of the plague in Milan are indeed harrowing, but the ever present author is at pains to spare us from too much horror, and he maintains his tone of lightly inflected irony through everything. Manzoni is less interested in the horrific scenes he paints than in the range of human responses to the plague, all the way from saintly self-abnegation to depraved criminality – and in the folly let loose by the plague. The most striking instance of the latter (and something that was new to me) was the mass hysteria over 'anointing'. From the excitable masses to the most learned and rational in the land, all were firmly convinced that the pestilence was being deliberately spread by individuals painting walls, streets or healthy people's clothing with a noxious concoction that infallibly passed on the plague to all who came in contact with it. Some kind of toxic powders were also purportedly used to the same end. In response the masses administered summary justice, killing many innocent people on suspicion of 'anointing'. At least we haven't experienced anything like that in the course of the great Covid panic – nor, as will surely be clear to anyone who reads The Betrothed (or Journal of the Plague Year or La Peste or any other plague fiction) is Covid anything like as terrifying, as deadly or as infectious as the bubonic plague, which could strike anyone of any age at any time and, usually, kill them in double quick time. This is quite a useful perspective to have in these crazed times.
  But never mind the plague. Though memorably vivid and brilliantly written, the plague chapters only account for a small portion of Manzoni's huge novel, which, despite its size, is essentially about just one thing: the fate of the sundered lovers, Renzo and Lucia. We keep on reading because we want to discover their fate; it's as simple as that. This is not a panoramic, cast-of-thousands historical epic; indeed, it has a surprisingly small cast of characters. As I've said before, it's the manner of Manzoni's telling of the tale, and his unique, engaging tone of voice, that keeps us reading.
  And what does become of Renzo and Lucia? I'd better not give that away, but just urge anyone who's looking for a hefty classic that they might actually enjoy reading to give The Betrothed a try. If you can find a copy (and do get the Bruce Penman translation – it's brilliant).
  Surprisingly for such a naturally gifted storyteller, Manzoni wrote no other sustained fiction. The Betrothed was instantly hailed as the first great novel of modern Italy, and Manzoni became a hero of the newly unified nation. Verdi's mighty Requiem was written to honour his memory. Has any other writer had such a grand musical memorial? I can't think of one – over to you, Mahlerman?


  1. Stop press: It's available again on Amazon now...

  2. I always knew that you would like. Can I recommend another book? Leonardo sciascia's The witch and the captain. It's a wonderful hommage to Manzoni

  3. Thanks for the tip Ricardo. I certainly enjoyed The Betrothed, much more than I expected.