The Betrothed: A Novel, by Alessandro Manzoni, translated and with an introduction by Michael F. Moore (Modern Library, 704 pp., $28.99)

Sometimes language is alive, and its liveliness is something we sense when we encounter it. It makes us aware of what can be done with words, even if most of us can’t pull it off ourselves. In the case of the written word, our spoken words often pale in comparison. Consider the great works of theater: Doesn’t it make you feel ashamed that you don’t actually speak like that—as lucidly, precisely, or sarcastically as we could?

Alessandro Manzoni’s novel, I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) dates first to 1825–1827, when it appeared serially in three volumes, and then to 1840–1842, during which a revised version came out in 96 installments. Manzoni—the sesquicentennial of his death is in May—not only painstakingly polished his own words for the revised edition but also put up his own money to publish it. As with many of his entrepreneurial ventures (he was a passionate botanist and agriculturist, undertaking experiments in his countryside mansion), the revised version was not a financial success, and he recovered only half of the invested capital. He did, however, succeed in putting his stamp on the history of literature and of the Italian language.

Manzoni’s words are still perhaps the liveliest ever to have been written in Italian. True, in the twentieth century, Italian writers tried many experiments; some played with words like expert jugglers. But Manzoni’s words keep evolving, and not just because all Italians speak them, in the sense that some of his turns of phrase (“la sventurata rispose, il coraggio uno non se lo può dare”) became idioms. They are potent and clear at the same time and there is something terse about them (“the sky above Lombardy, so beautiful when it’s beautiful, so splendid, so serene”). Author and screenwriter Ennio Flaiano once said that when he was sad, he would turn to Manzoni’s magnum opus, which never failed to cheer him up. This is the effect that Manzoni’s Italian produces.

A new edition of The Betrothed appeared recently in American bookstores, translated and with an introduction by Michael F. Moore and prefaced by Pulitzer-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri speaks of Moore’s “epic translation” and emphasizes how Moore’s objective was “to modernise Manzoni, and thereby to render this classic work of Italian literature sprightly and contemporary.”

Moore’s “epic translation” is a success. Like many others in Italy, I first read Manzoni in high school. We read chapters serially, which then became the subjects of weekly tests. But approaching the novel, as we did, like a chemistry textbook invariably blinds the reader to its beauties. Umberto Eco used to say that the best way to make Italians appreciate I promessi sposi would be to make it illegal, so that people could rediscover reading it as a guilty pleasure. For some of us, reading The Betrothed now becomes the ultimate pleasure, many years after we suffered through it in high school. If a novel ought to be “the one bright book of life,” Manzoni’s certainly is.

Moore’s translation is lively and does justice to Manzoni’s language. I’ve read the story of Gertrude, the noble girl forced by her father to join a convent, who becomes the sadly corrupted “Nun of Monza.” It is a masterpiece in which Manzoni explores “the muddle of the human heart,” choosing his words with loving care. In an interview with an Italian newspaper, he explained that he conducted thorough research—for example, translating “Azzeccagarbugli” (which later became a universal nickname for lawyers’ habit of inflating words at the expense of substance) as “Argle-Bargle,” a term used in a dissent by Justice Antonin Scalia.

Manzoni’s scintillating language, so well rendered by Moore, is the primary reason American readers should pick up this translation. But there are others. A few biographical details about Manzoni are in order here. Manzoni descended from the most illustrious families of the Milanese Enlightenment. His maternal grandfather was Cesare Beccaria, the author of “Dei delitti e delle pene” (“Of Crimes and Punishments”), an essay which, in the Enlightenment spirit, advocated crime prevention and the abolition of torture and capital punishment. His biological father was not Count Pietro Manzoni but possibly Giovanni Verri, whose more famous brothers, Pietro and Alessandro, edited the journal Il Caffè, which infused the Milanese cultural scene with new ideas. Thus Count Manzoni, Giulia Beccaria’s husband in a very unhappy marriage, possibly owes the immortality of his family name to his wife’s cuckolding.

Manzoni knew little of his mother, Giulia Beccaria, until he was 20 and joined her in Paris, where she had moved with her lover Carlo Imbonati. There, young Alessandro was introduced to the ideologues, particularly his mother’s friend Sophie de Condorcet and her lover Claude Fauriel. A philologist and historian, Fauriel became Alessandro’s mentor and lifelong correspondent. Manzoni married Enrichetta Blondel, “the daughter of a Swiss Calvinist who had made his fortune in the silk trade,” in 1808. In 1810, the two were “in the crowds of Parisians celebrating Napoleon’s marriage to Marie-Louise, Archduchess of Austria, when firecrackers went off, creating pandemonium. The two were separated, and Manzoni, who suffered from agoraphobia for much of his adult life, sought refuge in the Church of Saint-Rohac. . . . There, Manzoni allegedly vowed to convert to Catholicism if he was reunited with his wife.”

In Italian high schools, professors never fail to impress on students how important Manzoni’s Catholic faith is for The Betrothed. Indeed, divine Providence hovers over the story, and eventually ensures a happy ending to a turbulent series of events. In itself, the novel tells a simple tale: two humble people—a weaver, Renzo Tramaglino, and his girlfriend, Lucia Mondella—are about to get married. But “this marriage ain’t gonna happen,” a feudal thug, Don Rodrigo, intimates to the local parish priest, Don Abbondio, who is supposed to marry the two. Don Abbondio was “not born with the heart of a lion,” and his cowardice sets in motion a series of events, including the two unfortunate youths’ moving from their native Lecco to Milan, Renzo’s involvement in political turmoil, and Lucia’s kidnapping by the “Nameless One.” The latter is a gangster far more powerful than Don Rodrigo but also a man with a sense of duty and unacknowledged profundity. His meeting with Lucia is the spark that kindles his repentance and return to the bosom of the Church, such that he moves “from being the scourge of the area to its model citizen and benefactor.” Manzoni’s faith aided him in producing vibrant pages that immortalize the “surprise of joy” that comes with conversion. These pages are the reason why Pope Francis, for example, is a fan of the book, and why they have the capacity to overwhelm even the most secular of readers.

The story is set in 1630, during the war of Mantuan succession (a spinoff of the Thirty Years’ War), which was devastating northern Italy at the time, even as the plague also wreaked havoc in Milan. Manzoni’s book is the historical novel par excellence, written in the mold of Walter Scott and also reminiscent of the intuitions of Augustin Thierry, another friend of Claude Fauriel. From Thierry—who blamed historians for writing histories of France that paid heed only to great conquerors and military men, and not to traders, workers, and “common” people—Manzoni learned that history is woven by many hands, beginning with ordinary people. Manzoni’s choice of subject was controversial at the time: his friend Niccolò Tommaseo commented in a review of the novel that “a hillbilly can certainly be worthy of no less esteem than a king: but I wonder whether he deserves to be the subject of a novel.”

Manzoni’s interest in common people points to his classical liberalism, which also shows in his understanding of economics. He was a connoisseur of Adam Smith’s and Jean-Baptiste Say’s work. Italian economist (and later President of the Republic) Luigi Einaudi recommended The Betrothed as “one of the best treatises on political economy ever written.”

The Betrothed includes, in chapter 12, a forceful denunciation of the uselessness of price controls. In years of a meager harvest, and particularly when the circumstances of war exacerbated shortages, there is only one remedy, Manzoni writes: a “rise in prices,” which is indeed “painful” but also “corrective, and inevitable” and may attract supplies from abroad. Setting an artificially lower price pleases the masses but creates no new corn. Manzoni writes that price controls are like “an aging woman who thinks she can be young again by simply altering her birth certificate.”

But Manzoni also understands the psychology of the masses, and why they ask for a solution to the scarcity that is, to quote H.L. Mencken, “neat, simple, and wrong.” The masses forget that they “had feared and predicted” the shortages and “suddenly imagine that there is enough wheat, and the real culprit is that not enough is being sold for consumption: assumptions that are neither in heaven nor on earth but are based in equal parts on anger and wishful thinking.” As Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, “The popular fear of engrossing and forestalling may be compared to the popular terrors and suspicions of witchcraft. The unfortunate wretches accused of this latter crime were not more innocent of the misfortunes imputed to them than those who have been accused of the former.” Manzoni understands how people lie to themselves, search for a culprit, and selectively forget that events may have more than one cause. His pages resonate well with what we know from contemporary cognitive psychology.

My only criticism of Moore’s translation is that it does not include a short historical essay Manzoni wrote in 1829, “Storia della colonna infame” (The Column of Infamy). It investigates the proceedings of a 1630 inquiry in which the accused were considered guilty of spreading the plague by smearing people and objects with a venomous ointment (untori). Of course, this was not the cause, but the people of Milan could not accept that the plague, like the shortages, was the outcome of many concurring factors.

Manzoni’s book is hopeful about the role of Providence in human affairs, but he knew well that things often go wrong, that bad things happen to good people, and that history is not necessarily written by “visible hands.” His work is a plea to be mindful of the richness and complexity of human affairs and a robust antidote to the instinctual attitude to search for “enemies” instead of coping with problems and their effects.

Those who tend to diminish the importance of Manzoni in the history of the novel point out that he wrote only one. Beethoven, likewise, wrote only one opera, but that was Fidelio. The Betrothed is a testimony to the power of novels to illuminate history and “the muddle of the human heart.” This new translation is an exceptional chance to get acquainted with it.

Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images


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