Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Betrothed

Ciao amico! Benvenuti! Vieni con me in Italia bella! …Owl kisses her wingtips, Owl devours platters of spaghetti, Owl has plunged deep into Alessandro Manzoni’s old school epic The Betrothed (Bruce Penman’s translation) and is Italian.

The year is 1628. The place, in case you missed the memo, is Italy. Lucia and Lorenzo are in love and engaged to be married. The end, alla fine.  But no! The evilnous (evil+villainous)  Don Rodrigo happens to see Lucia walking down the road and his man parts go all “Oh hai there” and well, Don Rodrigo has minions and money and Lorenzo doesn’t so there is EPIC FLEEING! Riots! Hiding in nunneries! Famine! The PLAGUE!

Really. The plague.

Involuntary separation
 The best part? All of this is more or less happened because Manzoni wrote the book in 1827, and researched the living daylights out of it. The Betrothed is crissed and crossed with references to the manuals Manzoni consulted, his opinions on the manuals and then his opinion on everything in general. Manzoni has a lot of opinions.


(A) Manzoni as the omniscient narrator. Manzoni is the most crotchety, anal, judgmental, adorable sourpuss of a narrator ever. Whenever Lorenzo goes off and does something stupid (every few moments) Manzoni folds his hands over his stomach, rolls his eyes and goes—“Gentle reader, please don’t be such an idiot.” And when Manzoni approves, he nods his head, pats Lorenzo on the back, and keeps going.

(B) Manzoni as the tangent man. So, sometime Manzoni just totally forgets that he’s got lovers on the run and he stuffs Lucia in a nunnery, gets Lorenzo into heaps of trouble and then leaves them there because he’s busy introducing the newest member of the party, like a nun. Who maybe attempted murder.
And by the time Manzoni’s done talking about his murderess nun, you kinda want to be best friends with her.

(C) Manzoni the psychologist. Ten to one Manzoni’s the sort who sat on the edge of the room during all the big parties, scaring up the courage to ask lovely ladies to dance, or possibly not dancing at all because he was so busy watching people, because his novel is rich with minor human truths.

When a friend, then, indulges in the joy of unburdening a secret onto another friend’s bosom, he makes the latter, in his turn, feel the urge to taste the same joy himself. He implores him, it is true, not to tell a soul; but if such a condition were taken absolutely literally, it would at once cut off the flow of these joys at their very source. The general practice is for the secret to be confided only to an equally trustworthy friend, the same conditions being imposed on him.
Minor quibbles:

(A) Lucia spends most of the book, fainting, trembling, crying, pleading or blushing. Owl gets the idea Manzoni may have been slightly crushin’ on her which is probably why she’s less of a person and more of a symbol of dewy trembling maidenhood. Or head. (…Owl apologizes for crassness.) Ooh, and maybe why Manzoni keeps separating her from Lorenzo. Lucia must be his!

(B) Villainous men who spend their entire lives lopping off the heads of peasants for fun and going bowling with said heads, are not going to suddenly be tortured by guilt when they encounter a tremblingly-bosomy maiden. Yeah, even if she’s Lucia, and even if Manzoni’s crushin’ on her like no other. Owl ain’t buying it. Sorry.

Owl is dimly aware that The Betrothed is an Italian classic that’s the equivalent of a Dickens-Thackery lovechild (she’s quoting from Penman’s introduction), and it should be treated with solemn respect, say a thesis paper littered with buzz phrases like the ‘human condition’ and ‘agency’, but books are written primarily to be enjoyed, books become famous because they are enjoyable. The Betrothed is a carnival. It’s full of bright lights and colors, metaphorical clowns and jugglers, and the king of them all is Manzoni who keeps the plot sparkling and dancing so the reader can’t help turning the page.

The Betrothed is also comforting. It’s a carnival, but it’s the carnival your parents took you to when you were little, which ends with cotton candy on a stick, instead of say, getting eaten by a clown. Manzoni is a devout Christian, and in the end The Betrothed is a commentary on faith. Trust in Providence, Manzoni insists. Providence may kidnap while you’re walking down the street, may lock you in a cellar for no good reason, may decide to label you a criminal because you got drunk in the wrong place at the wrong time, but in the end, if you are good, if you are honest, and if you are pure of intent, despite all your mistakes, despite your complete and total foolishness, all the loose ends will fall neatly into place and Providence will take care of you.

If only Owl could believe this.


  1. Oh dear. I must read this.
    Must must must.

  2. It's all this and more. For realz, read it. Finding the Penman translation could be a challenge though. Amazon didn't even list it!

  3. "The Betrothed is crissed and crossed with references to the manuals Manzoni consulted, his opinions on the manuals and then his opinion on everything in general. Manzoni has a lot of opinions."

    Makes me think of House of Leaves XD

  4. @Gilrandir

    Are there opinions in House of Leaves? The first chapter freaked me out so bad I couldn't continue.

  5. If the book is half as entertaining as your review, I must read it. Also a murdering nun sounds very intriguing.

  6. @CHE
    It's so much more. It's Manzoni's life work and he put his heart, soul, a couple of sawed off angel wings, a few demon tails, and an entire year of Italian history in there. Wonderful stuff.

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