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Alessandro Manzoni, like Emily Brontë, wrote only one novel. In Emily Brontë’s case it was because she died only a year after Wuthering Heights was published. I Promessi Sposi was published in 1827. Manzoni died in 1873 but wrote nothing else. Instead, he spent most of his time re-writing his first novel for subsequent editions – a bane or a boon to critics and editors, depending on your point of view.
I Promessi Sposi occupies a place in the Italian school curriculum which Michael Gove MP, our current Secretary of State for Education, would die for. Most English children have never read Wuthering Heights or even heard of it. All Italian children read I Promessi Sposi.
When I showed an Italian friend the book I had just bought in a second-hand bookshop, he winced. For an Italian, Manzoni’s book is the literary equivalent of national service. That is to say, it’s compulsory and it lasts for two years. When I had read it and was discussing it with him, he identified the chapters not by their place in the book, but by the school year in which they have to be studied.
“Si, si! The chapter about the plague. We read that when we are ten or eleven.”
The two books, published within twenty years of each other, are classics of different kinds. Wuthering Heights is a classic of English romanticism, a Lyrical Ballad of a book. I Promessi Sposi is a classic of Italian nationalism, a Risorgimento of a book. Manzoni became a symbol of national pride. He was given a state funeral and it was for him that Verdi composed his Requiem.
Manzoni’s book has the subtitle, ‘A Tale of XVII Century Milan’. The style is realistic. It begins with a detailed description of the landscape in the region of northern Italy where the action takes place and includes vivid accounts of historical events, including street riots, banditry and plague. The characters are at one and the same time representative types and credible individuals. Compelling narrative and sympathetic characters (even the villains are sympathetic) combine with historical accuracy and political engagement to create a novel of great power and complexity.
Some people have compared it to Candide, seeing a similarity between the betrothed couple of the title and the two innocents whose misfortunes Voltaire recounts. But I Promessi Sposi is not social satire. Manzoni is more Hugo than Voltaire. Others have detected the influence of Sir Walter Scott, whose novels were popular at the time throughout Europe, but Manzoni’s treatment of history is more complex and subtle than Scott’s. Perhaps the best way to describe it is simply to say that it is Italian. It owes as much to Boccaccio and Machiavelli as it does to any other European writers Manzoni may have read. It tells a story about real people, with humour and understanding.
More interesting than to ask who influenced Manzoni is to ask who Manzoni influenced. The most striking feature of his book is the sympathy it evokes for the poor and the anger it provokes against injustice. In that, it is like almost every Italian novel I have ever read and every Italian film I have ever seen. The poor, in Italian culture, you will always have with you. From Verga’s Cavalleria Rusticana to Rossellini’s Roma, città aperta and Moravia’s La ciociara, the rural and urban poor fill the page, the stage and the screen.
Manzoni himself wrote of the poor as ‘an immense multitude, one generation after the other, passing on the face of the earth, without leaving a trace in history.’ It was, he said, ‘a sad phenomenon the importance of which cannot be overlooked, and finding the causes of such a silence may give rise to even more important discoveries.’
It seems odd now that Manzoni’s novel, the hero of which is a monk and the anti-hero a robber baron who is miraculously converted to Christianity halfway through the book, should have been banned by Rome on its first publication. But authority can never tolerate ambiguity and, as a writer, Manzoni was always ambiguous. He once called himself ‘an irresolute Utopian’. It is the same ambiguity, the same sympathy, that we see in Pasolini, who could make beautiful films of St Matthew’s gospel one day and Boccaccio’s Decameron the next.
Most countries have two or three writers who have helped to shape their national identity. Shakespeare and Dickens in England, Voltaire and Hugo in France, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in Russia, Goethe in Germany, Cervantes in Spain. (America is too young yet, its national identity too insecure. Is it Edith Wharton or Walt Whitman? Melville or Hemingway? James Fennimore Cooper or Ralph Waldo Emerson? There is no obvious candidate for the job.) But I can think of no other country where, if my Italian friend is not exaggerating, a single book is so important that it might as well be part of the constitution.
There is nothing in England like it. The only book I can think of that once held something like a comparable place in the national consciousness is The Pilgrim’s Progress. For the best part of three hundred years Bunyan was required reading. But only for Protestants, not for Catholics. England has always been at odds with itself. Subject to occasional revolts and rebellions, by Catholics or peasants or working men, but never a full-blown revolution. Never a Risorgimento. There was no call for it.
The English I Promessi Sposi would be Love on the Dole or Love and Mr Lewisham or A Kind of Loving, minor English classics about love in a minor English key. We are a nation of irresolute Utopians. Don’t talk to us about Utopia, we invented it. What’s more, we executed the man who wrote it.
The Italians are right to be proud of Manzoni, though whether they are right to make everyone read his book is another matter. My Italian friend might appreciate the book’s qualities now, but he did not appreciate having to read it when he was a schoolboy. I appreciate its qualities too and wish more English people would read it (and fewer Italians). But I wouldn’t make them read it or test them on it afterwards. Sometimes governments pay too much attention to the knowledge they want us to have and not enough to the ignorance they ought to dispel.
I would make Manzoni required reading for government ministers, but for nobody else.