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The Great Unread

August 26, 2014 | by

Why do some classics continue to fascinate while others gather dust?

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An illustration by Attilio Mussino from a 1911 edition of The Adventures of Pinocchio.

Even in our era of blurb inflation, it’s hard to top Giuseppe Verdi’s claim that Alessandro Manzoni’s novel The Betrothed (1827) was “a gift to humanity.” Verdi was hardly alone in praising the author, who ranks second only to Dante in Italian literary history. Manzoni’s contemporaries Goethe and Stendhal celebrated his genius, while the critic Georg Lukács said that The Betrothed was a universal portrait of Italy so complete that it exhausted the genre of the historical novel. In Italy, such is the ubiquity of Manzoni’s novel that Umberto Eco claimed “almost all Italians hate it because they were forced to read it in school.” Manzoni was named senator in 1860 by the Italian government; in his greatest honor, Verdi dedicated his Requiem to him on the one-year anniversary of his death.

So why do few outside of Italy care about Manzoni—or, even more tellingly, why do they care much more about other books, written around the same time as The Betrothed and devoted to themes similar to its own? By comparison, one of the best-selling Italian books of all time is Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio (1881), the story of a mischievous puppet who dreams of becoming a boy. The scholar Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg has shown that Pinocchio, in his struggle to assert his individuality against the controlling wishes of the outside world, represented the archetypal Italian child in the newly formed nation: the book first appeared twenty years after unification. Similarly, Manzoni’s Betrothed gives us two typical Italian peasants, Renzo and Lucia, who struggle to marry and build a life together amid class inequality, foreign occupation, and church domination.

But here the similarities end: Manzoni’s novel promotes a Christian faith whose adherents are rewarded for submitting to God’s providential wisdom. Collodi’s story, beyond exploring the plight of Italians in their newborn nation, describes how children learn to make their way in an adult society, with all its strictures and codes of behavior. Manzoni’s legacy in Italy is so strong that his book will always be read there. But outside of Italy, those same readers curious about Collodi’s star-crossed puppet are likely never to give Manzoni’s thoroughly Christian universe a second thought.

This contrast, between a celebrated and largely unread classic and an enduringly popular classic, shows that a key to a work’s ongoing celebrity is that dangerous term: universality. We hold the word with suspicion because it tends to elevate one group at the expense of another; what’s supposedly applicable to all is often only applicable to a certain group that presumes to speak for everybody else. And yet certain elements and experiences do play a major role in most of our lives: falling in love, chasing a dream, and, yes, transitioning as Pinocchio does from childhood to adolescence. The classic that keeps on being read is the book whose situations and themes remain relevant over time—that miracle of interpretive openness that makes us feel as though certain stories, poems, and plays are written with us in mind.

In his Defence of Poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley writes that great literature is “a fountain forever overflowing with the waters of wisdom and delight; and after one person and one age has exhausted all its divine effluence … another and yet another succeeds, and new relations are ever developed.” Shelley understood that some works have the magical capacity to resist closure—they read us as much as we read them, by revealing what is most important to our lives individually and our age collectively. Each great book, Shelley writes, is “the first acorn, which contained all oaks potentially”: the meaning we derive from literature changes over time, though the words on the page remain the same.

Sometimes we even look for meaning that isn’t really there—at least not in the way that the author intended it. In 1756, Voltaire proclaimed “nobody reads Dante anymore,” and indeed the Enlightenment had little time for Dante’s religious allegories and Christian doctrine. He was about to go the way of Manzoni’s Betrothed: a classic that was once much admired but now rarely read. Then the Romantics came along and rediscovered Dante, celebrating his individuality and heroism—those same qualities from Inferno that Dante would reject in Paradiso. But that didn’t matter to the Romantics. They creatively misread Dante, and in so doing made him the literary touchstone he is today. Our interest in Dante’s hell, the universality of its concern with questions of justice and crime and punishment, overrides our indifference to his medieval vision of Christianity.

Manzoni famously announced that The Betrothed would reach only “twenty-five readers,” yet his book became a national treasure. Its inability to attract a non-Italian audience isn’t the result of its artistic shortcomings, but of the nature of its questions and themes, which simply don’t appeal to a contemporary audience. No literary work can predict the future, but some do a better job than others in carving out a space for readers of all types and from all epochs. Where Manzoni failed, others, like Collodi, succeed. Manzoni’s novel exudes a Christian faith at odds with an increasingly secularized world; Collodi’s focuses on the eternal plight of children in the land of grown-ups.

W. E. B. Du Bois defended the necessity of a liberal arts education for recently emancipated African Americans by saying, “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not.” Separated from Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England by centuries, he still found in the plays a universal space where he could explore his common humanity with Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello. The greatest defense of the classics, he understood, was to keep reading them—and to let them keep reading us.

Joseph Luzzi teaches at Bard and is the author of the new memoir My Two Italies.

24 COMMENTS

15 Comments

  1. Shelley | August 26, 2014 at 1:36 pm

    “The magical capacity to resist closure”–well said.

  2. Rosa | August 27, 2014 at 6:56 am

    We are in the era of Math and Science. Perhaps we would be a better society if we were able to encourage our youth to drink in the knowledge contained in the Classics. Gearing young people toward job training rather than a liberal arts education robs them of knowing the great thinkers and the privilege to continue to enrich their thoughts via their timeless writings.

  3. GQ | August 27, 2014 at 11:25 am

    “The Betrothed” can be found in translation in every used book shop in Brazil. The most common editions date from the early eighties. A new translation was released recently. I don’t think it’s a popular book by any means, but it hasn’t been forgotten either—not yet at least. It’s much, much easier to find a copy of that book here than to find any Portuguese translation of Shelley, for instance. Does the author of the article assume that international books that are ignored in the Anglosphere have had the same fate elsewhere? Not a safe premise.

  4. Ted Fontenot | August 27, 2014 at 10:20 pm

    Some are simply more readable than others. Some tell an engrossing story while making points about the human condition. Like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Others are just hard work. Like Moby Dick or The Sound and the Fury. You learn something, but, God, it was a slog.

  5. Beckmesser | August 27, 2014 at 10:58 pm

    Universality is problematic. I’m reminded of Stanley Hoffman’s definition of ethnocentricity: “There are universal values and they happen to be mine”

  6. Harrumphrey | August 28, 2014 at 6:10 am

    ‘Pinocchio’ is a bestseller because of a Disney cartoon — Manzoni has had no such luck yet. Voltaire, quoted here in one of his numberless effortlessly flippant remarks, survives mainly as a figure even in France — of all his works only ‘Candide’ retains some of its original fame. Outside of France, its modest length and easy French might have something to do with that…. Some interesting points here, though I’m not sure that I entirely buy the view of how/why a given work continues to be read, within the culture for which it was written, or in translation and in another context. Then again, to my mind ‘classics’ aren’t ‘Penguin Classics’ or ‘Oxford World Classics’ — they’re works in Latin or Greek. The educational traditions that permit these to be read have diminished since World War II. Even in a place where Latin continues to be read and studied, the survival of a given Latin classic is not ensured: the greatest of Roman lyric poets, Horace, boasted ‘non omnis moriar’ (‘I shall not fully die’ or something like that — Ode III.30). This was truer than he imagined, because from late antiquity till the early Renaissance his great odes were effectively in a coma and spent the better part of a millennium read by virtually nobody except maybe a handful of monks copying manuscripts in scattered places over the centuries (Dante seems only to have known Horace’s satires — and he read everything). Greek literature was, for all intents and purposes, as dead as Sumerian and Akkadian in Western Europe for even longer — there’s no room to start this complicated discussion here…. I bring all this up because ‘classic’ is such a loaded term, and the circulation of a given work of literature perhaps involves more variables than the content/message of a work itself, or questions of ‘universality’ etc. In the case of ‘Pinocchio': the secularising ideologies of the Risorgimento and the similarities of Collodi’s narrative to Wes Anderson’s ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ haven’t done a hundredth as much for book sales as an attractive, well-marketed cartoon has (and the book isn’t as good as the film, or so I thought when I was five). Too cynical a view?

  7. Jonathan | August 28, 2014 at 8:09 am

    So, ‘universal’ equals ‘stuff secular Westerners in the early 21st century find appealing’? Sigh…

  8. David Lloyd-Jones | August 28, 2014 at 10:14 am

    Anonymous “Rosa” writes:

    “We are in the era of Math and Science. Perhaps we would be a better society if we were able to encourage our youth to drink in the knowledge contained in the Classics. ”

    Um. Euclid? Pythagoras? Newton?

    -dlj.

  9. Nathan | August 28, 2014 at 12:25 pm

    I first heard of Manzoni during a period in which I was just overwhelmed by Verdi’s Requiem, which broadened my emotional life. I was equally astonished and challenged by Manzoni’s The Betrothed. Why had I never heard of this novel!? I read it in English, but I also dipped into some passages of I promessi sposi just to try to get a feel for the Italian. The novel has been one of my best and most profound reading experiences.

    The question of universality really is the issue here. The providence underlying everything in the novel–or rather the WAY that providence underlies and participates in everything in the novel–that was strange and unacceptable and even schlocky and yet somehow beautiful and challenging to me. I did not really come to terms with it until the very end, when the opening scene involving the cowardly and selfish and small-minded priest is repeated in an altogether changed context and so with an altogether different meaning.

    I think the universality here lies in the challenge to carry the desire for meaning (and beauty and justice) all the way through: to imagine that there is an ultimate meaning and that it subsists in each particular action and event and moment. It’s something one should seriously consider, seriously try to imagine, at least once in life, however it turns out –and Manzoni helps us to do this.

    Just as with Verdi and the challenge to turn myself loose to feel the emotions of the Requiem (through a Toscanini recording on old vinyl!), so it was with Manzoni and the challenge to think and feel and imagine a longing for meaning and something that corresponded to it in a way that went beyond my previous experience.

    In the end, one may not become a believer in such things, but the experience is surely part of what is universal, part of any humanism. How would one know what belief and unbelief really were unless one had experienced the Mass in B Minor?

    Modern European societies may be narrowly secular in their universality. The study of literature in American universities may have become a sociologically/sociolinguistically oriented study of the correct way to address problems involving race, class, gender, sexuality, and so on. But, still, this larger humanism will be implicated in some unthought way in such societies and such forms of literary study, and will be calling us back to ourselves in our most profound thought and emotions and desires.

    Manzoni may yet find a few more readers.

  10. Amrit Zoad | August 28, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    Reading this made clear some of my misconceptions regarding the Reader Base for any author. As said by Joseph Luzzi,”The classic that keeps on being read is the book whose situations and themes remain relevant over time—that miracle of interpretive openness that makes us feel as though certain stories, poems, and plays are written with us in mind.” Which according to me simply means-“Give the readers what they will care for & not what they already care for, but keeping all the other things same.” And if you are writing something about a new world, where things are different from what they are now & hoping for a good Reader Base, then this can only make your literary work a “classic”.

  11. Don Kenner | August 28, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    ‘W. E. B. Du Bois defended the necessity of a liberal arts education for recently emancipated African Americans by saying, “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not.” ‘

    This idea seems to be dying. When universities cut out traditional literature and poetry and replace it with politicized classes based on gender, race, and climate change (as UCLA did recently) the response from many African-American students is “Good! I didn’t want to study what some old, dead, white man wrote anyway.”

    Many will not sit with Shakespeare, but prefer the comforts of the tribe and smug satisfaction of partisan politics. Perhaps The Paris Review could undertake a project: explaining universality to academics.

  12. Kay Wisniewski | August 28, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    How odd. You assume that religious themes are not universal when the majority of people at the majority of times have been, in some way religious, and will continue to be so. From what I see, among many intellectuals there is a fidgety unwillingness to stretch one’s imagination to enter into new worlds — if the new worlds have explicit religious content. Any other kind of new world is fine. This purposeful deafness, this defensive lack of empathy in one specific area, feels unbalanced to me. The Paradiso is amazing–any lover of poetry will most likely be transported by it, if they give it a chance and get a translation that works for them. And, my guess is that the Paradiso will long outlive this contemporary small-mindedness. Last of all, just cause Shakespeare’s religious content is implicit, does not mean that it does not exist.

  13. Alexandra Rodrigues | August 28, 2014 at 6:36 pm

    In this topsy turby world, Fairytales are often easier to believe and more fun to read than Reality stories.

  14. Allen Levy | August 29, 2014 at 2:39 pm

    The key word here is not universality, so much, as “generosity”— the ability to find what is human, in spite of human frailty, cruelty, folly. That’s why I love “Tristram Shandy.” A very funny book, and full of generosity and forgiveness for the “hobby horses” (our pet beliefs) we all ride.

  15. andrew | October 2, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    “An increasingly secularized world”…no wonder he teaches at Bard.

9 Pingbacks

  1. […] Just published! My piece in the Paris Review, on why some “classic” books endure while others just gather dust… [read here] […]

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  3. […] The Great Unread – Joseph Luzzi explores that age previous query: Why do some classics proceed to fascinate whereas others collect mud? To take action, he appears at two Italian classics Alessandro Manzoni’s novel The Betrothed, common in Italy, however not anyplace else, and Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, which is universally beloved and regularly referenced everywhere in the world. […]

  4. […] The Great Unread – Joseph Luzzi explores that age previous query: Why do some classics proceed to fascinate whereas others collect mud? To take action, he seems to be at two Italian classics Alessandro Manzoni’s novel The Betrothed, well-liked in Italy, however not anyplace else, and Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, which is universally beloved and regularly referenced everywhere in the world. […]

  5. […] to account for a classic that clings? On the Paris Review website recently, Joseph Luzzi contrasted the currency of two 19th century Italian novels: […]

  6. […] Why are some classics as read as they are talked about, while others gather dust on the shelf? The Paris Review explores the tricky question of universality. […]

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