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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. Read More »

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