Alessandro Manzoni

Alessandro Manzoni

Alessandro Manzoni

Alessandro Manzoni


It is many years since I first read Manzoni's Promessi Sposi and I have often returned to the book since. Yet in writing this essay on Manzoni I have felt an old uneasiness. How is it possible to present Manzoni in terms of clear ideas? Is it that deep down I am divided about him; that I admire him as a great European writer, and then at times feel that the grounds of that admiration are evanescent? Is it that in the restlessness and anguish of the mid-twentieth century Manzoni is too calm, too enraciné? Is it that we cannot place the book in the history of European novels? Is it Manzoni's virtuousness that is a barrier?

At least this can be said. We live in 'abnormal', unpredictable times, and Manzoni was in his writing always 'normal'. He was never damné, never scintillating, never paradoxical. His work was a work of common sense, of pedestrian observation architected to the level of genius.

There have been many misunderstandings about Italian culture in modern times, but the one about Manzoni has been the greatest of them all. I do not want to admit that literary taste is 'national'. Yet how explain that modern Italian writers who are most admired in the English-speaking countries, Italo Svevo and Ignazio Silone, have been indifferently received in their own country, whereas the admitted master of all Italian novelists has for so long failed to reach the extra-Italian world? Perhaps we can begin by taking it on faith that fifty million people cannot be wrong. We must be prepared to find Manzoni's work 'foreign'; if we expect it to conform to standards set by French or English novelists we will never understand it.

At times I have supposed that Italian is a language that does not translate, that Italian prose loses its savour in another language, that it is like those Italian wines whose bouquet we can only appreciate in the native hills. But I have suggested further reasons for the long neglect of Manzoni.

This neglect was only repaired in 1951, when the first unabridged version of I Promessi Sposi in English, done by Archibald Colquhoun, appeared on the bookstalls. The Betrothed was discovered by English critics. It takes its place belatedly on our bookshelves, together with the other great European novels that have become classics--and it still remains unique, unlike them all. I wish to thank Mr Colquhoun for permission to quote liberally from his version. And I ask the readers of this little book to get hold of it for themselves.


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