The Notting Hill Napoleons had not read an Italian author since we tackled Dante Alighieri some 12 or 13 years ago. But the discussion over The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi) by Alessandro Manzoni suggests that we waited much too long to do so.
Our response to Manzoni’s classic story of devout Christians struggling to overcome injustice, corruption, war and the ravages of the plague in 17th Century Italy was nearly unanimous – we liked it and liked it a lot. In fact, drawing very positive comparisons to some of our favorite authors (Hugo, Dickens and Dumas), Manzoni’s epic work was even installed by a couple of Napoleons into their Top Ten. Given the quality of our reading over the years, that’s a pretty heady accomplishment indeed. But then, Ron Prenot and James Woods, two of our bookish buddies who had enthusiastically recommended The Betrothed to us for quite a while, will be hardly surprised. Thanks guys, for promoting it. You were right on!
The Betrothed challenges the readers on many levels but it remains at all times a compelling read: complex, profound and of remarkable relevance to today’s Christian. There are scenes which command, at various times, the reader’s empathy, respect and outrage. There are riveting passages of moral instruction. There are marvelous twists and turns in the storyline that yet are so realistically reported that one can easily forget he is reading fiction. And finally, the novel contains the most strikingly quotable lines -- lines you want to memorize and have ready for your very next conversations.
The personages in The Betrothed also shine. For instance, had Alessandro Manzoni (shown as a young man at right) only left us with his characterization of Federigo Borromeo, the saintly Cardinal and Archbishop of Milan, his legacy would be praiseworthy. But, in addition, Manzoni gives us the finely detailed, provocative portrayal of the cowardly, earthbound churchman, Don Abbondio. He too is an unforgettable character, as powerful a teaching tool by negative example as is the Archbishop by positive. And what of the dramatic conversion story of the Unnamed? That too would make the time spent reading this historical saga more than worthwhile.
And yet, that’s not all. Indeed, I haven’t even mentioned the two lead characters, those whose relationship is featured in the novel’s title. There’s also as nasty an arch-villain as one could desire to root against, as mysterious a cloistered villainess as one could desire to figure out, and as compassionate and visionary a father figure as one could hope to find in real life.
I was (it’s not hard to figure out) one of those Notting Hill Napoleons who found The Betrothed to be a unique and truly outstanding novel, one that is particularly rich for the Christian who strives to live for God in the midst of a difficult, even hostile, culture. As such, I recommend Alessandro Manzoni’s work not only as a finely crafted and fulfilling novel, but also as a spiritual exercise of great value.
One final note: there are more than one translation of the work to choose from. (Showing up at our discussion that night were at least three.) The one that stood out as the most lively and readable to us was the one translated by Bruce Penman and that is the version I've linked to at the Amazon.com page earlier.