Dear friends and readers,
As felicitously translated by Frederick Randall, Confessions of an Italian, edited, introduced and annotated by Lucy Riall, Confessioni di un italiano (or Confessioni d’un Ottuagenario or Confessions of an Octogenarian), a profound and extraordinarily instructive 19th century novel about the risorgimento became our summer project on Trollope19thCStudies. We didn’t mean it to become that, but the book is very long, not susceptible to skimming, and so complicated, meandering in its storyline, and going through so many revolutions in so many different areas of Europe from the 1790s to nearly 1859 that it took time. It began as a suggestion by me after I read and sent to the listserv group an essay by Tim Parks, “Revolutionary Italy: The Masterwork,” NYRB (April 2, 2015) which praised the book so highly and did not honestly tell some of its flaws and problems.
It does live up to Parks’s promise in this way: it is a sort of alternative to Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi, which those who read 19th century novels will have heard of, and perhaps read, an equally long novel set in the 17th century, a sort of cross between Walter Scott and Victor Hugo. Unlike Nievo’s novel, it is set in the past, and does not begin to touch on revolutionary issues openly. Nievo’s book was published posthumously, and because it was radical in its approach (even to call yourself an Italian was problematic), it never achieved the circulation, much less the translations Manzoni’s work did. Randall’s translation may be the first to make the book readable to an English reader. See Angela Scordo-Polidori, “Beyond good and evil: Pisana and the birth of the Italian nation.” Italica 91.3 (2014): 343+, an essay on why, how the book was repressed, retitled, marginalized.
Here are a group of reviews which do justice to its finest qualities as well as suggesting that you do need to have an interest and some knowledge of Italy, the 19th century world of revolution, and willingness to meander, a love of meditative reading to enjoy it. One offers a summary which I’m going to attempt (briefly I promise) too. Dacia Maraini, a good 20th century novelist, lists and describes it as among the great novels of 19th century Italy, in the way that Trollope used to be discussed for 19th century English novels. And a Thackerayan blogger (who must have patience if he reads Thackeray’s lesser known historical fiction, to say nothing of Pendennis which I never finished) found it something of a chore: Wuthering Expectations.
I admit that each time I put it down, having finished the very long chapter or (as we got towards the end) couple of chapters for the week before, was not enthusiastic to start up again, as I didn’t feel compelled by a forward thrusting story nor did I become intensely involved with individual characters who lasted sufficiently — I kept preferring characters who would be killed off, or twisted into repressed people (like Clara, turned into a nun), or who’d disappear into flight or exile. It was too masculinist: women, our narrator asserts, exist to give birth to men, love to be nurses to men, all self-sacrifice, and their surprisingly free sexual lives must be kept hidden by him (for fear not just of the contemporary reader at the time, but as part of a code of not telling truths about women’s lives today). But I was startled to learn the heroine, who I didn’t like much, was a TV character in a program on Italian TV, is today the source of feminist controversy about the book: La Pisano is seen as standing for Italy itself. See Stephanie Hom Cary, “‘Patria’-otic Incarnations and Italian Character: discourses of nationalism in Ippolito Nievo’s Confessioni d’un Italiano.” Italica 84.2-3 (2007):214+.
Then each time I’d pick it up, I’d become involved again, interested, wanting to read Carlino’s thoughts, learn more of this ancien regime world (to which we kept returning) as the Castle of Fratto in Venice. A world recreated and evoked ironically and so vividly in Lampedusa’s The Leopard, which I read in the Italian as Il Gattopardo. Lampedusa’s novella might be read as an ironic coda to this book of revolution: here’s what the people turned to afterward. And then the revolutionary struggles, and then Napoleonic (a sort of Stendhal Julien Sorel world is evoked in some of Italy), and then the rigorismento and then reactionary regimed world of failed wars (Byron turns up, we spend time in Greece and Turkey). At each turn each group which ended up in charge (and it felt like musical chairs) turned out to be utterly self-centered, corrupt. The few idealists (like Garibaldi) were wished away, not helped deliberately. I’d soar with his meditations: thoughts on shadows of the mind, imagination, time and memory — to the point I bought myself the edition in a Pleiade-like Italian text (with much fuller and better notes, and an introduction by Marcella Goria which made the book pertinent today).
Arguably there are twelve different novels at least trying to get out, sometimes for a stretch a story which should have taken far more pages to come to life, or deep anguish is there and passed over. The first volume sets the scene at length: the world of the castle the boy grows up in, the destructive legacy. The second volume, the large perspective of the cities and movements across Italy, with the new arrangements of the 1830s, all collapsing ending in many deaths, exiles, women married off, gambling, in nunneries. Volume 3, the reaction and concluding wars and resolutions of the 1850s, including a long section taking place in America (south) where we see colonialism from the standpoint of settler colonialists. The author returned to war and died before he could revise. He is writing out of fear he would soon be killed. He saw all these people around him being ferociously slaughtered – and he records this fictionally. He wishes he could live to 80 but does not think he can and the book is his wish-fulfillment to live.
A few notes:
The narrator is an old man of 80 looking back to where he grew up as a child. He was a menial servant, a bastard nephew (his mother’s marriage a kind of Jane Eyre story where she dies in the streets after rebelling against an arranged marriage) in a great castle-house in the land just outside Venice. All the facets and types of the great house and its liens. There is a sophisticated in his understanding of the underbelly of political groups in charge, of the under-groups for position n household, in larger offices, in the countryside, and we are shown how in the end it’s the individual’s personal interests that makes him decide to do this or that.
I cannot begin to survey the characters. One of my favorite characters was Lucilio Vianello, a well read sensitive type, a reader, whose father makes him a doctor, and who eventually has to flee to England to remain alive (perhaps modeled on Mazzini) — his story early on has a biting satire on medicine at the time. Gradually a three sets of lovers emerge, and they (like Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, change with an era, play different but not unexpected roles, have children and their children children. The book’s undertow is deeply melancholy. We see how the Venetian curia and other Italian regional leaders retained power through their use of violence, prisons, egregious taxes; how the church kept its stranglehold on thought, families their place by ruthless use of arranged marriages. The matriarch spends her life gambling. A story of a smuggler, someone who began by trying to evade the horrendous taxes, harassed and hounded by the judiciary, the thugs who are looking for a Scott-like mysterious person on a horse, he dwindles into a hanger-on at the castle, who understands the tightening nooses around others and is protected not because he’s personally liked, but again for what he stands for. The way of life in the cities and great houses, in the peasant countryside, and why people cling to it, of Italian catholicism and its hypocrisies, a sharp sceptical light playing over everything (from gambling casinos to inward passionate natures. How men with groups of thugs backing them up is finally the basis for much local power, given legitimacy by laws, prisons. Some of the analogies with what happens are with today’s military oligarchy, its use of torture, with Austria-Hungary as the colonialist power.
Again and again Nievo has in mind an Italian great book, or poem, and is writing a story or producing a character which is a modern revitalization of the older type — Dante, Ariosto, Tasso, Foscolo, then minor types too, like Melusine. In the 19th century — and today too — poor people’s children led hard lives. We have this deeply romantic sequence of the boy escaping to the landscape and his dreams of himself as a hero with an utterly transgressive and endlessly deceitful) La Pisano as his beloved, a twist on the Daphnis and Chloe, Paul et Virginie scenario. We hear of the English romantic poets in their lairs too. This is the romantic period.
La Pisano is an Armida where we are shown the hypocrisy of the Venetian culture. Yet Carlino appears to accept the marriage of La Pisano to an old corrupt man and accept her liaison with an officer, Miniato. Then he rejoices when she leaves these people out of boredon and also disgust at their political behavior. She flees to him and they have a renewal of days of love. More troubling: he insists not only has she remained a virgin since marriage (or chaste), she has never fucked. I must use that word because there is every indication that lots of foreplay is what she repeatedly has indulged herself, all the men she has known, and Carlino too. This sick point of view that without genital intercourse sex doesn’t matter and one remains chaste is what we have seen in our own culture publicly more than once (if fucking is deniable) and is found in books from Richardson’s Pamela to the worst porn. When she visits Clara she lies endlessly. Carlino talks about honor and propriety as a surface thing so their living together is shameful only if it’s known. Elena Ferrante’s choice of anonymity has a long historical context.
The relationship between Carlino and his father is as problematic for a 20th century reader: the man deserted him, and first turns up well into Volume 2; it seems that is just what happened, no close parental nurturing is expected; the father is still this numinous figure partly because he comes across with money, partly because he enacts physical bravery. Children were expected to abase themselves; this is one of several areas Nievo never questions personally as Carlino. There are epistolary sections to carry us back and forward in time in these kinds of sudden non-explorations. The final section includes a long diary-journal. It’s a book which crosses waters and lagoons.
It’s structured as Carlino emerging from and then returning home, and then emerging again to join this and that group, a brief arduous quest, meeting world-historical people (from Napoleon to then famous generals and political leaders), and then collapse. On and off in the book he and La Pisano live together; at one point to save their lives they must flee to England, he is badly wounded, weak, so she turns into a beggar-prostitute to support them, and grows ill (TB) and dies. She has persuaded him into an arranged marriage, which at first seems equable but his wife is anything but an idealist, and their several children lead very different lives (from utopianist, to entrepreneurial careerist, to someone in retreat as a close son, a daughter, an exile who keeps slaves and dies abroad), only 2 out of 6 surviving to the end ….
In one section close to the book’s end: Count Raimondo (this is the heir to Castle of Fratto) finally writes a book that has been long in birth: A Historical Analysis of Venetian Trade. The whole section is unusually comic, especially to someone who has written anything today, published or self-published a book, endured all the joys and trials and tribulations of the early writing, the attempts to obtain a publisher and their grating refusals, and then somehow publish it. In Raimondo’s case he finally self-publishes (does it by subscription). Then he reads reviews of it, and discovers most of the reviews hardly bothered to read it (at least with any care), that the reviewers copy one another and not to accurately so that by the ninth copied-out half-review the book’s real tone and interests is wholly lost. Few are interested in anything but what happens today so eventually people say they’d like to read it for help in modern trade. The title is a satire on Venice’s power. What struck me most was how little has changed since the mid-19th century — I could recognize so many behaviors I’ve seen today.
I am a very unusual reviewer not necessarily for reading a book, but reading it carefully and writing a genuinely descriptive and analytical review. I sometimes think in self-satire that I do this because I’ve nothing better to do with my life. I didn’t have the problems of publishing — that came from the famous person Raimondo couldn’t seem to harness (in my case John Letts) but much of the rest of the process I experienced. Tyler wrote: “I loved all the stuff about Count Rinaldo trying to get his enormous book published – I wondered whether Nievo was trying to prophesy about how his own book’s publication would go … Some experiences haven’t changed much in the book publishing world in the last 150 or so years [since the rise of a literary marketplace and all its types of people]. We have the author presenting an indirect mirror of the way he supposes his book might get into print and be treated. Alas he didn’t live to do it – and as he seems to fear his own death there is poignancy in this section too.
The book is more relevant to us today than Tolstoy’s War and Peace to which I’d compare it. Its strength is its candour about how power works, who has it, groups of thugs as behind it, and in the end its depiction women. The history. Tyler wrote: “It almost reads like a long dream, nearly a nightmare, from which we eventually hope to awake and find a unified Italy.” It’s a much darker and despairing book than is being structured into the plot-design. It needed revision to bring out its more nihilistic apprehensions. Nievo wants a unified Italy but no where is there any sense that any place or group of people who will support this. Its great weakness is its important characters are insufficiently realized.
This from a 1906 enthusiastic review of the book by Kennardon (Italian Romance Writers, Brentano, 159-92):
Each phase in the life of Carlo Altoviti answers to an historical period; each stage of the national evolution corresponds with a crisis in his life. His childhood is spent in the midst of the obsolete feudal Venetian world, in the Frioul … No history could present a more accurate or more vivid description of the political and social life in the Italian Venezia, during [the] early years of the nineteenth century, than this romance of Nievo’s…. But it is more than a history of a political movement, more than a vivid picture of the social life of the times. [It may be read as] a psychological study; full of reality, power, and modernity. It lives!”
Germaine de Stael was the first writer to produce a treatise arguing that a particular text (say a novel) mirrored and explored, was a piece of the national culture it came out of. Before that people didn’t think of or discuss texts in that way. Another innovative aspect of Nievo’s book is he is doing just that (for more on this Nicolaek Iliescu, The Position of Ippolito Nievo in the Nineteenth-Century Italian Novel, PMLA, 75:3 [Jun., 1960]:272-282).
The listserv we read the book on being one usually devoted to Anthony Trollope, I’ll conclude: we might think of Trollope’s short story about the “Last Austrian who left Venice” as another coda to this novel. It takes place towards the close of the Austrian occupation and during its short span, a revolution is fought, and the Austrians ejected. Our heroine who decides she loves an Austrian officer must leave with him if she is to be his wife. Her brother and mother stay in Venice, loyal to their new national and old Venetian identities. If Lampedusa ironically shows us the same upper class groups are still in charge, and everyone still loving the old castle-countryside culture, Trollope brings home to us how important it is that different peoples forced to live together in an militarily occupied country genuinely come together, and that individuals hold fiercely to a social identity even when they see how it is imposed while resisting the thwarting of individual fulfillment. Nievo’s modernity is in line with Trollope’s.