So, I was reading along in Ironies of Faith, continuing to be by turns enchanted and exasperated (not my cup of tea, literary criticism, but I really appreciate the lessons and commentary on Christian belief sprinkled throughout this book), when author Anthony Esolen began to discuss an Italian novel from the 1800s called I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed in English), which seemed like one I’d like to add to my to-read list. So I turned to the “Works Cited” list toward the back, to check which edition or translation Esolen had been referencing, and there I read that the book was, ahem, Number 21 in the Harvard Classics series. Which I have on my shelves. Which I have had on my shelves for nearly 20 years, to be more precise. Saying to myself, “surely he means a different Harvard Classics set” I went to look, and found, hidden in plain sight in the sea of red spines, I Promessi Sposi. Color my face as red as the book covers.
When I saw it, I remembered that I had seen it before, but had been put off by the foreign title (aren’t foreign titles for English translations a clue that the book is for snobs who like to brag about what they’ve read, or pretended to read?), and by the illustration opposite the title page, which is hideous and melodramatic. But against these I had the teasers in the Esolen book, so I put aside ‘Ironies’ and set in to read this one.
I thought, here and there in the early chapters, that it was, after a promising beginning, going to turn out to be too sweet for words. Twaddle, if you will.
I could not have been more wrong.
Oh, my. This is an extraordinary book, deep and deft, set in the midst of famine, war, plague, political intrigue, and class warfare, with historical detail that would do a nonfiction work proud, but one that never sinks into gratuitous gruesomeness. The action begins in late 1628. One of the heroes of the book is Federico Borromeo.
It reminds me a bit of something by Walter Scott, or something by Charles Dickens, or Thomas Costain, something along those lines, but notably Catholic and Italian and with its own voice. If you’re not Catholic (I’m not), don’t let that put you off. There are ups and downs and sweet spots and humor and tragedy, all woven together, so if you hit something that doesn’t suit you, hang on, you’ll soon be off in a different direction. Overall, a wise and wonderful, eye-opening, adventuresome, suspenseful read. It’s a book I’d like to see more widely read, if for no other reason than its piercing commentary on government and elites gone amok, or its contrasts between people who know how to love and those who try to make the universe spin around themselves, or its no-nonsense looks at what Christianity provides and what it demands.
In the Introductory Note to the Harvard Classics edition, it says that the book originally came out in 1825-26, but that the author, caught up in the disputes of which Italian dialect should be used as the standard in prose, rewrote the entire novel to take out all non-Tuscan idiom, and republished it in 1840. The note does not, however, tell me whether the Harvard Classic text is from the first or the second version, nor who the translator is. Nor does the title page tell me who the translator is. Yargh. Whoever did it, it’s a first class read. Expect me to hand you some selected passages and shorter quotes over time. There are some gems to share.
So, it took me about a week to read the book, then I went back to the Esolen book – only to find that he picked up the discussion of I Promessi Sposi in the next section of his book, and that if I hadn’t jumped out when I did, I would have been up against some serious spoilers, some of which might have made me hesitate to read the book. Whew. Sometimes I get lucky.
Definitely recommended, for mature teens on up.