The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni

When I think of 19th century literature, I think or tales that are heavily focused on morality. Characters may be deep if we are lucky, but there will be good people and there will be bad people. The good will be rewarded and the evil punished. No action required, this will all just happen by providence. Also, there will be frequent and lengthy possibly unnecessary digressions. With that, let’s talk about The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 6th for Barry Unsworth.)

I haven’t read much classic Italian literature, but The Betrothed wasn’t too far off the 19th century English or French literature I’ve read. As I said, it’s a bit of a long morality tale. There are many digressions. Still, it had some good characters and I did enjoy reading.

Anyway, The Betrothed starts out with a local curate (Don Abbondio) being threatened by brigands (referred to as ‘bravoes’):

It appeared evident to Don Abbondio that the two men above mentioned were waiting for some one, and he was alarmed at the conviction that it was for himself; for on his appearance, they exchanged a look, as if to say, “’tis he.” Rising from the wall, they both advanced to meet him. He held his breviary open before him, as though he were employed in reading it; but, nevertheless, cast a glance upward in order to espy their movements. Seeing that they came directly toward him, he was beset by a thousand different thoughts. He considered, in haste, whether between the bravoes and himself there were any outlet from the road, and he remembered there was none. He took a rapid survey of his conduct, to discover if he had given offence to any powerful or revengeful man; but in this matter, he was somewhat reassured by the consoling testimony of his conscience. The bravoes draw near, and kept their eyes upon him. He raised his hand to his collar, as if adjusting it, and at the same time turned his head round, to see if any one were coming; he could discover no one. He cast a glance across the low stone wall upon the fields; no one! another on the road that lay before him; no one, except the bravoes! What is to be done? Flight was impossible. Unable to avoid the danger, he hastened to encounter it, and to put an end to the torments of uncertainty. He quickened his pace, recited a stanza in a louder tone, did his utmost to assume a composed and cheerful countenance, and finding himself in front of the two gallants, stopped short. “Signor Curate,” said one of them, fixing his eyes upon him,–

“Your pleasure, sir,” suddenly raising his eyes from his book, which he continued to hold open before him.

“You intend,” pursued the other, with the threatening and angry mien of one who has detected an inferior in an attempt to commit some villany, “you intend to-morrow to unite in marriage Renzo Tramaglino and Lucy Mondella.”

“That is,” said Don Abbondio with a faltering voice, “that is to say–you gentlemen, being men of the world, are very well aware how these things are managed: the poor curate neither meddles nor makes–they settle their affairs amongst themselves, and then–then, they come to us, as if to redeem a pledge; and we–we are the servants of the public.”

“Mark now,” said the bravo in a low voice, but in a tone of command, “this marriage is not to take place, neither to-morrow, nor at any other time.”

“But, my good sirs,” replied Don Abbondio, with the mild and gentle tone of one who would persuade an impatient listener, “but, my good sirs, deign to put yourselves in my situation. If the thing depended on myself–you see plainly, that it does not in the least concern—-“

“Hold there,” said the bravo, interrupting him, “this matter is not to be settled by prating. We neither know nor care to know any more about it. A man once warned–you understand us.”

Despite the length of this scene, of which the above is only a small excerpt, you might not get that Renzo and Lucy, the innocent betrothed couple, are actually the main characters of the book. A local and evil noble has decided that they should not be married and decides to frighten the curate out of performing the ceremony. This works.

The rest of the novel is majorly about Renzo and Lucy trying to stay away from the rich guy and trying to get married. Without wanting to give away too much, the good are eventually rewarded and the evil are punished. I’d be afraid to tell you that much, but I’m sure you know that already. On the way there we have the abusive rich, the restless poor, ineffectual government, war, plague, and most everything else Manzoni apparently felt he could shove into this book.

Still, most of the criticisms I would have against The Betrothed are those I would have against almost any 19th century novel I’ve read. Really, like wearing an onion on one’s belt, it was the style at the time. In the end, though I don’t think The Betrothed touched me in a way I’ll never forget, it was a good read.

Howl by Allen Ginsberg

So. For those of you that don’t know, I’m bipolar. And lately, I’ve just been feeling a tad off. Not anything to freak out about, just off. So, I picked the poetry in the Top Ten for this week. I told Dave my mood was better suited for poetry right now. FYI: Howl was listed by Sherman Alexie.

Howl wasn’t the only poem on the plate for this week. It was part of a collection of Ginsberg poems. However, I am focusing on it today, it’s a seminal piece of the Beat generation. In my opinion, it remains relevant now, as well.

The first line of Howl is “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”. As the first part of the three part poem progresses, you find out Ginsberg isn’t talking about the physicists or the researchers of medicine. He’s talking about the poets, artists, the writers and the rest of the “artistic” bunch.

Anyone that has lived with madness, either their own or someone around them will recognize almost every description by Ginsberg in part 1 of the poem. Here’s one of the many reasons I say it’s still relevant.

“Who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull”.

There’s a movement right now of administrations of universities expelling students or making life so hard for them that they quit, with mental illnesses. Go here. So, to find a line about that in a poem written decades ago serves to speak to us in this time and in this place.

I am a huge fan of spoken poetry, think slam poetry. Howl is amazingly suited to a performance piece. Here’s a section showing the rhythm.

“With dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls,/incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the motionless world of Time between,/Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns, wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light, sun and moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of Brooklyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind”.

That also shows you some of the amazing descriptions of madness, of losing it, of different types of frenetic people that Ginsberg must have known.

I loved this part, I found it a perfect description of some manic fits I have had in my life.

“Who talked continuously seventy hours from park to pad to bar to Bellevue to museum to the Brooklyn Bridge./a lost battalion of platonic conversationalists jumping down the stoops off fire escapes off windowsills off Empire State out of the moon,/yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars”.

Part of the madness that Sandberg writes about are the addicts.

“who walked all night with their shoes full of blood on the snowbank docks waiting for a door in the East River to open to a room full of steamheat and opium, who created great suicidal dramas on the apartment cliff-banks of the Hudson under the wartime blue floodlight of the moon & their heads shall be crowned with laurel in oblivion”.

Now, if you read above, you will notice that I mentioned part 1 of the poem. There are actually three parts. Ginsberg dedicated it to Carl Solomon, the poem is for him. The first part of the poem is about the different breeds of insanity he has seen in his years. (Ginsberg’s, not Solomon, though as a contemporary and close to Ginsberg, he would have as well). The second part is what Ginsberg blames it on. Ginsberg blames it on Moloch
.

“What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?/Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!”

Ginsberg seems to be saying that Moloch kills creativity, that Moloch is capitalism, is conformity, suburbs and the latest gadget that the Jones’ have down the street. And Moloch is causing the insanity and deaths of his friends.

The third part of the poem is addressed directly to Carl. Carl and Allen met in the psychiatric hospital nicknamed Rockland. This part of the poem is about how Ginsberg feels tied to Carl.

“Im with you in Rockland/where we are great writers on the same dreadful typewriter/I’m with you in Rockland/where your condition has become serious and is reported on the radio/ I’m with you in Rockland where the faculties of the skull no longer admit the worms of the senses/I’m with you in Rockland where you drink of the tea of the breasts of the spinsters of Utica”

In the end, Sandburg shares his dream.

“I’m with you in Rockland/in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night”.

Dave and I got into a text discussion last night about Howl. He stated that Vonnegut once said the only people of his generation worth anything were the scientific minds. I didn’t look any of this up so I might be saying it wrong, by the way (Dave didn’t say that, it’s my own editorial comment on what Dave _did_ say). But, here’s the thing that I think. I think that the “lunatics” are the ones that help define the very generation they live in. Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Picasso are but a few. A lot of the most theologically important people either had a documented mental illness or a theorized one (Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer). Martin Luther King Jr. had depression. All of these people not only contributed to their eras but defined and enhanced their eras. I think Ginsberg had a lot to say about how contemporary society, both back then and now stifles those people, gags them, sends them reeling into the night.

“who wandered around & around at midnight in the railroad yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts”.

Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel

I’m not sure that I really should be thinking of an X-Files episode when reading one of the books on our list, but given how often the beginning of that show was actually the end, I can’t help myself. Of course, the similarity to Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel ends there.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Ben Marcus.)

I mean, the first half of the novel is this odd pageant sequence. Part performance, part execution, part ritual, part coronation, part scientific demonstration, part a few other things, the stream of marvels seems inexplicable in its dreamlike combination of concepts and fluidity of shifting forms:

In a loud voice, the monarch began to read the native text, written in hieroglyphics on the sheet of parchment which stood in the middle of the narrow table.

It was a kind of bull, whereby Talu, already Emperor of Ponukele, by virtue of his religious powers consecrated himself King of Drelshkaf.

Having delivered the proclamation, the sovereign took the cruet which was intended to represent the holy ampulla and, turning sideways, spread the oil over the top part of his hand in order to smear it on his forehead with his fingertips.

*****

Rao brandished his axe with both hands and struck the traitor’s neck three times. With the last blow, his head rolled to the ground.

The spot remained unstained by any crimson splashes, on account of the curious wooden blade which, as it cut through the flesh, had the effect of immediately congealing the blood, and absorbed even the first drops whose loss could not be avoided.

*****

The magpie ended this performance of its own accord and, with a few flaps of its wings, reached the bust of Immanuel Kant; on top of the stand, to the left, was a little perch on which the bird landed.

Immediately, a strong light illuminated the skull from within, and the casing, which was excessively thin, became completely transparent from the line of the eyebrows upwards.

One divined the presence of countless reflectors, placed facing in every direction inside the head. So great was the violence with which the bright rays, representing the fires of genius, escaped from their incandescent source.

Repeatedly the magpie took flight, to return immediately to its perch, thus constantly extinguishing and relighting the cranial dome, which alone burned with a thousand lights, while the face, the ears and the nape of the neck remained in darkness. Each time the bird’s weight was applied to the lever, it seemed as though some transparent idea was born in the thinker’s brain, as it blazed suddenly with light.

*****

The gala performance then began.

First the four Bucharessas brothers made their appearance, each wearing an acrobat’s costume of pink jersey and black velvet shorts.

The two eldest brothers, Hector and Tommy, both adolescents full of supple strength, each carried six dark rubber balls in a strong drum; they walked away in opposite directions, then, turning round to face each other, halted at two points a considerable distance apart.

The latter half, however, explains what the heck has been going on in the first part.

The highly European influence is explained by (other than the fact that the author was a notorious eccentric who almost never left his stateroom or hotel during his tours of the world) the fact that many of the characters were shipwrecked in Africa while on a ship from Europe to the Americas. Apparently, the African monarch has just managed to overcome a neighboring kingdom ruled by a bitterly feuding relative, as well as overcome multiple betrayal plots. The Europeans decide to put on a show of marvels, and the Emperor decides to mix it with his coronation concerning the conquered kingdom as well as the executions of his enemies.

However, you don’t even start to get clued into that until halfway through the book and it takes until the end of the book to finish explaining. Until you get to that point, it’s just an incomprehensible show switching from improbably thing to improbable thing, mixing in all sorts of bizarre happenings in a seemingly haphazard fashion.

I read that though Roussel was not technically part of the surrealist movement, he is looked on as one of the most important surrealists. Apparently, he heavily used automatic writing and private allusion. That explains Impressions of Africa a bit, or at least it seems that way to me. I wonder if he wrote down whatever images came into his head for the first part and then sat down to try to see if he could make a story that somehow made sense of it. If that’s what he was doing, he pulled it off.

Now, whether or not I’m way off the mark on that, I do have to say that Impressions of Africa is pretty readable for a surrealist work. It’s a little disjointed, without any real linear plot, for 150 pages or so, but that just means the reader has to sit and enjoy a show for a while. Roussel does eventually connect it to a plot, but it isn’t like he had to. It was fun reading anyway.

Regardless, Impressions of Africa is a strange but fun book. I found it hard to believe that the author was a contemporary of Proust. Impressions of Africa is definitely worth a look if you can hold on long enough for things to make sense, or are flexible enough not to demand that sense has to be made.

Rabbit Redux by John Updike

So, I finally decided to spend more time with my most reprehensible literary character ever (the only one I feel more passionate about is Emma on The Following, but that’s t.v. not books). I started reading the Rabbit books, which are listed as a whole in the Top Ten. You can see my entry on the first Rabbit book, Rabbit Runs, here. It will list for you what authors listed the Rabbit quartet as well as what I thought of Rabbit as a character to deserve the first line of this blog.

Ok, now that you all have hopefully read the original post, let me update everything after reading the second in the quartet, Rabbit Redux.

First, the basic plot: Rabbit is 10 years older than in Rabbit Run. He has been working at the print shop his dad does for the last ten years. He and Janice and their son Nelson now live in a house in the suburbs. Then he suspects Janice is cheating on him. The story begins. Updike mixes in a lot of the politics of the time, and events occurring (it’s the thick of the Vietnam War), the hippy movement et cetera. Updike’s writing ability is even better in this novel. In fact, I actually found myself _enjoying_ the story sometimes.

Rabbit is still…Rabbit. But oddly, he’s more likeable now that he’s become a tad more pathetic. He’s in his upper 30s, he knows that some of the dreams he once had are never going to happen now. Yet, his choices still are sometimes reprehensible. And the fact that he often makes choices but then whines at the results how it wasn’t really his fault, hasn’t changed.

Some of the stuff that struck me as almost humorous though is how, hm, how certain politic parties viewing the other side hasn’t changed at all.

Rabbit (or Harry, as he is now called)’s dad talking to him about his mother with Parkinson’s disease:
“Harry, God in his way hasn’t been all bad to your mother and me. Believe it or not there’s some advantages to living so long in this day and age. This Sunday she’s going to be sixty-five and come under Medicare. I’ve been paying in since ’66, it’s like a ton of anxiety rolled off my chest. There’s no medical expense can break us now. They called LBJ every name in the book but believe me he did a lot of good for the little man. Whereever he went wrong, it was in his big heart betrayed him. These pretty boys in the sky right now, Nixon’ll hog the credit but it was the Democrats put ’em there, it’s been the same story ever since I can remember, ever since Wilson–the Republicans don’t do a thing for the little man.” (the moon landing had recently happened, so that’s the pretty boys in the sky reference).

There’s others but apparently the places I had marked showing the Republican’s view of the Democrat/liberal got unmarked somehow.

In case you’re still wondering about how much Rabbit has changed, the answer is not very. Here’s something that a girl he becomes involved with says to him.

“It’s too late,” Jill tells him. “It’s too late for you to try to love me.”
He wants to answer, but there is a puzzling heavy truth in this that carries him under, his hand caressing the inward dip of her waist, a warm bird dipping towards its nest.”

Between him and his sister Mim:
“Why don’t you tend your own garden instead of hopping around nibbling at other people’s?” Mim asks. When she turns, her body becomes a gate, of horizontal stripes, her ass barred in orange.
“I have no garden,” he says.
“Because you didn’t tend it at all. Everybody else has a life they try to fence in with some rules. You just do what you feel like and then when it blows up or runs down you sit there and pout.”

Another thing about Updike that I’ve noticed. Sex between two characters is always real. That’s very different from most authors, even non romance ones. Sex tends to be a little idealized or is a rape, but not just normal awkward sex. Updike, even when writing about great sex tends to leave those awkward parts in there. Our perceptions of our bodies, the weird things we do when we’re propositioning sex, even what we think about when we masturbate and how it’s not quite normal sometimes. That’s part of the appeal of him I think, and what makes people rave about the Rabbit novels.

I’m still not ready to move the Rabbit novels by Updike onto my personal bests list, but Rabbit Redux definitely got me a little more interested and a little less likely to destroy the book out of disgust at the main character. I might even, *gasp*, read the 3rd and 4th a lot sooner than 4 months from now. We’ll see.