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.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

For this time, I chose to read Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.  This is another one that as a voracious reader, I probably should have read previously, but never have.  I’m glad I finally did however though as I have to say, I adored it.  The “hype” about it is definitely deserved.  This isn’t always true of books hyped in the last decade (The Davinci Code springs to mind).

Madame Bovary was actually listed on quite a few authors top ten lists.  Russell Banks, Julian Barnes, Bebe Moore Campbell (which I might have to read her as my last middle name and my last name are Campbell Moore), Philip Caputo, Peter Carey, Michael Cunningham, Margaret Drabble, Mary Gaitskill, Denise Gess, Michael Griffith, Kathryn Harrison, John Irving, David Lodge, Thomas Mallon, Valerie Martin, Erin McGraw, Claire Messud, Lorrie Moore, Reynolds Price, Alexander McCall Smith, Lee Smith, James Salter, Scott Spencer, Barry Unsworth, Anthony Walton and Meg Wolitzer all listed it on their top ten lists.

Madame Bovary is a novel about a narcisstic woman, centuries before narcissm was recognized as a mental illness.  The story begins by following Monsieur Bovary as he studies to become a physician.  Then his mother (who is overbearing and cloying imo) arranges a marriage for him to an older woman who has money.  Charles Bovary finds marriage to her quite hard.  He has a patient whom he fixes a broken bone for, who has a daughter.  Enter Emma into the story.  Charles finds solace by going to the farm and having a small innocent flirtation with Emma.   Old, miserable first wife dies.  Charles moons about until Emma’s father basically pushes him into proposing marriage.  Emma says yes.

Emma almost immediately regrets it.  Numerous times throughout the story, Flaubert writes in feelings Emma has for Charles.  They’re always tinged with disgust.

Emma has always been looking for sweeping feelings, and feels that nothing else will do for her.  She first was swept away by religious feeling in the convent her father had her at.  Then she was swept away by the joy of living in the country with her father and being the “lady” of the house.  Then she is swept away by Charles’ wedding proposal.  Then she becomes swept away by a ball held by nobility and a dance with a Viscount (this is where the disgust she has for Charles really starts showing).  Then she has a nervous breakdown and Charles moves her to a new location.  She is swept away by passion for a clerk there.  Then he leaves.  Enter guy #2, who is quite the womanizer smooth talker.  Guy #2 goes away, enter back in clerk.

Emma is never satisfied with what she has.  She always believes she needs better.  She borrows money from one of the storekeepers who constantly is pushing it at her, as well as playing on her need to have the best.  It eventually becomes a game of borrowing to pay and refinancing notes.  This is what ultimately gets her into trouble.

It was weird.  I both recognized Emma and loathed her.  I found her both familiar and foreign.  At times I wanted to throw the book, yelling at her “Omg, get over yourself and look at your husband who ACTUALLY LOVES you, idiot”.  At other times, I found myself nodding and seeing why she felt a certain way.

I think one of the things that makes this one of the top ten novels I’ve read with the most authors listing it, is it’s universality.  It’s written over 250 years ago, yet the characters remain fresh.  We all have known Emmas.  We’ve all known Charles.  We’ve all known some of the more minor characters who pop up and propel the narrative around Emma, such as the blowhard pharmacist.  I definitely would reread this novel (after a few years to let the narrative chain of events fade), as I think it’s one that could be rediscovered again and again.  It did remind me a little of Anna Karenina, but much easier to read.  Flaubert doesn’t digress into tens of pages on some side character or a description of fields and farming.  Flaubert is a much tighter author, he paints a picture of the characters and their surroundings, the events and the consequences of the events with vivid brush strokes, but stops short of overlayering.

I highly encourage you to read this book if you never have.  While reading it, make sure to focus on the characters.  In today’s entitlement age (the whole idea that all of us deserve the very best and so we get into credit debt beyond belief), we all know Emmas or are Emmas.