The week, a short one (holiday on Friday) is devoted to Confessions of an Italian (1867) by Ippolito Nievo, one of the two great novels of 19th century Italy, meaning “great” in the sense of “large” (858 pages in the new Penguin edition) as well as important.
The author wrote this beast in 1858 in a frantic fit of despair after one of the long series of failed attempts to free Italy from foreign rule. Nievo was 27 and maybe a bit of a propagandist hack, not so promising as an artist, and he had never written anything on this scale.
The narrator is in his 80s. So his story reaches back far before Nievo was born, back to the series of invasions, fizzled revolutions, and double-crosses of the Napoleonic Wars that shattered the lasting medieval institutions (for example, his beloved Republic of Venice) and inspired the dream of a free, unified Italy.
Perhaps Nievo thinks the earlier revolutions had something to do with the one for which he fought. The other great – greater – Italian epic novel, Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (1827), also features invasions of Italy by French and Austrian armies, but during the 17th century. What else is the historical novel for? Three-quarters of Confessions of an Italian are set during the 18th century. Although the narrator lives on, it essentially ends with the failed revolutions of 1848, one more in the series.
The novel is full of events, maybe too full, described at secondhand, interspersed with “a miserable account of a few, ordinary boyish feats” (620). The reader without a strong sense of the relevant Italian history will need some patience. It does not help that Nievo is not a first-rate prose writer. He uses conventional language, is unafraid of cliché, and has limited descriptive capacity. But, you say, is that not perfectly appropriate for the narrator, since the book is written by an ordinary fellow, not a professional writer, and is memoir, not fiction? Yes, you are right! The concept of the novel was ingeniously chosen to hide what I assume are real artistic limitations of Nievo’s.
Tim Parks has a terrific review of the novel in the April 2, 2015 New York Review of Books, not available online, I am afraid, which he ends with a little comparison with Manzoni who, he says,
is still a staple of the Italian school curriculum, while it is rare to meet anyone who has read Nievo. Yet there is no doubt in my mind which author English-speaking readers will prefer now that Confessions of an Italian is at least attractively translated in its entirety. (66)
I also have no doubt – they’ll prefer Manzoni! I seem to always disagree with Parks.
An abridgement of Confessions of an Italian has been available in English before, but Frederika Randall has made the first complete translation. What a service she has done. It was all about getting the voice right, she says.
Now that I know what is in Nievo’s novel, I am seeing it all over Italian literature.
The saddest line in this sad novel is on p. 466:
“To die at twenty-eight, greedy for life, avid for the future, mad with pride, replete only with pain and humiliation!”
Ippolito Nievo died at twenty-nine, in a shipwreck. He had joined Garibaldi’s Thousand and had helped Garibaldi liberate or conquer Sicily and Naples. He helped create a unified Italy, but he did not quite get to see it.