Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Now that Italian valor lies uprooted, one huge ruin - Leopardi, Belli, Manzoni, Nievo

I went to a different Leopardi poem, Canto VI, “Bruto Minore, ” p. 57 in Galassi.  Giacomo Leopardi is the great poet and essayist of pessimism.  I am tempted to go on and on about him, but I should save that for a longer treatment.

One inspiration for turning to Italian literature was to take a crack at the 2010 Jonathan Galassi translation of Leopardi’s Canti (1818-35), which is proving to be ideal as a study guide.  The translation is on the literal side, and not so poetic.  The J. G. Nichols translations from 1994 are more poetic.  Nichols matches each poem to a prose selection from elsewhere in Leopardi’s gigantic corpus, from his brilliantly ironic essays and dialogues or his enormous ragbag book Zibaldone.

The latter appeared in English last year, almost 2,600 pages by a team of translators, quite a feat.  A sane reader will want to start with the selections assembled by Leopardi in the (short) book Pensieri, and to the Canti, and the Moral Essays, and then will want to return to them again and again, until he decides to write a monograph on Leopardi, and only then will he want to read Zibaldone, although in Italian, obviously.

You give Zibaldone a try and tell me how it goes.  I’m not going to read it.

Giuseppe Belli was a contemporary of Leopardi’s, but otherwise a polar opposite.  He wrote satirical sonnets, most profane, obscene, or both, in Romanish, the Roman dialect.  You may have noticed that every writer I have mentioned so far has been from northern Italy.  Belli stretches Italian literature to Rome for me.  The rough, crackly Harold Norse translation is a great treat – he moves the dialect into Brooklynese to good effect – but these five poems recently done up by Charles Martin give the flavor of Belli.

Two early novels, both candidates for Greatest Italian Novel.  I have read Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (1827 / 1842) twice and do not plan to revisit it now – someday, I hope – but I recommend it highly.  It is a strange book, a mix of sentimentalism and grit, Catholic apologetics and action.  It’s structure is odd, its characterization is odd.  It is a historical novel, set during a 17th century Austrian invasion of northern Italy.  The plague scenes are horrifying.  With Decameron, this means two of the greatest prose fictions in Italian are about plague epidemics.

The other novel.  I was poking around on the internet trying to find a novel I had looked through in a library.  Success!  The Castle of Fratta by Ippolito Nievo, which I was surprised to discover was only an abridgment of a much longer novel, Confessions of an Italian (1867), which I was even more surprised to see will be published in a complete 928 page translation in the United States in three weeks.  Which I took as a sign that I should take a swing at it.  No idea what I am getting into.  The novel has maps and a timeline and a list of characters.  The list of characters includes a dog.  Is it an Italian War and Peace?  Or an Italian The Count of Monte Cristo?  Or, like The Betrothed, something unique.  Italo Calvino loves the book, but he is not to be trusted, since he, like me, likes everything.

Aside from writing a thousand page novel when he was 27, Nievo was a revolutionary and follower of Garibaldi, a real adventurer, who sadly drowned in a shipwreck, age 29, before he had found a publisher.  There’s some Italian valor.


  1. A truck. I'm definitely going to need a truck, especially if you keep turning up 1,000 page novels and gigantic volumes like Zibaldone. The new Nievo translation seems far too tempting to pass up.

    Belli is so good. I discovered him just prior to the new year and have been plunged into three sets of translations, plus others that are on-line. The sonnets that are neither profane nor obscene offer some great raw slices of big raw life. I wonder if Giovanni Verga was a fan?

  2. Belli is a mystery - how can there be so many translations? Poets love him. No idea who else is interested. I like the idea that Verga made use of him. Verga has a kind of "out of nowhere" feel about him, too.

    That Nievo book practically has "seraillon" stamped on it. I'm surprised Penguin didn't send you a preemptive copy. I usually think of Penguin Classics as being aimed at college classrooms, but who would assign that thing?

    I think the books get a lot shorter from here on out.

    1. Well, Belli wrote some 2,000 sonnets, so maybe there should be more translations, not fewer. I suspect poet-translators like the challenge of that dialect, which looks on the page like a severe case of Italian dysgraphia.

      The sole reviewer on Amazon has said of Nievo's book, "If you think I Promessi Sposi is THE Italian novel of the 19th century, think again, and read Confessions of an Italian." Those could be construed as fighting words, so I'm nearly obliged to read it.

    2. I knew I had read Nievo's name before, and in fact Tim Parks mentions him in a couple of times in an article:

  3. Italo Calvino loves the book, but he is not to be trusted, since he, like me, likes everything.

    Damn it, I wish I had that gift! It'd make life so much simpler.

  4. Hmm The Betrothed sounds great, I love the plague in books. Defoe, Camus, and Tuchman's books about it are all favourites. (I could make some joke about it being catchy but I'll refrain.)

    1. Séamus - At the risk of poisoning the book with excess enthusiasm, I'll simply volunteer that yes, The Betrothed is great. Quite possibly, it's the one novel I'd pause to yank off the shelf while fleeing a fire. The plague is but a part of it - but what a part of it.

  5. You'll read I don't remember how many hundred pages of Manzoni thinking "where is this plague I heard tell of." But when it comes, Manzoni rivals and surpasses Tuchman. I am sure she had read Manzoni, even though her period was 300 years earlier.

    It'd make life so much simpler - true, in good and bad ways.

    Harold Norse's Belli has all of 46 poems, so I suppose that, yes, there is maybe a little bit of room for more translators and translations.

    I had seen that Amazon review, and similarly took it as a kind of dare. I had not seen the Tim Parks piece. Very funny. He read the novel in Italian but clearly only knew about it because of the UK translation. The Nievo novel is a good example for his point.