Wednesday, April 1, 2015

I swear to you that I’m spinning no romance here - the narrator of Confessions of an Italian spins a romance

Carlino the kitchen boy is in love with his cousin, La Pisana, daughter of the Count, but second daughter, and thus neglected and badly raised by a noble family nearing its end.  She treats Carlino badly, promises marriage then dumps him, flirts with other boys, and is alternately kind and cruel.  Carlino is ten years old, La Pisana eight.

I loved and I despised.

You will probably laugh at this tale of two children pretending to be adults, but I swear to you that I’m spinning no romance here: this is simply the story of my life.  (Ch. 6, 241)

No, Carlino is fourteen there and La Pisana twelve.  I need to go back to when they were ten and eight to find the most shocking, sexual scene in Confessions of an Italian.  Carlino has wandered far from the castle, far enough that he has gotten his first glimpse of the sea, instantly and permanently converting him into an early Romantic, which is amusing.  He is out late, gets lost, and is escorted home by a friendly bandit.  For years, he has slept in the same room as his beloved cousin, but now he is banished to a closet as punishment, not just for being late but for lying to protect the bandit.  Carlino screams and even injures himself to no avail.  But finally, late at night, La Pisana sneaks into his little kennel:

“But before I go I want you to thrash me and pull my hair hard for all my wickedness towards you.”  And here she took my hands and put them on her head.

“Goodness, no!” I said, withdrawing her hands, “I’d rather kiss you.”

“I want you to pull my hair!” she said , taking my hands again.  (Ch. 3, 111)

And after some back and forth, he does.

She was in a fury now.  And while I stood there, uncertainly, she jerked her head back so forcefully and so suddenly that the lock was left in my fingers.  “You see?” she said happily, “that’s how I want to be punished when I ask to be punished!  Goodbye now and do not move from here or I shall never come to play with you again.”  (112)

Finally, a reminder  - the boy is ten, the girl eight.  And the history between the two characters goes on for another six hundred pages, with the basic pattern that they are separated by circumstances, Carlino plunges into History, giving his life to Italy if he cannot give it to this woman, until the characters are reunited in some unlikely fashion, usually involving one saving the other from death, like in a Dumas novel.

I went with the love affair, which is never as intense as in this one scene, however the effect might linger, likely because the censorship allowed more license with the children.  I also thought about working through Chapter 5, the Siege, which really is like something from Scott or Dumas, one long adventure purposefully designed to feel like an episode from the Middle Ages except now made farcical, unless you are a little boy in which case it is absolutely thrilling.

During Carlino’s childhood, history is purely local, almost frozen for hundreds of years.  Then comes adolescence and the French Revolution; the end of the Venetian Republic; the first efforts to create Italy – in other words, History.  Until finally History passes Carlino by and he writes his book.  That is the conceit of Confessions of an Italian, plainly stated.


  1. What a scene between those crazy kids - so rare to find anything like that in writing about childhood. Your posts on Nievo have me increasingly eager to get to it.

  2. Calvino pushed me to read Nievo, really. Did I want to commit to an uneven 800 page novel that I would cost me, like, $20. It was Calvino who kept saying: yes, yes, yes.