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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Confessions of an Italian

Ippolito Nievo

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To purchase Confessions of an Italian

Title: Confessions of an Italian
Author: Ippolito Nievo
Genre: Novel
Written: (1858) (Eng. 2014)
Length: 884 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: Confessions of an Italian - US
Confessions of an Italian - UK
Confessions of an Italian - Canada
Confessions of an Italian - India
Confessions d'un Italien - France
Pisana - Deutschland
Le confessioni d'un italiano - Italia
  • Italian title: Le confessioni d'un italiano
  • Translated by Fredericka Randall,
  • With an Introduction by Lucy Riall
  • Completed in 1858; first published posthumously in 1867
  • Previously published in an abridged version as The Castle of Fratta, translated by Lovett F. Edwards 1957

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Our Assessment:

B : sprawling personal- and nation-saga

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Monde . 6/7/2006 René de Ceccatty
The NY Rev. of Books . 2/4/2015 Tim Parks
Sunday Times* . 24/11/1957 C.P.Snow
TLS* . 15/11/1957 Orlo Williams
TLS . 10/10/2014 Lucy Hughes-Hallett

(* refers to review of previous translation)

  Review Consensus:

  Flawed but impressive.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ce n'est pas seulement le mélange subtil de passion désespérée et d'engagement incertain dans l'Histoire qui est stendhalien, mais un souffle, une puissance, un regard perspicace, une ironie parfois sarcastique et presque amère, parfois simplement légère et délicieuse." - René de Ceccatty, Le Monde

  • "The cleverness of Nievo's novel is that its political content arises naturally from a colorful cast of characters brought together in dense dramatic plotting delivered in a style that oscillates between the realism of William Thackeray and the playful vagaries of Laurence Sterne, tow of Nievo's favorite authors. (...) The rapid swinging from the personal and intimate to the vast sweep of history is a constant in the book and keeps readers alert, if only to wonder if the connections are convincing." - Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books

  • "(I)t is considerably more than a curiosity. (...) It is, however, a novel of quite unusual gifts, some of which don't seem to hang together (.....) To get the maximum value out of book, one needs to have an interest in Italian, and particularly Venetian history. With that qualification, I can recommend it very warmly." - C.P.Snow, Sunday Times

  • "It is of immense length, it has a tremendous vigour, it abounds in striking description, it contains -- especially in its earlier parts -- a gallery of unforgettable portraits drawn with an incisive humor, a passionate love story runs through it, it purports to cover eighty years of Italy's chequered history from 1775 onwards, and it is pervaded by a fervent faith in high moral and political principles (.....) From a purely artistic point of view this vast narrative would bear a considerably closer pruning" - Orlo Williams, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Discursive, uneven, but at its best a wonderful blend of wit, political perspicuity and exuberant comic invention, The Confessions of an Italian has been called the great novel of the Risorgimento. But though its subject matter is the birth of a nation, it belongs in the cosmopolitan tradition of wayward, unpindownable writing that stretches from Montaigne, via Laurence Sterne (whom Nievo admired) to Stendhal. (...) This is a humane piece of fiction, funny and wise, but it is also a candid, astute account of what it feels like to combine lofty patriotic illusions about a People, with a realistic view of how ignoble and mistaken people generally are." - Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Confessions of an Italian is presented as the account of now-octogenarian Carlo Altoviti, writing about his long life in 1858, but the author, Ippolito Nievo, wasn't even thirty when he completed, in that year, this work -- which was only published posthumously, Nievo dying in 1861. A sweeping historical novel, it's perhaps not surprising, given the author's own youth, that the bulk of the book focuses on the narrator's younger years: it takes nearly three-quarters of the book, and over six hundred pages, to get to 1799 (when Carlo hasn't even reached twenty-five), and it speeds very much through the last decades.
       Carlo -- or Carlino, then -- was born to a sister of the Countess of Fratta who had eloped with a man but then fled back homewards, pregnant. The infant was sent off to Fratta, and his mother died soon later; only in adulthood does Carlo meet his father. The Countess doesn't exactly adopt the baby as one of her own, and Carlino grows up more or less among the servants and in the kitchen. He has three cousins -- the children of the Count and Countess of Fratta. Clara is a decade older than he is, and there's Rinaldo, whom he isn't particularly close to either -- but la Pisana, two years his junior, is the one person that he adores above all others.
       La Pisana is something of a brat, and even Carlo admits: "from an early age it was evident how wilful, fickle, and cruel la Pisana could be". She toys with the hearts and minds of the boys and then men she entrances, at times showing complete devotion and great passion, and then just as suddenly turning cold, and away. She's a hard woman to please, but the two do have a special bond, lasting their entire lifetime, and even as Confessions of an Italian careens wildly all over, Carlo's relationship with la Pisana is one of the few fundamentals the story always comes back to.
       Clara is also a much-courted young woman, and her relationship with her main suitor, the devoted Lucilio, is also a strand that extends through practically the entire novel; Clara's determination to join a convent makes this a not entirely satisfactory relationship as well (though Lucilio never gives up hope).
       The Castle of Fratta, where the young Carlino and la Pisana grow up is also a central feature of the book, even as the characters move away, with much of the novel then taking place in Venice (with many side trips, including to London and, vicariously, even as far as Greece and the Americas). The great Castle does not fare well over the years: by the time Napoleon has swept through: "All is empty, silent, in ruins"; when Carlo visits it in his old age, half a century later he reports:

I went out all alone to visit the spot where the famous Castle had stood. There was no trace of it; just a few ruins here and there, and a pair of goats grazing, and girl humming to herself, whop stopped her spinning to stare at me in curiosity.
       The Castle is a symbol of the old order and world, and Confessions of an Italian is very much a novel that chronicles the changing Italian landscape through the upheavals between the late eighteenth century and the revolutions of 1848. Once Carlo leaves the Castle of his childhood he is in the middle of much of the action, from his student days in Padua to the times he is in more tumultuous Venice. He leads an adventurous life -- beginning with an early meeting with Napoleon himself -- and enjoys both great success as well as poverty and imprisonment.
       Carlo and la Pisana each have occasion to save the other from near-certain death, but there are also others in his life who have a profound effect on it -- notably his father, as well as then a woman he comes to learn is his half-sister. And despite finding happiness with la Pisana, it is she who insists he marry another -- Aquilina -- making for a slightly awkward threesome for some time (though by the end Carlo has four children with Aquilina, and their daughter is named Pisana ...).
       La Pisana, and Carlo's enduring if often interrupted relationship with her, is the sustaining grace in this otherwise wildly careening novel, where few of the characters have much staying power, at best drifting in and out of Carlo's life and otherwise just briefly of significance. Nievo packs a lot of Italian history and politics in, and drags the readers quickly through much of this -- giving a good sense of the Italian condition in these times. He offers good episodes along the way too: there's fine adventures throughout, from the small-boy ones Carlino experiences, to battles, duels, and political and financial intrigue.
       Arguably, too often the episodes can feel like asides -- such as a late one in which the Fratta-heir, Rinaldo, tries to get his epic work, a Historical Analyss of Venetian Trade published: it's entertaining and comes with some finely put observations, such as:
     He had been living in the library until then, Count Rinaldo, and had no idea those were not times for reading books. You praised them or condemned them without reading them, because the spirit and the intent mattered more than the intellectual value or the form.
       But these many disparate pieces and elements make for an unwieldy novel -- and so each reappearance of la Pisana is welcome, and Nievo did well to follow that relationship through most of the novel (without ever making his novel into a simple(r) romance). Ultimately, Nievo-the-writer seems just as fickle as la Pisana, able to commit only briefly to this or that -- but doing so intently, often impressively.
       Nievo could have used considerable editorial guidance, and it's no surprising that in previous translations, into English and other languages, the book has generally been pared down. It's nevertheless nice to have the whole slightly-less-than glorious mess, an abundant novel whose youthful spirit -- and inspired pairing of Carlo and la Pisana -- makes up for its basic flaws.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 April 2015

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Confessions of an Italian: Reviews (* refers to review of previous translation): Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Ippolito Nievo lived 1831 to 1861.

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© 2015-2022 the complete review

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