An Italian curate who is a bit of a nebbish (technical Catholic term), walks home one night when he sees two men who give him pause:
Each had a green net on his head, which fell upon the left shoulder, and ended in a large tassel. Their long hair, appearing in one large lock upon the forehead: on the upper lip two long mustachios, curled at the end: their doublets, confined by bright leathern girdles, from which hung a brace of pistols: a little horn of powder, dangling round their necks, and falling on their breasts like a necklace: on the right side of their large and loose pantaloons, a pocket, and from the pocket the handle of a dagger: a sword hanging on the left, with a large basket-hilt of brass, carved in cipher, polished and gleaming:—all, at a glance, discovered them to be individuals of the species bravo.
That's right -- bravos! You can tell them by their tassels! They were some bad-ass mofos in 1628.
This is a great way to open a novel -- a historical novel, anyway. (Maybe not so much, if your novel is a tender coming-of-age story, set against the background of the Iowa Writers Workship. Actually, I take that back -- a tale of bravos haunting the Iowa Writers Workshop is exactly what fiction needs. ) Or it would be a great way to open a novel, if we didn't already have two pages of the geography of Northern Italy.
My problem with this novel (this is the third excerpt I've been assigned) is that Manzoni seems to have thought, "You know what the problem is with fiction? Not enough supporting data." Because between the time the good father (Don Abbondio) (unable to resist "of Don Abbondio Lincoln/Mercury" joke) sees the bravos and their fear-inspiring tassels, and the time when the bravos tell him he is not to perform a wedding he is supposed to perform tomorrow, there's two more pages concerning the history of bravoes in general. It's like David Foster Wallace, except the historical digressions aren't in footnotes, or entertaining.
One of the things adulthood has taught me, however, is guilt-free skipping over passages, so I am happy to report that the best part of the chapter is the portrait of a weak man, the Don himself:
Don Abbondio, continually absorbed in thoughts about his own security, cared not at all for those advantages which risked a little to secure a great deal. His system was to escape all opposition, and to yield where he could not escape....If he were absolutely obliged to take a part, he favoured the stronger, always, however, with a reserve, and an endeavour to show the other that he was not willingly his enemy. It seemed as if he would say, ‘Why did you not manage to be stronger? I would have taken your side then.’OMG, I think I've been this guy. And then the Don, for his weakness, gets yelled at by his earthy servant, who, to make him feel better, does something that feels stereotypically Italian (or Jewish, or Chinese -- it's kind of a universal mom thing, really):
‘Very well: you can think about it to-night; but now, don’t be doing any mischief to yourself; don’t be making yourself ill—take a mouthful to eat.’Hey, good advice -- it's lunchtime here.
Well -- leaving aside the whole question of why I Promessi Sposi gets its own volume, which I never will understand --