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Cristina Della Coletta’s well-researched and organized book is the latest entry in a recent wave of intriguing reevaluations of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Italian fiction. Plotting the Past exhibits broad knowledge of the Italian literary tradition, makes relevant theoretical claims concerning the history and development of the historical novel, and is persuasively argued. Della Coletta’s basic critical posture revolves around three interconnected issues. First, she claims that Alessandro Manzoni’s indictment of the historical novel in his 1850 essay On the Historical Novel ought to be read not as a refusal or recanting of the aesthetics underlying the 1827 masterpiece The Betrothed, but, rather, and going against prevailing critical opinion, as complementary to it. According to the author, in his efforts at relocating and developing the question of “writing reality,” from the aesthetic to the historical Manzoni repeatedly runs up against the theoretical knot of the validity of genres. More than that, by having highlighted the self-deconstructing motivations of the necessarily different destinations of the two types of writing—fiction and history—Manzoni appears in Della Coletta’s argument to be proleptically attuned to similar discussions by the likes of Gerard Genette, Fredric Jameson, Jacques Derrida, and other narratologists. This argument amounts to a major reevaluation of Manzoni the writer as being, at the same time, a theoretician of literature of the stature of T. S. Eliot or Henry James.
The second critical point Della Coletta makes springs directly from the above assumptions and widens the hermeneutic horizon from the author to the historical context. According to the majority of Italian [End Page 1045] critics, Manzoni’s novel quickly became the dominant and inimitable paradigm of Italian historical fiction, thereby conditioning all subsequent writers. Some have argued, especially in the tracks of Lukácsian marxism and Crocean idealism, that as a consequence of the Milanese’s pervasive influence this genre slowly withered and nearly disappeared from post-World War II Italian writing. Needless to add, this view has been contested on various grounds, as one can gather, for example, from two other recent publications, Robert Dombroski’s Properties of Writing and Baransky and Pertile’s New Italian Novel. Proceeding along the coordinates of her model, Della Coletta’s bold thesis here is that if we recover the full dialectical implications of Manzoni’s On the Historical Novel, and reposition the combined and interweaving revolutionary-evolutionary dynamics of genre and of the historical novel in particular, we will see that, for instance, although post-WWII authors such as Tomasi di Lampedusa, Elsa Morante, and Umberto Eco write historical fiction in radically different ways from Manzoni’s own, his later essay had foreseen the problems raised by a writing which is necessarily, ontologically embroiled in establishing boundaries, constituencies, ethical standards, and historical assumptions. To argue this point, the book reconstructs the debate surrounding the definition of the historical novel that took place in the first three decades of the nineteenth century. In reconsidering a multilayered, flexible notion of genre and applying it to contemporary novelists, Della Coletta demonstrates the paradox of Manzoni’s legacy as the author of an historical novel which defined and canonized the genre but who for the same reason required of subsequent novelists that they violate or alter the genre itself in specific, compelling manners.
The rest of the book then proceeds to look in detail at major expressions of this anxiety of influence. In the three separate chapters, dedicated respectively to Di Lampedusa’s Il gattopardo, Morante’s La Storia, and Eco’s Il nome della rosa, Della Coletta demonstrates that, in keeping with Manzonian assumptions, the task of writing any sort of historically informed fiction requires juxtaposing extra-textual, referential fields of signification, foremost “subjectivity” and “memory,” “fact” and “perception”; the author’s task in this context is to make the aesthetic artifact self-aware, often through foregrounding, of its epistemological value, while conversely making the concrete writing of history cognizant of its aesthetic possibilities. This requires of us that we [End Page 1046...