Perhaps the best way to describe Ippolito Nievo’s defining work is to look for comparisons with more well-known 19th century novels that readers may be familiar with. The first one that comes to mind is Tolstoy’s War & Peace, written only a few years later in the early 1860s, which also covers the period of the Napoleonic wars and the social upheaval and chaos of those years. As with Confessions of an Italian, there are large sections of Tolstoy’s much more famous work that are philosophical discussions rather than story narrative, but I don’t remember him dragging them out for quite as long as Ippolito Nievo does here.
To reach the end of all 860 pages of Confessions of an Italian you need to be prepared to wade through a swamp of 19th century romanticism, sentimentality and philosophical musings on life and love. It would have been a much easier task edited down by perhaps 100 pages, but in fairness the same could be said of many other 19th century Romantic period novels.
Some of his contemporaries like Thackeray however, who were writing around the same time, were much more satirical in their writing style as in Vanity Fair for example which runs to over 750 pages without descending into so much sentimentality, at least as far as I can recall. Interestingly Napoleon also looms large in Thackeray's novel just as he does for Tolstoy and Ippolito Nievo, but whereas many Italians at first were very supportive of Napoleon (based on the theory of my enemy's enemy is my friend) the British and Russians never viewed him as anything other than an adversary.
Some of the differences in writing style between these authors are probably due to differences in national characteristics and perhaps also to the fact that Nievo was a mere 26 years old when he embarked on this book and he finished it only eight months later. Youth is a disadvantage I think with a book of such sweep and ambition and nor did Nievo have the opportunity to interact with an experienced editor and make changes.
It's perhaps helpful to remember that the whole concept of a novel in literature didn't come about until the early 18th century with English writers like Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe) and Henry Fielding (Tom Jones). In Italy it appeared slightly later when Romanticism arrived at the very end of the 18th century, which is why in the Italian language today the word for a novel is romanzo.
So by the time Ippolito Nievo was writing this book there were few templates in the Italian language for writing what has come to be defined as a novel. Accordingly some allowance should be made for his verbose writing style.
Other writers of this period that also ruminated on Nievo's themes of social class, morality, romance and religion include the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and a little later Thomas Hardy. All of them are now revered as having produced classics of English literature but some of their works are not much easier to read than this book. As a huge fan of Thomas Hardy I would exclude him from this criticism.
Ippolito Nievo couldn’t find a publisher for his book before his life was cut short and though it was published posthumously a few years later, Confessions of an Italian didn’t emerge as a classic of Italian literature until the 20th century and didn’t become available in its entirety in the English language until 2014.
I remain mystified as to why the book is continually referred to as the great novel of the Risorgimento (the Italian word for the decades leading up to Italian unification in 1861) because by page 764 the story has only reached the year 1823, at which time both Mazzini and Garibaldi were still teenagers and the Risorgimento had barely even started.
Aside from all the complicated personal relationships and unrequited love affairs, the recurring themes throughout the book focus on the collapse of the ancien regime in Italy, the corruption and degeneration leading to the fall of the Republic of Venice after more than 1,000 years of self-rule, and the confusion of the war years.
Many of Nievo's key characters are infused with the precocious stirrings of Italian nationalism as they witness France, Austria, the Bourbons and the Pope all fighting over Italy like hyenas over a carcass, but in truth few people in the years covered by the book had any concept of unification, nor any desire for it, and writing the book in 1858 Nievo has simply chosen to overlay this theme onto an earlier time when it didn’t really exist.
He can be forgiven for doing so because Nievo himself was an ardent nationalist who shortly after he wrote the book took part with Garibaldi and his thousand in the momentous landing in Sicily to free the south from Bourbon rule. This explains the title of the book and the opening line when his main character, the narrator, says “I was born a Venetian and by God’s grace I shall die an Italian”. Nievo himself died before he reached the age of thirty, when his ship, en route from Palermo to Naples, went down in the Tyrrhenian Sea in March 1861 just as Italy was formally united (though it took another 10 years to prize Rome away from the Pope).
As one of Garibaldi’s Red Shirts, Ippolito Nievo deserves a place in Italian history whatever one thinks of his book and in spite of what might be viewed as a slightly critical review, on balance I quite enjoyed it. But you will either need to have an affection for 19th century literature or have a fairly serious interest in Italian history to come to the same opinion about this book and having both would be a distinct advantage.
One odd and unfortunate habit of Ippolito Nievo's writing style was to preface each new chapter in the book with a summary of the important events about to take place. The result is that when reading the narrative much of the surprise is lost with regard to the various sub-plots, deaths of key characters or new misfortunes. It's irritating and unnecessary and perhaps this brand new English translation would have done better to omit these brief summaries.