Friday, August 21, 2015

“Close your mouths, let your ears hang low, and give me a little attention” - Giambattista Basile’s The Tale of Tales

Reading Giambattista Basile’s The Tale of Tales (Lo Cunto de li Cunti, or alternately, the Pentamerone), I wondered at the evolution of “fairy-tale” as an adjective – as in fairy-tale castle, fairy-tale romance, fairy-tale wedding. How, given Basile’s collection of exceedingly bizarre tales – what translator Nancy Canepa calls “the first integral collection of authored, literary fairy tales in western Europe” – could the term ever have gained such airy, pleasant connotations? Perhaps it was through reaction and flight from the raw, grim, joyful, mercurially dramatic cornucopia of weirdness that makes up The Tale of Tales.  

Basile’s collection came to my attention while I was exploring Teofilo Folengo’s Baldo, an influence on Basile’s work. Through these tales, written in Neapolitan, Basile aligns himself with the vernacular, sardonic tradition of Folengo and, before him, Boccaccio. I hardly expected anything as rewarding as Baldo’s baroquely delirious, macaronic burlesque, but The Tale of Tales, which appeared in five volumes between 1634 and 1636, proved perhaps even more entertaining. Variations of some of the tales will be familiar already to readers. They include the first recorded version of “Cinderella” as well as other stories later filtered through Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen to emerge as “Sleeping Beauty,” “Puss in Boots,” “Rapunzel,” and “The Golden Goose,” to name a few. The richness of Basile’s stories – their unrestrained, frequently gruesome queerness; imaginative and bewitching metaphorical language; and local color, rooted right down to the fennel in Neapolitan specifics – makes them something quite apart from the later stories they inspired.

As Canepa says in her introduction,

The stories of The Tale of Tales are like no other fairy tales; imbued just as much with the formulas of elite literary culture as with those of folkloric traditions and orality; closer to Rabelais and Shakespeare (Basile has been called a Mediterranean Shakespeare) than to most other fabulists; bawdy and irreverent but also tender and whimsical; acute in psychological characterization and at the same time encyclopedic in description; full, ultimately, of irregularities and loose ends that somewhat magically manage to merge into a splendid portrait of creatures engaged in the grave and laborious, gratifying and joyful business  of learning to live in their world – and to tell about it. And reading Basile’s text is an experience like no other, a roller-coaster ride in which the reader glides along smoothly for only brief stretches of what is, overall, a decidedly vertiginous experience.

Containing this “vertiginous experience” is an almost geometrically rigid and simple structure. Basile’s tales nest within an overarching, framing “tale of tales.” Lucia, the evil wife of a handsome prince, Tadeo, has threatened to kill the child she carries unless Tadeo will satisfy her desperate need to hear stories, a desire implanted in her by a fairy intent on aiding the honest Zoza, from whom Lucia stole the vessel full of tears Zoza had shed in order to awaken Tadeo from death and thus become his betrothed. Responding to Lucia’s threats, Tadeo calls on women from across the land to come to the palace to tell stories. From the multitudes who respond, Tadeo picks the ten best, and, over five days, each recounts a story a day. Interspersed between each day’s ten tales are eclogues in the form of dialogues between members of the court. Finally, a concluding chapter resolves the conflict of the opening tale, restoring Zoza to her rightful place by the prince’s side and sending the malevolent Lucia to an especially cruel fate.

Scarcely into the first story, one realizes that Basile’s collection, despite its guileless subtitle, “Entertainment for Little Ones,” is most likely aimed at adults. Holding nothing back, they are filled with not only curious quests and magical transformations, but also violence and brutality, scatological content, blistering insults, wretched punishments and acts of revenge, and an abundance of sexual matters, usually couched in wildly inventive, entertaining metaphorical language. But as in Baldo, the sheer delirious joy in such language excuses all. As Tadeo announces at the beginning of the tales,

There is nothing in the world more delicious, my illustrious women, than to hear about the doings of others, nor without obvious reason did that great philosopher set the supreme happiness of man in hearing pleasant tales; since when you lend an ear to tasty items, cares evaporate, irksome thoughts are dispelled, and life is prolonged.

Interwoven into these “pleasant tales” is a riotous compendium of the bizarre, loathsome, and wondrous: a woman who, instead of having  “a little fart” of a child, gives birth to a branch of myrtle; a young girl who creates her spouse out of almond paste, rose water and precious gems; a live goose used as toilet paper; a virgin who eats a sea dragon’s heart in order to become pregnant; an envious girl who has herself skinned by a barber as she’s been tricked into believing this is how to become beautiful; a donkey that shits “a superb diarrhea” of “pearls, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and diamonds, each as big as a walnut”; as in Baldo, a whale mistaken for an island and containing in its belly “splendid countrysides, breathtaking gardens,” and subterranean chambers (the ubiquity of this conceit in Italian literature might make for an interesting dissertation); and a tale in which, in putting one’s ear to the earth, it’s possible to hear all the intrigues of the world.

“The Cinderella Cat” – Basile’s version of Cinderella – is a concrete example of how Basile’s tales differ from the familiar elements of later iterations. For example, the tale begins with Zezolla – a.k.a. Cinderella Cat - murdering her stepmother by slamming the lid of a chest down on her neck. The place of the fairy-godmother is taken by a fairy who emerges from a date tree whenever Zezolla sings a particular song. Above all, the language is hardly what parents (some parents, anyway) might feel comfortable reading to their children:

Zezolla returned to the date tree and repeated the enchanted song, at which she was magnificently dressed and placed in a golden coach accompanied by so many servants that she looked like a whore arrested in the public promenade and surrounded by police agents.

As in this case, Basile’s metaphorical language shares with Folengo’s a palpable distaste for authority. References to police and other guardians of the law proliferate; in one tale, a character snaps at another’s timidity by exclaiming, “If you’re afraid, you should become a cop!”

But the language of The Tale of Tales is of a stunning metaphorical ingenuity and diversity. Canepa calls attention in her introduction to Basile’s plethora of metaphors related to the cycle of day and night, so striking that the reader can scarcely avoid noting them as one of the work’s most prominent features:

Dawn brought the news that the Sun had been found alive, and the sky shed its mourning clothes…Night’s shadows, chased by the Sun’s cops, were evicted from the town…the Sun lifted high the trophies of light won in victory against the Night…Night was exiled for having stooged for swindlers, and started gathering up its bundles of twilight from the sky… The shadows conspired to see if they could, at dusk, cause the Sun some affront…Night had gone out with its black mask to direct the dance of the stars…

Similarly creative metaphors are employed to describe other phenomena:

…the sea, with a smack of its waves, beat the rocks that wouldn’t give the answers to the Latin exercises they had been assigned…she reached the foot of a spoilsport of a mountain that went around with its head in the clouds just to bother them…the sun holed up in the clouds from fear, and the sky grew dark; the hearts of all those people were like mummies, and they were trembling so hard they wouldn’t have been able to take an enema made of a single pig’s bristle.

Basile’s descriptive passages often employ epic catalogs in which, regardless of subject, he employs a trademark delight in ribald and earthy metaphor. For example, in “The Dragon,” an evil, murderous king encounters a beauty whose

…hair was a set of handcuffs for the cops of Love, her forehead a tablet on which was written the price list for the shop of the Graces of amorous pleasures, her eyes two lighthouses that signaled the vessels of desire to turn their prow toward the port of joys, her mouth a honeycomb amid two rose hedges.

As if in rude answer to this pleasant vision, in “The Dove,” a prince is horrified to find that his beautiful beloved’s mother is an ogress, whose

…hair was like a broom made of dry branches, not to sweep dust and cobwebs from houses but to blacken and smoke out hearts; her forehead was made of Genoese stone, to whet the knife of fear that rips open chests; her eyes were comets that predicted shaky legs, wormy hearts, frozen spirits, diarrhea of the soul, and evacuation of the intestines, for she wore terror on her face, fear in her gaze, thunder in her footsteps, and dysentery in her words. Her mouth was tusked like a pig’s and as big as a scorpion fish’s, twisted like those who suffer from convulsions, and as drooly as a mule’s…a distillate of ugliness and a hospital of deformities.

One notable aspect of Basile’s collection that sets it apart from other fairy tales is the particularity of its Neapolitan setting. Basile’s stories - and Canepa’s helpful notes - offer fascinating gems of historical detail about the city in the 16th and early 17th centuries, a good many of them taken from renowned historian Benedetto Croce’s edition of The Tale of Tales. There are innumerable references to Neapolitan customs; to types of dances, songs and games; and in the footnotes, arresting bits of information. For example, one such note explains that servants were known as “settepelle”  (“seven breads”) due to servant families being given seven loaves of bread each Saturday to last them the week. Another describes “The Grotto of the Dogs” located in the seismically active Phlegraean fields north of Naples, “where experiments were performed in which animals were made to lose their senses by inhaling the carbon dioxide of which the cave is full, then plunged into the waters of the nearby Lake of Agnano to see if they could be revived.” Other such annotations prick the conscience, such as one describing that a common custom in Naples for welcoming a newborn child was to spit in its mouth “as a first sign of recognition and affection,” and another noting a “well-known” belief that “bathing in a child’s blood will produce offspring to the barren.”

References to food abound, both descriptions of specific Neapolitan dishes and metaphorical use of foodstuffs, as in “The Three Citrons,” in which a prince cuts open a magic lemon to reveal “a girl as tender and white as curd and whey, with a streak of red on her face that made her look like an Abruzzo ham or a Nola salami…a beauty without measure.” Another footnote observes that Neapolitans, who at the time had not yet adopted pasta, were known elsewhere in Italy as “leaf eaters” due to the profusion of vegetable dishes in the regional cuisine, as underscored in one character’s memorable paean to the city, which reflects a general civic pride that suffuses the collection:

I cannot remove myself from you without a stream of tears flowing from my eyes! I cannot leave you, O Mercato, without a load of grief as merchandise! Beautiful Chiaia, I cannot part company with you without a thousand wounds tormenting my heart! Farewell, carrots and chard; farewell, fritters and cakes; farewell, broccoli and pickled tuna; farewell, tripe and giblets; farewell, stews and casseroles! Farewell, flower of cities, glory of Italy, painted egg of Europe, mirror of the World! Farewell, Naples, the non plus ultra where virtue has set her limits and grace her boundaries! I leave you to become a widower of your vegetable soups; driven out of this dear village, O my cabbage stalks, I must leave you behind!

Though Basile’s collection has been issued in a number of translations, including by British explorer and translator Sir Richard Burton, I found this edition of Basile’s tales tremendously rewarding. Canepa gives us a richly annotated work with a thorough, fascinating introduction; references linking the tales to later variants by other writers; and short synopses prior to each tale that allow the reader to recall them again with ease (one complaint: it’s unfortunate that a hardcover version is not available, as this is the kind of book one is likely to turn to again and again). For readers bothered by the sanitized, Disney-fied fairy tales that proliferate today, The Tale of Tales is a resplendently burlesque, marvel-filled antidote by a writer of enormous talents. Hopefully, a new film based on a trio of Basile’s stories will help bring renewed attention to this exquisite collection.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Guido Morselli: Divertimento 1889

In an afterward to Divertimento 1889 (published 1975), Italian author Guido Morselli transparently defines his short novel: “A simple story with no special significance, and with nothing to teach…a flight from reality among the phantoms of the Belle Époque? I would not deny it.” But Morselli’s deceptive modesty here is but one reason the author remained largely in the shadows until after his suicide in 1973, after which publication of his works brought recognition that Italy had lost one of its finest writers. As even the title of this novella suggests, Divertimento 1889 appears to be escapist fiction. This is not entirely true. Rather, it’s escapist fiction that thematically examines the very idea of escape, written with a pregnant, tensile evanescence, like a shining soap bubble maintaining itself longer than one would think possible, and hinting at ineffable presentiments beyond its blithe, fairy-tale-like gaiety.

As raw material for his tale, Morselli borrows from the case of King Umberto 1, Savoy ruler of Italy from 1878 to his assassination in 1900, “An irrelevant figure, as incapable of doing harm as he was of doing good, as neutral and colourless as the seal embossed on state notepaper.” As the novel opens, the King sits stuck in his office in Monza, besieged, like any common bureaucrat, by tedious duties and “far too many papers, as always,” conscious already of his approaching end:

No mysterious allusions, no dark presentiments. He is far too sure of his fate. Some fine dramatic death, all over in a flash? No chance. His destiny is very different, and far worse. This futile slavish job of his, condemned to trail the length and breadth of his ungrateful land  - dusty, disjointed Italy - with no power and no responsibilities and yet pursued everywhere by papers and couriers, as though it all depended on him, as though he could alter a thing.

Morselli, who wrote an entire allohistorical novel about World War I, toys here with history on a smaller scale, inventing an episode missing from the actual accounts of Umberto’s reign: the king, on a whim, trades his mountains of paper for the mountains of Switzerland, and goes off on a secret escapade.

Adopting the pseudonym Count Filiberto di Moriana and taking along a small coterie of trusted advisors, Umberto decamps to the Hotel Adler in Groeschenen. The sale of one of the King’s landholdings to Frau Von Goltz of nearby Wassen,  aunt to a member of the King’s entourage, will serve as partial excuse for his presence. “Hunting,” whereabouts unknown, will serve as partial excuse for his absence.

As the King prepares his adventure, a breeze of independence wafts through his life: “All these preliminaries, every one of these preparations and precautions, was his doing and his alone – the King’s. Unaccustomed to such freedom of action, to exercising such ingenuity, he felt an inordinate pride in his achievement.” On the train ride over, the heady inexperience of such liberty makes him nearly ill, but, arriving and settling in, he senses an invigorating delight in being able to behave like a normal person:

Handing over your money, pocketing the change, behaving like other people do so enviably every day…He bought stamps, and postcards which he would never send, chocolate he would never eat because it was against doctor’s orders, a half-bottle of Kirsch which he presented to Mancuso, exactly like a real-life tourist who has to count every Swiss franc he spends.

The next day, walking alone in the alpine countryside, he stumbles upon Frau Von Goltz’s home and is invited in, causing the King to muse retrospectively, as though expressing the underlying theme from the many fables of royalty mingling secretly in society, “I discovered life.”


A “simple story with no special significance” - yet problems arise. As the reader can anticipate, the perils for a monarch of traveling incognito are legion, particularly in Switzerland, “the spies’ paradise.” These complications – among others a hitch in the land sale, the threat of an ostentatious visit by the German Kaiser, indiscreet dalliances, an inquisitive vacationing journalist – crowd in to give the story new tensions and accentuate the fragile glory of the King’s caprice. But balancing these tensions - and one of Divertimento 1889’s great attractions - is the way Morselli colors in its simple outlines with rich and often humorous glimpses of the Belle Époque. Digressions on the “impeccable Helvetian efficiency” of Swiss railroads, for example, convey the era’s infatuation with novelty and technology:

For then travel by train was a thrill which the railways companies fostered by devising ingenious circuitous routes, spectacular ascents and descents and contortions, fruit of a technology full of fantasy which, like the opera-house, prized set design and trompe-l’oeil effects purely for their own sakes.

Similar asides illuminate other aspects of Belle Époque life, such as the interiors of grand hotels; the period patterns and colors and textures of materials; vintages of great champagnes and marks of fine cigars; the splendid and imposing beauty of the Alps and the haplessness of foreign tourists who visit them:

A variety of spectacles was available to the village’s summer guests. There was the to-ing and fro-ing of the more dauntless among them, Anglo-Saxon for the most part, setting off to scale the glaciers with a tinkling arsenal of crampons, ice-picks, and Alpenstocks, amid a picturesque retinue of guides and muleteers and porters, and as like as not returning with broken bones and half frozen to death.

Morselli turns a similarly unsparing, winking eye on Italy itself:

The French (or French-Swiss, or Belgians) were bandying impressions of Italy. They had been struck by the sheer scale of everything in Italy. The variety of police forces (three of them, rivals yet not competitors, even four according to some calculations), the number of killings (Italians murder each other without cease, and preferably without motive), the hordes of unemployed day-laborers in village squares, the immense and unremitting uproar thanks to which the foreign visitor in Florence, in Genoa, in Milan, might just as well not waste his time trying to grab any sleep, day or night. The prodigious quantity of litter and empty bottles enhancing the natural beauty of the landscape, on the beaches, in the fields, all over the hills. Further peculiarities: if a train arrives at a station less than twenty minutes behind schedule; if a letter reaches its destination within three days of being posted, all who are party to the miracle cross themselves ‘just like we do when a calf is born with two heads’.

These amusing snapshots of a time past, besides being entertaining, underscore the novella’s surprisingly moving themes around mortality, obscurity, the nature of freedom, one’s relationship with history. Having escaped the confines of high office, however temporarily, the King cannot escape being reminded of his approaching end, not least by the print near his bed in the Hotel Adler, the Stufenaltar des Mannes, depicting the stages of life from infancy to decrepitude. Part of the charm and poignancy of Divertimento 1889, however, comes from its subversive reminder that death is the most democratic of institutions and from its linking the King’s fate to the imminent demise of an entire era, a world on the verge of disappearing, swept up by “the frenetic tempo of modern life, particularly as embodied in its all-consuming technology, such as the telegraph (and soon we shall have the telephone), electric lighting, the giddy speed of the railway train.” The “March of Progress” represents “the twilight hour” for monarchies, “the long evening shadows….beginning to close in…the climacteric.” As the King recognizes, a greater threat to him than radicalism or socialism is anachronism.


In the last line of the book’s afterword, Morselli counsels readers to “take this little tale in the spirit of its title. One person at least, I who wrote it, was diverted.” Make that two people, at least; in fact, I went out of my mind over this book. Beyond simple diversion, Divertimento 1889 offers a near perfect narrative of sparkling and unique charm and an extraordinary belle echappée that confers a lingering, nagging weightiness long after one has closed the book’s covers. We’ve been escaping too into Morselli’s glittering, romanticized past, within which there’s a foreboding reminder for all of us, whether functionaries or kings, of the ultimate impossibility of escape, of the number of days “enjoyed and those still to enjoy…shrinking fast, becoming ever fewer and more precious, to be uncorked and savoured one by one, minute by minute.”