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.


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  2. Adult fairy tales, what larks! I can tell you've had fun reading this, Scott. I especially like the sound of the alternative version of Cinderella, The Cinderella Cat.

    The film is definitely going on my watch list, especially as it's directed by Matteo Garrone. (I guess you've seen Gomorrah?) The reviews look good, too.

    1. Yes, I had fun. Such unexpected delight, this book! There's something about the Neapolitan specificity of it that grounds it in a way that I found far more engaging than other fairy tale collections, and of course the language is unceasingly magnificent.

      I'm eager to see the film - nice that it's been made by a director so clearly invested in Naples himself. I did see Gomorrah (and have read significant portions of the Saviano book). The film apparently only covers three tales, which leaves another 48 (counting the framing tale) with which Garrone can manufacture sequels.

  3. a live goose used as toilet paper.

    Hey, I spotted that reference! It's from Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel.

    Great review, Scott; I had never heard of this book but now I'm curious to read, alongside Folengo's mock epic.

    I notice Nancy Canepa has also written a study of Basile's book. "From Court to Forest: Giambattista Basile's Lo cunto de li cunti and the Birth of the Literary Fairy Tale."

    1. What sharp eyes, Miguel! Yes, that reference, from the apparently widely-read Basile, is from Rabelais (and is acknowledged by Canepa). Thanks for the link to her study; I will certainly check it out. I had not heard of Basile either before encountering Folengo, but having now read him am dumbfounded that his name isn't a household word like Grimm or Andersen - or even, as Canepa notes above, Shakespeare. It seems impossible that I hadn't previously heard of Basile; I found this a great, great book, an anti-classical Renaissance masterpiece hiding in plain sight.

    2. Ha ha, I'm currently reading G&P so the goose episode is fresh in my memory.

      Folengo is another one I want to read, because of his influence on Rabelais and the picaresque romance. Those old Italians were having all sorts of fun!

    3. They were having a blast! Folengo is so, so good, unconstrained by form, and given the macaronic language perhaps more entertaining than Basile on a linguistic level (or would be, if one knew how to read macaroni). But Basile's range is so great and his humanism so deep that I don't think you can choose between them. You'll just have to read both.

  4. I think that I will love this.

    There is a dark and bizarre thread running through so much of the folklore and old fanciful stories. Stories that we label fairy tales, regardless of the fact that they may have been written for children are no exception.

    I love the fact that there are so many references to food.

    1. I think you will love it too, Brian. And you're right about the darkness in so many fairy and folkloric tales. I'm curious now to look at some of the critical literature around them, since I think Basile gives a few fascinating clues as to the purpose of such tales. Canapa makes the point that the "Little Ones' of the subtitle may simply refer to common people, not children.

      I wish there were even more food references here, but there are enough that I've been rummaging to find some of these old recipes...

  5. The quotes are fantastic and this sounds like a 'must read' rather than a candidate for the infinite scroll that is the wish-list.

    1. I had something of the same sense while reading Basile - that I'd been missing out on something fairly essential. I don't understand why he's not as well known as the Grimms or Hans Christian Andersen.

  6. This does sound absolutely mouth-watering.