The Tale of Tales, Giambattista Basile, trans. Nancy L. Canepa, London: Penguin Classics, 2016, pb., $20
Like most Western children, I was reared partly on fairy-tales. Presented in beautifully illustrated Ladybird books, these were as much a part of my early childhood as the house decor, encouraging me to read, and arousing inchoate ideas of an ur-Europe of forlorn beauties, wandering princes, vindictive stepmothers, dangerous fruits, fabulous treasures, ravening beasts, warty witches, magnificent chateaux, and thorn-swathed castles lost in trackless forest. When I encountered the Disney versions I swiftly lost interest in them, boyishly repelled by song-and-dance numbers and tweeness – but still the stories stayed, lodged in my image of myself and the civilisation to which I felt I belonged. It was years before I realised that fairy-tales were much darker and more interesting than Disney or Hans Christian Andersen had led me to believe – and years more before I heard of Giambattista Basile, the most inventive of all fairy-tale writers, and to whom we owe such kindergarten classics as Rapunzel and Cinderella. This beautifully translated, superbly annotated new translation of his Tale of Tales – which Benedetto Croce called “the most remarkable book of the Baroque period” – should therefore be of abounding interest to anyone who has any proprietorial regard for European culture.
Establishing the origins of traditionary tales is often impossible, stemming as many do from before written history, and the commonalities of the human condition leading to adventitious parallels even in widely separated cultures. For example, the ninth-century Chinese folk tale of Yeh-hsien is reminiscent of Cinderella – a girl ill-treated by step-relations but aided by a giant fish to attend a great ball attired in kingfisher-feather dress and gold shoes, one of which she mislays, and which is too delicate to fit anyone else until at last the lovelorn royal suitor finds her in a scullery. Tales have also interpenetrated each other to some extent through borrowings and translations. The Arabian Nights, for example, has partly Indian origins, compiled by Ashokan folklorist-intellectuals in the 3rd century B.C. as the Panchatantra, from stories that were old even then (they would not be translated into Arabic until the 8th century). The cities of the Mediterranean littorals have always been interfaces as well as flashpoints, and one of the oldest and greatest was Naples, where Giambattista Basile first bawled lustily for attention circa 1575, newest addition to a socially ambitious middle-class Posillipo clan.
The youthful Giambattista was reared in a rich-historied, Vesuvius-conscious, lushly-grown, staggeringly vital city of around 200,000 souls, caught between unquietly sleeping pagan past and splendid Catholicism, Commedia dell’arte and Counter-Reformation, Harlequin and the Holy Ghost. In summer, he probably swam, as one day I swam, in the swelling Bay beneath the ruins of a Roman summer-house – perhaps that of ogre-like Vedius Pollio, a 1st century B.C. equestrian who fed slaves to lampreys – and doubtless attended High Mass at the Cathedral of San Gennaro where thrice yearly throngs come to see the magical liquefaction of the city saint’s ichor. Etruscan, Greek, Western Empire, Byzantine, Ostrogoth, Lombard, Saracen, Norman, Hohenstaufen, Angevin, Spanish and Near Eastern influences vied in everyone’s ether, while overlapping visionaries like Giordano Bruno, Bernardino Telesio, Caravaggio, and St. Joseph of Cupertino augmented the sensory-intellectual banquet.
Naples’ part-Spanish nobility proving slow to patronise the young Basile, like other ambitious Campanians he decamped northwards, eventually becoming a mercenary guarding Venice’s Cretan outpost of Candia (Heraklion). Here he joined a dilettantish society, Accademia degli Stravaganti (“Academy of Oddities”), and started to write letters, verses, songs and anagrams. By 1608, he was back home, where his sister Adriana had won European fame as a singer, fêted as la sirena di Posillipo. Helped by her connections, he began to garner a literary reputation, as well as that of a skilled administrator, becoming secretary to noble families as far afield as Mantua and later a several-times city governor within the Kingdom of Naples. Although he styled himself Il Pigro (“The Lazy One”), in what must have been limited spare time he turned out poetry and plays, and scholarly editions of mannerist classics in Italian – while also authoring, gathering and restyling the mass of dialect material that would transmute into The Tale of Tales. Circa 1624, he was ennobled as Count of Torone, and continued what an obituarist called his “very peaceful tenor of life” until falling to flu in 1632.
It is ironic that Basile’s scholarly works have fallen into obscurity, and that he should be remembered today almost solely for Lo Cunto de la Cunti (also called Pentamerone, because it consists of fifty tales told within a five day period, and as hommage to Boccaccio’s Decameron), which was not even published until four years after his death. Why he did not have it published is unclear. It was not a question of a sophisticate embarrassed by provincial roots, because he always championed Neapolitan artists and writers. It might have been difficult to find a publisher, translator Nancy N. Canepa suggests,
…in a period in which Spain was striving to consolidate its colonialist regime in southern Italy, a literature whose depiction of local realities was often tinged with anti-Spanish and anti-colonial sentiment was regarded suspiciously by official culture.
Maybe he just did not feel it was ready for publication. But in any case these stories were always supposed to be told rather than read – and told within a limited circle. The collection is subtitled “Entertainment for Little Ones”, but the intended audience was decidedly adult – aesthetes, intellectuals and wits, who would appreciate Basile’s ornate language, lavish metaphors, his torrent of classical and contemporary allusions, sly squibs, urbanity, and lugubrious eclogues on courtly life or moral virtue. Then there is surrealism – such as in The Crow, when a king become besotted by a freshly-killed crow whose blood has leaked onto white marble, and searches ever after for a wife with such colouration of hair, lips and skin. In short, the stories are characterised by what Cambridge don E. R. Vincent called “euphuistic sophistication.”
Older children would, however, probably have been shocked-delighted by Basile’s gleeful descriptions of sex, his paragraphs of profanities, and comical conceits such as elderly and deformed story-tellers beguiling the periods between narrations playing chasing games and hide-and-seek. Then of course there are magical transformations, gore and grotesquerie by the cartload – to the extent that it is sometimes a relief to take refuge in Canepa’s pellucid footnotes.
The Tale of Tales went through several partial or complete Neapolitan editions between 1634 and the early eighteenth century, then passed into Bolognese dialect and at last Italian. In 1846, it made it into German and, in 1848, English (translated by John Edward Taylor, and illustrated by Cruikshank). In 1893, came the best-known Englishing to date, by that bourgeoisie-scourging romancer Sir Richard Burton, whose version, said biographer Fawn Brodie, showed that “…he had forgotten nothing of the gutter argot he had learned in Naples as a youth.” It is fascinating to compare his version with Canepa’s – both full of brilliance and vim, but hers has the edge, perhaps because he was a generalist, whereas she has specialised. In this passage from “The Dove”, he describes an ogress,
…the brow was cut out of Genoa stone fit to sharpen the knife of fear, which sickened all breasts; the eyes were comets, which caused by a glance a trembling of the limbs, and tightening of the heart, and ice upon the spirits, sharpening of arms, and looseness of body; and she brought terror in her face, fear in her eyes, trembling in her steps, and threats in her words. Her mouth had tusks like a wild boar’s, and was large as a dog-fish’s…
While excellent, this seems inferior to Canepa’s:
…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, diarrhoea 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.
Last year, some of this highly-seasoned stufato finally made it to the screen, in Matteo Garrone’s Italo-French Il Racconto dei Racconti, starring Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel and Toby Jones – the latter especially well cast as the king who becomes besotted with a flea and feeds it secretly on his own blood and raw meat until it reaches lamb-size, then kills it and offers his daughter in marriage to anyone who can tell him what kind of animal it was. Naturally, an ogre wins the contest, and the stage is set for yet more fantastical bloodiness.
Illustrator Carmelo Lettere, whose freewheeling cartoons well suit this matter, notes how
In Basile’s text an uncontainable, unseemly, and impure world unfolds itself in elegant and anticlassical fashion.
Canepa similarly stresses a post-modern interpretation of the stories, in which 17th century hierarchies are upturned and found wanting – although this is presumably just to make the collection seem more palatable to today’s readers, rather than to make some oblique sociopolitical comment relevant to today. She highlights discrepancies between the conventional happy endings of many of the stories and their actual content. For example, at the close of The Cinderella Cat, Basile avers complacently “Those who oppose the stars are crazy” – even though his heroine succeeds by doing just that, even committing murder (one cannot imagine the Grimms’ girl doing that, let alone Disney’s). But any unfolding or upturning only seems to go so far. It seems after all unlikely that the peaceful-tenored fabulist would have wished to unsettle the system into which he had been admitted.
Basile was vastly original, obviously, but his urbane auditors would have recognised all kinds of antecedents. Beneath all the phantasmagorical, sometimes disgusting detail – guitar-playing crickets, the decapitated being reanimated, a wizened dyer who bleaches and pins her skin to fool a king into sex, geese being used as toilet paper, cockroach suppositories – lie deep, millennia-old structures, like palaces swallowed by forest but visible from the air. These tales are crammed with traditional tropes, some of the 2,500 enumerated so laboriously (and, one suspects, slightly joylessly) by folklorists Aarne and Thompson.
The book starts with one, “The Supplanted Bride” – the unsmiling princess Zoza forced into laughter by witnessing an argument between an old woman and a boy, ending up with the enraged crone (after a gratuitous flash of her “woodsy scene”!) cursing Zoza for laughing. This curse inevitably involves the princess being cheated out of her prince by an ugly and foolish slave, who marries him instead. But kindly (and apparently inegalitarian) fairies, equally inevitably aid Zoza, and social equilibrium is regained, after a salutary (but un-serious) tossing and goring. These stories are more psychological safety-valves than moral lessons or political messages. As Iona and Peter Opie observe in The Classic Fairy Tales (1974),
In the most-loved fairy tales, it will be noticed, noble personages may be brought low by fairy enchantment or by human beastliness, but the lowly are seldom made noble. The established order is not stood on its head.
Classical and medieval literature are, as Canepa notes, full of fates being circumvented, gods being outwitted, monarchs being lampooned or traduced, heroes who can be monsters, time-slips and bizarre metamorphoses. As these ideas endlessly return, so too do character-types, imagery and styles. Basile’s “unexpectedly modern” heroines are not actually more empowered than, say, Clytemnestra or Salome. Basile’s contemporary-feeling grossness was prefigured in Rabelais, his surrealism in Aristophanes, or works by Bosch and Arcimboldo. The author’s “stylistic hybridity” is a reflection, simply, of unconfinable genius, rather than a model for literature (or society) then or today.
Basile was gleaning in ancient fields, but he added piquant persona to all the things he found, making them his own – but also oddly ours, aspects of an outré Europe that subsists below and still feeds into modernity. Those who wish to know more about Naples, Italy, the 17th century, the baroque sensibility, and the wildest shores of Europe’s identity ought to avail of the rare opportunity to read this foundational, fantastical farrago.
A shorter version of this review appeared in the April 2017 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission