Reading The Tale of Tales, Giambattisa Basile’s 17th-century book of fairy stories, is both exhilarating and exhausting. If that sounds like a warning, it is. If that sounds like a promise, well, good news.
Perhaps most importantly, the book’s an erstwhile history course, and for those who enjoy a sense of research alongside their Cinderella, this edition, translated by Nancy L. Canepa, is invaluable. Basile wrote for the courtiers who patronized him — a savvy and demanding audience — and in the Neapolitan dialect rather than ‘modern’ Italian. It’s no surprise, then, that the writing has the manic, crowd-pleasing energy of a work meant to be read aloud, with every Baroque flourish imaginable. Every declaration of love reads like Singin’ in the Rain’s period-piece love scene, and as far as Basile’s concerned, if one insult’s funny, a string of ten is better. It’s the kind of writing that threatens, at times, to leave you behind.
Luckily, Canepa’s footnotes are at hand, explaining everything from Aarne-Thompson story types to historical trivia about Spanish swords. But they’re at their most interesting when they reveal the intricacies and occasional impossibilities of translation from Basile’s slangy, inventive use of an obscure dialect. A mourner’s grief is described in the story itself as “ranting and raving,” but the footnote breaks down the Neapolitan punning involved; it provides a much sharper sense of disdain for his laments, and reminds us about the strange combination of archaeology and poetry that goes into such an intricate translation. Some are even wry asides that give personality to the research: when noting the first appearance of an overblown celestial metaphor, Canepa wryly warns us it’s “the first of hundreds.” She is not wrong.
This sense of history leaches into the tales themselves, as the footnotes illuminate contemporary customs and attitudes. Occasionally, it’s noteworthy trivia: glass balls rolled across the forehead as an anti-wrinkle device, wolf-hilted Spanish swords and Turkish customs from international trade. Occasionally, you run across the usual unfortunate prejudices one girds oneself to encounter when tackling folklore — anti-Semitism and sexism among them — all given suitable context in the footnotes. Fair warning: Even given the attitudes of the day, the frame story that surrounds the storytelling contest in The Tale of Tales is pointedly, almost exuberantly racist — replacing the husband-stealing troll of the “supplanted bride” story with a caricature of a vindictive “Moorish slave” who wrangles the prince out from under our heroine and plays the villain of the piece.
The good news is that most of the 50 tales themselves are slightly safer territory, and both formally and in their narratives, they offer some bawdy, pointed spin on the classics. Basile’s more-is-more atittude bursts from every page, from biting social commentary to endless fart jokes, but there’s also a sort of narrative ruthlessness that cuts through these stories. Kings and their grotesques live side by side (as with the king who fed a flea until it grew as big as he was), and the romances share a certain sense of wickedness (the young girl who dislikes her evil stepmother conspires to kill her rather than wait for a handsome prince), enchanted snakes turn into handsome men and then doves (naturally), and the body count is so high that it’s lucky our dimwitted heroes and goodhearted fairies always seem to have convenient potions on hand to paste everyone’s heads back on. There’s even a sense of psychological weight amid the absurdities; one of the benefits of Baroque description is that sooner or later a list becomes a portrait.
The Tale of Tales, with this direct-from-the-Neapolitan translation, makes a unique entry amid the recent crop of new-to-English fairy tale translations that have made a welcome return to the folktale canon. It’s not a quick read (as with last year’s Turnip Princess by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth), nor is it a poetic one (as with Tales of the Marvellous translated by Malcolm C. Lyons). It’s something more manic, more subversive — and at times, the casual prejudice is more unsettling than any fantastic beasts. But though these tales demand a painstaking journey, for those with a historical appetite, it’s a vivid and fascinating one.
Genevieve Valentine’s latest novel is Persona.