Thursday, January 29, 2015


I’ve been focusing on Italian literature now for many months, so Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio (more precisely The Adventures of Pinocchio: The Story of a Puppet, 1883) perhaps should not have offered many surprises. Instead, it hit me like a slap in the face. Never before, not even in Roberto Saviano’s books about the scourge of the Camorra or Pier Paolo Pasolini’s accounts of vicious street kids, had the darker side of Italian literature revealed itself so penetratingly. Pinocchio seemed to shed an illuminating – though not particularly sunny – light on what had otherwise impressed me as a national literature of unusual expressiveness, playfulness, imagination, intimacy, magnanimity, and attention to beauty. One need only think of the generous, attentive narrators of Ariosto’s “Orlando furioso” or Manzoni’s The Betrothed, and even when authors turn their attention to the terrible vicissitudes of life - Verga, for instance, or Belli, or Sciascia - there’s often a comic element that buoys one above life’s wretchedness.

In Pinocchio, however, while some of those sunnier elements and comedy are there, particularly in the expressiveness and play of imagination, the tone starts dark, and the challenges to which the puppet, dreaming of becoming “a real boy,” is put are beyond grim and perhaps even beyond Grimm. Early on, Pinocchio, falling asleep with his feet propped up by the fire, has his feet burned off. Not long after, accosted by a fox and a cat intent on robbing him, he is lynched on an oak tree. And this scene, coming after only 15 of the 36 chapters that make up Collodi’s book, would have been the end of the story had not the readers of the initial, serialized tales of Pinocchio clamored for more and had not Pinocchio, calling to his father like Christ during his execution, been resurrected for more. A note: once one starts down the path paved by Collodi’s religious allusions, one runs the danger of hopping onto runaway metaphors barreling towards going off the rails.

Translator Nicholas Perella’s 79 page essay on Pinocchio included in the bilingual edition I read is thorough to the point of making it nearly impossible for me to say anything about the book that he hasn’t already observed. I’ll just note one aspect upon which Perella only lightly touches - a few potent, fluid dichotomies in the story - which may help explain the book’s enduring popularity as well as some of its attraction for an adult reader looking for an essentially weird reading experience.

First among these, of course, is Pinocchio himself, an amalgam of wood and human spirit (those wanting a ride on a runaway religious metaphor may board now). Born from a father who forms the puppet from a block of organic material much like the Biblical god forming Adam (one wonders if that god was as surprised as Geppetto at the material’s sudden animation), Pinocchio is, throughout the book - or until at the end he discards his wooden frame and ascends into boyhood - a curious composite human-puppet, flesh that is at the same time not flesh, object that is at the same time human, a shape shifter of sorts. Repeatedly he suffers violence visited upon his wooden/human body; repeatedly he pulls himself back together or has help doing it. Collodi’s enjoyment in playing with this material is evident.

Even more fluid a dichotomy is that between life and death. In chapter 15, that final chapter of Collodi’s initial serial, just before Pinocchio dies from hanging, he encounters for the first time the character we’ll later know as The Blue Fairy, described as “a beautiful Little Girl with blue hair and a face as white as a wax image who, with eyes closed and hands crossed over her breast, without moving her lips at all, [says] in a voice that seemed to come from the world beyond: ‘There is nobody in this house. They are all dead,’” then adds, “’I am dead, too.’” Pinocchio is a fantasy with multiple instances of resurrection, in which death, despite the horror associated with it, is ever mutable into new life. Even a giant serpent Pinocchio encounters is alive, then apparently dead, then alive, then (a nice comic element) really dead – from laughing so much that his heart bursts.

A third interesting dichotomy is that between the moralizing thrust of the book – its insistence on obedience – and the delight readers (young readers especially) may find in Pinocchio’s repeated rejection of authority. If ostensibly the book is aimed at inculcating in children a respect for rules and toeing the line, the subtext is clear: little of interest may happen in life if one doesn’t transgress from time to time.  I’m speculating, but children may love the book in part because it allows them to go off on fantasies of disobedience under the guise of being instructed to do just the opposite.

I’ll add one last thing: in addition to Pinocchio’s fascinating darker aspects, the book contains some marvelously imaginative passages that make it a rewarding reading experience in general and a rewarding Italian reading experience in particular. There are many examples of the former – rabbit pallbearers, a thousand woodpeckers who peck Pinocchio’s nose back to a manageable size, a coach “the color of air…padded with canary feathers, and lined on the inside with whipped cream and ladyfingers in custard,” drawn by a hundred pairs of white mice and driven by a poodle. One favorite passage that strikes me as particularly Italian is Pinocchio’s fantasy, in chapter 19, of what he’ll do when the gold pieces he has planted in the Field of Miracles come up as coin-laden trees:

Oh, what a wealthy gentlemen I’d become then! I’d get myself a beautiful palace, a thousand little wooden horses and a thousand stables to play with, a cellar full of rosolio cordials and alkermes liqueurs, and a library chock-full of candied fruit, pies, panettoni, almond cakes, and rolled wafers filled with whipped cream.

All those baked and candied marvels! One is transported into a pasticceria. And a child dreaming of alcoholic cordials? Darkness be damned; how can one not want to be in Italy after reading this?

Many thanks to Amanda of the Simpler Pastimes blog for organizing the Pinocchio read-along. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

“Things ought to be looked at differently in life than in speech” – Antonio Beccadelli’s The Hermaphrodite

Palazzo del Panormita, Naples

Maybe I shouldn’t write about Antonio Beccadelli’s most infamous work, a 15th century collection of epigrams entitled Hermaphroditus (The Hermaphrodite). For one thing, though it loosely fits my current focus on Italian literature, the poem was written in Latin. For another, Beccadelli, a.k.a Antonio Panormita - a Sicilian who led a career as libertine, academic, court poet, and diplomatic envoy for King Alfonso V of Aragon - is a relatively minor figure of “the heroic age” of Italian humanists, and his work is perhaps primarily of interest to scholars. It may not even be of much interest to them; Holt Parker, the translator/editor of the I Tatti Renaissance Library edition of The Hermaphrodite, says about the poet that the “truth of the matter is [that]…he was not especially good…is also largely tone-deaf…[and] lacks wit.” Parker warns that readers may be initially disappointed in Beccadelli. I count myself among them. I did not especially like the poem.

But liking differs from appreciating, and I’d been intrigued to read The Hermaphrodite after stumbling upon Beccadelli’s palace, the Palazzo del Panormita, in Naples. The first page of Parker’s introduction stoked the flame born from what little I already knew. Parker quotes Ludwig Pastor (1906) as saying that “the spirit of the false Renaissance is here manifested in all its hideousness,” then adds that “the reputation of the book in your hands is…so loathsome that it (eventually) set off the French Revolution or worse – Protestantism.” It’s difficult to turn one’s curiosity away from a reputation like that. But the book’s notoriety stems not so much from its poetic merits as from its titillating subject matter. Beccadelli described The Hermaphrodite as consisting, like the subject of its title, of two parts: the first “stands for the cock, the next will be cunt.”

I probably don’t need to add that Beccadelli had set out to shock. The Hermaphrodite, dedicated to Cosimo de’Medici ("something for you to read to a guest after lunch") was in general warmly received, even by some within with Catholic church. But it also incited the hanging of Beccadelli in effigy and public burnings of the book, not to mention papal edicts against its being read and the creation, for the poet, of a slew of enemies.

In substance, The Hermaphrodite is something of a messy hodgepodge, mixing lewd, sexual and scatological poems with elegies to the dead, attacks on Beccadelli’s detractors, and purplish, flattering paeans to his patrons and followers. Much of the poem indulges in an explicit, adolescent sexual humor: crude descriptions of sexual organs and acts, with a notable, celebratory fixation on sodomy; accusations of sexual anomaly and inadequacy hurled at Beccadelli’s enemies; depictions of prostitution (“I was sweet and pleasant. My deeds pleased many,/But except for my fee, nothing was sweet to me”); even a poem in which the poet invites the sexually profligate to copulate on his own tomb and thus “honor my soul by fucking, not with incense.”  Among the most amusing of these not particularly funny poems parodies the pastoral genre, as the poet’s visit to a bucolic location to write lofty verse is ruined when a peasant comes along and

…places his cloak on the ground, nearby,
then opens his pants and pulls out his cock and balls:
and the breeze gently lashes his naked buttocks.
He bent his knees and curled up into a circle,
Placing his elbows on his thighs and his hands on his cheeks.
Seeming to rest his heels on the back of his thighs,
He squeezes, loosens his bowels, and then shits.
At that from this talkative asshole windy thunders
Break forth; the whole field is stricken by the crack.
I was shaken, my pen fell, the goddess betook herself to the breezes,
The bird fled terrified by the rumble of the fart.

Some of the epigrams aimed at Beccadelli’s foes contain the kinds of insults one might hear today on the Italian street (presumably in coarsest dialect rather than Latin). But even in so minimal a collection - 81 short poems, some of only a couple lines - this kind of thing can grow tiresome. Beccadelli himself avowed that his poems were merely frivolous distractions, the only verses he could complete given “a thousand and one calls on my time,” and easy to write since epigrams should be “short, must be pointed, and [quoting Martial]…fight ‘not with massed troops but a spearhead’” (or as Martial says elsewhere, more in line with Beccadelli’s style, “little books/like husbands with their wives/can’t please without a cock”).

The manner of the poems’ reception and defense, in poems and letters Beccadelli appended to later editions, proves of perhaps greater interest than the poem itself. Beccadelli dealt with the controversy surrounding his work in myriad ways, ranging from lacerating condemnation of his critics to almost complete renunciation, off and on during his life, of these early poems, reflecting, at least in part, the danger in which his verses put him. Mostly, though, he appeared to walk a middle line by defending “obscene” poetry in terms of its precedence, articulating a tradition of such poems by Virgil, Catullus, Sappho, Juvenel and Martial to name but a few.

As a further line of defense, Beccadelli several times distinguishes between the poet and his verses: “These people say that my life is like my words;/I’ll prove clearly that they speak with a false tongue.” A kind of pre-emptive campaign by Beccadelli’s colleague, Guarino da Verona, in a prefatory letter to the collection, underscores this distinction:

…I would not approve less of the poem itself and the author’s talent just because it smacks of jokes, playfulness, and something a little wanton. Would you therefore praise Apelles, Fabius, and other painters the less because they painted naked and open to view those parts of the body which by nature prefer to be hidden? What if they painted worms, snakes, mice, scorpions, frogs, flies, and disgusting vermin? Wouldn’t you admire and praise their art and the skill of the artist? I in truth praise the man, admire his talent, delight when his verse plays around, when he cries I cry, when he laughs I laugh, praise it when it goes whoring in the middle of a brothel. The authority of my fellow countryman, a not inelegant poet, carries more weight with me than the shouting of the ignorant, who can delight in nothing but tears, fasting, and psalms, and who forget that things ought to be looked at differently in life than in speech.

I did not much enjoy The Hermaphrodite (especially not its palpable dislike of women), but I did appreciate the attempts made by Beccadelli to defend his subject matter and his identification of a long literary tradition for such subjects. The Hermaphodite and its related documents make for another fascinating example of the strategies at work in justifying the irreverent, obscene and decadent in literature, and it’s nearly inconceivable to think that such sophomoric poems could have played a part in giving birth to Europe’s greatest schisms. And while I may not have liked The Hermaphrodite, its defense of such irreverence appears to plant a flag on new soil as a stand against those lacking open-mindedness, perspective, and a sense of humor, and who could be incited to violence by a mediocre poem about (to use one of Beccadelli's favored terms) "butt-fucking." I imagine that Beccadelli would have been dismayed to learn that, 600 years after his frivolous epigrammatic “distractions” created so much controversy, even a mere cartoon can provoke a like response.

Friday, January 9, 2015

2014: The Aftercast


Widely scattered reading, sometimes heavy, with occasional posts diminishing towards the end of the year, threatening drought.

As Seraillon enters its fifth year of existence, I thank all of you who have visited the blog despite sometimes lengthy periods between posts. Even if I only reviewed a fraction of what I read, my reading in 2014 provided me with magnificent new discoveries, further explorations of some writers I knew, plus visits with a few old favorites. 
Italian literature dominated the year. Nearly a third of the books I read in 2014 were by Italian writers or set in Italy. This was not primarily due, as one might suppose, to three weeks in October I spent in Naples and in Sicily (where apparently I just missed Himadri of The Argumentative Old Git). Rather, I owe my Italian focus to four works read in relative succession that simply made me want to read more Italian literature: Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed, perhaps my favorite book read in 2013; Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando furioso, certainly my favorite book read in 2014; a reread of Dante’s Inferno in a startlingly original translation by Irish poet Ciarin Carson; and a reread of Manuel Mujica Láinez’s extraordinary Bomarzo, Italian even if not by an Italian writer. The bookends of travel, anticipation and aftermath, spurred further reading of Italian, and particularly Sicilian, writers.

I hope to post about more of these Italian works, so I’ll hold off on discussing them here except to single out a few as among my favorite books read in 2014.

Topping the entire list would be Orlando furioso. Ariosto’s 16th century epic poem, depicting the defense of Christendom from Muslim invaders in the 9th century and recasting, with generous charm and wit, the chivalric tales of Orlando (Roland) and his fellow knights, proved to be an tremendous breath of fresh air, unexpectedly modern and deeply humanistic, with an affable narrator, memorable heroic characters on all sides of the conflict, a strong feminist angle, and wildly entertaining fantastical elements, including around-the-world travel on a hippogryph and a voyage to the moon to rescue the frenzied Orlando’s lost wits. The nearly 40,000 lines of the poem, which Voltaire without exaggeration described as “the Iliad, the Odyssey and Don Quixote all rolled into one,” were not nearly enough; I did not want Orlando furioso to end.

A visit to the village of Aci Trezza on Sicily’s eastern shore provided incentive to read Giovanni Verga’s I Malavoglia (The House by the Medlar Tree), a work I’d long awaited reading. Verga’s portrait of the poor Malavoglia family’s seemingly endless series of setbacks is biting, tragic and comical at once, and an unforgettable portrayal of the human struggle against adversity and poverty. I know of nothing quite like Verga’s brand of realism, the manner in which he depicts human dignity in the face of tragedy so movingly, yet with such droll, fine humor - and with such a deliberate attempt, in trying to represent reality, to strip away that all the rest that is literature.

I'd been awestruck in 2012 by Curzio Malaparte's Kaputt, but The Skin, Malaparte’s series of semi-fictionalized essays set mostly in American-occupied Naples in the waning years of World War II, has absolutely haunted me, especially while in Naples. The Skin depicts the absurdity and horror not only of the war, but of the victory as well. No one writes like Malaparte, one of World War II’s great witnesses; his fictional, surreal embellishments of grim, often horrific situations, instead of rendering them unbelievable, manages to make their reality even more tangible.

Having previously read only two works by Sicilian writer and activist Leonardo Sciascia, his crime novel The Day of the Owl and his strangely obsessive inquest into the suicide of Raymond Roussel, I was blown away by The Council of Egypt, a novel set in 18th century Palermo involving forged books, the traitorousness of translation, the impact of history on the living, and providing, in a surprising turn at the end of the novel, a powerful indictment of torture.

Among the non-Italian highlights of the year (not strictly Italian anyway), I include three for which I’ve written posts: Bomarzo and two 19th century Spanish novels, one fat and one thin, that fit well together: Leopoldo Alas’ La Regenta and Benito Pérez Galdós’ Tristana. One about which I have not yet written is Richard Harris Barham’s The Ingoldsby Legends. I was unfamiliar with this work, yet in the 19th century Barham’s collection of legends, poems and songs, published under the pseudonym Thomas Ingoldsby, was the most popular work of fiction in Great Britain, even surpassing works by publisher Robert Bentley’s other best-selling author, one Charles Dickens. Barham’s linguistically wide-ranging prose and brilliantly rhyming poetry, put to work whimsically and ferociously in darkly humorous, grotesquely gothic folkloric tales full of cruel chastisements and bad (very bad) ends, kept me entertained for weeks. The extensive annotations by Carol Hart in my Spring Street Books edition are nearly as entertaining as the work itself. And hey, there’s a whole second volume to go.

Among authors I happily revisited were E. M. Forster, Raymond Roussel, Willa Cather, Colette, Anita Loos, Roberto Bolaño (a 2666 group read sponsored by Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos), MacDonald Harris, Conor McPherson, Kingsley Amis, Carl Jonas Love Almqvist, Ann Radcliffe, José Saramago, Boris Vian, Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s ever enthralling and elegant Wind, Sand and Stars, Joan Aiken’s superbly entertaining children’s book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and cartoonist Roz Chast in her brilliantly funnynotfunny account of taking care of elderly parents, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Dora Bruder marked my return to Patrick Modiano after a number of years. This work, straddling fiction and non-fiction, makes for a compelling rejoinder to those who’ve scoffed at Modiano’s having been awarded the Nobel Prize. I’d include it on a short list of crucial works about the Holocaust. Modiano tugs on a loose thread, an old newspaper clipping, and unravels a devastating history all the more affecting for our knowledge that there were millions of such singular stories, such promising lives, each so individual, each so terribly alike in their end. 

As for authors new to me, I dusted off a few books long in the queue, including Helene Hanff’s charming, hilarious epistolary work, 84, Charing Cross Road. I tackled the first volume of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, but preferred the pseudonymous Harry Kressing’s almost undoubtedly Peake-inspired, comic novel of calculated nastiness, The Cook. Another pulled from the pile, María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s 1872 novel, Who Would Have Thought It?, proved far more fascinating than its sometimes leaden sentences initially promised. Considered the first novel written by a Mexican-American woman, Who Would Have Thought It? explores complications of race, gender, power and politics in the American Civil War period by an unusual writer and personal friend of Abraham Lincoln. One of the few other U.S. writers I discovered this year was playwright August Wilson. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and its predecessor, Gem of the Ocean, look at African-Americans in Pittsburgh at the beginning of the 20th century, exploring the tensions between those unable to put the atrocity of slavery behind them and others all too eager to move on, oblivious to the past. These are riveting plays, rich in language and nuance. And though I’d probably first encountered Njal’s Saga in some form in grade school, a group read led by the Wuthering Expectations blog made it a new and bloody rewarding experience.

A collection of short stories, Things Look Different inthe Light, introduced me to late Spanish writer Medardo Fraile, whose sly tales take slices of daily life at an oblique angle. Thanks to Miguel of the St. Orberose blog, I got a tantalizing introduction to another Spanish writer, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester. 2014 is also the year I discovered Rodrigo Rey Rosa, a Guatemalan protégé of Paul Bowles. Two of Rey Rosa’s short novels – Severina and The African Shore – whet my appetite to read more of this remarkable writer and his distinctively lucid, penetrating prose. Regrettably, I read few books from beyond Europe and the Americas, but two were real standouts: Persian writer Sadegh Hedayat’s La Chouette Aveugle (The Blind Owl), and Touareg writer Ibrahim al-Koni’s desert novel, Gold Dust, which pairs nicely with Rey Rosa’s The African Shore as excellent short novels with animals at the center of their stories. 

I might have missed Fog Island Mountains, by Michelle Bailat-Jones, but for her interest in and translation of Swiss writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz having alerted me to her own writing. Fog Island Mountains, Bailat-Jones’ first novel, takes an old Japanese folktale and spins on top of it a contemporary story of coming to terms with terminal illness. The mythological quality of the tale permits some liberties with coincidence and dramatic effect, resulting in a beautiful and moving book structured around stages of a typhoon that spans the compressed time frame of the story.

My favorite new discovery among contemporary writers is John McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun  (for its American edition re-titled by some marketeer as the hum-drum By the Lake). Magahern’s deceptively simple subject – the return to a lakeside Irish village of a couple who’ve left behind their professional lives in London – is developed into an exquisite portrayal of small town life, the tensions between progress and tradition, the effort to make a good life in the face of mortality, the inexorability of time. Sparkling with witty Irish crack and peopled by a cast of characters one comes to know intimately, MaGahern’s novel subtly and richly weaves in politics, manners and culture such that I felt upon emerging from the novel that I might need no other guide to visit its setting and have a grip on the place.

Putting aside Ariosto, I read slightly less poetry than in past years, but what I read I liked very much: Louise Labé’s 16th century love poems, a selection of Spain’s Siglo de Oro poets, Frank Kuppner’s idiosyncratic and irreverent collection of 500+ quatrains devoted to Chinese painting in A Bad Day for the Sung Dynasty, Chris Abani’s harrowing prison poems in Kalakuta Republic, and, among the Italians a sampling of Salvatore Quasimodo, Umberto Saba, and Danilo Dolci. In the final days of the year I discovered the irreverent sonneteer Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, whose work I’m continuing to read now, and about whom I expect to have more to say later.

I read slightly more detective/thriller/polar novels than usual, including several of Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano books, Ariel Winter’s adept and entertaining impersonations of Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson in the trilogy of novels entitled The Twenty Year Death, and, uh, one or two others. Most mysteries slip through my memory like sand.

I don’t expect my exploration of Italian literature to slow down in 2015, especially as I’ve begun the year reading nothing but works by Italians. Plus, how fortuitous, the Wuthering Expectations blog has picked Italian literature as the focus for its annual reading challenge. I do have a few non-Italian works I plan to read, though, and as always, I remain open to whatever other glittering thing might flash before my wandering magpie eyes. Thank you again visiting Seraillon, and to you all I wish a year of abundant humor, happiness, love and peace – and rewarding reading, of course.