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Giambattista Basile. The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones.

Giambattista Basile. The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones. Translated by Nancy Canepa. Illustrated by Carmelo Lettere. Foreword by Jack Zipes. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007. Pp.463.

Giambattista Basile wrote Lo cunto de li cunti or Pentameron in the early seventeenth century, using a stylized, baroque Neapolitan dialect. The first integral collection of literary fairy tales in western Europe, Basile's work was published for the first time between 1634 and 1636. It consists of fifty tales told over the course of five days by ten tellers (a playful allusion to Boccaccio's Decameron). Each tale includes a preamble and a moralizing proverb, and each day opens with a description of the storytellers and concludes with the recitation of an eclogue. Despite the book's subtitle, children were not among the intended audience of these intellectually challenging and often bawdy stories. Basile's tales are morally ambivalent, stylistic hybrids; they depend on highly metaphorical language and display numerous intertextual references to ancient and modern literature.The foreword to Canepa's book, written by renowned fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes, is a brief but useful comparative essay that places Basile's work within the context of the European fairy tale. Zipes is clearly a fan of Basile, and places him alongside E. T. A. Hoffmann as "the most talented and innovative of all the fairy-tale writers in Europe up to the present day" (xiii). In Zipes's view, it is the linguistic difficulty inherent in Basile's literary and archaic Neapolitan dialect that has prevented a more widespread recognition of this writer's importance. Zipes also significantly, and correctly, calls Canepa's translation "a prodigious accomplishment" (xiv).

Carmelo Lettere's "Illustrator's Note" is a puzzling addition to the volume. One would expect to find in this text the artist's rationale for his choice of subjects--only twenty-six of Basile's tales receive illustrations, all focused, in turn, on a single moment in each story--as well as an explanation of why the artist chose to illustrate this particular literary work, and how he came to the unique style in which the illustrations are produced. But instead what we find is an often opaque and autobiographical reflection of language and dialect, with very little attention to the illustration themselves.

Nancy Canepa's thirty-page introduction is a fundamental part of the volume, and is divided into several sections: Basile's Life (a biography of this author in the context of the city, culture, and language of Naples); Publishing History (including the books' early popularity outside of the Neapolitan context); Basile and Neapolitan; The Novella Heritage; Basile and the History of the Literary Fairy Tale (from the ancient world to Calvino's collection); The Structure of the Collection (particularly the framing technique and principal motifs); Reading The Tale of Tales (Canepa's general interpretation of the book); This Translation. Basile's book was first translated into English in its entirety in 1893 by Richard Burton (with an often inaccurate rendition), and into Italian in 1925 by Benedetto Croce. Largely because of the complexity of its relatively obscure language, the importance of Basile's work was not properly recognized by literary scholars until the 1970s and later, most importantly, in the United States, through Nancy Canepa's own monograph From Court to Forest: Giambattista Basile's Lo cunto de li cunti and the Birth of the Literary Fairy Tale (1999). With the volume we are considering here, Canepa has provided a much-needed translation into contemporary English of Basile's important collection. This is a volume that belongs on the bookshelf of everyone interested in fairy tales--for either scholarly or personal purposes--or in baroque culture and in Italian literary history more generally. Canepa's is a timely translation, accurate and highly readable: Basile's playfulness with the fairy tale genre and with language more generally comes through in all its joy. This book will undoubtedly help in spreading knowledge of Giambattista Basile's groundbreaking work among English-speakers.

Cristina Mazzoni, University of Vermont
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Author:Mazzoni, Cristina
Publication:Annali d'Italianistica
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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