Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The death of Pinocchio

The Adventures of Pinocchio first appeared in 1881 as a serial in an Italian magazine for children.  The story ends with the murder by hanging of the puppet Pinocchio:

“Oh, dear father!... if only you were here!”

And he had no breath to say anything else.  He closed his eyes, opened his mouth, stretched out his legs, and, after giving a great shudder, he remained there as though frozen stiff.

THE END  (ellipses in original)

Pinocchio must be among the most cruel books I have ever read.  I did not remember it as so cruel, but it must be close to forty years since I last read it.  I still have that book.  The anonymous translator has “gave a long shudder, and hung stiff and insensible,” which is not much softer.

What is softer, though, is the presence of the next page, and of the rest of the book, and the absence of “THE END.”  Young readers, after appointments with their child psychiatrists, demanded that  Carlo Collodi continue Pinocchio’s adventures, resurrecting him (and in the process two other dead characters) for a time, so that now the above passage is merely the end of Chapter 15.  Although he suffers at least two more symbolic deaths, Pinocchio is not murdered for good until twenty-two chapters later, at the end of the novel as we know it.

“There he is over there,” answered Gepetto; and he pointed to a large puppet propped against a chair, its head turned to one side, its arms dangling, and its legs crossed and folded in the middle so that it was a wonder that it stood up at all.

Pinocchio turned and looked at it; and after he had looked at it for a while, he said to himself with a great deal of satisfaction:

“How funny I was when I was a puppet!  And how glad I am now that I’ve become a proper boy!”


Collodi was not responsible for Enrico Mazzanti’s illustration, which in this case – in most cases – amplifies the disquiet of the scene.

In fictional terms, Pinocchio was, as a puppet, alive.  His vitality, the odd sense of existence Collodi creates for him, this is why Pinocchio survives.  The dancing, badly behaved puppet, the corpse propped against that chair, was real.  I have just spent two hundred pages watching him dance around.  That soulless, satisfied creature sneering at the puppet is, fictionally, a total fake.

Ethically, the case is the same.  The puppet behaved like a real boy, lying and having fun and making mistakes, unlike the proper boy, an imaginary creation of didactic fiction.

Poor Pinocchio.

I read and am quoting the Nicolas J. Perella critical edition from 1986, which has facing-page Italian, the original illustrations, a book-length introduction, and some disconcertingly technical footnotes – “This gli, etymologically related to the fully stressed egli, which is used in the same way, is an enclitic subject pronoun (neuter-masculine, third person singular)…” (p. 475) – in other words, the perfect edition.

30 comments:

  1. Very good stuff, AR(T). My Disney view of the tale obviously needs to be expunged and replaced.

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  2. If possible, keep more than one view. Disney's Pinocchio is a masterpiece in its own right. It does not constantly kill the puppet - just once, I think, in a heroic self-sacrifice.

    Actually, if anyone remembers this better, I would love to know - at the end of the Disney version, the character transforms into a boy, right? There is no empty, discarded puppet left over.

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    1. I guess I will have to revisit Disney and then read the original to have a sensible point of view. But, on another issue, isn't it odd that so-called children's stories are often so dark and unpleasant in their original forms? We most often tend to overlook the horrible aspects and enjoy the fun-and-games aspects.

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    2. Yes, odd. I cannot believe, for example, that I so completely forgot the scene where Pinocchio accidentally burns off his own feet. You would think that would be memorable, even from a book I read decades ago. Maybe my memory wisely buried it as too scary. Or maybe I was so invested in the novel's fantasy that it was no big deal - Geppetto can make the puppet new feet - which is what happens.

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    3. And, as for other stories, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, and The Three Little Pigs really creeped me out as a kid. Maybe I was atypical. Other kids giggled, but I squirmed. I guess I was too literal and too superficial. Perhaps that should have been a warning to me: do not take yourself too seriously as a serious reader of literature (regardless of the genre).

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    4. Literal, maybe, but I take that as a virtue in reading. Maybe it was the opposite lesson - you pursued literature because you were the only student actually paying close attention to the text.

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  3. AR(T), you're not alone on your preferences.
    The Blue Fairy speaks:
    -And just look at you now! Flesh would no longer even stick to such a shameless ruin! Couldn't you at least have kept your warm wraps on? How many times did I tell you...?
    -It wouldn't have made any difference. Sooner or later, I would have ended up like this anyway. You didn't do a very good job.
    -I know... The trouble is, though I always tried to be be a good fairy, I wasn't quite good enough. In the end, proud as I was of the proper little boy I'd made, I found I loved the naughty puppet more.

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  4. Ah, that's Coover! I had not read that. So happy to see he anticipated me.

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  5. I still harbor an uneasy memory of being frightened by the Disney film when I was little, but the book's cruelties, so far beyond those in the film (echoes of medieval torture in the burning of Pinocchio's feet and in the threat of his being boiled alive, for example) were surprising, shocking even, jolting certainly. Paradoxically, given that the book is a fantasy, I felt I'd had a dose of cold reality thrown on my reading of Italian literature, something seen I can't now un-see, a darkness there all along but now not simply present but integral - in Dante, Verga, Malaparte, Pasolini, Saviano, even in sunny Ariosto.

    Collodi's book also struck me as unusually weird. Kindly old Geppetto, a spot of comfort during my viewing of the film as a kid, here seems downright creepy. The drumbeat insistence on obedience as a virtue. Dead characters who go right on living. The icky transposition of wood and flesh and the violence visited upon both. Pinocchio makes a lot of other kids' books - a lot of adult books for that matter - look like a Sunday school picnic. I did rather like those rabbit pallbearers, though.

    I read the Perella edition too. His essay is about as thorough as I've read about any book.

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  6. Well, I'm only about halfway through, but I'm reading it in Italian (an unscholarly but pretty edition with pictures by Benito Jacovitti, another Italian institution). The linguistic notes sound juicy. I know Collodi wrote in Tuscan, and that it's been translated into 25 other Italian dialects. I wish I knew more about the details.

    Pinocchio is indeed dead at the end, and therefore no more fun. There's a peculiarly Italian tradition of reading the book as an account of initiation, Collodi having been a member of some Masonic lodge. Those readers ferret out occult references, in addition to the more obvious borrowings from the Bible and "The Golden Ass." I guess reaching the end of initiation is no fun, either.

    That damn Disney film overshadows the book now. It's a pity.

    (Fun footnote: back in my strange youth, when touring with a show in Italy, one critic called me the "grillo parlante" of the production. I was touched.)

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    1. "...Collodi having been a member of some Masonic lodge."

      R.J.B. Bosworth wrote of pre-1914, post-independence Italy (in Mussolini's Italy):

      "Perhaps the most pervasive organization for those in or near the political world was Freemasonry, membership of which long remained all but mandatory for the military and for the civic professions. Liberal Italians held an array of religious attitudes but the first and most menacing enemy against which leaders of the new state long rallied was the Catholic Church."

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  7. I read Carlos Collodi's Pinnochio to my class of third graders a few years ago. Sadly, my memory is not strong enough to comment on it in detail here, but I did want to mention two points. First, they (the bulk of children today) have a deplorable knowledge of classic literature, the likes of which I grew up on. Secondly, they loved this book. When I showed them the Disney version, in order to contrast the two, they much preferred the novel. 27 for the book, 2 for the Disney film. It surprised and pleased me to see how smart they really are.

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  8. Children can be so cruel. No, no, that's great, they prefer a book to a movie. That's wonderful.

    Scott, I may borrow some of what you have written. Those are certainly the same kind of things that struck me. It is more than relevant to note that Italian literature is founded on a masterpiece of cruelty, salvation from which comes from the worship of a kind of Blue Fairy. Boiardo and Ariosto have a grim side, as does Tasso. Leopardi is purely bleak. Manzoni's novel is full of hope, assuming you can escape the regular outbursts of violence and plague.

    Italian literature is pretty rough.

    Doug, the notes about Tuscan dialect are good. Some are over my head; others answered some questions. Perella is also good with proverbs.

    A Masonic initiation seems as credible as a Catholic parable. By which I mean, both seem at least partly credible.

    I love your cricket anecdote.

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    1. Italy itself is pretty rough.

      I find the idea of Pinocchio's being composed of occult Masonic references nearly reassuring, as that might help explain some of confounding weirdness in Collodi's choices.

      I'm not surprised that the story resonates with a lot of kids. There's a lot of frightening and exciting adventure going on in it, XL-sized conflicts, and as you've noted above, puppet Pinocchio, despite being constantly punished for his disobedience, is the real attraction compared to that square goody-two-shoes at the end.

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  9. I think that the Masonic and Christian references are in there, but not central. Some may be coincidental, since any story about maturing will hit some of the same points. Some I think he just used because they were handy. Of course, right at the top he gives us a carpenter father named Joseph, so there's that.

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  10. Right, all of this material is laying there, at hand for the writer, whether its the Bible or Ariosto. Some of it coheres, some of it just looks like it should if I squint a little.

    "Italy itself is pretty rough." As soon as my thoughts wandered to Italy, I knew I had to revisit Pinocchio if nothing else for its Italianness.

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  11. Oh my goodness, that is the most delightfully arcane note I have seen in a long time. I don't get to read about enclitics very often these days.

    I have an Italian edition on my shelf that I eye every once in a while. It's been my candidate for "next time I read something in Italian" for...far too long. I should get on that.

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  12. I think there is only a dusting of Tuscan dialect in the Italian, but enough to give it a good flavor.

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  13. It's complicated by the fact that standard Italian is based on Tuscan, mostly Fiorentino and Senese, I think, thanks largely to Dante. He made quite a case for it. But then, there are some ten varieties of Tuscan itself, which is nuts. Italian dialects seem to vary block to block.

    The only specifically regional flavoring I know in "Pinocchio" is the use of "babbo" rather than "papa." I'd like to know more,

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  14. The part of the Tuscan-as-literary-Italian story that I do not understand is that I promessi sposi is also credited with making Tuscan Italian the literary language, as if Dante's influence did not stick or had to be redone. There are two versions of Manzoni's novel; the later 1842 version, the Tuscan one, is the important one here. Perhaps someone who actually understands the subject can untangle my gibberish.

    For another regionalism, I will continue the bit about gli: its "use is compulsory in the Florentine dialect before a verb beginning with a vowel. It can be felt as pleonastic only by non-Florentines."

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  15. As I understand it, in the 19th century there was some controversy about whether to stick with Tuscan, or to come up with some official language that included more southern dialect. So yes, some people thought it should be redone. Manzoni argued for Tuscan, and his side won.

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  16. Now that is the way to win an argument, by rewriting a novel. "Good, huh?"

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  17. Tuscan may have won the larger battle, but it's fascinating to see in Italy - and in some Italian literature (the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novels are full of this) how dialect continues to play a social role, how it can be used as a private language for locals or how the choice of when to use it can in itself convey meaning.

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    1. Yeah, and look what happened to him.

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    2. And this reminds me -- well, my mind works in strange ways -- I had promised myself that I would read The Charterhouse of Parma one day soon. Maybe that day is getting close. Hey, it ain't Pinocchio, but there is the French and Italian connect, and it might be fun.

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    3. I am not such a skilled Stendhal reader. The big Waterloo scene is sure good, though.

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  19. I didn't realize when I started reading Pinocchio that it originally ended at chapter 15. What a different ending to the expanded version! I hadn't really thought of Pinocchio as cruel. Dark, certainly. Bit I think the weirdness and fantasticness of it were stronger for me--at least on my first reading--than the thread of cruelty.

    Hmm...your note at the end, and the comments I've read elsewhere--I might have to get my hands on the Perella edition. (I read the NYRB Classics edition, translated by Geoffrey Brock, which was what my library had.)

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  20. There was the cricket, which I remembered from ages ago, the P. burning off his own feet, then (more examples), but the moment that really made me say "wow, cruel" was when P. bites off the cat's paw.

    Soon after that you get the little girl saying she is dead and so on - wow, weird, really weird. You are right, in many places, so weird.

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