Thursday, July 9, 2015

Sicilian folktales and a storyteller of genius - and then I go on vacation

This will be the last post for a while as I vacate the premises.  Calvino’s Italian Folktales will top the blog for a couple of weeks.

About the only thing I have learned this year about Italian literature as a whole is to pay careful attention to the region of the writer and the book.  Italian literature is more fragmented than even German.  Italian Folktales is organized by region, moving from north to south, roughly.  No surprise that the northern stories are more Grimm-like, more German, with some exceptions like the impoverished backwater of Friuli, which we all remember as the region so remote that pagan fertility battles against witches survived into the 17th century, where the specialty is stories about the dim, greedy, peasant-like St. Peter who is always getting into dumb scrapes from which he is saved by his pal Jesus.

Poorer regions have different stories.  Calabrian tales are especially blunt and brutal.  And Sicilian tales – we have moved into another world here.  44 stories from Sicily, over a quarter of the book, eleven of them from a single story-teller of genius, Agatuzza Messia, “seventy-year-old seamstress of winter quilts.”

Messia’s stories are longer and more complex, with more unusual imagery and more imaginative attention to scene and action.  She tells her stories more like a novelist. 

They washed their hands, mixed up a bit of Majorcan flour, made four fine pies, and sent them off to be baked…
Then she made another one exactly like it, only with regular flour and water drawn from the trough in which she washed the oven broom.  (#150, “Pippina the Serpent,” p. 535)

Or how about:

Two of the loaves were ring-shaped and seasoned with anise and sesame seed.  (#149, “Misfortune,” 531)

Or examples that do not involve baking.  That same story has a description of laundering that on its own is too dull to quote, but in context plumps up Messia’s world a little bit.  Compared to most folktales, a lot.  One of her gifts as a storyteller is that she can pause on an action or description without losing her thread.

With that pile of money, she had all the rooms hung with tapestries.  She bought furniture, chandeliers, portals, mirrors, carpets, and everything else they have in princes’ palaces; she even employed a doorman with livery from head to toe and a stick topped with a gold knob. (#156, “The Wife Who Lived on Wind,” 562)

It is that gold knob that caught my attention, as it must have caught the attention of this Palermo peasant at some point, unless she never saw it but merely picked it up from someone else’s story.

Her characters are a step or two better than the norm, too, never exactly two-dimensional, but something more visible than the usual one dimension.  And her women, are they ever resourceful.  Folktale characters are always oddly resourceful, but Messia’s women are that and the more.

How lucky that her employer, a doctor named Giuseppe Pitrè, became interested in folklore and complied her stories.  Maybe she is why he became interested.

What I am saying is rather than start at tale #1 and stall out by #10, some readers might want to skip to #147, the highly original, Lovecraftian “Nick Fish” which is immediately followed by Messia’s great stories, and then by the rest of the Sicilian tales.  By itself, these would make a terrific book.  Then you can go backwards, by which I mean north.  The gory Calabrian tales are next – “’So you’re the farmer’s daughter!’ exclaimed the serpent, and he bit her on the throat and killed her” (#144, “Serpent King”).


  1. I will be on the lookout for the Calvino book, which sounds fascinating in your commentary (although I suspect my limited {nonexistent} knowledge of Italian culture will very much impede my appreciation of the folktales -- but isn't that the problem for readers with all culturally-specific folktales?), and -- in the meantime -- I urge you to do this: have a great vacation!

  2. What really helps here is that in some ways we already know versions of these stories, sometimes many versions. So the variations from what we know are highlighted.

    The folktales are a great way to learn about Italian culture.

    The vacation should be quite pleasant, thanks.

  3. You are right, you have provided me with more motivation!

    Have a great vacation!

  4. Folklorists have become much better at recognizing the individual creativity of the storytellers, who were mostly women, rather than just treat the folktales as if they came from the universal cultural unconscious.

    Calvino is good about identifying the layers - the old stories or bits of stories, the oral storyteller, the amateur or professional folklorist writing them down, and the popularizing compiler (Calvino).

  5. These stories sound just great. I wonder if that oven broom water is the secret ingredient in Sicilian cooking; whatever they use in recipes down there, it's magical.

    Enjoy the vacation, wherever it may take you!

  6. You have me considering. I'm not big on folktales, but I really should get around to reading some Calvino.

  7. To read through all of Calvino's book, you need to love folktales. To read part of it, though, sample away. No need to read it all.

    I think I will write more about Calvino, his other books, later in the year. I had not planned to revisit him so much, but I have, so I should write something. One of my favorite writers, really.