April 26, 2009


Knock on Wood: a review of The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (Tim Parks, New York Review Books)

Himself a creative spirit in hard times, the satirical journalist, playwright, and novelist Carlo Collodi began writing Pinocchio in 1881. He was fifty-five, disillusioned, pessimistic, combative. A Florentine through and through, in 1848 and 1859 he had volunteered to fight in two unsuccessful revolutionary wars that sought to replace a fragmented Italy dominated by foreign powers with a unified, self-governing state. In the 1860s that goal was chaotically and unexpectedly achieved, albeit under the austere Piedmontese monarchy. Like many who had supported the cause, Collodi was dissatisfied with the consequences. Politically united, Italy remained culturally divided and backward, a country in need, as the poet Leopardi had once said, of some collective "illusion" that might give its people a sense of identity. "Now we have made Italy, we must make the Italians," the patriot Massimo D'Azeglio famously declared. Unfortunately, government policies based on national pride led to tariff wars and further impoverishment, provoking regional resentment and unrest. Some went hungry. Many predicted the imminent breakup of the country.

In this uncertain environment one crucial instrument of unity and stability was the newly introduced, compulsory education system. In 1868 Collodi was invited by the Ministry of Education to contribute to a national dictionary: Italians must speak and spell in the same way. In 1875 a Florentine publisher specializing in children's literature gave him the job of translating Perrault's fables from the French; the best works of foreign literature were to be published in a modern, standardized Italian. After completing this translation, Collodi was encouraged to write for children himself: first the stories of a boy, Giannettino, who travels through Italy from north to south ("to give kids half an idea of their new and glorious country, about which they know absolutely nothing"), then the tale of Minuzzolo, a boy who makes fun of all attempts to teach him to be good. Later, Collodi would go on to write some highly successful math, grammar, and geography textbooks.

In short, the rebel and satirist had been drawn into the huge task of educating modern Italians. He was aware that it was not a project children would rejoice in. Nor was his approach conventional. In 1883 the Ministry of Education would reject the tales of Giannettino and Minuzzolo as standard texts for elementary schools because they were "so humorously frivolous as to detract from the seriousness of teaching." In general, Collodi's writing is galvanized by the contradiction that while education is understood to be essential, it is presented as generally dull and often futile, if only because human nature is so intractable. Despite being educated in a seminary, Collodi himself was a drinker, smoker, gambler, and womanizer.

The success of his children's books was welcome but Collodi's ambition had been to write adult literature. Here, however, his work was criticized for failing to deliver realistic character and incident, and for its underlying pessimism about both the new Italy and human nature in general. Following Zola's lead in France, the fashion of the day was verismo, a dour realism justified by its commitment to social progress. Out of step with the times, Collodi had a flair for the surreal and absurd that looked back to Sterne and forward to Pirandello; in the 1880s such an approach was considered appropriate only in children's literature. Thus Collodi frequently found himself invited to work in a genre he sometimes felt was below him. When his publisher insisted he contribute to a new children's weekly, Giornale per i bambini, he reluctantly delivered the first installment of "The Story of a Puppet," with a letter remarking: "Here's some childish twaddle, do what you want with it; but assuming you print, you'd better pay me well if you want to see any more."

The story would later be retitled The Adventures of Pinocchio. Collodi did not grow more fond of it. A third of the way into the book we now have, he left Pinocchio hanging by the neck from a tree, having apparently put a gruesome end to both the puppet and his tale. It took the magazine four months to convince him to press on. Later, he was so weary with the project that he took another six-month break. Very likely it was this irritation at writing in a genre he thought secondary that accounts for the story's extraordinary mood swings and unusually cavalier approach to such matters as narrative consistency. Ironically, these are the very qualities that give Pinocchio its extraordinary vitality, qualities that come across in the new translation by Geoffrey Brock. Like Geppetto, Collodi had casually started something that took on a life of its own.

...art is to be judged objectively, not subjectively.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 26, 2009 10:48 AM
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