JULY 5, 2012
THERE’S BEEN A LOT written lately on the value of finishing (or not finishing) novels, of how much more alive nonfiction is by comparison, of what matters about facts, and of the iron will needed to duck technology long enough to concentrate on anything. Following the conversation closely can drive anyone to pathology — for my part, I’ve been seeking refuge in fairy tales. This is partly for their interest as stories that demand to be taken in swiftly, as a whole — at least, I’m not sure it’s possible to tell much about a Grimm tale without reaching the end, and have never heard of anyone groaning about the boring bits — and partly because of their blessedly carefree exercise of the imagination. No disrespect to reality and our hunger for it, but humble old fairy tales, often our gateway into fiction’s fantastic potential, seem like a good reminder of what made us love stories in the first place.
I was glad, then, to stumble upon Lamberto, Lamberto, Lamberto, an extended and absurd modern fairy tale written by Gianni Rodari and now published in translation by Melville House. Rodari, who wrote hundreds of stories, poems and songs for children, was born in 1920 in the town of Omegna in Italy’s north, and worked as a teacher, editor, and especially, journalist. Spared army service on account of ill health, he joined the Resistance and became a Communist Party member, and began writing for children in party-affiliated outlets in the 1950s. Despite the fact that his books were banned by the Catholic Church — a special honor for a children’s book writer, one would think — he eventually won wider recognition, and in 1960 he collaborated with the Education Cooperation Movement, a role that had him engaging with kids and teachers in schools across the country. Along the way he had a daughter of his own, and his relatives had children: with Rodari in the car, you might be regaled with the tale of a Midas, who, after turning everything he touched to gold, began to turn it to shit. Such experiences, combined with his prolific writing life, helped influence Rodari’s beliefs about the importance of fostering children’s imaginations, and also to develop some acute thoughts about creativity and literature in general. In Italy, it seems, he is remembered and loved much in the same way English-speakers cherish Roald Dahl, Maurice Sendak, and William Steig.
It’s unclear if Lamberto is intended for adults, teenagers, or precocious children, an ambiguity that either doesn’t much matter, or is to the book’s credit. The story centers on Baron Lamberto, a 93-year-old millionaire living on the island of San Giulio, surrounded by Lake Orta. During a trip with his servant Anselmo to his Egypt mansion, the baron meets a fakir who tells him a secret: “the man whose name is spoken remains alive.” Promptly the baron sets off for home and hires a group of people to stand in his attic and declaim ‘Lamberto’ around the clock. Our hero’s hair grows back, his wrinkles fade, his many ailments disappear. All looks to continue rosily, but for two unexpected occurrences: Ottavio, Lamberto’s nephew and only living relation, suddenly visits from Rome. A known ne’er-do-well, Ottavio has gambled away his fortune and wants to speed up his inheritance. Meanwhile, a gang of 24 armed bandits boat over to the island and hold everyone hostage. They say they’re all named ‘Lamberto,’ too, and want to be paid 24 million dollars, a million from each bank the baron owns.
If that sounds like a ridiculous conceit for a story, that’s because it is. Lest lightness be taken for slightness though, this is nonsense ingeniously orchestrated for comedy. With his reversal in age, Lamberto becomes not just younger, but so strong and happy that he’s a new man. (This, as well as the book’s philosophical take on the fairy tale form, is signaled in the original title, C’era Due Volte Il Barone Lamberto, or Twice Upon a Time There was Baron Lamberto.) The transformation mystifies everyone — Ottavio, the bank directors charged with authorizing the ransom payments, the thousands of curious onlookers gathered across the shore in Orta — and has some imaginative repercussions for how the siege unfolds.
Rodari’s setting is specific and modern (it was published in 1978), which is strange for a fairy tale, a form usually dependent on a certain amount of cloudy generality. The main event itself winks at the island’s history, alluding as it does to an actual siege — two of them, actually — that occurred in 10th century San Giulio and pitted Emperor Otto against King Berengarius and his wife Willa. Such specificity is just one of a number of ways in which Rodari flips the conventions of his ancestors. Instead of making the trajectory about growing up, his tale is about getting younger. It’s the rich man who’s the protagonist, and not only is he good company, he gets to keep his loot. Marriage, when finally raised, is cheerfully thwarted, and the onlookers, along with most everyone else, are irreparably silly characters. Then there’s the crucial matter of language — here’s a passage early on in the book, when Anselmo runs through a list of Lamberto’s former health problems:
The baron and his butler venture into the tunnel of Corti and make their way into the ear; they disembark on the islets of Langerhans, clamber up the slope of the Adam’s apple, wander through the labyrinth of the Malphigian corpuscles which are bundled together in the kidneys, swing back and forth with the oxygen and carbon dioxide that enter and are expelled from the lungs, climb over the Varolian bridge, speak into the Eustachian tube, operate the Golgi apparatus, stretch the tendons, reflect on the reflexes, feed the phagocytes, tickle the intestinal villi, and twirl the double helix of DNA. Every so often they lose sight of one another.
Though especially playful, this passage is not unusual Rodari in its exuberance and precision. The baron is rejuvenated by a name, so it’s apt that words be given an active, even magical role. Names, numbers, digressions, lists, and cliches abound, sometimes appearing to give life to the people who utter them and determining what they do.
Lamberto belongs to that family of comic writing that glories in the full spectrum of the absurd. The tone is elusive, shifting from friendly to arch and back again, and always buoyantly on the move. Often the comedy is frankly philosophical, like when the baron checks up on the employees tasked with saying his name, and is sad the ‘L’ can’t be made to sound like a capital letter. Elsewhere, puppetry is involved, and we suspect some of the characters’ brains have been mischievously replaced with cotton. When a warrant officer sees that heavy-duty exercise gear is to be ferried to a 93-year-old, for instance, he grows suspicious, but “finally mutters something about it ‘never being too late.’” And some of the wit is just throwaway stuff that must have been fun to write, as when Ottavio, mad at how his designs have been complicated by the siege, walks around “cursing banditry. As practiced by others.” You get the sense that Rodari favors some of these characters, hates none, and enjoys them all. Baudelaire thought Italy a relaxed land full of joy and noise, natural soil for ‘the innocent comic’; as with his other shameless stereotypes about European nations and their senses of humor, he pretty much nails it.
After finishing Lamberto, I was hungry to find some of Rodari’s other works, but I learned of only one other, hard-to-find title in English. The Grammar of Fantasy is a short pedagogical work about folk tales and fairy tales and how teachers can use them to get children excited about making their own stories, mostly in the form of group exercises. The book came out in 1973, and was translated in 1996, featuring an introduction by the knowledgeable fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes. It’s a crime it’s no longer in print here: for anyone with even the slightest interest in any of these subjects, it should prove fascinating reading.
Grammar is made up of a series of concise, fragmentary chapters that draw from Rodari’s experiences of writing, teaching, and holding meetings with teachers through the city administration of Reggio Emillia, recognized worldwide for its innovative approach to preschool education. During a period of educational reform, Rodari developed numerous games and exercises — helping children to compose riddles, or to imagine what happens after the end of a familiar story, or what the possibilities are when a new ingredient is introduced. (For example, what a helicopter could mean for “Little Red Riding Hood.”) Though the emphasis is on collaborative creativity over individual art, Rodari’s discoveries bear interestingly on the magic and mechanics of stories. Additionally, some of the classroom scenes make for amusing reading in their own right.
As well as experience, the book distills years of fertile reading. As the contributors to a new academic book, Fairy Tales Framed, argue, writers of fairy tales have long claimed to be mere transcribers of oral stories (usually poor old women’s), both as a defense against the charge of frivolity and as a badge of authenticity — while in fact they mostly plunder from the inventions of their inky tribe. These are murky matters, and the scholars acknowledge that even when read aloud in 16th century Italian living rooms to peasants more literate than you might think, the tales were probably remembered, retold, and varied in the process. In any event, Rodari lacks the hang-ups that defined his forebears all the way into the 19th century. He’s happy to admit the time he’s spent in the company of the Brothers Grimm and Carlo Collodi and Hans Christian Anderson, as well as of da Vinci, Novalis, Marx, Propp, Wittgenstein, the Surrealists, and others. And he draws a direct and unpretentious link between such apparently disparate realms. Commenting on how very young children like to extinguish the world by putting their hands over their eyes, he writes: “The philosopher who investigates the question of Being and Nothingness, using the capital letters that these respectable and profound concepts deserve, does not do anything substantially different than continue that children’s game at a higher level.”
Rodari quotes a sentence of Italo Calvino’s — the two were fond of each other’s work — about fairy tales constituting a useful initiation into humanity and history. It’s an idea his own experience and reading confirm. His reflections on the form are accordingly dynamic, dealing with everything from ritual, taboos, and fear, to the significance of puppets and toys — the latter make up a composite world, he says, linked at once to decline and conquest. As for his thoughts on laughter, they’re as sharp as the best writers on the subject: “It is important to pay attention to a particular aspect of the laugh of superiority, which, if we do not watch out, can assume a conservative function and align itself with the most dull and sinister conformism.” He tells of specific ways in which kids from cities and the country can interpret aspects of the same story differently. In one case, he considers a group of children from a small town of farm laborers known for its fierce resistance loyalties, and how that shapes their readings of authority figures within a given tale.
Underlying Grammar is a compassionate belief in imagination’s ability to stimulate and empower children. Rodari wants not so much to make them artists, though you sense he wouldn’t disapprove of that, as to turn them into adults who can think for themselves. (The heroine of Lamberto is the one plucky employee who insists on figuring out why she’s being paid to chant the baron’s name.) A Communist until the revelations about Stalin surfaced, Rodari maintained an interest in utopias, and anticipates certain criticisms. “I know quite well that the future will not be as beautiful as it is in a fairy tale. But that is not what counts. When they are little, children must stock up on optimism and trust for the challenge of life.” He’s aware children are little egocentrics, and notes that old people tend to be, too; the important thing, he says, is that children want to grow, and that the imagination can help them there. Grow in a moral sense? Not necessarily. “The conventional morality is only an alibi for their entertainment, which is frankly amoral. It seems to be a law: there is no authentic creation without a certain ambiguity.”
In a letter to Pietro Goldoni, the poet Leopardi took a moment to reflect, as he often did, with characteristically supple and lucid gloom, on the twin subjects of literature and happiness. “My stomach is finally beginning to turn against the superb disdain expressed here for beauty and real literature — especially since I can’t get it into my head that the summit of human knowledge consists in knowing politics and statistics.” Such truths alone aren’t enough to improve people’s invariably unhappy lives, Leopardi argues, before going on to confess that “The delightful seems to me more useful than the useful.” Gianni Rodari refers to the poet more than once in Grammar, and in his own way, the children’s book author perceives no essential opposition between use and delight. For him, the idea has less the note either of consolation or conclusion. To our great benefit, it’s the very point from which he journeys out.