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Though folktales made their literary debut in Italy a century before Perrault appeared in France, the country produced no Brothers Grimm--no master-compiler of popular tales as told. And it's this lack of a "readable master collection" that Calvino set out to remedy in adapting these 200 tales from 19th-century regional compilations. The bad news is that the renderings--at least in English--are absolutely flat: without spirit, pacing, flavor, style. (One is inclined to blame the translator who commits a rhyme like "Perle Pete,/ Pass me a pear/ With your little paw!/ I mean it, don't guffaw,/ My mouth waters, I swear, I swear!" Or uses such sloppy colloquialisms as "he was dying to get married.") There is also no storytelling guile: tale after tale begins, dully, "there was once a king who had three sons"--or "three daughters"--and it's only the exception that starts, seductively, "There was once a miserly king, so miserly that he kept his only daughter in the garret for fear someone would ask for her hand in marriage and thus oblige him to provide her with a dowry." And the monotony of the telling only accentuates the repetitiveness of the situations and the motifs--which is itself accentuated by the regional grouping (a maiden not only poses as a youth twice in 25 pages, she is each time subjected to the same tests). On the other hand, it is amusing to see the regional variants of "The Untamed Wife"; or how--differently--a princess fashions her own Prince Charming in the north (out of gold and jewels) and the south (out of flour and sugar). And there are a number of selections that are both sly and special to their locales--like the story of the Florentine who traveled so that he could return to Florence with something to talk about; or the earthy tale--one of several such from Friuli--of Jesus' and St. Peter's revenge on the woman who denied them hospitality (promised that, like her generous neighbor, she would do all day "whatever you begin doing this morning," she unwittingly rushed to "relieve herself" before sitting down to spin). A comprehensive and representative assemblage, then, for those with a specialized interest, but not on a par with the old Borzoi or ongoing Pantheon national collections for out-and-out pleasure.
Pub Date: Sept. 2nd, 1980
ISBN: 0156454890
Page count: 804pp
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1980


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