From Tales from the Italian and Spanish, Vol. III, Stories of Humor and Adventure, The Review of Reviews Co.; New York; 1920; pp. xi-xiv.xi
WITH his abounding vitality and physical vigor, the gesture or the wily stratagem is much more natural and spontaneous to the Italian than the spoken word. A restless eagerness to be doing makes him the most ceaseless player of practical jokes of which we anywhere have record. And the most admirable, too. Who could surpass the ingenuity with which The Lost Bracelet is returned? Who is not delighted, in The Instruction Bettered, with the disconcerting consistency with which the lawyer‚s ruse is employed? The comic bewilderment of The Interloper irradiates us with the pleasure of merited retribution. The point is still clearer in Ciacco Gets Even, for enough energy is expended to enliven a whole comedy with sparkling dialogue. The persistency of this impulse to exercise oneős wit in practical jokes is seen in the nineteenth-century story of Perfidious! where we applaud the contrivance by which the budding diplomat receives his just deserts.
Surely the Italian is a worthy rival of our ancient classical friend, crafty Ulysses, full of many devices. But some of the Italian‚s merry jests seem to moderns to involve a callous indifference to the welfare of others. Many of us would be much better pleased if the astute leader in The Bandit Chief were a little less successful. The steward in The Faithful Servant seems to many too artfully ingenious, and the poor rustics in Saving the Grapes get a great deal more sympathy from us than they ever awakened in eighteenth-century readers of their consternation.
Even where the victim is the most senseless fit man for the jest, he is not greeted with those full and hearty jeers that came from the throats of a less fastidious generation. xii The painter Calandrino was the butt of Florence and apparently furnished a great deal of hilarity like that in Boccaccio‚s two tales about him. Two Capons for Nothing is a most captivating illustration of the motto of Latin comedy, caveat emptor, „let the buyer beware.š Only nowadays we are inclined to take sides with the buyer or, as in this story, the seller. This is not so true of The Three Blind Beggars, where a vein of satire heightens our amusement until the situation becomes intensely and boisterously comic. And, If you enter into the spirit of it, there is not a more ludicrous character in Italian fiction the Grasso in The Fat Ebony Carver with his helpless confusion so irresistibly comic.
Probably the most peculiar form of this mania for joking is to be found in the gruesome jests of the Italians. What American writer could have imagined the sportive excuse in The Courier‚s Defense for allowing two men to be hanged? What American humorist, much as he might exaggerate, would carry exaggeration so far as in A Resurrection? Yet A Shouting Corpse once raised inextinguishable laughter, and The Fearsome Man, in his mingled terror and gratitude, was considered perfectly killing.
As important as the humor of trickery among the Italians is the humor of satire. The church in the classic ages of Italian fiction came in for the largest share of the ridicule. This was so true of Boccaccio that the Catholic church at one time made him a perfectly moral writer by simply transferring all the deeds of the churchmen to members of the laity. Truly a most witty device, since it robbed the stories of all their point. In the present volume such satires is prominent enough in the grotesque episode in The Woodcutter‚s Ass, and gives animus to Martellino Escapes and The Disguise. Woman was also a favorite and never-failing subject of pleasantry, as in that famous story of Belphagor which opens this volume.
Both these subjects receive little satiric attention in modern Italian literature, though D‚Annunzio directs so heavy shafts against religions, as the leader has discovered in The Idolaters xiii Volume II. But modern satire is more general in its attack — it fastens upon pretension and unreason wherever they may appear. Funeral Eulogies makes gentle fun of the insincerity of our praise of the distinguished dead. A Wonderful Parrot finds much amusement in social ambition. And that little masterpiece of ridicule, The Fountain of Pietrarsa, fairly gurgles with delight over the petty prejudices of a country village.
The reader will rightly infer from these remarks that Italian literature has little of our style of humor, little of the genuine English humor which laughs with a person rather than at him, which ridicules sympathetically and is kindly satiric. Yet the fourth volume of this set, The Betrothed Lovers of Manzoni, contains in Don Abbondio one of the best specimens in literature of this feeling. We laugh incessantly at the wary priest‚s comic predicaments, but he is so delineated that each one of us finds in him something of our own failings. Of the stories in the present volume two are excellent illustrations of this humorous interest in the odd and eccentric. What a drill figure is Barattino in The One Who Broke the Pipe, with his struggles long continued, which end in an unconditional surrender to the enemy! More of a characters if Don Pietro D‚Accurso who suffers much from The Cares of Prosperity. In short, though Italy cannot show the gallery of humorous portraits that adorn the halls of English literature, it is not entirely without that quality for which it has no word and which is best expressed by our English term, humor.