Reviews 2010

La prateria degli asfodeli [The asfodeli's prairie]

La prateria degli asfodeli [The asfodeli's prairie]. Antonio Faeti. Bologna: Bononia Univerisity Press, 2010. 307 pages. €35.00 paperback.

This book is both an essay and a memoir. Faeti combines his personal and professional experience to analyze those Italian children’s books from the early 20th century which were popular before the era of fascism but which lost their appeal after the war. Authors such as Gherardo Ugolini, Giuseppe Fanciulli, Elena Primicerio and Luciano Zuccoli contributed to the formation of a distinctively Italian style of children’s book. Their stories are rewritings of traditional fairy tales or novels which revise Italian folklore under the influence of European models from Britain, Germany and France. The adventures of Sia-La-Floup or Sussi and Biribissi or Trottapiano are constructed as narratives which must promote the formation of a unified national identity. The readers of these novels were invited to share dreams and fears beyond social and cultural affiliations. Faeti composes 30 chapters, each concerned with a different author, and each arranged in a similar manner.

First, he describes his own first encounter with the particular story. He composes different chance meetings of stories and reflects on reading situations from an historical and sociological point of view. Secondly he provides a short biography of each author so that his or her work can be understood within a cultural context. In the final section, he develops a possible point of interest for further research. For instance, in his discussion of the work of Eugenio Cherubini, Faeti comments on the importance of the publishing house Nerbini in the production of comic books in Italy in the Twenties. While the chapter about Tommaso Landolfi is an occasion to explore depth and complexity in the fairy tale The principe infelice (The Sad Prince).

Asfodeli’s prairie can be better understood by a comparison with Guardare le figure (Looking at illustrations), Faeti’s first book. It was published in 1972 and it represented the first experiment in documenting Italian children’s literature focusing on popular Italian culture before fascism. In both Guardare le figure and La prateria degli asfodeli, Faeti pays special attention to illustrations. Illustrations are the main subject of Guardare le figure. In Asfodeli’s prairie there is a specific section on illustrations, and Faeti provides detailed descriptions of the images in each of the books he discusses.

For Faeti, the analysis of children’s literature provides an occasion to come to terms with the past from an interdisciplinary point of view which connects education with literature, single stories with history. The scholar justifies this in the introduction by comparing his project with a series of testimonies such as the ones by the Italian jurist Arturo Carlo Jemolo, Hitler’s lover Eva Braun, the writers Kipling, Céline or Dickens, the scholars Viktor Sklovskij and Leslie Fiedler. The common thread between these different personalities is how they paid tribute to the books they read when they were children. According to Faeti, these discussions of childhood reading are not merely recollections of childhood experiences, they provide a collective historical account. Asfodeli’s prairie is also the title of a book by Alba Cinzia published in 1943 by the Italian Publisher Paravia. It is a re-writing of a Greek myth about death. Faeti chose the same title for his study to illustrate the power of children’s literature. Authors such as Alba Cinzia explain such a complex topic as death with easy language. They jog the sad memory of dictatorship and offer the dreams of the future for those who survived.

Faeti combines his personal memories from his childhood with his work as a scholar. His memory is his main tool when exploring these books. The child’s memory recalls dreams and fears of the historical time which produced them. The scholar’s memory organizes the knowledge of the historical time starting from feelings. Faeti writes for example:

I libri dell’infanzia e dell’adolescenza restano per sempre collocati in una strana porzione di memoria dove si cerca di confonderli con altri testi, dove ci si vergogna degli innamoramenti che un tempo seppero suscitare, dove li si collega ai mutamenti dell’età di allora per renderli fragili, leggeri, fuorvianti
[Books for children and young adults always remain in a strange part of our memory where we try to mix them up with other texts. In this part of the memory we can retreat from our embarrassment at having loved a particular book. In this part of the memory we can connect the books with changes in our life to make the memory of them frail, light, misleading]

According to the scholar this frail and lasting memory is a useful metaphor to understand how important children’s books of the Twenties could be for comprehending Italian culture and Italian style of children’s books. In Asfodeli’s prairie international readers can find a very rich and detailed study of a selection of rare books. They are a privileged point of view to comprehend a prolific but not well known cultural period and the inheritance of classics such as ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Cuore’.

Elena Massi
University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy