As if I didn’t have enough to do, a new series: The Uncanny in Translation! Regular readers of this blog might have noticed that I have an interest in non-Anglophone weird fiction. In this series, I plan to share interesting works in translation that I come across, which are possibly less well-known to English language readers.
First up: Fantastic Tales (Racconti Fantastici), by nineteeth century Italian author Iginio Ugo Tarchetti (1839 – 1869), translated by Lawrence Venuti. According to the book cover, Tarchetti was “the first Italian writer to experiment with the gothic style,” and is “often compared to Edgar Allan Poe.” He was part of the Scapigliatura movement in Italian literature, a sort of anti-bourgeois, anti-establishment movement influenced by German Romanticism, French bohemians, Baudelaire — and Poe.
While a comparison to Poe is almost inevitable for any author of gothic sensibilities, he wasn’t the first author I thought of when reading Tarchetti. Maybe it’s because I read them so recently, but I thought Tarchetti’s stories were more akin to the stories in Tales of the Dead and Evening Tales for the Winter. That is, I think of Tarchetti as having been influenced more directly by the British and European authors who also influenced Poe.
The most extreme example of this is “The Elixir of Immortality (In Imitation of the English).” Not just an imitation! It’s actually a “plaigiarized translation” of Mary Shelley’s “The Mortal Immortal,” first published in The Keepsake for 1834. As my Dark Tales Sleuth project has showed me, it was unfortunately common in the nineteenth century for translators to not attribute a work, or even to pass it off as their own. So Tarchetti was not unique. But I still think Venuti’s New York Times article about it was a little too kind to him.
Overall, though, I enjoyed Fantastic Tales. The stories varied from the overtly gothic, to more folkloric and fairy-taleish offerings, with some interesting surreal pieces between. On the gothic end, we have “The Legends of the Black Castle,” which I think would have been quite at home in the Gespensterbuch, or any of the similar German ghost story collections of the early nineteenth century. On the other end, we have my favorite story in the collection: the delightful gender-bending crime story/fairy tale “A Spirit in a Raspberry.”
Also on the folkloric end is “The Lake of the Three Lampreys (A Popular Tradition),” a charming piece that reminded me of Tarchetti’s Spanish contemporary Gustavo Béquer. I don’t think there is any direct influence though; Béquer has always struck me as a conservative writer; a good Catholic. Tarchetti’s tale, while religious, is also anti-clerical, in the understated way that many folktales are.
“Captain Gubart’s Fortune” is a fairy-taleish but nonsupernatural tale; “A Dead Man’s Bone” is reminiscent of a humorous English ghost story. Both were enjoyable, fun reads. “The Fated” is an intriguing tale about malign influences that definitely reminds me of something, though I can’t put my finger on what; E.T.A. Hoffman, maybe?
The only story I didn’t fully enjoy was “Bouvard,” a more philosophical, and rather angsty piece (think The Sorrows of Young Werther). The story had some lovely passages, but I found that it kind of dragged, and frankly, was a bit too misogynistic. Still, eight out of nine stories is a good hit rate for a collection.
I’m sure that a reader of more wideranging and less haphazard reading habits than mine would situate Tarchetti’s work differently than I just did (and probably more accurately). Still, I hope I’ve gotten my impressions of him across. If you like gothic literature and nineteenth-century tales of the uncanny, you will probably enjoy Tarchetti’s Fantastic Tales.
Featured Image: Detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch (1490-1510). Source: DarkClassics