The Perversion of a Fairy Tale: Primo Levi's 'La Bella Addormentata Nel Frigo'

By Benchouiha, Lucie | The Modern Language Review, April 2005 | Go to article overview

The Perversion of a Fairy Tale: Primo Levi's 'La Bella Addormentata Nel Frigo'


Benchouiha, Lucie, The Modern Language Review


The Perversion of a Fairy Tale: Primo Levi's 'La bella addormentata nel frigo' by Lucie Benchouiha

This article examines Primo Levi's short story La bella addormentata nel frigo in its relation to both the traditional Sleeping Beauty story and Levi's own first work, Se questo e un uomo. It shows how Levi's distortion and inversion of fairy-tale motifs reflects the comparable distortion of normal values which he experienced as a concentration camp prisoner and which he described in Se questo e un uomo, the work which functions as the thematic foundation, substructure, and hypotext for many of Levi's later works.

Primo Levi's interest in literary genres encompassing fantasy writing, science fiction, and fairy tales is attested by the wide range of styles of writing he employs, particularly in his collections Storie naturali, Vizio di forma, Lilit e altri racconti, and Racconti e saggi, (1) in which the fictional items embrace futuristic technological developments, inventions, and societies, classic favole, ecological catastrophes, and science fiction. His choice of texts for his personal anthology La ricerca delle radici (2) is similarly eclectic, featuring, among others, the science-fiction writers Joseph-Henri Rosny and Frederic Brown. The growing enquiry from the late 1950s onwards into the role of science in literature is reflected in the literary output of several of Levi's contemporaries, perhaps most significantly Dino Buzzati's Sessanta racconti of 1958 and Il grande ritratto of 1960, which finds thematic echoes in several of Levi's short stories, and Calvino's Cosmicomiche of 1965, (3) only a year before the publication of Levi's Storie naturali collection, which contains 'La bella addormentata nel frigo'. (4) Levi's venture from autobiographical testimony to science fiction was not out of step with contemporary literary trends, nor was his choice of the form of the short story at variance with the content of Storie naturali, since 'the short story is inherently suited to dealing with the unconventional' (5) and 'breaks up the familiar life-world of the everyday'. (6) Levi's charting of 'a reality which is essentially alien and baffling', which both confronts and challenges 'the "irreality" of modern existence by positing alternative worlds'(7) to draw attention to the crises of contemporary life, is thus most aptly done through the medium of the short story.

First published in 1966, the collection of short stories which constitutes Storie naturali was written over a long period of time, between 1946 and 1965, overlapping in part with the composition of his better-known works Se questo e un uomo (1947, reprinted 1958) (8) and La tregua (1963). 'La bella addormentata nel frigo' was written in 1952, only seven years after Levi's liberation from the Buna-Monowitz satellite camp of Auschwitz. (9) The date at which' La bella addormentata nel frigo' was published with the other items of the Storie naturali is therefore deceptive, as its inception was in the years immediately following the publication of Se questo e un uomo, fourteen years before its actual publication. The temporal contiguity of these works is also fundamental here since, while several critics have examined some of the echoes of Se questo e un uomo which recur throughout the Storie naturali collection, (10) the present study aims to explore the particular influence of Levi's experience of the concentration camps on 'La bella addormentata nel frigo', which has frequently been neglected in favour of those which contain more patent thematic resonances and continuities from Se questo e un uomo. The article will examine the thematic parallels between the two works, highlighting the areas of correlation over the five years that separate them. It will address the issue of genre, examining Levi's adaptation of the fairy tale and establishing the relationship between traditional versions of this tale and Levi's use of certain elements from them, alongside a consideration of the possible motives for his literary choices, and their relevant connections to his earlier works. …

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