Friday, September 18, 2009

The Decameron!

Our book today is Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, which some of you may remember as one hell of a tedious 'Great Books' assignment in college, where this 500-year-old 800-page Italian masterpiece is routinely made the mandatory reading assignment of clueless hung-over teenagers who've previously read nothing older or more demanding than Stephen King. It's small wonder that none of these students come away with fond memories of Boccaccio - the few who actually force themselves to read him almost always end up wondering what the big deal is; they've seen endless variations on the plots in The Decameron, after all - there's hardly been a movie or TV show in the last century that hasn't had an element or two of Boccaccio in it.

Oddly enough, Boccaccio's 14th century readers would have had a similar reaction - Boccaccio wholesale invents very little in the way of stories: The Decameron is a vast clearing-house of staple plots, staple characters, staple resolutions and narrative twists, which is why authors have been mining his quarry from the very moment the thing was first written (the most famous of these ... er, fans somewhat churlishly refuses even to mention Boccaccio by name - but then, the English in those days had no manners to speak of). So it's true that Western literature - and movies and TV - owe a debt to Boccaccio of such vast proportions that its full extent can't ever be known. But it's not just that he pulls together so many of the familiar plots floating around the slowly rebounding literature of his day, although he does indeed do that. No, Boccaccio does one central, amazing thing more: he refines into print the idea of telling stories. In The Decameron he revives the constantly-morphing morally-liquid narrator's stance last seen in Ovid's Metamorphoses, but he adds an element Ovid doesn't always - couldn't always (didn't dare always, with Augustus watching) - include: style. Panache. Sprezzatura. In Ovid, the deeper ironies of the various transformation stories are the point; in Boccaccio, the stories themselves - how well they're done, how well they're shaped as stories ... that's the point. The Decameron might be full of monks, abbesses, and holy men, but it's the single most secular book ever written.

The storytelling is the whole point of the story, too. As those poor unfortunate college students may dimly recall, the premise of The Decameron is that a small group of ten young people - three men and seven women - flee the plague-stricken city of Florence and go to a splendid villa outside Naples, where they spend ten days and ten nights telling stories to each other, to pass the time, to flirt, and to forget about the horrors stalking the cities and lanes outside (Boccaccio's pen-portrait of the Bubonic Plague is so vivid that it, too, has been quarried by countless writers on that disaster). Each day has a different judge of the stories, and although the tales themselves range into all kinds of subjects (virtually every occupation, station in life, and social rank is somewhere in this book, and plenty of animals too), they share some stray things in common - and the foremost of these is that our tale-tellers always put talking, tale-telling of some kind, a the heart of the stories they tell.

A few of those other common strands have been pointed out by scholars and appreciative readers over the centuries. It's been correctly observed, for instance, that Boccaccio's book is the first since ancient Rome in which women come across as actual people, rather than paragons and cautionary tales. Another that all readers from Alexander Pope to Randall Jarrell have cherished: this is a book full of laughter - despite the often-gruesome or grim turn several of the stories take, this is a fun, funny book. Harried students can't be expected to see this, but then, harried students shouldn't be forced to read The Decameron in the first place; it's too good for that. It should be approached willingly, eagerly, for the sheer joy it is.

Boccaccio wrote the book in his mid-thirties (probably around 1350), after having spent more than ten years as an assistant to his loving father during their posting with a large banking firm in Naples, and if ever a location perfectly served to incubate a talent, here was such a time. The Naples of 1330s was a paradise of wonder for a good-looking young man with a sharp brain, money in his purse, and an undemanding job, and young Boccaccio took every advantage of his luck. He studied, yes (scholars, being scholars, are always eager emphasize the quality of the Royal Library to which he would have had access), but he also rode horses and drank wine and listened to the thousand tall tales wafting through the streets of that bustling center of trade and travel. When his appointment ended and he returned to Florence, he set about creating a book that would burst at its seams with the sunlight, the warmth, the sheer joy of his time in Naples.

And he succeeded. The Decameron is the happiest of companions, a warm, beautiful afternoon pressed between two covers. Its stories of endlessly clever, articulate shapers and connivers never bore, never drag or wander (not many of those who quarried him can say that) ... they shimmer and burble through a million plot complications, slipping in and out of obscenity, immorality, and downright heresy without once being genuinely indecent.

This is one of my desert-island books, and so naturally I urge all of you - even those who are now or were once harried college students - to pack a bottle of wine and a wedge of cheese into a basket, take a copy of The Decameron to your favorite park (Everyman's Library has a very engaging new translation by J. G. Nichols - it'll set you back $30, but it'll last you your whole life and shrug off any number of wine spills), and make Boccaccio's acquaintance. I think you'll be glad you did.


Marcella said...

I am happy to be the first to show my appreciation for the trouble you have taken to share your enthusiasm for The Decameron. It was an informative read. Thank you!

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