Saturday, August 29, 2020

One a day (conclusion)

One hundred days ago I set myself the task of reading The Decameron at the rate of precisely one tale a day, and this morning I finished it, right on time. For those who are only vaguely familiar with the work (as was I), Boccaccio's collection has particular relevance at the moment, as the frame-tale that supports it supposes that a group of young Florentines escape from the plague-stricken city into the safety of the countryside, where they regale each other with stories until it's time to go home.

Presumably conditions improved a bit in their absence; in the summer of 2020, sadly, the world is still very much a mess. (Where I live COVID-19 cases are, for now, down significantly, which is something, at least.)

But back to Boccaccio. Escapist as it may be, it's a delightful book. I'm not sure I regret not reading it earlier; some things (like Moby-Dick) arguably benefit from being encountered later in life. The Signet Classics translation by Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella that I used is lively and readable. Some of the tales are little more than anecdotes, and a few of those rely on snappy repartee that perhaps loses something out of its cultural context, but there's plenty of variety and entertainment here. As with any self-confident writer, Boccaccio plays both sides at will, alternately upholding virtue and openly advocating infidelity, bad-mouthing women for their fecklessness and defending them against jealous and tyrannical husbands. Piety, thankfully, is in short supply, and the clergy come in for a robust helping of abuse.

Below are a few of the tales that struck me as being particularly memorable.

Third Day, Tenth Story: basically a classic dirty joke, grounded in feminine gullibility and clerical misbehavior.

Fifth Day, Fourth Story: a pleasingly modern tale, ending happily, of young lovers caught in flagrante by the girl's parents.

Fifth Day, Eight Story: a gruesome supernatural horror story in which a woman is punished eternally for refusing her favors.

Eight Day, Seventh Story: the account of the vengeance of a spurned lover and scholar. (This one is particularly long and vindictive, perhaps suggesting a grudge on the part of the author.)

Tenth Day, Ninth Story: a nicely balanced story of the mutual generosity of an Italian nobleman and the Muslim general Saladin (who is, dubiously, depicted as being fluent in Italian).

Tenth Day, Tenth Story: a narrative of the unspeakably cruel manner in which a husband tests the virtue and submissiveness of his absurdly long-suffering wife, wrapping up, improbably, with tutti contenti.

I'll leave the last words to the author, who concludes: "The time has come to end my words and to humbly thank Him who with His assistance has brought me after so much labor to my desired goal, and may His grace and peace be with you, lovely ladies, and if, perhaps, reading some of these stories has given any of you pleasure, please do remember me."


Michael Leddy said...

I keep meaning to pull out my copy and look at the stories you cite. But as they say in the movies, “There’s no time for that now.” But I will.

Michael Leddy said...

I just did, and I’m amazed and chagrined to see that nothing in it registers. Did I read this work? Yes, at least much of it, as a student in the 1970s. But all I’ve got now is “influenced Chaucer.”