Decameron

Hardcover, 661 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $27 | purchase

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A 14th century allegory about 10 Florentines who hole up in a secluded villa to flee the Black Death, entertaining each other with endless stories, the Decameron offers literature's first and perhaps best answer to the question of what to do while waiting to die. Boccaccio's answer? Stay up all night, tell stories, make jokes and ignore what's coming. If you are, for whatever reason, not interested in reading a 14th century Italian masterpiece, you might try Jane Smiley's loose

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Decameron

Decameron

Decameron

Just as Hamlet has been described as full of quotations, so the Decameron may at times seem to be full of stories we have heard before. That so many later writers have drawn on this work is of course a testimony to Boccaccio's skill as a storyteller: few if any of these tales were of his own invention, but – as is often said about jokes – it is the way they are told that counts. To imply a comparison with telling jokes is not inapposite and is not to depreciate these stories: true words can be spoken in jest. The complexities of this work are such that not only the book as a whole, but each of the hundred tales has acquired its own extensive critical bibliography. Nevertheless, the essential thing is as always (in the words of Pope) simply to

. . . read each work of wit
With the same spirit that its author writ
(Pope, An Essay on Criticism, 233–4)

which in this case involves being alive to the subtle play of the writer's mind over his narrative, and being especially sensitive to Boccaccio's nods and winks. In his Conclusion to the work he gives some advice to readers who might be offended by the inclusion of bawdy tales: they can easily check first with the summaries given at the head of the tales and thus avoid any which are likely to upset them (or, although Boccaccio does not quite say this, use the same method if they want to find those tales in order to read them). In his Conclusion he says he could hardly have avoided mentioning everyday objects, such as pestles and mortars, which might be thought by some to have a sexual significance, and in saying this he draws attention to their significance for the sake of any reader who might have missed it.

It is natural, when reading a book of short stories, particularly when they are placed in a fictional framework, to look for some purpose in their arrangement, and in the Decameron it is not difficult to find reasons for the way they are set out. Against what might be called the "blackground" of the 1348 plague in Florence, with its breakdown of law and order and the usual decencies, a civilized assembly of seven young women and three young men in a villa outside the city and their entertaining tales stand out in bright relief. At the same time it should be recognized that the reader does not remain conscious of this background for very long, as the stories themselves distract him. Similarly, order is given to the tales by various devices: many of them are grouped under common themes; they may be placed in opposition to each other, comic ones to contrast with solemn ones, and so on. All this is true, but it does not mean that the work as a whole is a kind of bourgeois epic, as has been suggested, or even simply one long story. Short stories are by their nature enclosed works, each with a beginning, a middle and an end, and however many there are, and however they are arranged, they remain separate. They are like sonnets in this respect and, like sonnets arranged in a sequence, they are strikingly ill suited to the telling of one long tale. Like a group of sonnets, however, they do have to be arranged in some fashion, they do have to be put down one after another, and their author does well to place each sonnet or short story in a position where it may be seen at its best, and this Boccaccio has done. There are patterns to be found, but they are such as reveal themselves to later consideration rather than in the act of reading.

It is also natural for anyone to ponder what each story adds up to, what its point is, or perhaps what moral comes out of it. In the Decameron we are again and again encouraged to do this, although often the encouragement is not explicit but implicit in the actions of the stories themselves. The storytellers frequently appear to be little concerned with moral issues. For instance the merchant Landolfo Rufolo (ii.4), after losing all his money by unwise investment in stock, decides to become a pirate (as an indirect result of which he eventually prospers); there is no adverse comment on this kind of business diversification, merely a slight hint of extenuation when we are told that he "devoted himself to making other people's property his own, especially that of the Turks."

There is even at times in the Decameron a pleasure in flagrantly unchristian actions, as in the tale (viii.7) of the scholar's meticulous and sadistic revenge on the widow, where the symmetry between the initial offence and the revenge triumphs over all other considerations: there is very often a Kiplingesque delight in getting one's own back. Again, sheer cleverness is often seen as an admirable characteristic, particularly when it enables people to extricate themselves from tricky situations, as with the erring wife in Arezzo (vii.4) who manages so unerringly to put her innocent husband in the wrong. And although friars are attacked fiercely for their failure to live up to Christian standards, this does not prevent our taking pleasure in the glorious lying eloquence of Brother Cipolla (vi.10), who could give Chaucer's Pardoner a run for his money. Both of them are adept at openly mocking their audiences in the very instant of deceiving them. Perhaps this glorification of smart-aleckry ought not to be so surprising: most of us have been familiar from a very early age with folk tales such as that of Puss-in-Boots, the arch confidence trickster; but it does shock when it comes in stories of such evident moral sophistication, in a collection where many of the tales exalt Christian values of honesty, trustworthiness, and kindness. Oscar Wilde's Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest said of the novel she had written: "The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means." She had clearly not read the Decameron.

The desire to put one over on others is closely connected with an emphasis on worldly honour, most obviously in the great concern for reputation. This can be taken to extraordinary lengths, as when a man is prepared to commit murder (x.3) in order to take over his victim's reputation as the most hospitable of men!

We are not dealing here merely with the expected cultural differences between a fourteenth-century Florentine and ourselves: indeed the popularity of the Decameron over so many hundreds of years testifies rather to what we have in common with Boccaccio, which is basically our humanity. To try to extract a set of generally applicable abstract principles of morality from these tales is a waste of time. The moral attitude varies with the storyteller and the story, and the net result is a whole world of conflicting, and frequently unresolved, reactions and attitudes – in short, the world we live in.

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