sábado, 7 de noviembre de 2009

The Decameron #1/10


"No one will ever find out, and a sin that's hidden is half forgiven."  (The Decameron, 47)

I'd read the prologue and the "First Day"  from Boccaccio's Decameron (1353) before, but I read them again this week in preparation for this post.  A couple of things stood out.  First, like the unreliable narrator in Juan Ruiz' nearly contemporary Libro de Buen Amor (c. 1343), it's sometimes difficult to know when Boccaccio should be taken seriously and when he's just putting you on.  For all the talk about offering solace and instruction to his readers, for example, the Florentine lays his cad card on the table with nuggets like the following: "So in order that I may to some extent repair the omissions of Fortune, which (as we may see in the case of the more delicate sex) was always more sparing of support wherever natural strength was more deficient, I intend to provide succour and diversion for the ladies, but only for those who are in love, since the others can make do with their needles, their reels and their spindles" (3).  While this would appear to be the medieval equivalent of a frying pan joke, Boccaccio actually privileges women in terms of the composition of his cast.  "I shall narrate a hundred stories or fables or histories or whatever you choose to call them, recited in ten days by a worthy band of seven ladies and three young men, who assembled together during the plague which recently took such a heavy toll of life.  And I shall also include some songs, which these seven ladies sang for their mutual amusement" (3).  With zero background in the is he or isn't he a proto-feminist squabble, I look forward to evaluating Boccaccio's take on gender issues as I slowly make my way through The Decameron.  Secondly, whether Boccaccio's writing about the plague was based on his own eyewitness testimony or on the descriptions of others (translator G.H. McWilliam suggests it was the latter), it provides an extremely jarring backdrop for the storytelling sessions to come.  "It did not take the form it had assumed in the East," he writes on page 5, "where if anyone bled from the nose it was an obvious portent of certain death.  On the contrary, its earliest symptom, in men and women alike, was the appearance of certain swellings in the groin or the armpit, some of which were egg-shaped whilst others were roughly the size of the common apple."  Given this emphasis on the ravages of the Black Death in the "introduction" that precedes the storytelling marathon, the lighthearted nature of the first day's stories that follow provides quite the segueway.  A Jew who converts to Christianity despite the evil ways of the Pope and his clerics at Rome, a "money lender" who thinks his way out of a verbal trap laid for him by the sultan Saladin, and at least one abbot who likes the sexual position of woman on top star in the first series of ten stories about eloquence and ingenuity.  Will the horror of the plague and humor walk hand in hand throughout The Decameron or will the humor eventually win out?  I'm betting on the latter, but feel free to let me know what you think if you have a guess or an answer of your own.  In the meantime, I'm enjoying this mightily thus far!

8 comentarios:

  1. I am thinking humor will win out in the end, but I've never tackled The Decameron (though I have read snippets of Dante's Inferno, which I know you're also intending to read!), so that's hardly an educated guess. I look forward to reading your thoughts on this one! Hopefully it will provide some balance against your Kristin L reading! ;)

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  2. Although I'm tempted to kick Kristin to the curb at this point, Steph, maybe I'll give Undset another two chances while looking for my entertainment "balance" elsewhere. Excellent idea! In the meantime, I'm very curious to see where Boccaccio will lead me next with this storytelling stunt of his. Which is a good thing because I have 90 stories left! Cheers!

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  3. I've not read the Decameron except in fragments in a Chaucer course in order to compare & contrast Chaucer's and Boccaccio's treatments of the same stories. (Speaking of that, if I recall correctly Bocaccio was Chaucer's source for the Griselda story (The Clerk's Tale), which might cast an interesting light on your argument for his proto-feminism. I think Chaucer's telling of that story is more woman-friendly, although VERY SUBTLY.)

    Anyway, I think the plague as backdrop is so fascinating, and I look forward to your thoughts as you progress. I'd like to do a project on literary depictions of plague and quarantine - compare Bocaccio's descriptions to Defoe's Journal of a Plague Year and Camus's The Plague, and so on. Macabre, but interesting! :-)

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  4. Comparing Boccaccio and Chaucer should be fun, Emily, esp. since I enjoy both authors but haven't read much of either in the last few years. Thanks for the great suggestion! As for your "macabre, but interesting" plague idea, I can only hope that you take that on as part of a reading challenge. Imagine the sorts of reviews you might inspire! All kidding aside, I'm super interested in seeing how important the plague is within the context of this work. And examining plague/quarantine descriptions comparatively would be quite interesting, I agree.

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  5. I've never heard of this (yes, there are giant holes in my lit knowledge...) but it sounds fascinating. I'm looking forward to further glimpses into the book. :)

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  6. Way more people have heard of this than have actually read it all the way through, Sarah, so I wouldn't feel too bad about that. However, it has a reputation for being one of the most entertaining classics ever (so far, it's living up to the hype for me!). Thanks for the visit!

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  7. I'm so glad it has the reputation of being entertaining -- and I hope it keeps proving to be so!!

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  8. Rebecca, it has continued to be very entertaining throughout all of this week's stories. No worries there!

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