Not having read all that much Decameron criticism before, one of the more interesting things to come out of my time spent with Guido Almansi's The Writer as Liar: Narrative Technique in the "Decameron" (Routledge, 1975) so far is Almansi's assertion that earlier critics were prone to look for a faithful representation of "reality" in Boccaccio's magnum opus--as if the work were designed to replicate something historically accurate about 14th-century Florentine life. Almansi, on the other hand, convincingly argues that the lie is the work's real star attraction--that The Decameron is more about Boccaccio drawing attention to his storytelling virtuosity than anything else. Almost as if on cue, the Fourth Day's session begins with an unexpected interruption to the narrative flow in the form of a direct address from the author to his readers. A snippet:
"Judicious ladies, there are those who have said, after reading these tales, that I am altogether too fond of you, that it is unseemly for me to take so much delight in entertaining and consoling you, and, what is apparently worse, in singing your praises as I do. Others, laying claim to greater profundity, have said that it is not good for a man of my age to engage in such pursuits as discussing the ways of women and providing for their pleasure. And others, showing deep concern for my renown, say that I would be better advised to remain with the Muses in Parnassus, than to fritter away my time in your company.
Moreover, there are those who, prompted more by spitefulness than common sense, have said that I would be better employed in earning myself a good meal than in going hungry for the sake of producing nonsense of this sort. And finally there are those who, in order to belittle my efforts, endeavour to prove that my versions of the stories I have told are not consistent with the facts." (The Decameron, 284)
While I'll rather lazily avoid discussing this passage in any detail (time is a stern taskmaster today), translator G.H. McWilliam's footnotes inform me that there's no reason to believe that Boccaccio was responding to any real attacks here. In any event, Boccaccio's arch and preemptive self-defense of what are probably only imagined potential critiques of his artistic creation soon evolves into an incomplete story intended to justify the Decameron's celebration of women and its rejection of poetry in favor of prose. In other words, yes, a story about stories in the medium we all now take for granted! Although our author goes out of his way to apologize for the incompleteness of said story ("for otherwise it might appear that I was attempting to equate my own tales with those of that select company I have been telling you about" he laments in a mega meta moment on page 285), McWilliam notes that the tale "is in fact sufficiently complete for commentators to refer to it as the 101st story of the Decameron" (826). For my part, reading this mini-story and the self-conscious arguments about form that precede it make it very difficult to argue with Almansi's basic premise. Calling attention to the artifice of fiction does indeed seem to be Boccaccio's game.
In this light (and apologizing in advance for the lack of the customary amount of sleaze in this week's Decameron update), I probably shouldn't have been as surprised by the detour Boccaccio was about to make as I actually was. But even if I haven't left myself enough time to do justice to the rest of the Fourth Day's stories, suffice it to say that they provide as clear a break from the 30 (or 31) previous ones as Boccaccio's own direct address to his readers. To wit--and to show my paranormal romance reading friends that the lack of time for the Fourth Day's stories doesn't stem from any passive aggressiveness on my part--here's a road map to the romantic gore in store for you during the course of this particular session: one story in which a lady joins her lover in the afterlife by drinking poison served to her in a chalice with her ex-lover's heart; another story in which a woman disinters the body of her murdered lover, beheads it, and then stores the decomposing head in a pot full of basil, watering it with her tears; one story in which a jealous husband feeds his wife the heart of her ex-lover, an act she repays by jumping out an open window to her death on the ground below. Although I lost count of how many beheadings and spectral visitations (real or imagined) were mentioned in the chapter, the theme for the day--"those whose love ended unhappily" (284)--unfolded with all the variety and gruesome artistry you might suspect: just not quite as much gleeful lubricity as previously. Next up: an all-Almansi post or Decameron Day Five, who can tell?