The Writer as Liar: Narrative Technique in the Decameron (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975)
by Guido Almansi
While fruitlessly searching for a cover image for this book, I had a nice but totally unexpected laugh when I stumbled across a review of another Almansi title online which referred to the author's "ironia e gusto della provocazione" (irony and taste for provocation). It seems that Almansi, a professor of Comp Lit at the University of East Anglia who died in 2001, must have been very consistent in that regard, since a great deal of my own enjoyment of his The Writer as Liar: Narrative Technique in the Decameron came from watching him take potshots at rival critics who failed to sufficiently establish their critical positions to the satisfaction of the good doctor's tastes. A collection of five essays on various elements of Boccaccio's craft, The Writer as Liar is really just a fine introduction to the technical side of The Decameron. In staking out both an anti-realist and an anti-psychological interpretation of the work (see the extended quote at the end of this post, which mirrors my explanation for why most U.S. bloggers are unreasonably leery of any modern experimentation in the novel as well), Almansi is quite persuasive at positing a reading of The Decameron that emphasizes "how the literary game of falsehood is being exaggerated to a point of no return" (46). The first three chapters on "Narrative Screens," in which Almansi discusses The Decameron's cornice or storytelling frame, on "Literature and Falsehood," and on "Bawdry and Ars Combinatoria" are more topical for the most part, but the concluding chapters on "The Meaning of a Storm" and "Passion and Metaphor" shift the focus onto close readings of major tales like the story of Alatiel and her serial lovers (Decameron II, 7) and the grisly one about Tancredi and Ghismonda (Decameron IV, I). While a lone but unfortunate reference to one of Boccaccio's characters as "a nasty old queer" (49) tends to date this book even more than the rapidly yellowing pages in the library copy I borrowed, I'd still strongly recommend it to any lit crit geeks out there interested in an idiosyncratic companion to their Decameron studies. I realize that might mean...none of you. (Routledge & Kegan Paul, out of print)
"This [i.e. what Almansi sees as the primacy of the individual episode in The Decameron and the subsequent subordination of "any demands of historical accuracy, psychological consistency or behavioral plausibility"] is the puzzling factor which sets up an aesthetic gulf between the modern reader and the Decameron. We are all of us constructed out of bits and pieces of nineteenth-century fictional characters: these are our inescapabale cultural heritage, even if our actual reading went no further than Enid Blyton. Inevitably we run our lives on parallel co-ordinates to those of the Dickens or Balzac hero, in terms of behaviour, reasoning, motivation, instinctive needs and mental constructs. It all turns out to be a kind of second-class copy of a nineteenth-century novel, i.e. the literary genre which was most obsessively concerned with the psychological credibility of the character. We can veer between consistency and inconsistency, we can follow a direct or a more tortuous psychological line (Julian Sorel and Raskolnikov need by no means be considered self-consistent), but ultimately we are still accustomed to picturing ourselves and the world, art and politics, all in an uncompromisingly diachronic line, that is to say, in terms of psychological feasibility.
When the modern reader has to come to grips with a work like the Decameron, which belongs to a narrative area with a completely different raison d'être, he feels disoriented and is tempted to look for something which cannot be found in the work, namely a familiar character fresh from the 500-plus pages of a tome written by the grandfather of his grandfathers. This also leads to the occasional insensitivity of criticism, which complains about the absence of narrative modes which Boccaccio neither intended nor wanted in the fabric of the Decameron." (The Writer as Liar: Narrative Technique in the Decameron, 75-76)