The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

The Decameron
Giovanni Boccaccio
Italy, 1350-53
Translator, Wayne A. Rebhorn, 2013

Several things spring to mind at the mention of The Decameron: plague, sex, and corrupt priests. While the latter two items are abundant in the 100 stories that make up the pages of The Decameron, there is less of the Black Death than its reputation might suggest.

Written in the mid-1300s, Boccaccio’s collection of tales has a strong framing organization that divides the tales into sets of ten, told over a series of ten days. Each day also has a introduction and a conclusion and an Author’s Preface and Conclusion round out the book. It is in the Day 1 Introduction that one of the most famous passages, that describing the effects of the plague–which devastated Florence, Italy in 1348–is found. Interestingly, according to the Introduction of the edition I read, many of Boccaccio’s details come from an 8th century work, Historia Longobardorum by Paulus Diaconus, although Boccaccio’s father was also involved in organizing relief for the Florentines and may have shared what he witnessed with his son, who is believed to have been outside the city at the time. (It is also interesting to me to learn that the plague still exists, but is readily treated by antibiotics.)  Regardless of the exact sourcing, Boccaccio’s description of the devastation caused by the plague and the subsequent civic and moral decay is harrowing. The gruesome infection, mass burials, abandonment of friends and family, abandonment of all social, moral and ethical principles–such was the state of 1348 Florence.

Moreover, since they themselves, when they were well, had set the example for those who were not yet infected, they, too, were almost completely abandoned by everyone as they languished away. And leaving aside the fact that the citizens avoided one another, that almost no one took care of his neighbors, and that relatives visited one another infrequently, if ever, and always kept their distance, the tribulation of the plague had put such fear into the hearts of men and women that brothers abandoned their brothers, uncles their nephews, sisters their brothers, and very often wives their husbands. In fact, what is even worse, and almost unbelievable, is that fathers and mothers refused to tend to their children and take care of them, treating them as if they belonged to someone else.

Day 1, Introduction

Against this backdrop, Boccaccio sets his collection. A group of young Florentines, seven women and three men, feeling abandoned by family and friend, though yet healthy themselves, gather at Santa Maria Novella in the heart of Florence and decide to leave the city, embarking a few miles away to the countryside, to “hav[e] as much fun as possible, feasting and making merry, without ever overstepping the bounds of reason in any way” (Day 1, Introduction). This is the last the plague is mentioned, as we enter into a world of feasting, dancing, nature and storytelling.

Painting by John William Waterhoues of a group of young women and men  women in late Medieval/early Italian Renaissance clothing sitting in a garden and conversing.
A Tale from the Decameron (1916) by John William Waterhouse

It is quickly established by the young people that they will select a “queen” or “king” to order their existence on each day, with the first queen, Pampinea, setting the rhythm for the days that follow: they spend the mornings in gardens or meadows, a midday luncheon followed by music, dance and rest before finally gathering in a shaded spot during the hottest part of the day to tell their stories, one each. They deviate from the schedule only on Fridays and Saturdays for religious observance and personal hygiene. It is an idealized world they find themselves in, without intrusion of the outer world or its concerns. On one day, they visit a garden of such pristine beauty and isolation, that it seems as if it is meant to represent Eden. They are separate from–and we as readers in turn are separate from–all outside consideration or care.

Although on Days 1 and 9 the storytellers are allowed to give free reign to share whatever they wish, the remaining eight days are each themed, on stories ranging from tragic love to love overcoming all, from tricks played on others or wit employed against other to get something the trickster or wit desires to stories of liberality or magnificence of wealth and deed. Some are humorous while some are tragic. Intelligence and wit are roundly celebrated while foolishness and ignorance are punished or denounced. And yes, there is plenty of sex–and while early English translations altered or omitted some of the most scandalous tales, in general Boccaccio sticks with tame statements (embracing, sleeping with) or euphemism. I was put in mind of the bawdy humor of Shakespeare.

I was also reminded of Shakespeare by the style or themes of some of the tales, especially those dealing with lovers and confused identities. This isn’t perhaps surprising; although there were about 250 years between them, they had some of the same, or similar sources to reference, and it is believed that Shakespeare took a portion of the plot of Cymbeline from Day 2, Story 9 and As You Like it from Day 3, Story 9 (likely by way of a French translation).

What is perhaps more surprising–although not unprecedented, as Dante’s Inferno places not a few clergymen in the torments of Hell–is the number of stories featuring a corrupt or immoral priest, nun, or other religious figure. Clearly, even well before Martin Luther’s famous 16th century critique of the Catholic church, those outside of it–but still of the Catholic faith–saw hypocrisy, avarice, and lust within. (Which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising in an era in which the Church might be chosen as an occupation, not out of faith, but due to poverty or lack of other opportunity, or that might be chosen for a child by their parent.) However, the context of the stories–and especially within the framing introductions and conclusions–makes clear that the humor at the expense of the clergy is not reflective of any disbelief in the Christian faith, even if perhaps it expresses a cynicism at the honesty and integrity of the faith leaders.

At times the stories can feel a bit tedious or a bit repetitive. Although there is a wide variety of stories,  a group of 9 or 10 stories on a topic (the tenth storyteller, Dioneo, doesn’t always stick with the program) can sometimes make it feel as if one story is blending into the next. And even between the different topics, many of the stories somehow still end up about love (or lust). With 100 total stories, it is also easy to forget many of them by the time the book is completed. That is not to say there aren’t memorable stories. I especially found amusing the handful of stories from Day 8 and 9 that featured the (real) Florentine Calandrino. Portrayed in this context as a gullible dupe, his friends were constantly playing practical jokes on him. In general, in fact, the stories of Day 8 were some of my favorites, as many were amusing tales of tricks people play on one another, although there are other stories throughout that are laugh-out-loud as well. There are also some rather sweet stories in Day 2, of people who have suffered great misfortunes only to wind up with a happy ending.

However, we are also reminded that these stories are very much of their time–women as property, the nobility as far superior to those low-born (and therefore subject to different rules). Additionally, while most of the stories are grounded in the real world (if occasionally a bit far fetched), at times moments arrive that remind us that The Decameron was still a Medieval work, although one tiptoeing on the edges of the Italian Renaissance. We are starting to see the influence of learning and intellect, but there also remains the evidence of courtly love, chivalric behavior, and even on occasion a bit of magic.

There is another way The Decameron took me back in time. Many of the stories, especially in the second half of the book, are set in Florence, a city I know well, having spent four months there as part of my university course. The Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, near where our storytellers gather at the beginning and disperse in the end, is very familiar, as we passed through almost daily on our way to classes. An endnote for the third story of Day Eight sent me down a Google maps rabbit hole: it identified the location of Calandrino’s house as being near the corner of present day Via Ginori and Via Guelfa–which is where our apartment was (although in a 19th century building). Another story has the protagonist walking along Via della Scala, another familiar street: it was where our classes were located at the time. It was an unexpected jaunt down memory lane, but enjoyable nonetheless.

I picked up The Decameron as part of my libri Italiani project list, but also greatly inspired by Cleo’s (Classical Carousel) plans to read it this fall/winter. I’d previously read several of the stories for a college course, and it was fun to return to them. The edition I read was translated by Wayne A. Rebhorn, and while I generally found it very readable, I did find his decision to use words such as “guy” and “buddy” to represent common speech a bit jarring. On the other hand, Rebhorn provided a contextualizing introduction and copious endnotes providing information on Boccaccio’s sources, translation decisions or explanations (such as puns that don’t translate), and historical background, all of which can be useful to the reader. (Depending on your reading preferences–I found reading each note as I came to it too interrupting, so I took to reading all of the notes for a story before starting it.) Generally speaking, regardless of whether the reader wants all that sort of extra material, this is a book where it’s perhaps best to use one of the newer translations (there are a couple to choose from), as the older editions are often incomplete or bowdlerized.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind in the Willows
Kenneth Grahame
Scotland, 1908

The Water Rat was restless, and he did not exactly know why. To all appearance the summer’s pomp was still at fullest height, and although in the tilled acres green had given way to gold, though rowans were reddening, and the woods were dashed here and there with a tawny fierceness, yet light and warmth and color were still present in undiminished measure, clean of any chilly premonitions of the passing year. But the constant chorus of the orchards and hedges had shrunk to a casual evensong from a few yet unwearied performers; the robin was beginning to assert himself once more; and there was a feeling in the air of change and departure.

Chapter 9
The Wind in the Willows - Rat and Mole boating
Illustration by E. H. Shepard for The Wind in the Willows

Back in the spring, prompted by a post from Cleo at Classical Carousel, I decided that August would be a perfect time for a read of The Wind in the Willows. And indeed it was: the slow rhythm of passing seasons, of life on the riverbank, is a perfect companion to what I think of as the lazy days of late summer.

But The Wind in the Willows is perfect at many times of year. Nestled cozily protected from winter’s snow, lingering in warm spring breezes, relaxing in summer’s heat, enjoying the crisp cool of autumn–all are equally at home with the residents of the idyllic riverbank.

Much like Cranford, The Wind in the Willows is an episodic tale with early standalone chapters that eventually give way to a final set of connected chapters, all set to the rhythms of the changing seasons. Save for Toad’s frequent misadventures following the latest craze, there is no hurry, no anxiety for the next thing. The animals of the story–Rat and Mole and Badger and Otter–are in communion with the world around them, living and moving by its paces. They understand the changes of the seasons, acknowledge them, adapt to them, live by their rhythms. As I read, it occurred to me that these characters knew something most of us have lost. It is part of the appeal of these tales.

But of course the personalities of the animal friends are also greatly attractive. The irrepressible Toad, the steadfast Mole, the open-hearted Rat, the benevolent Badger. Although Toad’s antics may be the most memorable, his friends’ loyal determination to set him right, to help him overcome his own faults, is lovely indeed. They seem perhaps to be types, characters I might see in a Victorian or Edwardian novel, but their animal natures provide that additional charm and distinction. Add to this the depiction of loyal friendship and they are a wonderful set of creatures to pass time with.

The setting is not merely pastoral, but Edwardian, and there is a real sense of the time and of its space between an idealized agrarian past and the onrush of an industrial–motorized–future. Grahame seems to favor the historic ideal, but there is also a timeless critique of the failings of character. It is not merely that Toad seeks out the latest fad or the rush of speed, he is also at fault for letting his passions overtake his reason, to the extent that he could loose everything he has, perhaps even his friends.

There seems perhaps a rush at the end–everything hastens to tie up neatly, and the conclusion feels abrupt. It is no wonder that so many sequels from other authors have appeared. But perhaps I don’t mind this after all. For now the animals may still live on the riverbank, I may still have my doubts about Toad, and when the seasons change, I can be sure that they will be adapting with them.

I read The Wind in the Willows as part of my Children’s Classics project list and for Back to the Classics, Classic with Nature in the Title.

The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie

Cover: The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie

The Secret of Chimneys
Agatha Christie
England, 1925

When I picked up The Secret of Chimneys this summer it turned out to be one of those “perfect books for the time” sort of events. I’d been reading some heavier books that required a good deal more brain power than a Christie novel does, and it was a breath of fresh air to pick up a mystery, especially one with such charming young characters.

We first meet Anthony Cade, working as a guide for British tourists in southern Africa. A chance meeting with a friend provides him with an opportunity for easier cash: get a manuscript to the publishers in London and return some letters to the lady who wrote them. Neither seems the sort of task likely to present difficulties, but Anthony is beset with adventures almost the moment he arrives in England. And when Virginia Revel turns out not to have written the letters, we discover that we are only at the beginning of a multi-layered intrigue involving a French crook, oil rights, a lost diamond, a missing prince, and, of course, an old country-house known as Chimneys, the scene of crimes both past and present.

Anthony and Virginia are both wonderfully fun characters, as they embark on their own investigations, independent of the professionals on the scene, Inspector Battle and M Lemoine of the Sûreté. And although amateurs, they are not without the ability to detect, if at times their lines of investigation prove unprofitable. Inspector Battle was an interesting character to me. He clearly has a handle on what’s going on, but doesn’t have as much “stage presence” as I would have expected from an “Inspector Battle” novel. He will appear in a number of Christie’s later mysteries and I look forward to seeing how he is presented in these.

As a mystery, I’m not sure it’s one of her stronger ones: although there are many layers and lines of inquiry, I worked out many of the answers without effort, and thought perhaps she left too many clues on the page (which I suppose is a better problem than not enough!). Or perhaps I’m just getting used to her methods and it’s easier to see where she’s going? Nevertheless, a delightful romp.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides. This is something that happens only once every eight years.

Opening line

I have just finished Piranesi, a hauntingly beautiful novel by Susanna Clarke, author of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It is short, only 245 pages, but this only proves to emphasize that every word matters, from opening page to the perfect final lines.

Told entirely in journal entries, this is the story of a man called Piranesi, seemingly lost in a labyrinth of marble statues, sea-water filled halls and vast chambers, yet filled with child-like wonder and love for all that is around. Gradually, his world opens to the reader, while at the same time other forces start to intrude on his ordered existence to suggest that there is a mystery at the heart of all this that he doesn’t even know to investigate and darkness threatens to shatter the innocence.

It is a novel classified as fantasy or science fiction, and perhaps it is, but I found the magic more in the telling than the plot. The gentle play of words, the gentle unfolding, the final revelation. At times I wondered if it is meant to be a meditation on being lost in our own brains, whether through over-rumination or mental illness, or on being lost in our 21st century lives, rather than the plotted mystery it first appears to be. Regardless, there is one lesson to take away, one appropriate to our current holiday season: the importance of child-like wonder and appreciation. Something that is too easy to loose, to all or our detriment.

The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.

4

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cover: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Cranford
Elizabeth Gaskell
1853, England

Originally published between 1851 and 1853 in a series of installments in the periodical Household Works, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford is outwardly a charming illustration of a small slice of English village life at a time when the world was changing rapidly around it. Cranford is ruled, socially at least, by the “Amazons”—for the genteel classes are represented entirely by women, the men apparently finding it inconvenient to live long in this safe harbor of femininity. But into the charm of the village life, we also see at times the finger-hooks of outward realities creeping in. Cranford is no stranger to death and sorrows, and at times Gaskell, known for her novels depicting the hardships of working-class life in the mill towns of England, sneaks some of her critiques in here as well. No matter how genteel a lady, she must have something to live on, yet the truth of Victorian England is that there are few options for a gentlewoman to make a respectable living. The spinsters of Cranford may be resistant—at times almost comically—to the idea of marriage, but we are reminded of Jane Austen’s writing: marriage was often the only way for a woman to secure her future economically.

I found Cranford slow to get into at first, with its episodic early chapters that seemed divorced of each other. But as I read more, I grew familiar with the regular characters that populated the pages, tying the story together, and the brief episodes began to give way to a more linear structure, the events of one chapter more strongly linked to the preceding. By the very end, episodes and characters that seemed all but forgotten had returned to recollection, of both the town and the reader.

It is the characters that are perhaps the strength of the book, with their individual quirks and foibles. Their personalities permeate the novel; their fears, their hopes, their anticipations, their follies bring the pages to life. We are aided entry by the narrator, Mary Smith, a non-resident who visits frequently and shares with us her keen observations, even as at times she gets caught up in events herself and no longer remains a passive observer. But it is her very involvement that allows the reader to enter the town and become invested the story; to be touched by the real generosity of spirit seen not just among the principal characters, but among their servants as well. These are people that care about each other and each other’s well-being, even while they may be resistant to outsiders and changing ways of life.

Cranford is not quite the same as the other Gaskell I’ve read (Mary Barton and North and South). The intrusions of the outer world are gentler, the love stories are to the side or in the past. But in its gentle way, and in the warmth of its population, I find that it may just be my favorite.

I read Cranford as part of my Realists and Romantics project list and for Back to the Classics, Classic with a Place in the Title.