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Just as every generation thinks it is the first to have discovered sex, so every generation takes up The Decameron as proof that every generation has been doing it since the first two bits of protoplasm decided to play house.
When confronted with Boccaccio’s masterpiece in college, my group of friends indulged in the same Orwellian doublethink. In fact, we went further, taking these racy tales as 1) proof that all medieval piety was just so much hypocritical nonsense and 2) a sort of literary imprimatur for our own escapades.
Of course, we’d conveniently forgotten (or failed to read) what one of the storytellers points out: while spending their afternoons spinning tales of illicit couplings, these young Florentines spend their evenings in their own beds, their Fridays reflecting on the Crucifixion and their Sundays at Mass. And, as Boccaccio points out at the end, the storytellers were in gardens, “places devoted to pleasure”, they were young (though not immature) and were not “readily influenced by stories” (unlike my friends and myself). His defense of his work is far more eloquent than that, but I don’t want to spoil your pleasure when you get there.
Barbara Tuchman proposed another way of looking at Medieval bawdry. Though discussing the Reign of Misrule, when peasants and publicans presided over mock Masses, her point still holds. Such irreverence was an index not of unrest and the coming Reformation (how we do love to read history backwards), but of how deeply daily life was imbued with the Faith. Its teachings and tenants, its festivals and foibles, were the common coin of conversation, out of which one might make a moral point or fashion a joke. Our forefathers felt very much at home within their faith and the culture it created.
As a pillar of that culture, Boccaccio’s book is something to be at home in, too. Having never read the whole thing before, I’ve thought of the Decameron as a grab bag of stories that can be plucked out and savored individually. While that’s not a bad way of proceeding, taking the whole book from cover to cover makes each story a small chapter in a larger, single story. We get to know the different storytellers. We see their interrelationships. We hear yarns involving real people who lived in late medieval Florence, including figures like Giotto.
Are some of the stories not quite as captivating as they were in the 14th Century? Sure. Do one or two leave you wondering what was the point? Yeah. (I realize now that my professor assigned us the best of them, so some wonderful surprises were spoiled for me.) But there are more than enough naughty nuns, credulous lovers, heartless widows, lovesick priests, foolish doctors, pregnant men, drunken gamblers and stones of invisibility to go around. There’s even a little necrophilia. By the end we—or at least I—feel a part of the young people’s charmed circle. And I’m not sure that the “dud” stories aren’t there on purpose, adding yet another touch of realism (could you or I come up with ten stories in fifteen days, each a comic or pathetic masterpiece?)
Which is why I hate having to report that, for once in my experience, this Naxos production is not up to the usual high standards. Every cast member does a superb job, and some even get a chance to sing—an unexpected delight (probably because I’d never read the whole book before). The problem is at the sound board.
“Acoustic”, “R&B”, “Classical”, “Lounge”, “Small Speakers”, “Spoken Word”, “Treble Reducer”—no matter what EQ I chose, no matter how many times I re-downloaded, I couldn’t eradicate a sandpapery sibilance and/or a weird sort of muffled chiming sound, like distant sleigh bells, in the background. The fact that I made it through all 28 hours and 4 minutes testifies to the immense, sustained pleasure this book imparts.
9 of 9 people found this review helpful
Having read Chaucer early on, and having just finished Apuleius's The Golden Ass, I was charmed finding some of the same elements, scenarios, and characters preserved here in distinctive detail; this work is a wellspring of sophisticated romance, and as the party travels, regailing each other with tales that end in various ways, baudy farces, passionate love, gratified in some cases, perloined in others, schemes and plots devised and documented with entertaining cunning, great and noble tragedies that give Shakespeare a run for his money. I'm not fluent enough to have read the original Florentine, but the vocabulary used here is ornate, but still timeless enough to be compelling; it's not a surprise, given his liturgical education that some phraseology used would be biblical in nature, but refreshingly feminist notions and concepts are expressed, perhaps in our study and enjoyment of a work like this, we can find a sort of equalism, and in these troubling times, much solace and wisdom can be found in these volumes. The Naxos Team did a fantastic job bringing this rich work to life in the way that they have, music, and the vibrant, theatrically trained narrators breathe youthful, soulful emotion into their roles they read, and more often than not, they achieve their transport to tell the tales as best and honestly as they could be told. It's no challenge to put yourself in the shoes of the protagonists of these tales, and their plight is felt more closely, given the candid nature of the recitations that are given. In the same way that Chaucer did, it is easy to imagine the tales told could go one way or the other, and given no assurance that one tale will lead to tragic ends or not, it's easier to witness these stories told in a mood of suspense, rather than a journey towards the inevitable as so many tales tend to be, with a happy ever after ending being assured to placate the reader. Rather, the tales that haunt are those where requited love leads to tragic ends. Though the tone of some of these stories may seem avuncular in some ways, the well intentioned heart of the author and his aims toward mercy and agency in spite of orthodoxy shine through, and it is fascinating to see such tales told from a world that has changed so much in some ways, and so little in others. Endlessly worth your time and rapt attention, the Decameron demands it on the most obliging and humble terms. I'm grateful that these stories were preserved in such cosmopolitan and articulate stories, given the opportunity to explore this world preserved for you, I hope that you may find them in the same such.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful