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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.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful
If you are a fan of medieval literature and you'd like to hear this read as a refresher, this performance is sublime.