Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Boccaccio's "Decameron" (Norton Critical Edition): Book Review

The first baby steps in Italian prose, away from the mystical, the ascetic, the heavenly, the Papacy towards the sensuous, the sexual, the clever, and the bourgeoisie, were taken by Boccaccio in his hundred tales, Decameron. These lively (if sometimes awkward or hesitantly told) stories reveal everyday men--and many women, at last--keeping up appearances, fooling priests and potentates, and striving to express their fleshly, calculating, and grasping desires. Narrated by seven young ladies and three gentlemen fleeing Florence during the Black Plague of 1348, these clever schemers may succeed or fail, but their ambitions energize these tales. They promote the Renaissance humanist, eager to hear from his peers.

Twenty-one representative novelle were chosen for a 1977 Norton Critical Edition; the somewhat ironically surnamed Francisco De Sanctis sums up their appeal as human comedy: "The flesh entertains itself at the expense of the spirit." Considered in the triad if below Dante, we get the next two conversing, via the letters of Petrarch, who chides his old friend Boccaccio for recanting (I wonder if Chaucer knew this when he abandoned his frame-tale scheme for his Canterbury project?) and threatening in a state of guilt to burn his manuscripts. Colleagues tended in their biographical accounts to admire not these "new" tales so much as his more edifying ones, inspired by the classics.

Later, scholars weigh in. Seeing this was issued in 1977, I'd reckon as with other Norton Critical Editions (yes, this has a few footnotes if not many), that a revision with some newer scholarship might enhance its value. As to what's in this version, I sympathize intuitively with literary historian Ugo Foscolo, who advances the idea of Boccaccio separating his concerns from Church and urging the expression of the female, the mercantile, even the roguish voices, along with those of the elite and the clerics who had long dominated the conversation of who should act how, in fact as well as fable. Erich Auerbach follows with an excerpt from Mimesis analyzing stylistic variety, and Aldo Scaglione takes on nature and love as the concerns supplanting those of piety and renunciation. Wayne Booth explains how Boccaccio tries out both telling and showing as a narrator early in the evolution of a longer set of fictional tales. Even if he did not meet our expectations, yet he tried to show, not tell.

Similarly, Tzvetan Todorov as to structure and Robert Clements as to collections illustrate the sorting process within stories and among them. Marga Cottino-Jones argues how patient Griselda's account uses the Christian figurative mode to elevate her status, and how despite however moderns react, for the audience of Boccaccio, such a presence resonated with Christ-like ideals of endurance and sacrifice. Ben Lawton defends Pasolini's 1971 film as true to some of the spirit of the source, even as it skips from a medieval time and place to a jarringly modern one, if but two-thirds of a bold triptych.

Translators Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella, who later published a Signet edition of all hundred stories, conclude by pointing to the meaning of them all. Beyond the purported audience of "idle ladies," the impact of the Decameron reverberates in themes of love, intelligence, and fortune. Instead of God's will governing this universe, men and women seek to procure not heavenly but earthly fame.
(Part of this is on a List Inconsequential: Late Summer Reading List, 7-31-14, Spectrum Culture.)

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