Friday, October 24, 2014

Wayne Rebhorn (tr.) Boccaccio's "Decameron": Book Review

This handsome edition fulfills the need for a brisk American English version of these hundred tales. This interpreter of Dante a generation before, and friend (or rival?) of Petrarch occupies the third position in fame among the Italians who championed energetic tales and vivid verse. As this U. of Texas professor emphasizes in his helpful introduction, "being in the middle of things" not only sums up Dante as he started his epic, but Giovanni Boccaccio. Around 1348, nearly half a century after the Commedia took place and the Inferno began, this Florentine set his prose in the wake of the Black Death. Rebhorn reckons that Boccaccio followed the Renaissance-minded Petrarch in turning away from the medieval mindset, as well as the vernacular which Dante had championed, but luckily Boccaccio took time from his classic endeavors to copy his manuscript and to preserve it from a pious mood later in his life when he threatened to burn it and the other salacious or sly stories.

These, of course, kept his reputation, more than what Chaucer took from the classical tales and moralistic concerns before and after the hundred tales. It "takes a set of medieval genres and fills them with Renaissance themes and characters." (xxvi) More women, more merchants, more ribaldry and fewer nobles than before. Seven women and three men tell the tales, ten a day with breaks for all to pray and the women to bathe for the Sabbath, in retreats just outside plague-ravaged Florence. These follow in Rebhorn's interpretation a ritual community of ten tellers, considering as if case studies (for the book ends abruptly and the return to normal life is sudden) of four themes: the power and the temptations of intelligence, fortune, desire, magnanimity (a more sly virtue than it seems).

The stories have unsettled some; their sexual content is famous but the real tug against convention persists beneath the rather decorous tone Boccaccio sustains for his properly raised tellers. That is, the tales test our understanding of why they draw us so much into a morally ambiguous array of characters, and how they often carry out their subversion free of any comment from author and usually the teller. Sophisticated prose in longer fiction was, after all, starting to emerge back then. I will leave explication of the tales aside, for the bulk of this encourages slow reading, as too many rushed by make their themes blurred, and a sensation is dulled of contents. Like Chaucer or Dante, this collection of adventures merits a more thoughtful pace than we modern readers tend to cultivate.

Don't expect, therefore, a quick rush as you make your way through. These tales reflect an early stage in narrative, and they do not display the links between themes and characters or tellers as sharply as Chaucer's tales started to do, a few decades later. As an aside, it's noteworthy to consider how Chaucer seemed to side with Petrarch's advice to Boccaccio to move to the classics for inspiration, even as of course how Chaucer supported his own polished vernacular phrasing, and mixed wittier or earthier content with the very learned and dogmatic pronouncements akin to those three Italians. 

Rebhorn strives for the long, periodic and sinuous sentences of the original, but he admits he cuts some for clarity, as the tone of Boccaccio can elude the more direct phrasing our own time favors. He suits a modern ear, although he often avoids the more elegant diction of British predecessors.  He captures the register and the class or dialect range of the original, and the endnotes assist users, who need a sturdy large-format edition that can hold up under use, as opposed to smaller paperbacks from preceding translators and presses, which have small type and fewer notes, let alone a lovely typeface.
(Interview by Steve Donoghue with the translator; Quarterly Conversation 2013 review by Donoghue helpfully compares Rebhorn's phrasing to previous translations. My review to Amazon US 10-14-14.)

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