Tales and Tellers: The Eighth Day

June 21, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

Reading next: The Dog of the South, by Charles Portis.

Eight days in, and I’m still not sure what to think about Boccaccio’s orientation toward his work and his characters. Is he trying to create characters, in the ten patricians abandoning Florence? Or is he merely creating a pliable framework in which he can tell stories, dozens of them, of all shapes and sizes?

There have certainly been moments that indicated that Boccaccio was interested in the interaction of tale and teller, most obviously in the theme of Filostrato’s day. There’s also the songs sung at the end of each day, which are sometimes just pretty little lyrics but are sometimes self-consciously revealing of the singer’s desires or emotional state. At the end of this day Panfilo sings that “I with burning joy conceal/ A rapture I may not reveal.” Unlike Filostrato, flayed by his inability to hold his beloved, Panfilo seems to enjoy his love, even though he cannot express it in public and must keep it secret.

But on this day, at least, the stories are largely related only to one another: an incident or character in one provokes the next, with little apparent revelation of the teller’s character. Boccaccio, I suppose I’m trying to say, does not seem to care whether he’s consistent with the kinds of stories he has the ten tell, or whether the stories always seem appropriate to those telling them.

This more or less makes sense, I suppose, given Boccaccio’s times, his Humanist leanings away from the church but his still basically medieval world. There’s this strange tension between the literary world to come, of psychology and character, and that which had been before, of allegory, moral, formalism. (This is a little clearer, I think, in Chaucer, with his flesh-and-blood slices of society on a pilgrimage to Canterbury.) Interesting, then, that story about Giotto, with his move towards realistic human forms while still incorporating medieval techniques.

Fiammetta tells perhaps the most radical story yet, the eighth of the day. In it, a friendly neighbor, Spinelloccio, starts an affair with his neighbor Zeppa’s wife. Finding out about it, Zeppa takes his revenge by contriving to make love to Spinelloccio’s wife, on top of a trunk in which Spinelloccio’s hiding. And here’s how the story ends:

Spinelloccio now emerged from the chest, and without making too much fuss, he said:

‘Now we are quits, Zeppa. So let us remain friends, as you were saying just now to my wife. And since we have always shared everything in common except our wives, let us share them as well.’

Zeppa having consented to this proposal, all four breakfasted together in perfect amity. And from that day forth, each of the ladies had two husbands, and each of the men had two wives, nor did this arrangement ever give rise to any argument or dispute between them.

Before the ninth story it’s mentioned that the ladies discuss “the two Sienese and their wife-sharing.” That’s it! No mention of anyone offended, or blushing!

We also meet some recurring characters on the eighth day, the painters Calandrino, Bruno, and Buffalmacco, all real Florentines. Poor Calandrino! He’s come down through history (because of Boccaccio, or just because Boccaccio recorded his actual character?) as a naive simpleton, superstitious and capable of believing that a particular rock had made him invisible. The ten seem to love this crew, telling three stories about them on the eighth day and two more on the ninth. Boccaccio seems to use Calandrino as the fool who believes in folktales and thereby gets in trouble.

The Chaos of the Present Age: The Sixth Day

June 14, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron, by Boccaccio.

The sixth is the day of the shortest stories, each revolving around a witty retort of some kind and most fairly lightweight. Panfilo’s, the fifth, is nice, featuring the painter Giotto, who was apparently a friend of Boccaccio. Says Panfilo, “so faithful did he remain to Nature… that whatever he depicted had the appearance, not of a reproduction, but of the thing itself, so that one very often finds, with the works of Giotto, that people’s eyes are deceived and they mistake the picture for the real thing.” Nature seems to be coming into its own as a theme, joining Fortune and Love; we’ll see where Boccaccio takes it.

The other interesting aspect of this day was the way that reality seemed to intrude upon the ten to a greater degree than usual. The chapter begins with a squabble between two of the servants — lighthearted and bawdy, but an intrusion into their fantasy world nevertheless. Then, for whatever reason, Lauretta mentions that a young woman in her story is “no longer with us, having died in the middle age during this present epidemic.” Mentions of the plague have been rare, and this is the first time I can recall a death from it being dropped into a narrative like this. After the final story, when Dioneo has been named king for the next day, he chooses the day’s theme as wives playing tricks on their husbands; responding to the concerns of the genteel ladies, he says,

Ladies, I know as well as you do that the theme I have prescribed is a delicate one to handle; but I am not to be deterred by your objections, for I believe that the times we live in permit all subjects to be freely discussed, provided that men and women take care to do no wrong. Are you not aware that because of the chaos of the present age, the judges have deserted the courts, the laws of God and man are in abeyance, and everyone is given ample licence to preserve his life as best he may? This being so, if you go slightly beyond the bounds of decorum in your conversation, with the object, not of behaving improperly but of giving pleasure to yourselves and to others, I do not see how anyone in the future can have cause to condemn you for it.

Similarly, it seemed especially absurd to keep Victorian sexual proprieties after the Great War; it seemed ludicrous to keep any topics off limits, or regulate social behaviors in the usual way, when the threat of atomic extinction loomed; it seemed absurd to keep discussions of homosexuality out of the media when AIDS was rampaging in the ’80s. The message is somewhat compromised by its coming from Dioneo, an impish figure who is looking for a good time above all and follows this argument with the sophisticated claim that rejecting the theme would make outsiders think the rejecting lady had a guilty conscience. Nevertheless, it’s as close to a manifesto as the ten have, and it functions as an argument for all of those who try to understand and enjoy life in troubled times — and who hasn’t thought they lived in troubled times?

Of course, as even Dioneo points out, to make this argument work you have to balance the enjoyment with virtue — doing good. I wonder if that is where Boccaccio is leading us: will the ten realize that they must take the good with the bad, and that to withdraw from society without helping their troubled fellow citizens amounts to an abdication of the responsibility of the privileged?

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