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by Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by J.G. Nichols.
Oneworld, 660 pp., £12.99, May 2008, 978 1 84749 057 5
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In Florence in 1348, shortly after two of its biggest banks collapsed because the English king had defaulted on a loan, roughly two-thirds of the population died of the Black Death. Egg-shaped buboes swelled up in the victims’ armpits or groins, and then black bruising spread across their bodies. According to Giovanni Boccaccio, whose father and stepmother died during the outbreak, the disease was so infectious that pigs who nuzzled the discarded clothing of the dead began instantly to writhe in agony, and then dropped down dead. The healthy fled the sick, and some, in the words of the first complete English translation of the Decameron from 1620, ‘lived as separatists from all other company’ – or in the flatter style of the most recent version, ‘kept clear of everyone else’.

Boccaccio’s Decameron was compiled in the aftermath of this plague. The book – ten days of storytelling which outgo the six-day narrative of the Creation, the hexameron – consists of a hundred novelle about cuckolds, randy friars, acquisitive merchants, foolish painters and lascivious abbesses, with the odd tale of shipwreck, tragic love or noble love thrown in. They are related by a merry band of ten young Florentines who meet during the plague in a church appropriately called Santa Maria Novella and decide to leave the city, its thieves and its dying friars, and gather in the Tuscan countryside.

The novelle which they relate have sources and analogues in a variety of genres: French fabliaux, highfalutin romances, novellini or tiny tales, as well as Dante and Ovid. The stories rebuild the relationships, scams and interconnections – literary, economic, sexual – which hold the normal world together, and range in setting from the back streets of Florence to Constantinople and beyond. Boccaccio spent his early years in Naples, where he worked for the Florentine Bardi bank until around 1341. The Angevin kings of Naples gave a French slant to its culture. They also allowed merchants and bankers from Genoa, Pisa and Florence regular access to the court and its libraries. In Naples Boccaccio could spend his days with those who travelled and traded throughout the Mediterranean basin, and also mingle with scholars and noblemen at court. This milieu generated the extraordinarily fluid social commerce of the Decameron. Classes mix through trade and sex. Vagrants drift to Candia (the old name for Heraklion); exiles have dealings with the sultan; the implausibly beautiful lady Alatiel finds no fewer than nine lovers, from merchants to princes, in locations ranging from Majorca to Smyrna. There are even brief glimpses of Northern Europe. The fortunes of three spendthrift brothers are revived when their agent meets a helpful abbot who turns out to have ‘two round and firm and tender little breasts’, and who reveals herself to be the daughter of the king of England.

The Decameron is full of rumpy-pumpy – that’s what we know about it. A man pretends to be deaf and dumb so that a whole convent can sleep with him without fear of discovery. A woman persuades her husband to get into a tub and clean it out. As she leans over the side to yell at him, her younger lover ‘satisfied his youthful ardour’ in ‘the same manner as wild horses on the broad fields of Parthia’. A hermit shows an innocent girl the ‘resurrection of the flesh’, and claims that his penis is the Devil and that the Devil needs to be put back in Hell, which is to be found in a predictable place. A con artist disguises himself as the angel Gabriel in order to seduce a gullible citizen’s wife.

Many of the tales aspire to the condition of what we now call jokes: they consist of the bare outlines of a memorable narrative, with some dialogue, some topographical description (which usually has a functional role in the stories), and a punchline, or a cuckolding, or an act of revenge. The Decameron was not just the product of a vast number of cultural and mercantile confluences: many of its stories are themselves a kind of transaction, a performance that invites its readers to trade it on, to embroider the narrative and retell it in a new way.

This is the central distinction between a writer of novelle and a novelist. Dickens and George Eliot didn’t produce plots that invite elaboration or which could be sweated down to the skeletal form required for oral delivery. The effect of a 19th-century realist novel is to make a reader feel that all the spaces have been filled, all options already imagined within it. The novella in its early form is paradoxically much more spacious: it is underelaborated, allowing its readers to fill in its gaps of motivation and description. As a result, Boccaccio’s tales often offend the central post-Romantic, post-novelistic convictions that narratives explain what it feels like to be another person, or that they widen human sympathies. Repeatedly, he puts people in situations that must give rise to complex feelings, but at best he ascribes to his characters one, or sometimes two, of a small palette of primary emotions (lust, pity, rage, wonder). More usually he just lets action speak.

The result can be stories of almost incredible blankness. So Andreuccio of Perugia ventures south to Naples in order to buy horses. He finds a Sicilian whore who invites him to dinner. She pretends to be his sister, and spins him a whole Mediterranean romance about lost fathers and broken families, and cries a lot before sending him off to bed. He undresses, and you might expect him to dream or to think about his newly discovered sister. Instead he finds he needs a shit. He falls off a joist which is balanced across an alley as an improvised lavatory, and falls in the dung. The whore, naturally, takes his money and locks him out of the house. So he takes up with some thieves, who try to wash him in a well, where he gets stuck. Then he’s persuaded to climb into a bishop’s tomb to steal a ring, where he again gets stuck until a group of grave robbers come along, whom he terrifies into letting him out. At the end of the whole story he has effectively exchanged his money for the ring (which he keeps from both sets of thieves) rather than horses. This might just endorse the general view of the Decameron as the epic of the merchant class, which delights in a dirty alliance between deceit and commodity exchange. But the whole tale does more than this. It creates unexplained patterns of recurrence (fallen into shit, stuck in a well, stuck in a tomb) that suggest at once casual parataxis (and then, and then, and then) and patterns of significance (falls into mortality over and over). Andreuccio’s story depends on an exceptionally spare narrative style. There is no time for a hero to reflect about the rights and wrongs of what he does, but the tale gives its readers space to have these reflections for him.

This curious spaciousness in Boccaccio means that there is a repressed novelist’s sensibility buried in his exuberantly cruel novella-ist’s style. To savour the Decameron you have to savour pain; and that means not just enjoy it, but allow yourself to feel uncomfortable about it. And the whole work gradually makes its readers uneasy about watching other people suffer in short spare spurts of fiction. One of the longest tales of the eighth day tells the story of a scholar tricked by a woman he fancies into spending a night out in the cold alone. He responds by tricking her into taking off all her clothes and going up a tower at the height of summer. She does all that. When the scholar sees her naked he feels ‘a twinge of pity’, but ‘he also felt his flesh being roused.’ Instead of acting on these passions he takes the ladder away from the tower so that she has to stay there, naked, in the blistering heat. Her skin peels off and she looks as though she’s been flayed, but he won’t allow her down whatever she says or does. Part of what makes this tale so uncomfortable is its unusual length: the spare narrative of mutual deception is fleshed out with long appeals from the woman to be allowed off the tower, and long speeches in return by the scholar. And as these conversational exchanges add flesh to the skeleton of the tale, so the literal flesh of the lady is scorching off. It’s almost as though the process of padding out a bare narrative by extensive dialogue and argument is itself a source of physical torture. The ladies listening to the tale declare afterwards that the scholar ‘was too unremittingly stern and fierce’.

The queasiness which that tale generates is turned to something like nausea in the very last novella of all. In this story – which, via retellings in French and Latin, became Chaucer’s ‘Clerk’s Tale’ – Gualtieri the Marquis of Saluzzo marries a poor but virtuous peasant girl called Griselda. He tests her devotion by taking her children away and telling her he’s had them killed. She doesn’t protest. He then takes away all her finery and abjures the marriage. She doesn’t protest. Finally he stages a new marriage with a woman who is actually Griselda’s daughter. She doesn’t protest. So he gives her back everything she has lost (including the children) and tells her that he loves her ‘more than anything else’. She is delighted. This is the last novella in the Decameron for a reason. It’s the most extreme example of Boccaccio’s technique of suggesting emotion by refusing to represent it. The relentlessness of the story (the daughter is killed, the son is killed, the marriage is annulled) progressively encourages its readers to ask questions about the spare, underexplained workings of the plot. How can it be that Griselda does not complain? What does Gualtieri think she feels? What does he think he’s doing? And what does she feel?

Boccaccio’s ability to provoke these questions in his readers is the reason he has been central to the history of fiction. Erich Auerbach – in what is still the best essay on Boccaccio’s style – argued that he was great at evoking the elisions and indirections of conversation, but that he could not do tragedy. That’s not quite true. Boccaccio’s great art is to make his readers want to supply the tragic emotions that he does not directly represent. It’s not so much negative capability that he displays as negative sentimentality, an ability to withhold so much emotion that his readers are driven to supply it. And that desire to supplement or correct the Decameron is apparent in the very earliest stages of its reception. Boccaccio’s friend Petrarch wrote a Latin version of the Griselda story in which the inexplicably cruel Gualtieri is implicitly identified with God, whose short-term impositions of suffering are offset by his amazing ultimate grace. Later readers generally responded to the tale not by allegorising away its unstated motives and emotions but by elaborating them. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and indeed all the explorations of the inner lives of suffering low-born heroines which were the staples of the early English novel, are among the offspring of Boccaccio’s account of Griselda. The Decameron generates the novel in the form of anticipatory nostalgia: Boccaccio seems not just to be insensitive, but to be actively cancelling out of his fiction a novelistic inwardness which hasn’t yet been invented. The bare bones, punchline-driven form of the novella invites its readers to supply the compassionate inwardness in which Boccaccio himself so pointedly fails to indulge.

Novelists are not the only ones who have responded to him in this way. In the fifth tale of the tragic fourth day Elisabetta falls in love with Lorenzo, who is the steward of her merchant brothers. The brothers discover the affair, and they kill the lover in the woods. Lorenzo’s ghost reveals where he is buried in a dream, and the girl tries to salvage his body, but can’t carry it home. So she ‘took a knife and hacked the head from the body’ and hides the head in a pot in which she plants (we are told) ‘the finest basil from Salerno’. Keats made this tale into ‘Isabella, or the Pot of Basil’. He turns the brothers from merchants into capitalists who exploit the poor in ‘noisy factories’, and he allows the practical grief of Elisabetta (if you can’t carry your man’s corpse home then you chop off as much of him as you can handle) to explode into gothic sentimentality. But Keats has nagging at the back of his mind a respect for what he calls ‘the simple plaining of a minstrel’s song’, which makes him uneasy about his own full-on elaboration of Boccaccio’s story. That mixture – an almost uncontrollable desire to add emotion to the novelle, combined with awe at the spareness of the original tale – is exactly the complex of responses Boccaccio produces in his post-Romantic readers. He makes you feel that something is missing that you have to supply, a softness, a register of emotional complexity, something that goes beyond the hard economy of pain and sex exchanged for money. But at the same time he implicitly rebukes you for supposing that his tales could be told in a way that was both fuller and better. He produces tragedies in three pages that seem to have hidden within them complete tragedies in five acts. He does this by repeatedly producing an almost brutal bathos that suggests unlimited pathos. So when Capestang’s wife discovers that she has been tricked into eating her lover’s heart she ‘let herself fall backwards through a window’ and ‘was not merely killed but dashed to pieces’. That’s so brutal you want to rewrite it, to give her some delicacy and dignity; but it’s also of such cruel spareness that it defies rewriting.

All this makes Boccaccio extremely difficult to translate. Indeed it might make one wonder if translation is the right kind of thing to do to the Decameron. There’s no style that can quite match up to its combination of carefully subordinated clauses with occasional bursts of monosyllabic simplicity, although I sometimes think it sounds a bit the way that Cicero would have talked in the pub. When this style is translated into English (and England was unusual in having to wait until 1620 for a translation of all the tales) it can sound very wrong. The clausal pile-ups followed by dry punchlines can seem by turns mannered and brutal, especially if, as J.G. Nichols generally does in this new version, the translator painstakingly follows the sentence structure of the original. His translation sounds too rigidly on duty. It sometimes marches when Boccaccio is dancing, and sometimes is just plain flat when the original is viciously simple. Much the same might be said of the very good Penguin translation (though the excellent introduction by George Henry McWilliam makes it clearly a better buy than this book) and, for that matter, of the more sprightly Oxford World’s Classics rendering (by Guido Waldman). Boccaccio is close to being untranslatable, and this is largely because his textual culture was not a literal translator’s culture. He wanted his readers to be unsettled by the Decameron into retelling his tales. He actively wanted them to embezzle and enamel his fictions. As a result what he really deserves is not yet another solid literal translation but a more imaginative engagement – a retelling of his tales, or perhaps an anthology of past retellings, since these reveal more about what it’s like to read Boccaccio than any translation could.

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