By Anthony Madrid October 9, 2019 in theparisreview.org
Decameron—that’s a long book. I powered through it this past summer. I was like a self-propelled lawn mower, had to be. I had a lot of big books on my to-do list. Each one of ’em was allotted two weeks and no more.
I “had a good experience” with Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, though I did not love it. I only liked the stuff where Boccaccio speaks in his own voice. That is, I liked the frame narrative and the interruptions. He does that thing medieval writers do: he plays dumb. And I love it when authors play dumb. But 95 percent of the book is devoted to ten young people telling their stories—you know the deal—and those I did not care for.
They’re not good enough! It’s all just a bunch of tricking and fucking and tricking and fucking—and people doing what nobody would do, and saying what nobody would say. The fools (and there are a lot of them) are foolish the way people are in folktales. Like the gardener’s son who piles his money in the yard and waters it, hoping to grow more. (That’s not in the Decameron; I made it up. But it’s stuff just like that.)
I kept thinking: I need some larger portion of these stories to be worth retelling. I should be wanting to get people on the phone. Instead, I’d say maybe two or three out of the hundred are actually good stories. Good enough to regift.
Chaucer, I’m sure you all know, did not agree with what I’m saying here. Except he did. He “regifts” the stuff, all right—but he makes it much better. Chaucer knew what to do with Boccaccio. Chaucer can take anything, no matter how insipid, and make it good.
I remember one time sitting in the car with a friend, and retelling the Wife of Bath’s tale, floor to ceiling (I had just read it that day), and at one point when I paused, my friend said happily and with some surprise, “I’m riveted.” See, now that’s a good story. If the Decameron stories were like that, the book would deserve its reputation.
The temptation is to pin the whole thing on the question of interiority. All of the characters are just ids running around. They have problems to solve. Obstacles. They scheme and prevail. The end. That’s the Middle Ages for ya, right? Nobody except Saint Augustine knew anything about exulting over something other than material success and sensual pleasure. Unhappiness, too, was understood on about the same level. It comes from being cheated. So watch your back.
Yet, listen to this.
Boccaccio—king, ultimate king of anti-interiority, writer of the most famous anti-interior text in Italian—also wrote the most interior text of the fourteenth century, and you’ve never heard of it, ’cuz you’re not Italian. Let me clarify. Boccaccio wrote the most interior text of the 1300s, and you’ve never heard of it.
It’s called The Elegy of Lady Fiammetta. It’s in prose. In modern English, it’s around 120 pages. It’s a “memoir” in the voice of an intelligent, inward-looking, aristocratic woman, who has an extramarital affair and is abandoned by her lover. He goes away, says he’ll be back in four months tops, and never comes back. We never even find out why.
There are other events in the book, but mainly it’s all in her head. Her husband’s a nice guy, her friend. He doesn’t know about the affair. She tries to kill herself. She has millions of theories. She charts her false hopes, her rages, her despairs. And the level of realism is very high. In fact, when I was recommending it to people after I read it in June (right after the Decameron), there were certain people I felt should not be informed of the book’s existence. I felt it would kill them dead.
In fact, no one over the age of sixteen could read this thing without having very bad flashbacks from their own life. Times when you were the abandoned one, times when you were the abandoner. Fiammetta explains in the book that it’s a warning to all ladies against love—and by God, it is that.
Her anguish swells up at the end, unforgettably. She starts talking to the book itself. She does that medieval thing: “So off you, go, little book…” But she says something more like: Go. And don’t be written on nice paper, don’t have a nice cover, because yours is not a nice story. And don’t find your way into the hands of men—you are not for them. And, especially, if ever you should fall under the lamp of the person who has done this to me, don’t let him read you. Stay shut, be mute … unless, by some miracle, it were possible that he could be brought, through these words and pages, to repent. The end.
If you want to see for yourself how realistic it is, get the University of Chicago translation, 1990 (Causa-Steindler and Maunch, translators). And once you’ve recovered from that, you can join my reading group. We’re going to be reading the Elizabethan translation of the book (Bartholomew Yong, 1587) this coming summer.
But pause, for God’s sake, for a second and consider the mystery of Giovanni Boccaccio. Just how is it, somebody please tell me, that the great master of dirty little empty stories that don’t mean jack, could also write this thing, where you don’t even like the narrator and yet your heart gets ripped out anyhow?
The year is 1344, people. And the Black Death is coming up the steps.
Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.