Tuesday, April 29, 2014


In concocting my decade-long reading plan, I divided up a few books over the entire ten years. Among these, the easiest to divide – and the easiest to pick up on again every twelve months – is Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron. The Renaissance master's tome tells the metastory of ten friends hiding from the Plague and regaling each other with stories. Each character tells a new tale every day, and the storytelling goes on for ten days. Thus one-hundred stories divided neatly into ten groups of ten, and I'm reading one "day's" offering every year. This is year 8 of The Plan, so this spring I read the stories from eighth day of the Decameron.

Each year before this one, I've marked one or two of the ten stories as favorites, thinking that I'll give the book an abridged reread sometime in the next decade. But this year, I didn't mark any as favorites. The eighth day's theme of tricks people play on each other leads either to silly pranks a present-day sixth-grader might enjoy (a judge who gets his pants pulled down while speaking, for instance) or to unentertaining cruelty. So I didn't mark any favorites. But I now have a least favorite story from the Decameron. The seventh story relates a tale of revenge. After a woman leaves her would-be lover waiting outside all night in the snow, he gets back at her by leaving her stranded naked for twenty-four hours on a tower without a ladder. In a vignette of a thousand words, this plot might have been amusing. But page after tedious page tells of a long conversation in which the woman pleads for the man to relieve her from her plight of embarrassment, sunburn, and gadfly bites, receiving in return only variations on the theme, "Nuh-uh. You were mean to me, so now I'm going to be mean to you." Nauseating.

This year, as the question went through my mind "Now, why is this a classic again?" I've had to remind myself that Boccaccio is known as the father of Italian prose, bringing to it an elegance in contrast (humorous contrast perhaps?) to the frequent inelegance of his bawdy subject matter. Take this sentence from the story I've been complaining about:
In these days it chanced that a young gentleman of our city, by name Rinieri, having long studied in Paris, not for the sake of after selling his knowledge by retail, as many do, but to know the nature of things and their causes, the which excellently becometh a gentleman, returned thence to Florence and there lived citizen-fashion, much honoured as well for his nobility as for his learning.
The length alone lifts this sentence above the language of street conversations or haggling over the price of beans at the market: seventy words in this English translation, one word for each Boccaccio story I've read over the last seven years. And then the author arranges the words in phrases and clauses that pile up on one another like additions to the buildings on one of Florence's narrow streets. Just consider "as many do," a clause modifying the verbal adjective "selling." That participle then forms part of a phrase explaining the purpose of the studies in Paris, those studies being reported in a clause ("having long studied in Paris") giving the context in time of the main verb, "returned," which waits not only for Rinieri's studies in Paris but even thirty more words before finally appearing. And to what purpose all these layers of complexity? To tell us that the noblest purpose of study is to the know the nature of things and their causes, not to have a commodity to sell. That's a sobering thought for a guy who makes a living teaching, but still more pleasant than thinking about a wearisome story of retaliation.

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