Tales from the plague years
A new translation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Decameron” is reviewed in a recent issue of The New Yorker. The reviewer, Joan Acocella, gives Boccaccio great credit for being among the first to use the language of his time in a complete literary work. Before that, most writers considered Latin to be the proper tongue for serious literature.
Boccaccio lived in the 1300s, mostly in Florence. In the middle of that century, the Black Death swept through Europe, forming the background for the “Decameron.”
The story tells how a group of seven women and three men leave the stricken streets of Florence and establish themselves in a more healthy country estate. They are all of the upper-middle class, with servants and other attendants.
One member of the group is chosen ruler for the day and declares what sort of story shall be told that day. Then, in turn, each of them tells a story on that day’s theme. There are 10 stories per day, going on for 10 days, so, the book has 100 stories of various lengths.
In addition, the book tells something each day about what else the group does and one of the members is asked at the end of the day, to sing a song, which usually ends a chapter.
In reviewing the latest translation by Wayne A. Rebhorn, Acocella in The New Yorker says he condensed the text, leaving out some of the stories and omitting the extra songs and descriptions. She mentions an earlier translation from 1977 that did something similar.
Not mentioned is an earlier unabridged translation by an English writer, Richard Aldington. It came out in 1930, published by Garden City Press. That version includes everything in the “Decameron” that Boccaccio wrote. There is the other activity in addition to the stories, there are the songs and there are a couple of places where Boccaccio interrupted the narrative and addressed himself directly to the readers, whom he assumed were mostly women. Everything is there in Aldington’s version — all 100 stories and the rest.
Acocella is right in saying the book is fraught with sex. While the three men in the party generally relate the most graphic scenes, all of the participants take up the subject one way or another. In the Victorian days, translations of the “Decameron” would be in English until the translation would suddenly stop and the original Italian would appear, usually with a footnote explaining
that the language was too graphic for polite society. Aldington’s version doesn’t do that. It appeared at about the time the works of James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence were being released from censorship.
Few of the 10 characters in the “Decameron” have distinctive personalities. They all laugh, smile, blush and glance at each other in the same way. Perhaps the one with noticeable individuality is the man called Filostrato. He seems to have had a frustrated love affair. At least, when his turn comes for the end-of-the-day song, he chooses one about unrequited love. And when he becomes ruler for the day, he decrees that the stories that day shall all be about love affairs that ended sadly.
The next day, the new ruler asks that the stories that day are to have happy endings. When it’s Filostrato’s turn to tell a story, he half-apologizes for what he put the group through the day before, saying:
“I have been condemned so often by so many of you because I imposed upon you subjects of cruel tales and tears that I think I am obliged — in order to try to repair the trouble I have caused — to tell you something to make you laugh a little.”
And his story does make them laugh a lot.
The “Decameron” is not easy on the clergy. Monks, nuns, friars, priests, bishops — most of them are displayed as either venal or wanton or both. In one story, a man is afraid to send a friend to Rome because he fears he will be turned off by the corruption he will see among the high churchmen. In another story, an abbess who has been in bed with a priest gets up to issue a reprimand to one of her nuns. But in the dark, she mistakenly dons the priest’s trousers instead of her own headpiece, and that brings about a sensation.
Geoffrey Chaucer borrowed often from Boccaccio. One “Decameron” story about a dark bedroom where a baby’s crib is accidentally moved from the foot of one bed to another appears in a very similar version in one of the “Canterbury Tales.”
The New Yorker review speaks of the “Decameron’s” “richness and humor and vital force,” which I think is certainly true.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.