Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Four days in

As part of my not so secret plan to read most of the world's great literature, I've been making my way through Boccaccio's Decameron, specifically, G.H. McWilliam's translation. I've been called out recently for being too quick to shout overrated when confronted with a classic, but the term seems to fit here. I'll attempt to make my case about my choice of adjective in a bit. For now, I'll pay the book the compliment writers like well to hear: his book is a joy to read. Daniel Boorstin describes McWilliam's version as "colloquial". This is probably the right word, as the book isn't weighted down by abstruse terminology, and has, one might guess, some of the flare of the original, neither of which are assured when dealing with a classical work in translation.

Boccaccio's style is magnificent, and each narrative--considered separately--is wonderfully told. It would be inaccurate to consider the Decameron to be merely an assemblage of short stories, since he weaves an entire narrative, complete with Black Death backdrop, of which the stories are simply the most prominent part. Yet the book does contain a number of what could best be termed short stories. In an age in which Twitter is, at least momentarily, fashionable, it seems out of place to praise brevity. But there is something to be said for authors who keep their stories as compact as necessity demands. The same cannot be said, alas, of the book.

The back of my copy insists that: "With equal felicity [the stories] range over comedy and tragedy, morality and bawdy; and the skill with which Boccaccio matches the style and mood of his prose narrative to the tales and their tellers us as astonishing as the variety of a collection which has often been imitated but never bettered." I'll concede that I've never read a better collection of one hundred stories; but to suggest that the variety is astonishing isn't exactly true. I have six more days to go, but if the pattern continues, he could have subtitled the Decameron: one hundred stories about sex. This is a slight exaggeration, since on occasion the lovers are unable to consummate their affections before being killed in tragic fashion.

Future readers would do well to head the advice of Will Durant that the stories "were not meant to be read in any great number at one time." (The Renaissance, p.38) I've been reading two or three before bed. This seems to work reasonably well, though the feeling of repetitiveness can only be heightened if the reader attempts to digest more than that number at any one time.

To take a page at random, I come upon the third day's third story, in which "a noblewoman of striking beauty and impeccable breeding" who neglects the "beastly caresses" of her husband and falls in love with "an extremely eligible man in his thirties". She cleverly uses a naive friar as the catalyst to attain the object of her desires; their consummation ensures that both "nearly die of bliss"; after which "they slept together no less pleasurably on many later occasions".

Now it might be tempting to excuse my distaste as snobbish prudery, but I don't think this is justified: first, because a good Catholic should never stoop to puritanism, and second, because I actually do like the book. I merely think it's much too much about the same thing. Or, to paraphrase Weezer: I'm tired of reading about sex.

Maybe that's why God invented economic treatises.

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