Thursday, April 2, 2009

Book #31 - The Decameron (Giovanni Boccaccio)

Busy, busy, busy. Sometimes life is like that, and as a result the poor book blogger can't even find time to frickin' read, let alone babble on semi-coherently about whatever he's not reading, all the while hopped up on whiskey and black coffee, just like a member of congress. Between work and my immunology class (I had to file for an extension..what a slacker I am!) and other things, I've had precious little time to read the great books and ponder the meaning of it all. Funny, though, I've still managed time to sneak in the odd martini or two. Hmmm.

Anyway, books. Yep, started a new one, right after "Winesburg, Ohio". Winesburg was such an awesome reading experience, and perfect for the mood I was in at the moment. So on a wave of optimism fueled by the depressing isolation of Anderson's Winesburg, I decided to take my reading back to the late middle ages and tackle Giovanni Boccaccio's "Decameron". Now here's a classic that definitely fits the definition of "stood the test of time". Can't lose, right? The thing was written 650-something years ago...even before I was born! So if it's stuck around that long, it's gotta be the quintessential reading all the books I've read so far put together into one huge volume of awesomeness! Woohoo!

Well, uh, fuck, maybe not. I can't seem to get into this book. I've read about 100 pages out of 750, and it's taken me two weeks. I read it, and I think "Hmmm, I should go do something work on my immunology term paper". Well, actually, it's not that's not Henry James after all, but still, I just can't seem to get it. Allow me to explain.

"The Decameron" takes place in Florence, Italy (before it was Italy) during the bubonic plague. The plague comes to town and is killing everybody, so a group of 7 young women and 3 young men decide to escape town to a villa in the country and hang out until the plague has passed. So when they get there, they need something to do, and since it's the 1300s and TV won't be invented for another ten thousand years, they decide to tell stories to pass the time. They tell ten days worth of stories, and each of the 10 people tells one story per day, so the book is composed of 100 stories framed within the narrative. "Well", you might say, "stories are cool. What could possibly be so bad about reading a book of stories?" Well, I wouldn't say they were bad, it's just they seem, um, not all that engaging to me. And I know that's blasphemy because this is a book that has "stood the test of time". Until my time, that is.

For example: one of the shorter stories is about a guy that has a lot of money, but who is a penny-pinching miser. He's painting his house, and a guest comes over. He says to the guest "I'd like to paint something on this wall that no one's ever seen". The guest says "OK, paint generosity." Ooooh, snap! So the guy feels bad and stops being a miser. And that's it...that's the whole story. Yes, allegorical I suppose, and teaches the lesson "Don't be a penny-pinching miser or people will cut you down". But it's not all that much of a story. Where are the light sabers? The evil overlords? The dramatic car chases? Seems like the standards of what constitutes entertainment have changed a lot since the late middle ages. Sigh. Nonetheless, I continue on, hoping the book will grow on me. And hoping Boccaccio throws in a few alien invasions in upcoming stories, just to pick up the pace a bit.


Viktoria Berg said...

I have always thought (having given this book a try myself) this might be a classic more from a historians point of view. I says something about the times, the way literature has evolved, etc. I´m not so sure it´s really relevant for today´s reader. But perhaps you will get farther and can make me revise this opinion!

Good luck with the rest, and nice to see you posting again!

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

What did you think of the introduction? The description of the plague is, to me, the best thing in the book. The stories after are hit and miss, but I'm pretty sure you'll find more hits as you go along.

A lot of these stories show up again and again. Chaucer borrows, I think, six of them in The Canterbury Tales.

If I have to worry about relevance I might as well shut up shop!

Justin Hamm said...

I enjoyed the Decameron. I'm with A.R.: the description of the plague at the beginning is most interesting--especially for what it reveals about human nature. But there's other stuff that's interesting--Renaissance mafioso, for instance. You don't have to read it cover to cover necessarily; instead, skip around to get a feel for the different stories.

R/T said...

Boccaccio's tales are best appreciated, I think, as exemplars of antecedents of the modern short story. As 21st century readers, we can "enjoy" Boccaccio most when we put him in his proper context (i.e., within his historical period). If we try to read his tales through our contemporary contexts, we might be disappointed. Does all of this mean that I think Boccaccio's DECAMERON is merely an historical curiosity? No. But, in my humble opinion as a university instructor of literature, I think we have better reading experiences when we constantly keep the relevant contexts in mind when reading older canonical authors. Moreover, your reading of short story masters of the 19th and 20th centuries will be enriched by your reading of Boccaccio. That is guaranteed!

Gilion at Rose City Reader said...

This one I read as part of a Great Books class in college and probably appreciated it more for having its relevance explained to me as we went along.

There is a book I added to my "find and read" list that is the Bavarian Decameron, but I added it to the list so long ago that I no longer remember anything about it and now question if is really exists.

Anonymous said...

light sabers? car chases? explosions?

*face palm*

Anton said...

I had the same reaction when I attempted The Decameron in grad school. Couldn't get through it.

This was after I'd worked my way through The Divine Comedy, which was tough slogging at times but mostly enjoyable. Boccaccio seemed a letdown.

I should try it again to see whether the added perspective of 40 years of life makes a difference.