Books

Book Review: The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

The DecameronTitle: The Decameron
Author: Giovanni Boccaccio
Translator: Guido Waldman
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Date: 2008 (1353)
Genre: Classics / Novellas
Summary: In a country villa outside the city, ten young noble men and women who have escaped the plague decide to tell each other stories. Boccaccio’s skill as a dramatist is masterfully displayed in this virtuoso performance of one hundred tales, vivid portraits of people from all stations in life, with plots which revel in a bewildering variety of human reactions. Themes are playfully restated from one story to another within an elegant and refined framework.


Decameron BodelianThe Decameron is a collection of novellas written by Giovanni Boccaccio sometime between 1348 and 1353. It was originally written in the Florentine dialect of Italian and wasn’t translated into English until 1620, and even then it was only a partial translation. The Decameron is structured as a frame story containing 100 tales told by a group of young women and young men sheltering in a villa outside Florence to escape the Black Death. The various tales of love in The Decameron range from the erotic to the tragic, with life lessons and practical jokes mixed in.

I had so much fun reading this! The book is set over ten days and each day has ten stories, one from each of the people sheltering in the village, which made it so easy to read. I just read one day’s worth of stories per day and ten days later I was done. The single stories are very short and range from love stories to stories of death, with a lot of inappropriate humour thrown it.

I loved the individual styles of each storyteller and many of the stories were incredibly entertaining! I think my three favourites are:

  • Alibech, Turning Hermit, is Taught by Rustico, a Monk, to Put the Devil in Hell, and Being After Brought Away Thence, Becometh Neerbale His Wife (day three, story ten)
  • Lisabetta’s Brothers Slay Her Lover, Who Appeareth to Her in a Dream and Showeth Her Where He is Buried, Whereupon She Privily Disinterreth His Head and Setteth it in a Pot of Basil. Thereover Making Moan a Great While Every Day, Her Brothers Take it From Her and She For Grief Dieth a Little Thereafterward (day four, story five)
  • Gianni Lotteringhi Heareth Knock at His Door by Night and Awakeneth His Wife, Who Giveth Him to Believe That It Is a Phantom; Whereupon They Go To Exorcise It With a Certain Orison and the Knocking Ceaseth (day seven, story one).

Decameron illustratedAlibech is the most obscene tale in the Decameron so, of course, it’s one of my favourites. Alibech meets a monk, Rustico, who claims that he will teach her how to please God better. His way of ‘pleasing God’ is to have sex with the naive Alibech but it backfires as she becomes more enthusiastic about putting the Devil back into Hell (having sex) than Rustico, which almost ruins him. She’s kidnapped, much to the monk’s relief, and is forced to marry Neerbale who she continues to please God with. Dioneo always tells the last and most bawdy tale of the day but this was his best story!

I recognised the story of Lisabetta from John Keats’ narrative poem Isabella, or the Pot of Basil which meant it was familiar to me and I enjoyed reading Keats’ inspiration and Gianni Lotteringhi amuses me because the ‘phantom’ in the story could be a ghost or, apparently, a supernatural cat monkey creature. They’re both very weird stories but I enjoyed reading them.

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As for this particular edition, I liked that the translator took his own approach to the book. Boccaccio originally included small summaries of each story to ensure that modest ladies wouldn’t be caught unawares when reading the dirtier ones but Waldman acknowledges that, nowadays, we don’t like ‘spoilers’ so his own summaries of the stories were spoiler-free. It’s just a little touch of personality from Waldman and it helps to make the book more enjoyable for readers today. I really liked the translation because it was engaging and fun. I can’t compare it to any other translations but I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book!

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Decameron. In some ways, it reminded me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales but I actually enjoyed this more than Chaucer! It’s fun but tragic with a lot of sex thrown in, and it’s all framed by the idea that these storytellers are sheltering from the plague. What’s not to love?

(Wordery | Goodreads | OUP)


Images:
First image – Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
Second image – Photo: © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Read as part of the Classics Spin #22 and the Classics Club Challenge. This post does not contain affiliate links.

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