Friday, February 04, 2011

One a day keeps the plague away

The depths of winter always feel like a good time for a project, so I've launched into one: from a beginning as the snow started falling on February 1, and continuing for ninety-nine more days, I'll be reading a story from the Decameron every day.

The Decameron seems like a book I ought to have read long ago-it's right up my alley, a gaggle of stories that is sort of cross between Chaucer and the Thousand and One Nights, with a few more Black Death-inspired digs at organized religion. Yet somehow I'd never opened it, so two days ago I plucked a copy from my shelf--an old Modern Library edition, translated somewhat archaically by John Payne (and dedicated "To my friend Stephane Mallarme")--and dove in.

After a framing account of the descent of the plague on Italy, as gruesome, detailed, and hopeless in its outlook as Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, ten young survivors hole up in an abandoned country house to ride out the infestation. If the Decameron were being written now, they'd get drunk, have some sex, and by picked off one by one by a creatively sadistic madman. Fortunately, Boccaccio decides to have them tell stories instead, one a day from each person for ten days.

The first story is a simple account of a reprobate scrivener on his deathbed pulling the wool over the eyes of a priest, but the joy Boccaccio takes in enumerating the man's catalog of faults overwhelms any intended moral or point, pro- or anti-religion:
False witness bore he with especial delight, required or not required, and the greatest regard being in those times paid to oaths in France, as he recked nothing of forswearing himself, he knavishly gained all the suits concerning which he was called upon to tell the truth upon his faith. He took inordinate pleasure and was mighty diligent in stirring up troubles and enmities and scandals betwen friends and kinsfolk and whomsoever else, and the greater the mischiefs he saw ensue thereof, the more he rejoiced. If bidden to manslaughter or whatsoever other naughty deed, he went about it with a will, without ever saying nay thereto; and many a time of his proper choice he had been known to wound men and do them to death with his own hand. he was a terrible blasphemer of God and the saints, and that for every trifle, being the most choleric man alive. To church he went never and all the sacraments thereof he flouted in abominable terms, as things of no account; whilst, on the other hand, he was still fain to haunt and use taverns and other lewd places. Of women he was as fond as dogs of the stick; but in the contrary he delighted more than any filthy fellow alive. He robbed and pillaged with as much conscience as a godly man would make oblation to God; he was a very glutton and a great wine bibber, insomuch that bytimes it wrought him shameful mischief, and to boot, he was a notorious gamer and caster of cogged dice. But why should I enlarge in so many words? He was belike the worst man that ever was born.
A translator's note calls this, "A 'two-pence coloured' sketch of an impossible villain, drawn with a crudeness unusual in Boccaccio," which suggests to me that Payne may be a bit too serious for my taste. What makes the story a treat is that Boccaccio holds his scrivener to this character: when he discovers he's dying, he opts for nothing but baldfaced lies at his final confession, for, as he says, "I have in my lifetime done God the Lord so many an affront that it will make neither more nor less, and I do Him yet another at the point of death."

Pay attention, Darth Vader: there's a villain you can count on.


  1. "Of women he was as fond as dogs of the stick; but in the contrary he delighted more than any filthy fellow alive."

    An excellent passage, but what's this bit saying? Was he into men, or did he hate women but love sex with them?

  2. I don't know, actually. I meant to point out that phrase but forgot. The only interpretations I can put on it are the two you've offered, and the edition I've got doesn't offer any explanatory note on that line.

    If I remember, the next time I'm in the bookstore I'll see if the Penguin Classics edition has anything to say about it.

  3. I hope you do, I'd be curious.

    I always enjoy your blog, by the way.

  4. I checked out the Penguin Classics edition and there's no help there: the translation of that line is very similar, and there's no additional explanation offered. Grrr.