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The Joy and Malice of It All

Decameron

by Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by John Payne, revised and annotated by Charles S. Singleton
University of California Press, three boxed volumes: 949 pp., $145.00

We used to have a splendid scenario, no less picturesque than emotionally satisfying, to explain the abrupt appearance of the masterpiece from which Italian prose takes its rise. It ran about as follows:

The Decameron resulted, like life itself, from a hundred different coincidences coming together in one explosive accident. There was the tremendous chemical soup of medieval narrative, steamy but inchoate, mingling indiscriminately classic myths, folk narratives, saints’ lives, dirty jokes, oriental fables, pulpit moralities, fertility rituals, knightly romances, sacred legends, French fabliaux, epic cycles, scraps and tags from every corner of the Mediterranean and beyond. There was a language, Tuscan, just taking literary form behind the giant reputations of Dante and Petrarch. There was a frustrated poet, outcast and illegitimate, forced to work in a sordid business environment, but touched, at just the right moment, with the magical love of a princess.

Boccaccio, as the story goes which he (never too explicitly) hinted at, won the love of Maria d’Aquino by telling her stories. That lit the spark. She was a bastard like himself, but of Robert the Wise, king of Naples. It was at Naples, in the church of San Lorenzo of the Franciscans, on Holy Saturday, March 30, 1336, that he first laid eyes on her. While it lasted, their love was the glory of his existence; its ending was a wretched, heart-wrenching experience, the unhealed agony of which still speaks through the forced tranquillity of the “Proem” before the great book itself.

Before Boccaccio did so, Dante in 1274 and Petrarch in 1327 had experienced the transcendent vision in the person of a girl. But Beatrice and Laura come to us trailing the mists of allegory. Boccaccio presents Fiammetta (his cover-name for Maria) as the very reverse of a literary pretext; she was a flame all right, and the aspiring writer was not only terribly burned by his love for her, he devoted years to his recovery.

First he wrote several direct prose accounts of his unhappy affair; then, undeterred by his own half-recognized incompetence at verse, he wrote immense, ambitious, allegorical vision-poems, still on the same theme. Later, his cure took the form of recounting the miscellaneous but generally jocose stories of the Decameron, in order to bring to others (lovesick ladies particularly) the same consolation that a good friend had brought to him. A final jolt was given to his imagination by the devastating Black Death of 1348, which is the explicit setting for the Decameron, and which profoundly stirred the artistic conscience of Boccaccio.

The world of the stories is imbued with that high-strung, semi-hysterical democracy of the epidemic, in which anyone can be a carrier, anyone a victim, any moment one’s last. More catholic than the Church itself, the bubonic plague, by oppressing the civilized world with the sense of instant mortality, authorized the kinds of grotesque license fantasized in those wild dance-of-death sequences which became familiar throughout Europe. Hence, in the pages of the Decameron, the casual freedom of society ladies like Elissa, Phylomena, and Pampinea in reliving the deeds of squalid rascals and unsavory scoundrels like Fra Cipolla and his servant Guccio Imbratta. Somewhere in the background must have lurked the thought that for the precarious present they were all in it together.

Unhappily, the most dramatic elements of this story of a story are now no better than unlikely possibilities, perhaps mere fabrications. Recent scholarship has faded Boccaccio’s illegitimacy to a figment and the existence of Maria d’Aquino to another; the books about Boccaccio’s first ecstatic, then miserable, affair with her must, accordingly, be literary exercises. Diverting and consoling ladies is not the motive behind the Decameron—that too is a mere pretext. The description of the plague in the “Introduction to the Ladies” is woven of whole cloth, because Boccaccio was in Naples, not Florence, at the time of the plague. His celebrated “realism” is largely a circumstantial façade. To the limited extent that the Decameron is a “new” book at all, it is new in applying a thin wash of local color to essentially medieval materials. So no “explanation” of the Decameron is necessary because there is very little left to explain—except, possibly, why the book has continued to be read and enjoyed to this day.

That seems to be rather a large exception. Not very many fourteenth-century books retain a contemporary interest, and the major rival that comes to mind, the writing of Geoffrey Chaucer, itself draws liberally on Boccaccio’s originals. The simplest of explanations, that the Decameron has had a reputation as a dirty book, might have carried some weight in Victorian times. (Who could resist reading a book that my old Encyclopedia Britannica advertises as exhibiting “a coarseness and indecency of conception and expression hardly comprehensible to the northern mind”?) But in our more liberal and literal twentieth century, what prurient interest can the ancient Decameron gratify? The book is not passed furtively under the counter; neither has it disappeared into the scholarly journals and the classrooms.

Professor Singleton’s new version of John Payne’s 1886 translation, segregating the notes in a separate and unequal volume, does not sully the pages of the text with a single superscript. If there are any lovelorn ladies left around, they can enjoy the stories without pedantic interruption; so can the rest of us. In ease of access and directness of appeal, in its frank mingling of joy and malice, the Decameron is exceptional among books of its day, perhaps among books in general. Maybe it just happened so, without a cause; maybe speculation will want to tug further at the old question of Why? There is a kind of dry-as-dust scholarship that, in bringing us down to the merely demonstrable truth, kills the last vestige of our interest in a once-fascinating work of art. So far, the Decameron still resists.

Whatever the feelings Boccaccio brought to the stories, their character is distinctive and vivid. Cleverness is the quality most celebrated in the actors. Outwitting the guardians (church, husband, father, king; the old, the stupid, the official, the impotent) is the major theme; forbidden sex and plenty of it is the bait. Merchants, gentlemen, younger sons, gay blades, and people vaguely described as “of good family” generally take leading roles—peasants occasionally, but not as a rule. Among the clergy, those who are clever pursue sex as avidly as anyone else, the simple are victimized by sharp players of the game, only hypocrites pretend to take ecclesiastical prohibitions seriously. (A peculiar expurgated edition appeared in 1573, with the basic stories unchanged but the clerical figures all altered to lay persons.)

After vigorous sex, a major value in the stories is lots of money; the successful trickster returns home with a big jewel, a fat purse, a handsome income. A laborer who by deceit has got himself a job in a convent serves long and hard as stud to the nuns. Worn out at last, he is dismissed with a good fortune which he describes complacently as the reward of those who cuckold Christ by enjoying his brides. Though the clergy are generally represented as grasping and hypocritical, even they may, by unusual displays of impromptu verbal ingenuity, emerge as heroes of their tales (day 6, story 10). The locale of the stories is almost always named, though generally uncharacterized; the actors come from specific towns or districts, and though they sometimes travel widely, ordinarily go to known or knowable places. Pagans are not sharply distinguished from Christians. One story concerns the Sultan of Babylon’s much-exercised daughter, who copulates from one end of the Mediterranean to the other; Saladin makes an appearance, Nathan and his neighbor Mithridanes live somewhere on the road to Cathay. But there is no more effort to distinguish Moslem from Christian mores than to distinguish the various cities.

A couple of stories take their heroes to a very indistinct England, France is not very different from Italy, Germany barely exists. Two stories of monstrous cruelty (day 4, stories 1 and 9) have knightly settings, with a Norman prince and a Provençal knight as villains; but story 5 on the same day, equally monstrous, has a bourgeois setting and Italian villains. There are no ghosts, witches, spells, talking animals, or supernatural manifestations. Many of the stories are as tough, fast, funny, and brutal as a good vaudeville routine—and develop character about as complexly.

About the new edition, there is good news and bad. Physically, the three boxed volumes are a delight. The typography is spacious, the design clean, the apparatus available but utterly unobtrusive. Professor Singleton is the most distinguished Italianist of our day; his emphatic approval gives to the Payne translation a cachet it has never enjoyed before. He has, moreover, been able to work with a manuscript of the Decameron written in Boccaccio’s own hand, but only recently identified as a holograph. It is not the first handwritten version of the book, by any means, but the experts are sure it is in Boccaccio’s hand, and that he copied the book out relatively late in life. A page of this manuscript in facsimile and a delightful baker’s dozen of illustrations, again in Boccaccio’s own hand, are included in the present edition, as they were in the 1975 “edizione diplomatico-interpretativa” of the entire manuscript, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. What we have here in the new California edition should therefore be, for years to come, the definitive version of the Decameron in English.

But there are some peripheral problems in the relation of the Payne/Singleton text to the holograph and to the mode of current literary English. In John Payne’s day, the manuscript was not even suspected to be in Boccaccio’s hand; he worked from several printed editions, comparing and cross-checking them, but he did not consult the holograph (it is known as Hamilton 90), which lay undisturbed in Berlin. Professor Singleton in checking over Payne’s translation corrected it, how extensively we cannot really tell, but certainly in some passages, to conform with the holograph. He made thousands of other changes and corrections in the translation, most of which have less to do with textual readings than with English equivalents—of these more later. The holograph itself, we are obliged to note, did not pass unscathed down the centuries. There are three major gaps, one comprising the Proem and the first part of the “Introduction to the Ladies,” another comprising most of the stories told on the seventh, and the last most of the stories told on the ninth day.

Boccaccio himself made corrections on his copy; it does not appear that he seriously proposed to write out an editio ne varietur. Since his day, some six other distinguishable editors worked at different times on the manuscript. Occasionally they were bound to write over passages that were becoming, or had become, illegible; what they wrote in many or may not have been Boccaccio’s authentic words. So it is not just a question of copying the holograph in preference to any other version; the problems of using it are many and complex. But in these three volumes there are only intermittent indications of where or in what way this precious manuscript was used.

This brings us to the question of the Payne translation. Payne was an admirable linguist and a most careful workman; but he worked during the 1880s when the Lang, Leaf, & Myers Iliad was the latest word in Homeric translation, and like those translators he was a passionate archaizer. This is most evident in the matter of diction. I don’t find an actual, breathing “eftsoons” in his translation of the Decameron, but of the special diction known vulgarly as “eftsoonery” there’s no lack. Professor Singleton has been much exercised to tone it down. He has converted almost all the “thee’s” and “thou’s” to “you’s,” with a concomitant elimination of “seest,” “askest,” “beest,” and other similar tongue-twisters.

But this is only the beginning. A random sampling of the other changes he has imposed on Payne’s rampant archaizing includes the following (Payne’s original first, Singleton’s modification next): “Uneath is it” = “It is difficult”; “when-assoever” = “whensoever”; “an it be not unspeakable” = “if it be not a secret”; “nightrail” = “gown”; “no otherwhat” = “no other than”; “liefer” = “sooner” (i.e., “rather”); “on such wise” = (sometimes, but sometimes not) “in such a way”; “furnished her due” = “served her turn”; “Himseemed, moreover” = “It seemed to him, moreover”; “debauched her with money” = “greased her palm”; and “The lady, who was pitiful” = “The lady, who was compassionate.” It’s not likely anyone will doubt that most of these changes are for the better, some even indispensable. But there are a great many of them. A rough estimate would be somewhere between twenty-five and thirty-five modifications of Payne’s translation per page of Singleton’s revision.

Still, plenty of archaisms have survived the pruner’s knife. Some of the more striking that remain are “gainsayed,” “lovesome,” “amain,” “anent,” “needs must I go,” “yestereve,” “for the nonce,” and properties like a “rouncey,” a “ptisan,” and a “clary”—delightful, no doubt, to the specialist in Middle English, but accessible to others only through constant reference to the OED. As for the effect of this diction on the dramatic life of the stories: says Ghismonda with cool dignity to her father (day 4, story 1), “I am nowise minded to seek to render your mansuetude and your affection favorable to me.”

What, then, are the qualities of Payne’s translation that entitle Singleton to hail him (in words of which he knows better than anyone the transcendent implications) as “il miglior fabbro“?1 Here we come up against the fact that Boccaccio’s prose is not consistently like what we have come to think of as normal, good English. His sentences are often long and allusive; they are more periodic than we think natural—that is, they hang the verb at the end of the sentence, often separated by a couple of loosely attached subordinate clauses from its controlling subject. The author does not try all the time to be simple, straightforward, clear, colloquial. For example, on day 2 in story 6, a mother reduced by multiple misfortune to a menial position is asked how she would like to have her elder son restored to her and married to the lord’s daughter. She answers, in the Payne/Singleton version: “Of that I can say to you nothing other than that, could I be more beholden to you than I am, I should be so much the more so as you would have restored to me that which is dearer to me than mine own self.” This is improved by the elimination of a “no otherwhat than” from Payne’s unaided translation, but it still represents pretty sticky going. The complexity, however, is Boccaccio’s: what the lady says in his original is, “Io non vi potrei di cio altro dire se non che se io vi potessi piu esser tenuta che io non sono tanto piu vi sarei quanto voi piu cara cosa che non sono io medesima ad me mi rendereste.”

Such tangles are occasional in Boccaccio, not the unbroken rule. Calandrino weeping for the loss of his stolen pig (day 8, story 6) resorts to a very different dialect. When Doctor Simone’s wife is scolding her husband for having gone out at night and fallen in a jakes (day 8, story 9), she lays it on thick, heavy, and direct, like a shrew of any age or climate. Here an English translation can come close to a lifelike modern idiom without abandoning the structure of the Italian. But Phylostrato, introducing day 1, story 7, does not speak the English tongue when he is made to say:

The lewd and filthy life of the clergy, in many things as it were a constant target of depravity, gives without difficulty to all who have a mind to speak of it, to strike at it and rebuke it; wherefore, although the worthy man, who pierced the inquisitor to the quick touching the hypocritical charity of the friars, who give to the poor that which it should behoove them to cast to the swine or throw away, did well, I hold him much more to be commended of whom, the foregoing tale moving me thereto, I am to speak and who with a well-turned story….

Here Payne, who in mercy to the reader introduced the word “occasion” after “gives,” is more comprehensible in his 1886 version than in Singleton’s revision. But though the passage has been got out of Italian, in neither form has it come very close to English. And perhaps the best one can say is that its very complexities force one to go slowly, work out the subordinate clauses, and perhaps read the whole thing aloud, before passing on.

Deciding what values to seek in the translation of an old book is as delicate a problem as deciding on the state to which an old picture should be restored. Standards change, expectations shift imperceptibly. Truth to the contours of a Renaissance sentence may leave a modern reader with an impression very different from that of a reader trained to admire the prose of Cicero, not to mention Apuleius. Yet to make all ancient books sound “natural” and “contemporary,” on the score that they sounded that way to their original readers, is to impose an awful parochial monotony on the richness of the world’s literature—as if every earlier writer had been trying to write post-Hemingway American, and not quite making it. There’s as much falseness in making an ancient book sound snappy and colloquial as in restoring an ancient picture to the brilliance of a candy-box cover. 2

On its chosen level of imitation, Payne’s translation of the Decameron holds remarkably close to its original, but it pays a high price, not only in tortured syntax, but in frequent incongruities with modern usage and modes of feeling. When Andreuccio, in day 2, story 5, is threatened by a prostitute’s bully, “roughneck” or “plug-ugly” might be equivalents for gran bacalare, but “bigwig” is not. When he is reunited with his long-lost mother (day 2, story 6), Giannotto, says Payne, “knew incontinent the maternal odor.” He is following Boccaccio exactly: “conobbe incontanente l’odor materno.” Professor Singleton gets rid of the awful incontinence, substituting “at once,” but leaves the odor, for which any number of evasions or substitutions are available. Why dodge it? Simply because, as a result of advertising campaigns, body odor has come to mean something different from what it meant in the fourteenth century; and that sort of difference the faithful translator ignores at his peril.

Being unmarked by superscript numbers, unclear words or expressions in the text may or may not be explained in the separate volume of annotations. This results in occasional fruitless excursions to the other volume. On the other hand, many items of common knowledge find a place. We find explanations of Cornwall, Marseilles, Calais, and Antwerp; the Arno is defined as a river that flows through Florence. Fast days are days appointed by the Church for fasting, and the Lord’s Day is Sunday. Occasionally the editor is found annotating the translator’s archaisms. (If they were strange enough to require a note, one wonders, why not change them in the text, as so much else was changed?) A few of the notes explain passages where the holograph proved useful, a few others indicate passages where the actual meaning of the text is unclear.

Payne himself was relatively conscientious in pointing out passages where the many complexities of Boccaccio’s prose left the plain sense of his text in doubt. (See, for instance, his extended note on the opening passage of day 4, story 2, which aims to give “some idea of the difficulties which at every turn beset the translator of the Decameron.”) To these matters the new edition pays little attention. Its best work, and here it is very valuable indeed, is in explaining the historical backgrounds, the local allusions, and the insider’s jokes, of which Boccaccio was so fond. Probably the most feasible way of using the annotations is to read a particular story straight through, and only then turn to the notes for explanation of particular passages.

For Professor Singleton is absolutely right in seeing the brio and energy of the storytelling as the supreme reward of reading the Decameron. Perhaps we need look no further than that for the reason why Boccaccio, almost twenty years after writing the book, took the pains to copy it all out on the vellum sheets now known as Hamilton 90. Old, poor, unhappy, and alone, he must have delighted in the sheer gamesome audacity of his youthful storytelling, as we still do. Whether he thought of Maria d’Aquino as he sat copying, or of some other lady, or of none at all (most unlikely that), we may never know for sure. But that these ten imaginary days in a flowered garden outside Florence were the sunshine of his life, there’s no doubt. His gift for relishing the fun, the absurdity, the malice, yes, and the very smear and filth of life, is what makes his work live today. If we cannot explain its origins or define precisely its nature, at least we should not lose sight of the new energy that in this book rose as from the earth, common and confident.

  1. 1

    About Payne (1842–1916) there is nothing in the DNB; his posthumous Autobiography is very rare, but there is a biography by Thomas Wright (Unwin, 1919). Payne, by his own account, taught himself over a dozen languages by the time he was twenty-five; before he was twenty-one, he had translated The Divine Comedy, Faust Part II, and much French verse, including poems of Villon, very well received in France. Most of his translations were published by private presses of his own founding; in addition to translation, he wrote much original verse said to be of a badness. Around the turn of the century, he came to the attention of a Mr. Tracy Robinson of Hollywood, California, who provided welcome patronage. Payne founded the Villon Society; his biographer-to-be founded the John Payne Society. Clearly il miglior fabbro was an extraordinary man, who should be better known.

  2. 2

    Some readily available modern translations of the Decameron are:

    1) That of Frances Winwar (1930, now in Modern Library): it is fluent, colloquial, and very readable—hence often untrue to Boccaccio in his more elevated and intricate moments.

    2) That of Richard Aldington (also 1930, now in Dell’s Laurel Editions): it is curiously wooden and often inaccurate.

    3) That of G.H. McWilliam (1972, now available in Penguin): it is strong, various, and imaginative—as a translation, it is on a par with number four, that is, very good; but the coloring is more British than American. (“Crikey!” says a surprised Ferondo in story 8, day 3.) The long, careful, and informative introduction is a particular feature.

    4) The most recent version, by Mark Musa and Peter Bondanella, first appeared in part in 1977 as a Norton Critical Edition, which included twenty-one of the finished stories along with critical essays and other explanatory material. A complete translation was published by Mentor in paperback in 1982, and by Norton in hardcover the following year. The transatlantic tone is evident from story 2 of day 2 when Rinaldo is made to say, “I’m the old-fashioned kind of guy who calls them as he sees them.”

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