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What Did the Decameron Do?

To the Editors:

In the April 25 issue Tim Parks reviewed Virginia Brown’s translation of Boccaccio’s Famous Women. At one point he has this to say:

Profane writing is OK, they [the older Boccaccio and Petrarch] eventually decide, so long as it is instructive, educates the young to serve the polis, and turns the soul to beauty and truth.

But is this what the Decameron had done? Some critics, notably the American scholar Robert Hollander, have worked hard to convince us it had. The task is beyond them.

Now it is nice to be noticed, but it is nicer to be understood. Mr. Parks is better at the former. Perhaps his information about my work is at second hand, for one cannot account for this view of it from what I have indeed written. In Boccaccio’s Two Venuses (Columbia University Press, 1977) I experimented with an “Augustinian” reading of Boccaccio’s minor works. (A quarter-century later I would say I did so with mixed results.) However, the Decameron is not a part of that study, except occasionally. But here is something I did indeed say:

First, and most importantly, this is not a study of the Decameron…more resistant to my thesis than the rest of [Boccaccio’s] fiction, and…possibly the most enigmatic text in continental medieval fiction, richly difficult to fathom.

A few years ago, in Boccaccio’s Dante and the Shaping Force of Satire (University of Michigan Press, 1997) I suggested that the Decameron explored “humankind’s inability to be governed or to govern itself in accord with traditional morality.” In other words, Mr. Parks has subjected my view of this masterpiece to gross misrepresentation.

I also note with surprise that Mr. Parks seems to be unaware that the later Corbaccio, the apparently misogynist harangue that he reads as a prudishly moralizing embarrassment to Boccaccio, has been (and, I would suggest, more satisfyingly) interpreted as a spirited joke at the expense of misogynists. Had he looked at my Boccaccio’s Last Fiction: ‘Il Corbaccio’ (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988) he might have been less assured that I was an obdurate promoter of an antique persuasion and discovered that, alas, with respect to this surprising and delightful work, he is.

Robert Hollander
Professor in European Literature
Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey

Tim Parks replies:

I take Hollander’s point as far as the Decameron is concerned. I read his work some years ago and relied on my memory of its gist. Perhaps my thoughts were colored by my recent close reading of his and his wife’s excellent new translation of the Inferno, where the wonderful scholarship of the notes is marred by a bullying and rigid interpretation of the content. (See my review, The New Yorker, January 15, 2001.)

My apologies, then, on that front. How curious, though, that having rightly complained of this slip of mine, Hollander betrays his own carelessness when he suggests that I think of the Corbaccio as a “prudishly moralizing embarrassment to Boccaccio.” On the contrary, I noted this attitude only to attack it. I love the Corbaccio. I recommend it most highly. I quote from the article: “The Corbaccio is ‘the most enigmatic and least attractive of Boccaccio’s works,’ remarks the eminent scholar…G.H. McWilliam. Many readers, on the contrary, will find the book not only intensely enjoyable, but crucial for getting a sense of the relationship between the various parts of Boccaccio’s work.”

I was, of course, familiar with the line that the Corbaccio is merely, as Hollander puts it, “a spirited joke at the expense of misogynists.” However, such a reading is so evidently reductive given the complexity of the work and the emotional investment of Boccaccio’s narrative voice that there seemed little point in expending limited space on it. I had already reflected on the tendency to see the Corbaccio as “a problem” and look for excuses. I thus passed on to what I hope was a more satisfactory though by no means definitive reading that takes into account the farce, pathos, and venom of the work and puts it in the context of Boccaccio’s lifelong fascination with love and women, this in preparation for my consideration of the book under review, Famous Women. What can I do, then, but invite Mr. Hollander to reread that analysis and wonder how he ever imagined that I was belittling the book? Could it be that he stopped paying attention when he saw his name?

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