Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Review: ‘The Paris Mysteries, Deluxe Edition’ by Edgar Allan Poe


I’ve known of Edgar Allan Poe for years, even before I had ever read any of his tales. His presence looms over the Gothic genre and not many are able to reach the same level of beauty and darkness. I had read once that Poe was the originator of the detective genre but had never thought to read these stories for myself until Pushkin Press’ new edition came across my computer. Thanks to Pushkin Press and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 3/20/2020
Publisher: Pushkin Press; Pushkin Vertigo
Three macabre and confounding mysteries for the first and greatest of detectives, Auguste Dupin
An apartment on the rue Morgue turned into a charnel house; the corpse of a shopgirl dragged from the Seine; a high-stakes game of political blackmail - three mysteries that have enthralled the whole of Paris, and baffled the city's police. The brilliant Chevalier Auguste Dupin investigates - can he find the solution where so many others before him have failed?
These three stories from the pen of Edgar Allan Poe are some of the most influential ever written, widely praised and credited with inventing the detective genre. This edition contains: 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue', 'The Mystery of Marie Rogêt' and 'The Purloined Letter'.

In The Paris Mysteries are collected the three stories that created the detective genre. You will recognize it immediately. The reclusive genius, his best friend who is just a tad slower, the mumbling detective who tries his best, the outlandish crimes. It feels like coming home, in a way. Since we have been spoiled by countless Sherlock Holmes adaptations over the past few years, I hopefully can’t be blamed for occasionally mistaking Auguste Dupin for Holmes himself. The ease with which these stories flow is amazing when you consider that they are the first. Many authors aim for this, but they also have many examples to follow and imitate. Poe was the first and his talent shines through each of the three stories.

First is ‘The Murders of the Rue Morgue’, in which we are first introduced to Dupon and his companion. They live in joint repose, walking the streets at night and meeting no one. Until, that is, a gruesome and unexplainable murder is committed. I can’t lie, when we got to the resolution I had to put the book down for a second. It was outrageous in the most hilarious, apt way. ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget’, the second story, is fascinating in a completely different way. It is based on the real case of Mary Rogers which took place in the USA, and is moved to Paris in the story. Poe used writing the story to try and understand the mystery of Mary Rogers’ disappearance and death himself. The real crime itself still goes unsolved to this day. The third story is ‘The Purloined Letter’ in which, as the title suggests, a letter is stolen from a high-ranked royal. Elements of it will appear very familiar to Sherlockians, and there was even a film adaptation in which Holmes solves this case.

Poe’s writing in these stories is brilliant, in the way Arthur Conan Doyle’s is, in that he manages to not make it boring when someone rambles on for page after page about minute details. It is still gripping, still interesting to see just where Poe and Dupin will take us. The setting of Paris is also lovely, as it feels appropriately melancholy and beautiful for a Poe story. Furthermore, these stories don’t cut down on the gore of the detective genre. There are slashed throats, blood stains and drownings. Something interesting I read is that the three stories allow Poe to explore three different settings; the streets in the first story, the outdoors in the second, and the private sphere in the third. It’s fascinating to think of the stories from this perspective, as each leads to a different kind of deduction and a different kind of answer. The only potential downside to reading The Paris Mysteries is that the stories were so central to the genre that their elements are now almost too familiar. Thankfully, the first story has an enormous twist that will carry you through all the other elements.

I give this collection…
 
4 Universes.

Fans of Poe will need little convincing to give this collection a try. They are great stories and beautifully presented by Pushkin Press in this edition. If the detective genre is your thing, you have to read the one who started it all!

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Review: 'Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today' by Rachel Vorona Cote

It's hard to walk a fine line between having a personality and being "too much", especially if you're a woman. You're supposed to laugh at jokes, but if those laughs turn into snorts you're out. You should definitely enjoy cooking and baking and fine cuisine, but don't stuff your mouth. And please only let an elegant tear drop down your cheek, not the torrents of tears and snot that might show actual emotion. Since I feel this balance I knew Too Much would be the book for me. Also, how gorgeous is this cover! Thanks to Grand Central Publishing and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 2/25/2020
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Lacing cultural criticism, Victorian literature, and storytelling together, "TOO MUCH spills over: with intellect, with sparkling prose, and with the brainy arguments of Vorona Cote, who posits that women are all, in some way or another, still susceptible to being called too much." (Esmé Weijun Wang)
A weeping woman is a monster. So too is a fat woman, a horny woman, a woman shrieking with laughter. Women who are one or more of these things have heard, or perhaps simply intuited, that we are repugnantly excessive, that we have taken illicit liberties to feel or fuck or eat with abandon. After bellowing like a barn animal in orgasm, hoovering a plate of mashed potatoes, or spraying out spit in the heat of expostulation, we've flinched-ugh, that was so gross. I am so gross. On rare occasions, we might revel in our excess--belting out anthems with our friends over karaoke, perhaps--but in the company of less sympathetic souls, our uncertainty always returns. A woman who is Too Much is a woman who reacts to the world with ardent intensity is a woman familiar to lashes of shame and disapproval, from within as well as without.
Written in the tradition of Shrill, Dead Girls, Sex Object and other frank books about the female gaze, TOO MUCH encourages women to reconsider the beauty of their excesses-emotional, physical, and spiritual. Rachel Vorona Cote braids cultural criticism, theory, and storytelling together in her exploration of how culture grinds away our bodies, souls, and sexualities, forcing us into smaller lives than we desire. An erstwhile Victorian scholar, she sees many parallels between that era's fixation on women's "hysterical" behavior and our modern policing of the same; in the space of her writing, you're as likely to encounter Jane Eyre and Lizzie Bennet as you are Britney Spears and Lana Del Rey.This book will tell the story of how women, from then and now, have learned to draw power from their reservoirs of feeling, all that makes us "Too Much."
In many ways this book is a bit of an inspiration for someone like myself. I like to consider myself a bit of a pseudo-academic, especially since I'm currently nowhere near a university or academia in general. I love reading into texts, analyzing them, figuring out what role they play in our lives today and how they reflect our lives then. Too Much does a lot of that, looking into various Victorian texts, both literary and non-literary, to find out why we still seem to hold true to certain ideas and ideals that were popular then. Aside from this, it is also a blend of research and memoir/autobiography. Carmen Maria Machado released her masterful autobiography, In the Dream House, earlier this year, laying bare how we look at ourselves dependent on the stories we tell and have access to. Vorona Cote does this to a certain extent as well and although her story is perhaps more familiar to many than Machado's, Too Much only occasionally hits similar high notes.

Unfortunately, Too Much left me a little confused at times. The subtitle as well as the introduction heavily prioritize the book's link to Victorian constraints and literature specifically and yet much of the book focuses on different eras and sources, whether it is Jane Austen, pop idols from the 2000s or the movie Heavenly Creatures. Vorona Cote's idea of 'too muchness' never quite crystallized enough for me to take it beyond a hashtag. It's something all women will be able to identify with, but aside from celebrating it there doesn't seem to be a lot we can do with it. Similarly, a lot of the analysis in Too Much is recognizable because it is no longer outrageous. Britney Spears' breakdown in 2008 is no longer a punchline, Angel Clare is hated by everyone and Ramona beloved. Somehow I wish Too Much went further than it does, either dedicating completely to what its subtitle suggests or to being an autobiography.

Rachel Vorona Cote is very passionate and almost uncomfortably honest throughout Too Much. She shares ruthlessly from her past, whether it is her own infidelity or the horrors of being a teenager at a preppy school. Because of this honesty, a trigger warning does also need to accompany this book as one of the chapters, entitled 'Cut', deals with self-harming. It is one of the most autobiographical chapters in Too Much and at times I found myself cringing at what almost felt like the glorification of self-harming. Too Much can be read in such a way that it gives women the go-ahead to be as selfish and self-destructive as they desire. I do not believe this is what Vorona Cote intended. Rather she means to point out that the restrictions we face leave us constantly wondering who we are, second-guessing and repressing ourselves. This is a good message and something to be aware of, but it is also not new. On top of that, books like Too Much sometimes walk a fine line between celebrating women who stand out and are Othered and shaming women who are seen as more compliant. It is a difficult balance and I don't know whether it has been successfully struck by an author yet. At times Vorona Cote veers rather too much towards the latter.

I give this book...

3 Universes!

Overall, I was fascinated by Too Much until I ended up questioning it. I wish that it had gone further in truly assessing what lies behind the restricted behavior and the way it affects different women. Instead it left me with many questions that I'm sure I will be finding answers for over the years.

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Review: 'Warriors, Witches, Women' by Kate Hodges

In my life as a woman so far I have frequently strove to be both warrior and witch, to varying success. In my quest to be thus, I have frequently been in need of a role model, of inspiration. A book like Warrior, Witches, Women would have gone a long way to help me out. Thanks to Quarto Publishing Group, White Lion Publishing and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 3/3/2020
Publisher: Quarto Publishing Group; White Lion Publishing
Meet mythology’s fifty fiercest females in this modern retelling of the world’s greatest legends. 
From feminist fairies to bloodsucking temptresses, half-human harpies and protective Vodou goddesses, these are women who go beyond long-haired, smiling stereotypes. Their stories are so powerful, so entrancing, that they have survived for millennia. Lovingly retold and updated, Kate Hodges places each heroine, rebel and provocateur fimly at the centre of their own narrative. Players include: 
Bewitching, banished Circe, an introvert famed and feared for her transfigurative powers. 
The righteous Furies, defiantly unrepentant about their dedication to justice. 
Fun-loving Ame-no-Uzume who makes quarrelling friends laugh and terrifies monsters by flashing at them. 
The fateful Morai sisters who spin a complex web of birth, life and death. 
Find your tribe, fire your imagination and be empowered by this essential anthology of notorious, demonised and overlooked women.
Hodges displays a wide variety of women, warriors, goddesses and witches in her book. Some of them, lke Circe, I knew, some, like Ame-no-Uzume, were completely new to me. The mythology that comes down to us can be very whitewashed the way that the Grim fairytales were in later editions. No more hacked off toes, no more dancing in hot-iron shoes. Hodges gives us the tales straight up with relish, not hiding away the odder or more unusual parts of mythology. Whether it's the double-edged sword that is Kali or the life-giving gifts of the White Buffalo Calf Woman, each of the women mentioned in Warrior, Witches, Women has left an imprint on a culture or a society. Hodges tracks how their stories have changed and evolved, both for the better and the worse, and what impact they have today.

Warriors, Witches, Women covers 50 different women, goddesses, spirits, messengers, from all over the world who each receive a page or two in which their tale is told. Alongside this are stunning illustrations by Harriet Lee-Merrion. There is a timeless simplicity to them which I found very affecting. I would love to frame these and hang them up in my house. The cover is, clearly, Medusa, and the colourful calm that Lee-Merrion brought to play is beautiful. WWW would make a perfect coffee table book, to be picked up by a little girl or boy, bored of the conversation happening around them. To me, it felt a little bit like a gateway, a first step into reconnecting with some of the mythology we have forgotten or never been told. Here is a whole range of stories, ready to be explored. I took notes, I Googled, and I listened to the songs recommended at the end. By the end of Warriors, Witches, Women I felt enriched and surely there is nothing more you could ask for?

I give this book...

4 Universes!

Warriors, Witches, Women is a beautiful introduction to the sheer volume of amazing myths and legends around women. Let it inspire you to look further and to discover some fo that rebellion and rule-breaking within yourself.

Monday, 2 March 2020

Review: 'The Silent House' by Nell Pattison

I've worn glasses since I was six and being ever so slightly blind has let to plenty of scary moments where I didn't see a bike rushing at me, misjudged the distance between two steps in the dark, or couldn't quite figure out if that shape was my coat or a man standing in the corner of my room. Because of these experiences I was immediately drawn in by the blurb of The Silent House. Thanks to Avon Books UK and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 3/1/2020
Publisher: Avon Books UK
If someone was in your house, you’d know . . . Wouldn’t you?
But the Hunter family are deaf, and don’t hear a thing when a shocking crime takes place in the middle of the night. Instead, they wake up to their worst nightmare: the murder of their daughter. 
The police call Paige Northwood to the scene to interpret for the witnesses. They’re in shock, but Paige senses the Hunters are hiding something. 
One by one, people from Paige’s community start to fall under suspicion. But who would kill a little girl? 
Was it an intruder? 
Or was the murderer closer to home? 
This mystery will keep you up all night – perfect for fans of The Silent Patient and Cara Hunter
What is best about The Silent House is that it took a different approach to the usual crime procedural. Our protagonist, Paige, isn't a police detective or a brother/sister/mother/uncle of the victim. Rather, she is a part of their community, the Deaf community. Paige is called in to interpret for the witnesses at a shocking murder scene. She keeps her ties to the witnesses through the Deaf community a secret for as long as she can, needing to know the details, wanting to be involved. But of course danger lurks around every corner for those that try to get involved. In some ways, The Silent House reminded me of the film Hush, in which a murdered tries to break into a deaf woman's house to kill her. Hush is a brilliant movie because it uses its premise to surprise and shock the viewer in new ways. Similarly, The Silent House allows for a different look at the usual set-up of a thriller while also bringing some diversity to the usual cast of a thriller.

What carries The Silent House for most of it is the intriguing set-up and the freshness of its premise. Pattison chooses a tight-knit community that keeps largely to itself. As such, all the possible suspects and witnesses of The Last House know each other, including our protagonist Paige. This means that with her keen eye she can pick up a lot more than the police may be able to. After threats to her own and her sister's safety, Paige and Anna decide to try and solve the mystery themselves. Some of the choices made by characters in this novel feel at odds with common sense, but it is undeniably a fascinating read. The Silent House is structured in such a way that we follow Paige day to day, but get chapters interspersed that count down to the murder. On the day it all gets we resolved we also reach the chapter that explains exactly what happens. It is a nice way of building up the suspense, even if it did become a bit much that every throwback chapter tried to set up a new potential murderer.

Overall The Silent House is very enjoyable. The pace picks up considerable in the last third of the book, but Pattison builds up her world convincingly. There were a few occasions on which we were told rather than shown, which led to some of the characterization feeling rather weak. I don't want to veer into spoiler territory, but Paige's history is rife with loss and difficulty which affects her in her present as well. All of these things seem to combine to an overwhelming backstory and yet they're only occasionally addressed to explain some of Paige's choices. There's also a very sudden almost-romance which I found very hard to believe in or care about, which was a shame since it was clearly there to heighten the personal drama for Paige. This meant that I wasn't always as engaged with Paige herself, but still found myself intrigued with the resolution of it all. Towards the end I started seeing the twist coming, but it was still mostly satisfying, even if it felt like Pattison tried to tie together every single loose story thread in a single scene.

Although it may sound like I'm nit-picking The Silent House, I read it in a single reading and was engrossed by it. It was a great way to spend a Saturday and it made me see the inventiveness that trademarks thrillers and mystery novels.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

The Silent House is a gripping, quick thriller that introduces its audience to a whole new community. Pattison brings some interesting twists and turns to the story, even if some of it doesn't hold up to closer scrutiny.

Friday, 14 February 2020

Poetry Review: 'The Gates of Never' by Deborah L. Davitt

I don't read poetry often. I had to study it at university and it was my first true introduction to its potential beauty. Unlike many other bibliophiles and wannabe-writers, I have never written poetry myself because I always had a secret inkling that I would be horrible at it. So poetry became something I never explored independently. But now I've decided I should do something about that and I couldn't have chosen better than Davitt's The Gates of Never. Thanks to Finishing Line Press and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this collection in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 10/11/2019
Publisher: Finishing Line Press
The Gates of Never presents speculative poetry by one of the field's rising voices. Erudite without pretension, Deborah L. Davitt's debut collection fuses history, mythology, and magic seamlessly with futurism, science, and science fiction.
“With the Gates of Never Deborah Davitt offers us a sumptuous exploration of the cosmic and the mythic, the historic and the familiar. Her lines hum with memory and imagination, forging a distinctive landscape of voice and omen, whether it’s taking on sea wolves or ancient empires, the mysteries of the human heart or a single leaf. This is a finely-tuned collection for those who dare to dream deeply in a vast cosmos.”
–Bryan Thao Worra, NEA Fellow in Literature.
In The Gates of Never Davitt brings together mythology and poetry, magic and astronomy. There is mystery, there is beauty, there is also some real tragedy in these poems. The collection is split into different "Gates": 'The Gate of Sandstone', 'The Gate of Marble', 'The Gate of Wood', 'The Gate of Steel' and 'The Gate of Stars'. Some of these gates link very directly to the poems contained within them. 'The Gate of Stars', for example, is full of poems dedicated to and inspired by the stars and planets in our solar system. The other 'Gates' aren't always as straightforward, but together they work up to something celestial, as if the poems carry us higher and higher.

One of my favourite poems was 'The Sea-Wolf of Brittany', about a Breton warlord called the 'sea-wolf'. They attempt to tame him through marriage, but betrayed by two brides he abandons human form forever. I think it is a brilliant exmaple of how Davitt brings together history, mythology and, surprisingly, some suspense. The same can be said for poems like 'The Pyre', which is probably my actual favourite poem from The Gates of Never, 'Russalka', 'Jade Mask' and 'Dragon Teeth'.

Another example of how Davitt plays with different themes is 'Storms of the King' from 'The Gate of Stars'. As far as I can tell, it is about Jupiter. Davitt uses the science of the planet to tell a beautiful story in only two stanzas. NASA is full of beautiful nerds who love mythology as much as I do and Davitt has used this to her advantage to combine astronomy and mythology into poems that strike a perfect balance between the two.

As I said above, poetry doesn't often strike a nerve with me. In the case of The Gates of Never, Davitt brought together all my favourite things in order to ensnare me. Of course not every poem will equally strike a chord, but in general this poetry collection has really struck me. The poems aren't traditional, in that they follow a clear rhyme scheme. I don't know enough about poetry to say what it is that it is doing, but it works very well. The Gates of Never feels both ancient and modern, which is a great combination.

I give this collection...

5 Universes!

I loved The Gates of Never which surprised me very much. Each poem draws a beautiful image and Davitt has definitely found a new fan in me. Anyone with an interest in mythology and legend will adore The Gates of Never as much as I did.

Monday, 10 February 2020

The Decameron XI: Thoughts

Final Thoughts - Reading Boccaccio During Corona


It's been ten very interesting days as I saw the narrative around the Coronavirus change day by day, while hiding away in my own apartment with Shanghai's winter sun shining in through the windows. As I wrote atop each post over the last ten days, The Decameron has become oddly relevant to me as I found myself on extended leave because of the Coronavirus. Although nowhere near as deadly as the Black Plague of the 14th century, the fear and suspicion around the Coronavirus was and is very real. I myself have had a relatively good time, thanks to a good employer and a solid internet connection, but I was definitely in need of the diversion Boccaccio could provide.

The set-up of The Decameron is timeless in its simplicity. On the 'First Day' of its story we are introduced to ten youths who hide away in an empty villa while the Black Plague ravages Italy. They decide to tell each other tales to keep them diverted. From the 'Second Day' onward they set themselves a daily theme: gaining fortune after hardship; re-gaining what was lost; unhappy lovelove won; quick wit; cuckolded husbands; general trickery and tomfoolery; a day of free choice; and deeds of great munificence. As the days progress, tales begin to respond to each other, to work up towards a general theme or to rebut a previously made statement. What this adds up to is that it does begin to feel like you're listening to ten friends engage in a back-and-forth. Boccaccio's frame narrative comes alive by the little touches of personality he brings to his characters, whether it is Filostrato's moroseness over his frustrated love life or Filomena's rumored about love life.

The Decameron is set in an idyllic world in which the horrors of the plague exist but can also be escaped by traveling a few hours away. It's a world in which servants are at your beck and call and gardens are luscious and fragrant and evergreen. There are valleys, fountains, daily songs and games. It is a beautiful world, despite its horrors, and this is reflected in the tales as well. They are a riot, full of affairs, pirates, betrayal, conciliation and friendship. Some are erotic, while others are tragic or hilarious. Over the days, I found myself mainly focusing on the gender balance within the tales and within the frame narrative. Seven women and three men, ten tales a day, each covering the actions of men and women alike. Boccaccio addresses the whole Decameron to the "ladies", stating that he wrote it for their amusement and elucidation, as they do not have the same opportunities to divert themselves as men.

The Decameron is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it can be read as a proto-feminist work, highlighting the inequality between men and women. On the other hand it is full of micro-, and macro-, aggression against women. Although they have minds of their own, they still end up the property of men and are still subject to their whims. By focusing on the first, I was always negatively surprised by the latter, for which I am mostly to blame. The Decameron is a medieval work, written in a time when women were treated nowhere near equal to men, legally or socially. The freedom they possess within the tales was not a reality, and yet the tongue-in-cheek tone of the whole book betrays an awareness that this state of affairs is unjust.

At the heart of The Decameron, or so Boccaccio states in his prologue, is the idea of providing comfort and companionship in times of hardship. I get to see the need for and effectiveness of this myself on a daily basis now as everyone here rallies around each other, providing as much support as possible, whether it is a shoulder to cry on or a laugh to distract from the worries. For me, The Decameron has also been a great source of distraction, despite, or perhaps because of, its timeliness. Books, or collections, such as this are a great way to take the mind of other worries and it is no wonder that they remain as popular. Boccaccio took his inspiration from all kinds of French or Italian fables, Greek stories, The Golden Ass, and, of course, Dante's Divine Comedy. What this also emphasized for me was the interconnectedness of Europe's literary history. Many of our stories come from a shared origin. They have been retold, reshaped to fit new times, new places, and in this way they tie different lands and cultures together. Stories are set across Italy, in Greece and in Saladin's court; they cover mostly the aristocracy but also give space to the working classes. Without sounding too cliche, The Decameron is a great reminder of what we all have in common: namely our desire to connect, to share stories and find common ground. The Decameron, written in vernacular prose, became an inspiration and a template for many works that followed it, perhaps most famously Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

I purposefully stayed away from reading too much about the Decameron, whether it was other blog posts or academic papers. I wanted to go into the book without any expectations because I wanted to experience the stories on their own merit. The lovely thing about that was that it did feel as if each day I spent a few hours in the company of others, being amused and perhaps annoyed by them, despite staying mostly in my own apartment. Reading a book such as this in a similar circumstance in which it was created provides a unique window into the work and as such The Decameron will hold a special place in my heart from now on.

Sunday, 9 February 2020

The Decameron X: 'The Tenth Day' & 'Author's Epilogue'

As some of you may know, I currently live in Shanghai, which means that the setting of The Decameron has become beautifully relevant to me all of a sudden. In Boccaccio's collection of tales, seven young women and three young men have hidden themselves away behind a deserted villa's walls to sit out the Black Plague as it ravishes 14th century Italy. While the Corona virus isn't quite as horrifying as the Black Plague (at the moment at least), it has been enough for all of us to be put on extended leave. Hence, I will be spending the next ten days hidden away in my own apartment, desperate to amuse myself and to forget what's happening outside. My tiny apartment may not be a villa and I may be there on my own (+ cat), but it is the place where I will be joining Boccaccio's hideaways.
The Tenth Day & Author's Epilogue

Our cast:

Ladies:                            Men:
Pampinea                        Panfilo
Fiammetta                      Filostrato
Filomena                         Dioneo
Emilia
Lauretta
Neifile
Elissa


We have reached the last day of The Decameron and we end it on a high note with tales of munificent deeds.

The Tales

Image result for The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo
The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo by Marie Spartali Stillman

Our first tale is courtesy of Neifile and she tells of a knight who feels he is ill-treated by the King of Spain. The King takes it in good stead and shows it is his Fortune, not the King, who's to blame. In Elissa's second tale, Ghino di Tacco shows himself to be better than an outlaw, even goading an Abbot into being virtuous. Filostrato's third tale extols the virtues of charity and generosity. Next is Lauretta in which love reawakens a woman, after which her lover kindly returns her to her husband. Fifth is Emilia, whose tale includes a magic garden and unrequited love. The sixth tale is by Fiammetta and shows how a king overcame his love for two 15-year olds. Next is Pampinea with another King, who kindly lets down a girl in love with him. Filomena's tale has two friends switching at the altar before telling off the family and meeting years later again in Rome. Panfilo brings back Saladin who makes a good friend in Italy who he kindly repays after the Crusade. And Dioneo's tenth tale is an exercise in wifely patience in the face of emotional abuse.

Boccaccio ends The Decameron on a high note with these tales of magnanimity. The tales are longer than they have been in other days and each is full of details and, to some extent, filled to the brim with morality. In the first tale a man is kindly rewarded despite being ill favoured by Fortune. The second tale shows that nobility is in the soul, not the job title, and that even priests can be kind. Filostrato's third tale is perhaps the clearest, as a young man named Mithridanes finds himself competing with an elderly rich man, named Nathan, for the title of 'most generous'. When he realizes he will never beat him, he sets out to kill Nathan. Without being aware of it, he meets Nathan on the road and is kindly received and welcomed by him. Upon realizing that what Mithridanes craves most is his life, Nathan instructs him on how to gain it. When they meet on the agreed spot the next morning and Mithridanes realizes what has happened, he repents and they become friends. Although a little overblown, it is a lovely story that may or may not be inspired by Marco Polo's account of Kublai Khan's generosity.

Less lovely is the frequent references to wives and women as objects that a man has ownership over. In Lauretta's fourth tale, a pregnant woman is thought dead and buried. Her unrequited lover sneaks in to steal a postmortem kiss. Upon fondling her he realizes she is alive and takes her home. She is tended to and gives birth. Only after giving a whole speech about how when one finds a discarded servant surely one should be allowed to keep them, does the lover return the wife to her husband. It is considered magnanimous of him that he is not just willing to part with something (read: someone) he loved, but also with something that should technically be his now. It's another one of those tales that reads oddly.


The Story of Patient Griselda
No day can go by without discussion of Dioneo's tenth tale. Apparently this is one of the most frequently retold stories of The Decameron and tells teh story of  a patient wife, Griselda, and a horrid husband, Gualtieri. The latter, upon consenting to being married, chooses a random village girl, Griselda. Although greatly pleased with her, he feels a need to test her patience. First, he makes her believe he has killed their two children. Then, he tells her he has tired of her and will get hismelf a new wife. She returns to her father in nothing but a shift. Finally, he calls her in to clean the palace for his new bride, only to reveal that he has brought home their children from the aunt they were staying with and restores her to her former glory and titles. Surely this is the female version of the Bible's Job. Thankfully it is, of course, told tongue-in-cheek and everyone, in the tale and among the storytellers, agrees that Gualtieri is a horrible person.

The day ends after Dioneo's tale, but not before today's king, Panfilo, suggest that now that they have passed two weeks (10 days of storytelling and 4 days of rest) in the countryside, they should return home. If they don't, it will either raise suspicions about their virtue or, horror above horrors, they may be joined by others. Everyone agrees and then, just like that, they have all gone home and the party is over.
Ghino di Tacco

Fun Fact:

Ghino di Tacco, a main character in the second tale, was Italy's answer to Robin Hood, except that we're definitely sure he actually existed.


The Author's Epilogue

Just as he did on the 'Fourth Day', Boccaccio raises a few responses to any potential criticism he may receive about The Decameron. Some of them are very funny:
'I suppose it will also be said that some of the tales are too long, to which i can only reply that if you have better things to do, it would be foolish to read these tales, even if they were short.'
He also writes a defense of language, saying that a good work will turn bad in a corrupt mind and that surely, despite all the frequent puns, no one could accuse The Decameron or Boccaccio of any illicit or blasphemous thoughts.

Tomorrow I will post my general assessment of The Decameron. Thank you to those who have checked in with me during these ten days. It has really been a great way to both fill my extended Coronavirus leave and fill my mind with beautiful and funny things.

Saturday, 8 February 2020

The Decameron IX: 'The Ninth Day'

As some of you may know, I currently live in Shanghai, which means that the setting of The Decameron has become beautifully relevant to me all of a sudden. In Boccaccio's collection of tales, seven young women and three young men have hidden themselves away behind a deserted villa's walls to sit out the Black Plague as it ravishes 14th century Italy. While the Corona virus isn't quite as horrifying as the Black Plague (at the moment at least), it has been enough for all of us to be put on extended leave. Hence, I will be spending the next ten days hidden away in my own apartment, desperate to amuse myself and to forget what's happening outside. My tiny apartment may not be a villa and I may be there on my own (+ cat), but it is the place where I will be joining Boccaccio's hideaways.
The Ninth Day

Our cast:

Ladies:                            Men:
Pampinea                        Panfilo
Fiammetta                      Filostrato
Filomena                         Dioneo
Emilia
Lauretta
Neifile
Elissa


With Emilia as our Queen, the themes of the penultimate tale are up to the storyteller to choose. And just because it was lovely, here is the opening line:
'The light whose radiance dispels the shades of night had already softened into pale celestial hues the deep azure of the eighth heaven, and the flowerets in the meadows had begun to raise their drooping heads, when Emilia arose and caused the other young ladies to be called, and likewise the three young men.'
The Tales

Image result for the canterbury tales
The Canterbury Tales, which shares themes with TD.
In our first tale, Filomena describes the way a woman got rid of two unwanted lovers by help of a tomb. Elissa follows with a tale involving an abbess and a nun, both in the midst of an affair. Filostrato's third tale brings us back to Calandrino, who is this time convinced he is pregnant. (Spoiler: he is not.) Next is Neifile, in whose tale a man finds himself tricked out of his horse and clothes by a friend. The fifth tale is told by Fiammetta, who also revisits poor Calandrino, who is tricked into pursuing a sex worker, only to be exposed to his wife. Sixth is Panfilo's tale which involved bed-hopping and a fooled husband and father. In Pampinea's seventh tale a proud wife ignores her husband's prophetic dream and is mauled to disfigurement by a wolf. Lauretta follows this with a tale of trickery involving wine and the "whetting of whistles". Emilia's ninth tale takes it back to Solomon and domestic abuse. Dioneo's tale sees a friar enjoying someone else's wife under the guise of turning her into a mare.


As I covered in 'The Eighth Day', we have had a reoccurring cast of characters, Calandrino and his horrible friends, Bruno and Buffalmacco. They pop up again twice today, to slightly more hilarious consequences. With the help of the doctor they fooled in the Eighth Day's ninth tale, B&B convince Calandrino he is pregnant so that he hands over the money he just inherited for a cure. The story is very pro-abortion, in the case of male pregnancy, which is fun. Less fun is the horrible disfigurement of the poor lady in Pampinea's tale. I've noticed that throughout the days, many of her tales have been a little stricter. Perhaps this ties in with her being the oldest and the planner of the whole getaway?

Emilia, the Ninth Day's Queen, opened up to theme of today to anything that the storytellers wished to tell. What this leads to is that we get to revisit the tales from the previous days. As mentioned above, Calandrino makes another appearance, tying in with the previous day. Filomena revisits what we do in the name of Love, as we saw in the the 'Second' up to the 'Fifth' day.  Elissa's tale is of a woman saving herself with wit, which is reminiscent of the 'Sixth Day'. Neifile's fourth tale and the eighth told by Lauretta cover the tricks we play one each other, hearkening back to the 'Eighth Day'. The sixth tale by Panfilo reminds us of the tricks women played on their husbands, as told on 'The Seventh Day'. Dioneo's bawdy tenth tale is reminiscent of the lovely filth we got on the 'Third Day'. It's a nice way to summarize what has happened in The Decameron so far. It refreshes the reader's mind on the topics covered, the jokes made, the naughty tales told.

This summary also brings us back to the double-edged sword that is gender in The Decameron. Emilia's ninth tale begins as such:
'Lovable ladies, if the order of things is impartially considered,  it quickly be apparent that the vast majority of women are through Nature and custom, as well as in law, subservient to men, by whose opinions their conduct and actions are bound to be governed. It therefore behoves any woman who seeks a calm, contented and untroubled life with her menfolk, to be humble, patient, and obedient, besides being virtuous, a quality that every judicious woman considers her especial and most valued possession.'
That's a lot. I will not deny that if you're in a position of social and lawful subservience, going along with it will spare you a lot of trouble. Don't cause a fuss and all will be fine. Since the lady in this ale does not, she ends up beaten so severely that 'there was not a bone nor a muscle nor a sinew in the good woman's back that was not rent asunder'. For days on end we've enjoyed tales about women who did cause a fuss, who did go after what they wanted and tricked whoever stood in their way. The Decameron walks a fine line of espousing the social mores of its day while also reveling in the taboo of breaking the rules. This is also shown in the response to the tale, as some of the ladies murmur but some of the men laugh. Boccaccio is trying to please a varied audience, which means that not every tale will be a hit for everyone.

Now that we've reached the almost end of The Decameron and of my extended leave, I'm almost sad to let it all go. I'm excited to reenter a somewhat normal life in which I go back to the office and work, but I've enjoyed hiding away to a certain extent as well.

Image result for Cecco Angiulieri
Cecco Angiulieri
Fun Fact:

In Neifile's fourth tale, she describes the friendship between two real men, Cecco Angiulieri and Cecco Fortarrigo:
'And whilst they failed to see eye-to-eye with each other on several matters, there was one respect at least - namely, their hatred of their respective fathers - in which they were in sch total agreement that they became good friends and were often to be found in one another's company.'
There's a hilarious footnote to this whole tale about a sonnet written by Angiulieri in which he said: "If I were death, I'd pay a call on my father". They both seem like lovely people, even if both of them, especially Fortarrigo, come out of the tale looking rather dim.


Setting Up the Tenth Day:

Emilia relinquishes her reign and hands the laurel crown to Panfilo as the final day's King. He decides that for their last day, they should return to a theme, namely:
'those who have performed liberal or munificent deeds, whether in the cause of love or otherwise.'
On this last day, we shall focus on high achievements and morality, so that something good  may come out of their escape to the countryside. Do join me tomorrow for our last day.

Friday, 7 February 2020

The Decameron VIII: 'The Eighth Day'

As some of you may know, I currently live in Shanghai, which means that the setting of The Decameron has become beautifully relevant to me all of a sudden. In Boccaccio's collection of tales, seven young women and three young men have hidden themselves away behind a deserted villa's walls to sit out the Black Plague as it ravishes 14th century Italy. While the Corona virus isn't quite as horrifying as the Black Plague (at the moment at least), it has been enough for all of us to be put on extended leave. Hence, I will be spending the next ten days hidden away in my own apartment, desperate to amuse myself and to forget what's happening outside. My tiny apartment may not be a villa and I may be there on my own (+ cat), but it is the place where I will be joining Boccaccio's hideaways.

The Eighth Day

Our cast:

Ladies:                            Men:
Pampinea                        Panfilo
Fiammetta                      Filostrato
Filomena                         Dioneo
Emilia
Lauretta
Neifile
Elissa


Today's queen is Lauretta and her chosen theme is tricks people play on each other.

The Tales

Neifile tells the first tale, in which a woman is tricked into revealing she requested and received money as part of an affair. Her honor is only slightly preserved. Panfilo's second tale follows, in which a priest first leaves his cloak as a pledge and then retrieves it through subterfuge. The third tale, told by Elissa, introduces Calandrino who is fooled into thinking he's found a magic invisibility stone. It is his wife who suffers when he realizes he hasn't. Emilia follows this up with a widow tricking an annoying rector and exposes him to the bishop. The fifth tale is Filostrato's and it involves pulling down breeches. Filomena tells the sixth tale, in which poor Calandrino is once again tricked by those who claim to be his friends. Pampinea tells a horrifying tale of escalating trickery in which a man almost freezes to death and a woman almost dies of sun exposure. The eighth tale is told by Fiammetta of two friends finding a way to maintain their friendship despite sleeping with each others' wives. Lauretta tells the penultimate tale in which the friends of the sixth tale trick another dumb man into wining and dining them through the occult. Dioneo is the last and sees large quantities of money being fought over by a fool in love and a cunning Sicilian woman.

There are a few tales from today that I want to look into in more detail. One of these is the first tale, told by Neifile. Gulfardo wants to sleep with Guasparruolo's wife, only she demands money so she can buy herself something nice. Enraged that she wouldn't do it for the pure pleasure of being with him, Gulfardo sets up a trap in which he borrows the money from her husband, gives it to her, and then, in the presence of both, tells the husband he repaid the loan and gave it to the wife. She has to then relinquish her hard-earned money, but just about gets away without being exposed. The tale shares the sentiment of those of the previous days in which affairs are fine, but getting paid for them is a crime. I find the morality behind that rather shady and it adds to the uncertainty of whether any of The Decameron can be interpreted as being a positive thing for women.

This is also the case with the seventh tale. Widows were apparently hot property in the Middle Ages, irresistible to men. This tale's widow has a lover but still enjoys making other men fall in love with her. She makes one such, a scholar, stand outside in the snow for a whole night, leaving him rather worse for wear. Once he recovers, he constructs a rather extreme revenge when she turns to him for help to regain the affections of her real lover. He has her standing naked on a tower in the midst of July for a whole day, beset by gadflies and getting progressively more burned. Despite her pleas, he refuses to show her mercy since he got none from her. She comes down looking like 'a burnt log' but manages to cover the whole affair up. The lesson is to never toy with a scholar if you're only a feeble-minded woman. Afterwards, the storytellers do agree he was rather harsh but can't deny that she kind of deserved it. It's the casual cruelty in some of these tales that makes the reading less fun. Although, of course, these tales are meant to amuse through their shock-value, the sheer excess of it is still a bit much for most modern readers.

Buffalmacco, the worst friend ever
A few characters pop up in a number of tales: Calandrino, Bruno and Buffalmacco. Calandrino is a fool, and a gullible one at that. In the third tale he is set up to find a 'heliotrope' which would impose magical powers on him. He drags along Bruno and Buffalmacco, wanting to share his good fortune. They know he's been played for a fool and merrily go along, actually convincing him he's found a heliotrope and that he is now invisible. When he gets home and his wife can, of course, see him, he beats the daylight out of her and they're only brought to an understanding when Bruno and Buffalmacco come to save her skin. The same trio appears in the sixth tale, where Bruno and Buffalmacco steal Calandrino's pig after he refuses to sell it for drinking money. They then set up a get together with the whole neighbourhood to find the culprit, only to convince everyone it was actually Calandrino himself. In order to prevent them from telling his wife, they make him buy them off. Not only are B&B horrible friends, these three people actually existed! All three were 14th-century Renaisssance painters. Apparently Calandrino was known to be very gullible, but whether these tales in any way are a reality is up for debate. Personally, I felt rather bad for him after both these tales, although I felt worse for his wife in the third tale.

Fun fact:

In the sixth tale, Calandrino needs to find out who stole his pig. In order to do so, him and his "friends" set up what was apparently a very common Medieval lie detector test:
'So all you have to do is to bring them all together so that I can give them the bread and cheese test, and we'll soon see who's got it.'
Those suspected of untruths would be fed a bread and cheese combo while a magic formula as recited. If they couldn't swallow the mixture, they were guilty. This is the same as the Anglo-Saxon law I was familiar with, corsned, Fun to see how these things made their way through the Middle Ages.

Set Up for the Ninth Day:

Lauretta relinquishes her title of queen to Emilia, telling her that her ruling should be as fair as her complexion is. In order to make sure no one gets overtired from their pastime, she sets no restrictions on their topic. They're free to tell whatever they please, so I'm actually curious to see what I shall receive tomorrow.

Thursday, 6 February 2020

The Decameron VII: The Seventh Day

As some of you may know, I currently live in Shanghai, which means that the setting of The Decameron has become beautifully relevant to me all of a sudden. In Boccaccio's collection of tales, seven young women and three young men have hidden themselves away behind a deserted villa's walls to sit out the Black Plague as it ravishes 14th century Italy. While the Corona virus isn't quite as horrifying as the Black Plague (at the moment at least), it has been enough for all of us to be put on extended leave. Hence, I will be spending the next ten days hidden away in my own apartment, desperate to amuse myself and to forget what's happening outside. My tiny apartment may not be a villa and I may be there on my own (+ cat), but it is the place where I will be joining Boccaccio's hideaways.


The Seventh Day

Our cast:

Ladies:                            Men:
Pampinea                        Panfilo
Fiammetta                      Filostrato
Filomena                         Dioneo
Emilia
Lauretta
Neifile
Elissa


Dioneo is our second storyteller king and today we look at wives who fooled their husbands

The Tales

The first tale is told by Emilia and in it a wive convinces her husband that her lover is truly a 'fantasima', a kind of cat monkey creature, which is how she successfully sneaks him away. Filostrato follows with a hilarious tale in which her husband scours a tub for her lover while he has his way with her. Elissa continues in the third tale where a wife cleverly hides her affair under the guise of curing her son of worms. (It is actually weirder than it sounds.) The fourth tale is told by Lauretta and shows us a husband and wife respectively locking each other out of their house until she so roundly embarrasses him in front of their neighbours that she can do as she pleases from then on. Fiammetta's fifth tale sees a jealous husband disguise himself as a priest and still failing to discover his wife's affair.  The sixth tale is Pampinea's and it sees a wife handling her husband, lover and a pushy man all at once thanks to her wit. Filomena is next and it involved intrigue in gardens and, again, a clever wife. Neifile tells the eighth and most violent tale, in which a poor maid gets beat up instead of her mistress, so the latter can prove that her husband is a horrible person. Panfilo tells the penultimate tale in which a wife has to complete three challenges before succeeding in her affair. Dioneo tells the final tale in which one man returns from the dead in order to assure his friend that sleeping with your godchild's mother in not a sin.
Image result for argos greece
Argos, Greece - the setting of the ninth tale.

It's interesting how cuckolding seems to be a major theme of The Decameron and many medieval tales in general. On the one hand there is this idea that true love should come above all, no matter the marital status or rank of the people involved. This is almost akin to the concept of 'courtly love', except that unlike that medieval tradition, the love here is very much physically enjoyed. Which leads us to the other hand, where it seems that there is nothing enriching, per se, to these tales. What counteracts this last statement is when Boccaccio's characters, enriched and purified by love, become rather philosophical. There is not a lot of that in the tales of 'The Seventh Day' as they mainly focus on the various intrigues and tricks by which the wives get away with their affairs. We have pretend healing, priestly disguises, cracks in walls, fantasima' and pear trees that give carnal visions. There is no denying that the tales are fun and race by, but there is also not a lot to gain from them.

Neifile's tale is the most interesting, even if it is the one that made me cringe the most. A wife has an ingenious system where she ties a thread to her toe, which her lover then pulls from outside to wake her up. One night, her jealous husband discovers this and chases the lover away. While he is out of the house, the wife convinces her maid to take her place in the bed, promising to reward her. This poor made is beaten black and blue and then shaved, before the husband goes to his wife's family house to gather her brothers for another round of verbal abuse. The wife, without a single scratch on her, receives them and regales them with tales of her husband's drinking and raging. Her mother joins in, saying they never should have wed her to a merchant. Everything is settled by the brothers who tell him to not do it again. The husband is so flabbergasted he has nothing to reply and the wife is free to do as she pleases. Thankfully the tale also mentions the maid is nursed to health and handsomely rewarded. The tale plays with class difference, showing the contempt with which the aristocratic families treat the nouveau riche, the merchant class. But what is most astounding is the sheer violence of it and the contempt with which the wife is treated until she can make her case.


Apuleius1650.jpgInteresting Fact:

Today's second tale, as well as a good few from the previous days, was taken by Boccaccio from Lucius Apuleius' The Golden Ass from the second century. The Golden Ass is also known as the Metamorphoses, which should not be mistaken with Ovid's similarly titled work. In this work, a man named Lucius experiences a whole range of trials and tribulations of a bawdy nature in pursuit of feeding his curiosity about magic. He accidentally turns himself into an ass, hence the title, and then goes on a journey.

The story was adapted from a Greek original which has unfortunately been lost, but many of the inset tales, told during Lucius' journey, are very famous. Among these is the tale of Cupid and Psyche and the tale of the tub, which Filostrato tells today. The Golden Ass was a precursor to the genre of the episodic picaresque novel, which centres around the adventures of an appealing yet roguish character. An example of this genre is Don Quixote.

Set Up for the Eighth Day:

Dioneo selects as our new queen Lauretta who, not wanting to be retaliate against today's topic chooses the following theme:
'the tricks that people in general, men and women alike, are forever playing upon one another.'
Filomena then sings a song which has everyone suspecting she is in the midst of enjoying a raunchy affair of the heart herself, although we don't get any particulars on this.

Since, in The Decameron, we've reached another Thursday, the 'Eighth Day' of storytelling will be delayed for two days until their Sunday. Since I have no need to go to church and can wash my hair on any day, I will be back tomorrow for 'The Eighth Day'.

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Review: 'Once Removed: Stories' by Colette Sartor

I was taken in by the cover first, the facelessness of the woman on display, the ribbon from her dress looking like a leash holding her back. There is a nonchalance there, but there is also so much hiding there. I'm very glad to say that Sartor's stories work towards pulling back the curtain a little. Thanks to University of Georgia Press and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 9/15/2019
Publisher: University of Georgia Press
The women in the linked short story collection Once Removed carry the burdens imposed in the name of intimacy—the secrets kept, the lies told, the disputes initiated—as well as the joy that can still manage to triumph. A singer with a damaged voice and an assumed identity befriends a silent, troubled child; an infertile law professor covets a tenant’s daughterly affection; a new mother tries to shield her infant from her estranged mother’s surprise Easter visit; an aging shopkeeper hides her husband’s decline and a decades-old lie to keep her best friends from moving away.
With depth and an acute sense of the fragility of intimate connection, Colette Sartor creates stories of women that resonate with emotional complexity. Some of these women possess the fierce natures and long, vengeful memories of expert grudge holders. Others avoid conflict at every turn, or so they tell themselves. For all of them, grief lies at the core of love.
In Once Removed every story shows us a moment where a character is on a knife's edge. Sartor shows us her characters in the midst of potential chaos and, overwhelmed by choices they're making and the choices those around them make. All of the stories in Once Removed centre around women, so the pains and trials described in the stories are intrinsically linked to the moments, duties and pains we associate with women: motherhood, being a good sister, a better daughter, sacrifice, love, and of course, violence. Initially I worried this would hold the collection back, but Sartor does something fascinating with it. By gentle interlocking the stories, she emphasizes that we never know what is going on behind closed doors. Someone can be an antagonist in your life, but the wise guide in someone else's. No matter who they are to you, there is a hurt in their lives to. This doesn't excuse, but in the good moments it goes a long way to explaining.

Each of the stories in this collection has something to offer, but I do have my favourites that made me sit back and think. Daredevil digs into the darker side of motherhood, the shame of a broken home and the disconnect between a parent and child. Jump shows the bitterness between siblings, the deep love that created that bitterness and the inevitable loneliness when childhood ends. Lamb was one of my favourites as it dug into both postnatal depression as well as the intricacies of mother-daughter relationships. La Cuesta Encantada fell a little bit flat for me, showing a group of aging friends having to choose where and how the last part of their lives will take place, while confronting mistakes from the past. Overall, I liked Sartor's different stories, the spread of them as well as their focus on female emotions.

I give this collection...

4 Universes!

I really enjoyed Sartor's stories in Once Removed. They're beautifully interconnected and display the full range of emotions and situations that can make up a woman's life.

The Decameron VI: The Sixth Day

As some of you may know, I currently live in Shanghai, which means that the setting of The Decameron has become beautifully relevant to me all of a sudden. In Boccaccio's collection of tales, seven young women and three young men have hidden themselves away behind a deserted villa's walls to sit out the Black Plague as it ravishes 14th century Italy. While the Corona virus isn't quite as horrifying as the Black Plague (at the moment at least), it has been enough for all of us to be put on extended leave. Hence, I will be spending the next ten days hidden away in my own apartment, desperate to amuse myself and to forget what's happening outside. My tiny apartment may not be a villa and I may be there on my own (+ cat), but it is the place where I will be joining Boccaccio's hideaways.


The Sixth Day

Our cast:

Ladies:                            Men:
Pampinea                        Panfilo
Fiammetta                      Filostrato
Filomena                         Dioneo
Emilia
Lauretta
Neifile
Elissa

The Preamble

'The Sixth Day' starts off lovely, with 'the whole of our hemisphere ... already suffused with the fresh light of dawn', but just as our ten storytellers assemble settle down for today's tales, they are interrupted by 'a great commotion'. Calling out the steward, he explains that two of the servants have gotten into a tiff. One of them is arguing that a mutual friend of theirs went into her marriage very much a virgin, while the other, a woman herself, could not be more outraged at the suggestion. The day's Queen, Elissa, leaves it to Dioneo to decide who was right and he sides with the woman. Initially this interruption feels a bit random, but it is a nice reminder that the world outside is continuing to spin. Our storytellers may be hiding themselves away but that doesn't mean all their worries have disappeared. 

Once the whole situation has been settled, they once again begin their telling of tales, focusing on stories of wit and quick repartee.



The Tales

Image result for decameron elissa"
Elissa, today's Queen
Our first tale is told by Filomena and shows a lady halting a man halfway through a horrendously told story with a quick put down. Pampinea follows with the second tale in which a baker makes a friend through a quip and a gift of wine. Lauretta's third tale shows a woman righteously snapping back at a sanctimonious Bishop. The fourth tale is told by Neifile, in which Fortune gifts a man a quick answer that saves him from a beating. Next is Panfilo and his tale of a master painted and famous jurist who find common ground in their horrible appearance. Fiammetta's tale is the sixth and gives usa  rather blasphemous reason why a particular family both the ugliest and the noblest. In Filostrato's seventh tale brings us back onto the 'gender equality' train as a woman found to be having an affair puts both her husband and the courts in their place. The eighth tale is Emilia's and in it she criticizes the sin of vanity. Ninth is the queen, Elissa, with a fancy quip and a high-jump over a tomb. Dioneo is once again the last to tell his tale, this time focusing on a monk who tricks a whole village into believing a bunch of coal is a relic.

The 'Sixth Day' is a rather short day since brevity is the soul of wit. It unfortunately also means that not all that much is too be said. Although the 'Sixth Day' is just past the middle mark of The Decameron, it seems to be a moment for Boccaccio to remind both the reader and his storytellers that their world is, in many ways, an imaginary one. In her tale, Lauretta describes a woman who, when propositioned by a Bishop on behalf of his friend, puts them both in their place. She also mentions that '"alas, [she is] no longer with us, having died in middle age during the present epidemic"'. It's a reminder of why exactly they are in hiding and that the stories they are telling are, purportedly, about people they know and may have lost. It adds some sadness to the narrative but also grounds it a little bit.

Of course we have to address Filostrato's tale, which describes:
'a statute, no less reprehensible, to be sure, than it was severe, which without exception required that every woman taken in adultery by her husband should be burned alive, whether she was with a lover or simply doing it for money'.
Our heroine, Madonna Filippa is caught by her husband and in his anger he almost strikes her and her lover. Realizing that will have untold consequences for his own person, he turns to the law and denounces her. Although her friends try to convince her to deny she not only confirms her husband's charges, but launches into an argument against the statute. It holds a strong resemblance to a similar speech in Fiammetta's tale on the 'Fourth Tale':
'"as I am sure you will know, every man and woman should be equal before law, and laws must have the consent of those who are affected by them. These conditions are not fulfilled in the present instance, because this law only applies to us poor women, who re much better able than men to bestow our favours liberally. moreover, when this law was made, no woman gave her consent to it, nor was any woman even so much as consulted. it can therefore justly be describes as a very bad law."'
Again, the Socratic idea that love makes philosophers out of us all is proven true. It is also a very political statement, which I thought was very interesting. After asking her husband whether she has ever denied him in bed, to which he agrees that she hasn't, she poses the question whether she should be punished for putting the love and energy he didn't claim to good use. By the end of the tale the law is overturned, but only in favour of those who did so for love. Women who take payment for being unfaithful (i.e. sex workers) are still to be burned. The negative attitude towards sex workers is still something we're struggling with to this day, but the sentiment of the tale is still a nice one.

There is also a fun theme running through two or three of the tales about the Baronci. According to the footnotes in my Penguin edition, the Baronci were a rich Florentine family, who were also 'notoriously ill-favoured'. Fiammetta's tale describes an argument between some youths on which Florentine family is the noblest and oldest one. Scalza argues it is the Baronci since:
'"|The fact of the matter is that when the Lord God created the Baronci, He was still learning the rudiments of His craft, whereas He created the rest of mankind after He had mastered it."'
Scalza's argument is that the Baronci are so ugly because when they were created at the beginning of time, God was only starting out creating humans. Apparently this was considered so blasphemous that the story was either replaced by another or changed thus in translation that the blame was given to Nature or to Prometheus, rather than God. It shows how tricky the translating of these kind of works can be in different time periods, as it has to be adjusted to fit contemporary tastes and taboos.

Image result for certaldo"
Certaldo, the setting of the tenth tale and Boccaccio's final resting place

Fun Fact:

In Dioneo's tenth tale, a friar regales a naive crowd with a tale about his travels and the people he has met. One of those is 'The Reverend Father Besokindas Tocursemenot'. This is rather tongue-in-cheek, just read it very slowly if it doesn't make sense straight away. He also makes the following promise about the ash crosses he draws on them:
'"I must tell you that all those who are marked with the sign of the cross by these coals may rest assured that for a whole year they will never be touched by fire without getting burnt."'
What the crowd hears is the exact opposite of what the friar actually says. This story is also set in Cerltado, the city where Boccaccio spent his last few years and may also have been born.

Set Up of the Seventh Day:

The set up for the next day is actually a little more comprehensive than any of the ones before. Elissa crowns Dioneo as the next day's King and, inspired by the argument they witnessed at the beginning of the day, he sets the theme as:
'the tricks which, either in the cause of love or for motives of self-preservation, women have played upon their husbands, irrespective of whether or not they were found out.'
The ladies initially demur, either from false modesty or from having something to hide, but Dioneo convinces them by referencing the lawlessness happening outside their palace walls.

Usually at this point they have a bit of a song and dance, but since the tales were so short, they have a lot of their day still left. Elissa takes the other ladies to see 'the Valley of Ladies', a beautiful sounding valley that is our third 'locus amoenus', which is a literary device and is usually a beautiful place in which the heroes can find comfort or shelter. We've already had a villa and a palace, and now we have a valley with shade, a perfectly clear lake, a stunning waterfall, and distant hills with palaces on them. Once again, my apartment feels woefully inadequate. After the ladies return, Pampinea tells the men about the Valley and after they have also bathed there, Dioneo decides that the next day's tale telling will take place in the Valley.