Friday, 31 January 2020

The Decameron I: Prologue and the First 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 Prologue

First line:
'To take pity on people in distress is a human quality which every man and woman should possess, but it is especially requisite in those who have once needed comfort, and found it in others.'
The guiding thread through the 'Prologue' is the need of companionship and the comfort that comes through kindness. Boccaccio himself felt this compassion while in the throes of love, but whether this is a true biological anecdote remains a question. We all give and seek for comfort, especially in hard times. I have been in the midst of my own personal trials and tribulations and the comfort and nearness given by friends and family was like a salve on a sore wound. Similarly now, all of us toughing it out in Shanghai are relying on each other to keep up our spirits and share resources where necessary.

In the 'Prologue' Boccaccio's stance on women also shines through. I was initially worried about this, since medieval texts aren't necessarily known for their understanding of the female plight. And yet, Boccaccio seems surprisingly aware, if a little condescending:
'Moreover, [women] are forced to follow the whims, fancies and dictates of their fathers, mothers, brothers and husbands, so that they spend most of their time cooped up within the narrow confines of their rooms, where they sit in apparent idleness, wishing one thing and at the same time wishing its opposite, and reflecting on various matters, which cannot possibly always be pleasant to contemplate.'
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Boccaccio
Recognizing the limitations on women's lives, he then sets up his Decameron as an educative tale, one from which ladies suffering under the idleness imposed upon them by society and under the powers of love, will hopefully find some diversion as well as some insight. The teasing tone of the preface gives away that this was very much not Boccaccio's intent. Rather, he is playing with tone there, taking as his guide the set up of many other medieval texts meant for erudition. He also joins in on the tradition of the author humbly requesting the reader to enjoy their narrative, no matter how faulty or lowly it may be. This is a false modesty that is nonetheless fun to read.

Our cast:

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

The First Day

Setting:

The beginning of 'The First Day' is rather grim, as Boccaccio sets his scene. The scene is Florence in the midst of a deadly outbreak of the Black Plague. He infuses it with some social commentary, describing how those of the lower classes have nowhere to go and no one to help them, the healthy too afraid to approach the ill to aid them. He speaks of those who decide to live life to the fullest while they still have it, drinking, feasting and eating away, while also describing those who flee and live ascetic lives in the hopes it will stave of illness. It was interesting to read about the horror and despair that the Black Plague caused and to compare it now to my own experience. Not only is the Coronavirus nowhere near as deadly and the situation is nowhere near as dire. We're not in a situation where whole households vanish within hours or where we're running out of burial space. Thank God for working healthcare systems, vaccinations and medical staff that works through crises like this!

Boccaccio does promise that, after his horrifying descriptions of Florence, there is more fun to come:
'The degree of pleasure the derive from the latter will correspond directly to the difficulty of the climb and the descent.'
He introduces us to his seven 'gently bred' ladies who have been waiting out the Plague while those around them either flee or die. Fed up with being stuck in Florence, the eldest, named Pampinea, proposes they depart for one of their country villas. Filomena interjects that surely women could never undertake this on their own, but thankfully the men show up just in time and agree to accompany them. It is all sorted out rather quickly, and soon our ten youths are settled in rather nicely at their no-longer abandoned villa. Thankfully they have some servants with them to help sort out the rather pesky details of dinner and housekeeping. Again, Pampinea has a rather splendid idea. Each day one of them shall be elected as Queen or King, to order the servants and the day. She herself becomes Queen of the First Day and after plenty of amusements, she proposes the telling of tales.

The Tales:
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Illustration from a ca. 1492 edition of Il Decameron 

Firstly we have a tale of a horrible, sinful man tricking his way into becoming a saint after his own death. Then there is a tale of a Jewish man called Abraham seeing the sinfulness taking place at the Vatican and deciding that Christianity must be a good thing after all if it can grow despite the disaster of Rome. The third story also centres on a Jewish man, Melchizedek, and how he outwits and makes a friend of the famous Saladin. The stories continue along a religious route, as a monk who ignores the rule of abstinence gets away with it through trickery. My favourite story is the fifth, in which the Marchioness of Montferrat kindly puts the King of France in his place through chicken. Back to religion, the sixth story pokes fun at an Inquisitor, while the seventh shows the power of storytelling to shame people into improving their behavior. The eighth story is very short but shows us again the power of a few well-placed words in changing someone's behavior. The ninth story starts quite horrifyingly with an assault, but ends with a king being called into action. And finally the tenth shows that thinking yourself to smart can lead to you being the one that's embarrassed.

I enjoyed the tales of the First Day, as each of them seemed to be about how quick thinking and wit can get you out of almost any situation, especially ones involving religion. Each story starts with a quick, three line summary/introduction, almost like receiving the moral before a fable. This meant I went into the second and third story kind of hesitantly. Antisemitism was rife throughout most of humanity's history, so this could have been utterly horrible. But they are fun tales that, aside from the Jewish characters of course begin rich, shows no hints of antisemitism. Saladin also continues to be consistently highly spoken off in every single thing I read about him. Overall I'd say it's Christianity that comes out of these tales the worst, with friars and monks being either gullible or sinful, the Vatican a cesspool of sin and the Inquisition as corrupt.


Boccaccio continues to critique and support women, all in one go. Below is a rather direct, yet kind of on point, quote:
'"For this special skill [wit], which once resided in a woman's very soul, has been replaced in our modern women by the adornment of the body. She who sees herself tricked out in the most elaborate finery, with the largest number of gaudy stripes and speckles, believes that she should be much more highly respected and more greatly honoured than other women, forgetting that if someone were to dress an ass in the same clothes or simply load them on its back, it could still carry a great deal more than she could, nor would this be any reason for paying ti greater respect than you would normally accord to an ass"'. 
Yes, that sounds harsh, but I could see logic in it. Removing the blame from women here, there has been an enormous yet sly movement for centuries and centuries to make women nothing more than beautiful decorations in a home, useful but quiet. Clearly the women in Boccaccio's Decameron are different. They may be beautiful and 'gently bred', but they are also  witty, well-educated, eloquent and very outspoken. The quote is from Pampinea, who has led the whole endeavor so far. She has been the driving force between getting The Decameron started so I feel pretty justified in saying that a lot of this is tongue-in-cheek.

Boccaccio also builds up his nested narrative here which, as far as I can see, has three layers. Firstly there is Boccaccio, the narrator/author. He shows us Florence, he introduces us to the characters, he narrates their experiences. Secondly there is the Storyteller, one of the ten youths telling their tale. And thirdly, there is the Tale itself, a hundred of them to be precise. He says he received this story on good authority from someone who can be trusted, a trope that is seen in many medieval but also later works! I enjoyed how each of our characters told a tale, following up on the previous' tales theme while also advancing the theme.

The 'First Day' ends with a new Queen being crowned, Filomena. She upholds most of Pampinea's rules, but decides that from now on their story-telling should go by theme:
'"Ever since the world began, men have been subject to various tricks of Fortune, and it will ever be thus until the end. Let each of us, then, if you have no objection, make it our pupose to take as our theme those who after suffering a series of misfortunes are brought to a sate of unexpected happiness."'
Naturally, they all agree! The only one who is allowed to exempt himself from the rule is Dioneo who, according to everything I've read, is pretty much Boccaccio's stand-in. I'm actually very excited to keep reading, so do join me again tomorrow for our 'Second Day'.

Thursday, 30 January 2020

The Decameron: Reading Boccaccio during Corona

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.

Starting from the 31st of January, I will be reading a "day" per day, meaning that by the 9th of February, the day we are technically returning to work, I'll have finished not only The Decameron but also my self-imposed house arrest. Each day I will be reading and then re-capping and discussing in a post here.

Boccaccio completed The Decameron in 1353, most likely inspired by an epidemic that took place only five years earlier. The tales in this book speak of wit, fortune, human will, love, and, apparently, the contrast between the lives of men and women. In writing this work, Boccaccio was inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy (1321), another famous medieval tale. Boccaccio was actually the one to add the 'Divina' to what was before then known only as the 'Comedia'. His collection of tales is also occasionally called 'The Human Comedy'. Boccaccio in his own turn influenced works such as the famous The Canterbury Tales (c. 1400) by Chaucer. As I set out on this literary quest, I am interested to see where The Decameron falls between these two famous works.

A hundred tales told across ten nights by ten youths and spanning over a thousand pages. Here we go!

1/31 - The First Day
Here begins the First Day of the Decameron, wherein first of all the author explains the circumstances in which certain persons, who presently make their appearance, were induced to meet for the purpose of conversing together, after which, under the rule of Pampinea, each of them speaks on the subject they find most congenial.
 2/1 - The Second Day
Here begins the Second Day, wherein, under the rule of Filomena, the discussion turns upon those who after suffering a series of misfortunes are brought to a state of unexpected happiness.
2/2 - The Third Day
Here begins the Third Day, wherein, under the rule of Neifile, the discussion turns upon people who by dint of their own efforts have achieved an object they greatly desired, or recovered a thing previously lost. 
2/3 - The Fourth Day
Here begins the Fourth Day, wherein, under the rule of Filo-strato, the discussion turns upon those whose love ended unhappily. 
2/4 - The Fifth Day
Here begins the Fifth Day, wherein, under the rule of Fiam-metta, are discussed the adventures of lovers who survived calamities or misfortunes and attained a state of happiness. 
2/5 - The Sixth Day
Here begins the Sixth Day, wherein, under the rule of Elissa, the discussion turns upon those who, on being provoked by some verbal pleasantry, have returned like for like, or who, by a prompt retort or shrewd manoeuvre, have avoided danger, discomfiture or ridicule
2/6 - The Seventh Day
Here begins the Seventh Day, wherein, under the rule of Dioneo, are discussed 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
2/7 - The Eighth Day
Here begins the Eighth Day, wherein, under the rule of Lauretta, are discussed the tricks that people in general, men and women alike, are forever playing upon one another.
2/8 - The Ninth Day
Here begins the Ninth Day, wherein, under the rule of Emilia, it is left to all the members of the company to speak on whatever subject they choose. 
2/9 - The Tenth Day & the Author's Epilogue
Here begins the Tenth and Last Day, wherein, under the rule of Panfilo, the discussion turns upon those who have performed liberal or munificent deeds, 1 whether in the cause of love or otherwise. 
2/10 - My Thoughts

Thank you all very much for joining me the past eleven days!

Sunday, 19 January 2020

Review: 'Oligarchy' by Scarlett Thomas

Oligarchy first drew me in with the lovely set up of a modern day Russian "princess" at an English boarding school. It sounded like a fun read, but Scarlett Thomas digs much deeper than one might expect from the blurb. Oligarchy ended up being a read that really got me thinking. Thanks to Canongate and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 11/7/2019
Publisher: Canongate
The new adult novel from the bestselling author of The End of Mr. Y, about power, privilege and peer pressure
When Tash, daughter of a Russian oligarch, is sent to an English boarding school, she is new to the strange rituals of the girls there. Theirs is a world of strict pecking orders, eating disorders and Instagram angst.
While she spends her time with the other girls at the lake and the stables, a hand-picked few are invited to join the Headmaster at his house for extra lessons. Then her friend Bianca mysteriously vanishes, and quickly the routines of her dorm-mates seem darker and more alien than ever before.
In Oligarchy Scarlett Thomas does something seemingly impossible, making the reader feel sorry for privileged young girls at a boarding school. Theirs is a life of opportunity and no consequences and yet they're starved. Not just of food, but also of affection, healthy relationships, support and, oddly enough, education. A bit of a trigger warning should probably accompany this book, since it is full of diets, starvation tips and the glorification of thinness. Although all of these are shown negatively within Oligarchy, they could still be triggering for those dealing with eating disorders or body dismorphia. I myself was intensely uncomfortable at times as I felt myself being sucked into the minds of these young girls. This is where the power of Oligarchy lies, but also where the danger lurks.

Oligarchy starts out fun as Tash tries to adjust to her new life of sudden wealth and possibility. With access to a black Amex card and far away from everything she knows, she becomes part of the elite and finds she doesn't always fit in. There is alcohol, crushes on boys, fancy cars and run down city centres. Oligarchy's story meanders a bit once it establishes Tash and her surroundings, partially by switching between genres occasionally. On the one hand it is a coming-of-age novel, as Tash has some hard lessons to learn. It is also a mystery novel once Tash's friend disappears and there are more questions than answers from the adults around her. At its heart it is a novel about teenagers, teenage girls in particular, but it does get lost in itself. Oligarchy is a quick read, and an enjoyable one, but it will leave you with a lot of questions and thoughts to which the novel offers no answers or hints.

Oligarchy also strongly picks up on our society's fetishistic obsession with young female bodies. They're ethereal, otherworldly, and oh so thin. Whether it's school deans, Weight Watchers or men on tubes, everyone is obsessed with the physicality of the slowly starving girls. There seems to be no one in Oligarchy who has a healthy relationship with their own body or the bodies of these girls. The people brought in to help them only make it worse. The people meant to look over them would rather look away in case they're tempted. At times I wished Thomas would be gentler with her own characters. They're already getting judged with every step and even Thomas can't avoid being mean to them. For me it felt like there was a layer of awareness missing there, where Thomas could have gone deeper and made more of a statement on the toxic nature of body obsession.

I give this novel...
3 Universes!

Oligarchy is an enjoyable read with a deep hurt at its core. It is not an easy book, even if it is sometimes 'laugh out loud' funny. For those ready to confront eating disorders in this way, I'd definitely recommend Oligarchy. Just be aware and prepared.