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A Hundred (and one ) Stories -- Reading the Decameron and 1001 Nights
I read sections of the Decameron recently along with the story of The Little Hunchback from the 1001 Nights, as part of an ongoing learning journey. I’d never read the Decameron before; I’ve read the 1001 Nights, but that is mainly because I wanted to read the unexpurgated Richard Burton version (which is an absolute hoot). A couple of thoughts follow.
In the Western canon, there is an incredible weight of centuries of literary criticism. The edition of the Decameron that I read, for example, had a translator’s introduction that is the length of a short book in its own right (and has been reviewed in its own right (!)).
It is impossible to analyze a work like this (or indeed most things in the Western canon) in any kind of innovative way — it feels, often, that there is really nothing left to say after generations of scholars have had their way. Don’t get me wrong — I have had many thoughts and reactions to these works as I go along, and I have written about many of them, so my point is just that it feels difficult to have an original thought.
One logical reaction to this critique is: sure, generations have had their fill of the Decameron, but each generation discovers these works anew, and each generation innovates, in a sense, in relating the works to the current day. That is true, although it is obviously more true of some works than others. The Analects? Yes. The Decameron? Possibly also yes, as we see in the context of the plague (more below)
I want to get at something else here: namely that our awareness of their status can drain the entertainment value out of canonical works. The Decameron is wonderful and hilarious. But it was easier for me to just enjoy The Little Hunchback. Why is that? One obvious answer is that I was reading the Decameron in an academic setting, and The Little Hunchback was an ancillary reading that I could just enjoy.
But I don’t think that is it. I think it is the fact that canonical works bring the hefty weight of centuries of analysis, and so one approaches these works with a sense of reverence that makes it much harder to simply enjoy a work.
Is The Little Hunchback a canonical work? Not really. And so I read the story as an entertainment. 10% of my brain was analyzing for literary structure, and thinking about contrasting nested narrative frames, but 90% was just entertained.
I dash off short notes like this one as I make my way through the MLA, to document my journey, and like most things on my blog it is for my future self as the audience. So It is not always the case that my readings have a connection with contemporary issues, although my last post connected Beowulf and Joe Biden.
In the case of the Decameron, the connection with our own time is more obvious; it was written shortly after the Black Death devastated Florence, and the narrative frame involves ten refugees from that pandemic sharing ten stories each. We are living through something similar today, although medicine and sanitation and, occasionally, intelligence have kept the death toll much lower. The New York Times has pounced on the idea, with a Decameron project of its own. I expect at least one great literary work will emerge from the great plague of our time, perhaps read and analyzed and canonized centuries from now.
Why the “(and one)” in the title of this post? Our instructor pointed out to us that Boccaccio squirreled away a 101st story in the Introduction to the Fourth Day, when he intrudes into the frame and shares a story in the narrator’s voice. The story apparently originates in the Ramayana — I definitely do not remember that from my reading of that epic in my childhood!