I don’t know if anyone else likes little books as much as I do, but I’ve been particularly charmed recently by the Penguin Little Black Classics range published to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Penguin Classics. They’re all 80p, which is nice, so I bought a handful in Waterstones a couple of weeks ago and may well buy another handful at some point in the future. To be honest, though, I enjoyed Giovanni Boccaccio’s Mrs Rosie and the Priest so little that I may not bother.
The slim volume contains 4 tales taken from Boccaccio’s Decamaron, written in Tuscany in the 14th century. One is about a man being robbed and himself a thief to regain his losses, one is about an old man being cuckolded by his much younger and very horny wife, the third is about a randy priest tricking a married woman into sex, but in such a cheeky way that their dalliance becomes long term, and the fourth is about a wealthy man marrying a poor woman and treating her appallingly in order to ascertain that she is a good and dependable wife.*
This is a little earlier than Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and it has that same ribald humour to it. Everyone’s driven by lust, everyone is selfish and self-involved, everyone is forgiven every indiscretion at the end of the story. Consequences are few, and most characters are only concerned with immediate gratification. It’s old story-telling, simplistic. This happens, that happens, something else happens, et cetera et cetera. It’s not really, for me, very engaging, but I am modernity-minded when it comes to literature.
Four short stories, and few points of relevance to a contemporary reader. Yes, lust still exists, petty crime still exists, corrupt priests still exist and abusive husbands still exist, but private behaviour is now so much more public than it was then, that a lot of the quasi-morals are lost, Boccaccio’s souls too superstitious and secretive to resonant with the capitalised Now. At 60 pages, it’s an interesting introduction to medieval Italian literature, but in terms of narrative and structure and tone it offers nothing that isn’t offered by similar texts from the same period. Which, in my opinion, is very little.
A historical exercise, not a literary pleasure. If you’re considering any of these 80 pence books, don’t go for this one, no matter how enticing its one-sentence blurb… #Underwhelmed.
* Echoes of Job, which I’m sure wouldn’t have been lost on a medieval Italian readership.