Thursday, June 24, 2004

Boccaccio and all that

Last week I was in Eastbourne, where I took the opportunity to visit Camilla’s secondhand bookshop.

Camilla’s (probably no relation) is one of the more extraordinary shops of its kind. You enter on the ground floor (obviously), and then you can go either down to a basement or up to another floor. But you move only with great difficulty, and at considerable risk to life and limb. Each floor is packed and stacked with books. I can’t imagine how it has escaped the attentions of the health and safety people, not to mention the fire authorities. On the ground floor the books must go twelve feet up the wall, and you can’t even read the titles of the ones on the top shelf without a ladder.

But enough of the written description: you can see a view of the shop here.

Among the books I bought was the autobiography of Peter Carter-Ruck, the famous libel lawyer, and of that more when I’ve read it. But I also saw (without buying) a copy of Boccaccio’s Decameron, a book which I have been meaning to write about for a while.

For the benefit of those who have suffered from a modern education, I suppose I had better describe what the Decameron is, though once upon a time everyone likely to read the book page of a magazine or newspaper, or a blog such as this, would have absorbed it along with the two-times table.

Boccaccio was an Italian, a citizen of Florence, who lived in the fourteenth century. The Decameron is a work of fiction, and in it he describes how, in 1348, ten young people leave Florence in order to escape the plague. They go out into the countryside, and while they wait for it to be safe to return home they amuse themselves by each telling a story a day for the ten days that they are required to remain there. This gives us, in effect, 100 short stories.

The stories tell of love, adventure and surprising twists of fate. They are frequently anticlerical, describing the monks and nuns of the day as lecherous, greedy, and lazy -- which was probably a pretty fair description. Overall, the Decameron is generally reckoned to be one of the masterpieces of European literature, matching, for instance, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

I have already mentioned once in this blog that, in 1954, magistrates in Swindon, Wiltshire (hardly a stronghold of culture) ordered the confiscation and destruction of copies of this book, on the grounds that it was obscene.

Well, obscene is putting it a bit strong. Racy, certainly. And the magistrates may have been misled, poor innocent and trusting souls, by the illustrations. Some editions of the book have provided rather ‘stronger’ illustrations than others, but naked ladies have been known to appear.

Which is really what I meant to write about. When I was a lad, all those years ago, I was an assistant to the Librarian at Queens’ College, Cambridge, a post which gave me access to the inner sanctum of the library. This was a room where particularly rare and valuable books were stored; and there, tucked away on a shelf, well out of sight of the impressionable young gentlemen, was a nineteenth-century edition of the Decameron. It came in two volumes, and was enhanced by some particularly saucy engravings. The pictures were all good clean fun, and pretty mild even by the standards of the 1950s, but some earlier librarian had felt it his moral duty (a) to buy a copy and read it, but (b) to hide it from those less able than himself to cope with the moral temptations which it embodied. It may have been a copy of this edition, complete with naughty pictures, which the magistrates of Swindon considered far too dangerous to be viewed by society at large.

Anyway, forty years later I wandered into a pub here in darkest Wiltshire, and I noticed that some new pictures had been placed on the walls. I approached closer, and found, to my amusement, that some enterprising interior decorator, intent upon giving the pub a little atmosphere, had sliced several of these very same Decameron pictures out of some tatty copy of the book (probably abandoned in a skip) and had had them prettily framed before popping them on to the walls. And very nice they were too. Perhaps one customer in 10,000 would recognise them for what they were.

Pasolini directed a film based on the Decameron in 1970, using, as I recall, amateur actors drawn from the rural backwaters. I don’t remember finding it all that striking a film, and my chief memory of it is that the actors all seemed to have remarkably bad teeth. Perhaps Pasolini was making a point of some kind.