he First Work of Modern Fiction
Boccaccio. By Francis MacManus. (Sheed and Ward, price 16s.) Reviewed by GORDON ALBION NE must confess that Boccaccio is known to the vast majority of his readers solely as the author of the Decameron, a well-worn copy of which I once found in the possession of semi illiterates for whom the Classics meant the main events of the &tracing season. The higher values of the Hundred Tales are neither sought nor seen by such randy thumbing of its pages. It is the first work of modern fiction, holding a mirror to contemporary society that lives and moves in the crude hues of inglorious technicolour; a Human Comedy in strong contrast with the Divine Comedia of Boccaccio's idol, Dante. Written between 1348/53, its introduction paints a horrifying picture of the ravages of the Black Death that cannot be neglected by the historian.
Boccaccio is important for his dates, though Mr. MacManus shows a cavalier disdain for them; Dante, horn in 1265, died in 1321, when Petrarch was seventeen, and Boccaccio eight. On this solid pyramid, with Dante at the apex, and the other two at the base, his avowed worshippers, and themselves firm personal as well as literary friends. One cannot escape the impression that Boccaccio was a failure and knew it, for he never reached the full flower of-his early promise and ambition. in the early period at Naples be had opportunity enough and, it seemed at first, the requisite inspiration in Maria d'Aquino, who fortunately for the fame of the name, becomes Fiametta of so much of his writing. The long, boring prose romance Filocolo (aptly, the Love-weary) failed to move the minx and was fittingly followed by Filostrata (The Man beaten by love) which, with the Tesehle, made ottava rima the standard measure for Italian narrative and romantic poetry, and provided Chaucer with stories for his Troilus and Criseyde and the Knightes Tales. • Boccaccio continued as pioneer in Ninfale Fiesolano, also . in ottava rim, wherein he created a new mythology for the hills and streams of his native countryside around Florence. Again, his Anteto introduced the pastoral into Italian literature.
At the outset of his literary career in Naples, Boccaccio had cast himself for the part of a Don Juan. Jilted. he wrote the Amoroso V is.otte, a cynical allegory of his life there and in the prose Fiametta puts the case front the lady's point of view. When, in paunchy middle-age, he made passes at an eligible Florentine widow and was jeered at for his pains, the greying would-be Don Juan, now finally disillusioned, turned into a soured Malvolio, writing 11 Corbaccio (The Old Crow), an envenomed attack, scabrous in its details, of the by no means weaker sex and of the folly of man, who persists in wallowing in the Piggery of Venus.
Yet for all his personal disappointment, Boccaccio never allowed his splenetic eloquence to descend on Fiametta. Moreover, as a Catholic typical of his time, firm in faith if spasmodically weak in morals, he retained like Dante, Petrarch and Chaucer, a tender devotion to Our Lady, in whose honour he wrote the finest of his many lovely sonnets, superbly constructed and of the purest. poetry, the Non treccia d'oro, beautifully rendered by the self-deprecating Mr. MacManus: Nor queenly courtesy nor loveli Could enchant height Clown front His The King of Heaven through this world's wickedness To be manned ne.din you, Mary all Matchless But your humility could so prevail To shatter utterly the old disdain Between God and us; midl Heaven's door unbar.
Boccaccio failed in things other than love. His whole life had been overcast by the shadow of poverty; as his city's ambassador to. Avignon, he saw life but met with no success. His life-long championship of the cause of Dante, buried in the exile of Ravenna, had failed to move the hard-headed Florentine man of affairs. A common greyness silvers everything," as Browning might have written of him.
Then in 1373, the winter of his years, suddenly he triumphed. Boccaccio was appointed Public Lecturer on Dante by the Commune of Florence and became the Masters' first commentator (alas, only of the Inferno) and first biographer with the magnificent miniature Tronatell° in laude di Dante. It was his finest hour. Within a few months he and Petrarch could die in peace.
Mr. MacManus tells his saddening story in poetic, often flamboyant prose that is not at all ill-fitted for his subject. He has a fine sense of background. coupled with a flippant contempt, tiresome by repetition, for the burrowing, sweating textual critic and dry-as-dust researcher, without whom, incidentally, he and his ilk would be hard put to it to produce such attractive studies as tilLOne would have welcomed a list of Boccaccio's works and of the leading events of his life, as well as the original Italian of Ruscellai's blistering satire against Grazzini the Fish, who had dared to tamper with the text of the Decameron : " To criticise you've seen what's not, and only uttered rot, rot, rot "-a vulnerable ending to a review I Geared for Conquest, published by the Young Christian Worker Publications, at one shilling, is a record of papers read at the Y.C.W. Study Week-end last Easter. it is a useful document for all Youth Leaders. Those who seek knowledge and ideas on the Y.C.W. will find it here.
A new book documenting the sufferings of the Catholic. clergy in Dachau has been published, this time in Czechoslovakia, by Fr. B. -Hoffman. The author states that many nations were represented among Hitler's viethus, but the Polish clergy supplied the biggest contingent. Among the 598 priests who died in Dachau, were 47t Poles. Among the 325 " gassed " were 306 Poles. On the other hand, only 50 Poles were in the number of 251 priests released from this dreadful horror-camp.