Well, promptly upon finishing my comps papers/exam, I was o’ertaken by the most malevolent sorts of flu germs and have spent the last two weeks feeling like I’m going to fall down dead at the end of every day. The finest physicians in the land have assured me that these mortal sentiments are nothing more than post-flu-ickyness, but it hasn’t left much time for comps reflections. Sorry, friends back home, but if you’re very honest, you weren’t terribly interested in hearing any more about this experience; what’s more, it turns out that after thinking of almost nothing but the same two papers for two months, one really doesn’t want to think about them for a Good Long While.

Instead: Rabelais and Boccaccio.

I spent the last three months reading the Decameron and The Lives of Gargantua and Pantagruel over breakfast. They’re equally long but not, for me, equally enjoyable. If I weren’t ridiculously obstinate I think I would have given up on Rabelais after the second of five books. I mean, how many poop and fart jokes can you make in one work? (700 pages’ worth, it turns out.) The first two books are interesting and entertaining stuff: the first is taken up with Gargantua’s childhood and marriage (not-so-little Gargantua is born out his mumsy’s ear canal, gets a hilariously bad education before getting a hilariously good education, mucks about with the Cathedral bells of Notre Dame, and ultimately becomes a good king). The second book tells the similar story of Pantagruel’s birth and education, and his youthful martial exploits with his best friend Panurge. Books 3-5 are mostly made up of Pantagruel sailing around with Panurge, visiting islands populated by strange Allegories (usually about the clergy). And feasts and farts a-plenty. And you really just want them to find the oracular bottle which is the Whole Point of their travels (but which you mostly forget about after the beginning of book four).

Apologies to Rabelais. He does tell hilariously improbable birthing stories. And I sort of get what Bakhtin was talking about now.

Decameron was an entirely different sort of reading. I was going to read one story a day, but it turns out most of the stories are not only short, but intensely enjoyable. The sort of reading you always hope shows up on a syllabus, because then you can say you’re spending hours “working” when you’re really having a whole lot of fun. I suppose the main difference between Rabelais and Boccaccio is the kind of linear narrative that Boccaccio uses: his stories are as thematically repetitive as the episodes in Rabelais’s work, but made up of complete plots (usually about lusty monks pursuing forbidden ladies), rather than satirical descriptions of the customs of foreign towns. Boccaccio is just as satirical, but less obvious about it.

It’s utterly unfair of me to compare two completely different works written 200ish years apart, but there it is. I blame the flu germs.

29 March 2012 ~ Hamilton


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