Performance and Interpretation

In the chapter "Literature as Falsehood" of The Writer as Liar Guido Almansi focuses on what he sees as two intertwined narratological "keys" for the Decameron: performance and interpretation. In order to illustrate his point he chooses the two inaugural novellas of the first and the second half. He starts with the first novella of the Sixth day (Madonna Oretta and the knight). This story is what we might call a "meta-novella," a story about storytelling in general: its central concern is the art of telling a novella, a story. In storytelling meaning is constituted in performance. A story must be aptly told to have any meaning or effect upon its readers. Therefore, interpretation also depends on (a good) performance of both the narrator and the reader (or listener). This is the description of the knight's failure in his delivery:

"Whereupon this worthy knight, whose swordplay was doubtless on a par with his storytelling, began to recite his tale, which in itself was indeed excellent. But by constantly repeating the same phrases, and recapitulating sections of the plot, and every so often declaring that he had 'made a mess of that bit,' and regularly confusing the names of the characters, he ruined it completely. Moreover, his mode of delivery was totally out of keeping with the characters, and the incidents he was describing, so that it was painful for Madonna Oretta to listen to him. She began to perspire freely, and her heart missed several beats, as though she had fallen ill and was about to give up the ghost. And in the end, when she could endure it no longer, having perceived that the knight had tied himself inextricably in knots, she said to him, in affable tones: 'Sir, you have taken me riding on a horse that trots very jerkily. Pray be good enough to set me down.'" The narrator gives her audience a short-list of what can go wrong in the telling of a story: it is a negative list of what any storyteller should beware of, the basic tenets of buon novellare. Moreover, storytelling is likened to swordplay and to riding, two very gentlemanly activities. The knight's audience is made to physically (though elliptically, since we are not told the story itself) suffer, with Madonna Oretta, the consequences of his ineptitude; both the narrator (Filomena) and Oretta ironically compare these performing arts to his storytelling only to question (his) "virility."

The immediate implication is the direct correspondence established between storytelling and lovemaking, as in the very premises of the frame structure: the ten members of the brigata tell stories in order to enjoy themselves without "sinning." And yet, their storytelling is also a way of (figuratively or metaphorically) making love (freely playing the game of love). Storytelling, therefore, is a performance that both defers (substitutes or neutralizes) and refers (opens the way) to "other performances." The ambivalent effects of "good" (effective) storytelling are open to debate throughout the book. Their "negotiation" is the very focus of a gender divide in both "performance" and "interpretation."

Storytelling techniques and delivery are so pivotal that they can render the most daring subjects harmless or, vice versa, suggest a (lewd or daring, transgressive) double meaning where apparently there isn't one. Women in particular should master the art of storytelling (like men should master swordplay and riding): precisely because it is the art of double meaning. Madonna Oretta's masterly punch line (told by her as spokeswoman for Filomena, the narrator, who's in turn Boccaccio's, the author's, spokeswoman), in its concision, is another performative prescription for good, male or female, or simply fe(male) storytelling: wordplay is even more important than swordplay.

In the epilogue of the Decameron Boccaccio writes: " story is so unseemly as to prevent anyone from telling it, provided it is told in seemly language; and this I believe I may reasonably claim to have done." Language, in its ambiguity, can be made to veil or to reveal, and the negotiation of the balance is in the hands of the storyteller. Boccaccio, in his defense, takes the ambiguity of language and stories even further, thus burdening his audience with the last, decisive test: "Like all other things in this world, stories, whatever their nature, may be harmful or useful, depending upon the listener... Who will deny that fire is exceedingly useful, not to say vital, to man? Are we to conclude, because it burns down houses and villages and whole cities, that therefore it is pernicious?"

(MR) Adapted from: Almansi, Guido. The writer as liar. Narrative technique in the Decameron. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975.

Other Pages in Literature: Narratology and Structural Exegesis