Reviving the Novella: What is Old is New Again

By Julianne Schultz

In this edited version of the introduction to Griffith Review 38: The Novella Project, editor Julianne Schultz tells us what’s so special about the novella as a literary art form - and why it’s on the rise again.

As well as producing suffering, adversity can spark genius. And works of genius – paintings, writing, music, science, even buildings – endure long after calamity has been chased into the deepest recesses of memory, to become an inchoate fear passed from one generation to the next.

So the devastation of the plague in the hill towns and plains of mid-1300s Italy not only planted the seeds of the Renaissance, the demise of the church’s unquestioned authority, and the creation of Siena’s shell-shaped, sloping Piazza del Campo – where countless bodies were lain according to a contemporary writer, like ‘a giant lasagne’ – but The Decameron, its thousand novellas distilled from ancient tales of many civilisations, to create the foundation of literature as we know it.

The calamitous progression of the plague from east to west was understood, but its cause remained mysterious. Survivors wondered whether it was ‘disseminated by the influence of the celestial bodies, or sent upon us mortals by God in His just wrath by way of retribution for our iniquities.’

Giovanni Boccaccio pondered the cause with these words in framing The Decameron. He described in graphic detail the effect of the ‘deadly pestilence’ as it struck his beloved city of Florence in 1348 and the ‘exodrium of woe’ that descended:

Despite all that human wisdom and forethought could devise to avert it, as the cleansing of the city from many impurities by officials appointed for the purpose, the refusal of entrance to all sick folk, and the adoption of many precautions for the preservation of health; despite also humble supplications addressed to God, and often repeated both in public procession and otherwise, by the devout; towards the beginning of the spring of the said year the doleful effects of the pestilence began to be horribly apparent.

Boccaccio described the physical progression of the disease with shocking detail, its passage from people to person and from humans to hogs, the impact on family and social relations and the place of women and men, with an exemplary reporter’s eye.

With the city beset by such devastation, a strategic retreat seemed wise for the survivors in the ‘well nigh depopulated’ city. Thus the seven well-connected, intelligent young women, who tell most of the tales in The Decameron, met ‘one Tuesday morning after Divine Service’ at the ‘venerable Church of Santa Maria Novella’. Confronting catastrophe they wisely agreed to leave the city and create a ‘separate and secluded life’.

With three young men, and several maids, they ‘sought refuge from care and fear’ making their home in the Villa Palmieri on the slopes of Fiesole just far enough away from Florence. For ten days, Boccaccio writes, each told a story – every evening building to a crescendo of saucy, witty, engaging storytelling entertainment. The tales they told, in contrast to the devastation they escaped, embody a satiric cosmopolitan sensibility: quick wittedness, sophistication and intelligence were ‘treasured and the vices of stupidity and dullness cured or punished’.

And in this act of genius by Giovanni Boccaccio, in response to the most hideous and inexplicable catastrophe, the novella was born. Its name derived from the spectacular church where his characters began their journey – itself named for the brilliance of a ninth century storyteller – which is now, thanks to Project Gutenberg, available at the click of a mouse.

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