Johns Hopkins Magazine - June 1996 Issue

In Short - Humanities & The Arts

By Dale Keiger
Literary games Boccaccio played a first novel that landed far from where it started an Emmy victory for a promising young musician

Thinking the way Boccaccio thought

For centuries, literary criticism of Boccaccio's Decameron has concentrated on the author's realism-his depiction of everyday life, his use of the vernacular, his lower-class characters. With a new book, professor of Hispanic & Italian studies Pier Massimo Forni has taken analysis of Decameron in a new direction.

"Critiques of Boccaccio's art, from the very beginning, have insisted on assessing the Decameron as a mirror of life," says Forni. "But all this interest has overshadowed, until recent times, the rhetorical dimensions of the book-how much, for instance, this book is a commentary on writing, about how stories are created. Boccaccio takes a lot of his material from the literary products of other writers. The literary contexture of the book is as important as its focus on life."

In Adventures in Speech: Rhetoric and Narration in Boccaccio's Decameron (Penn, 1996), Forni explores Boccaccio's use of rhetorical forms in his sophisticated 14th-century narrative.

"Before Boccaccio, there had not appeared a collection of stories in the vernacular with this degree of literary ambition," says Forni. "Latin was still the preferred language of intellectual exchange, and the short vernacular narratives of the time were of a straightforward explanatory nature, with allusions to a moral message. With the Decameron, all this changes."

In his book, Forni dissects Boccaccio's use of an overarching narrative (in Italian, cornice, or "window frame") that contains a myriad of smaller narratives. In the Decameron, 10 residents of Florence flee the city in 1348 to escape an outbreak of the plague. To amuse themselves, they decide that each will tell one story per day for 10 days. Thus, on one level, the Decameron is a narrative of 10 people creating narratives. Furthermore, in the course of the book those characters tell stories that comment on, rearrange, or parody stories told on previous days. In this way the book is continually self-referential, Forni says. Its narrative explores the process of creating narratives, and in that respect anticipates by centuries contemporary metafiction.

Part of Adventures in Speech discusses Boccaccio's penchant for taking metaphor and creating a story in which metaphor becomes literal fact. In one of the Decameron's tales, Boccaccio invokes a sexual metaphor of the time-"scraping the tub." In the story's narrative, Peronella, an unfaithful wife, entertains her lover while her husband is preoccupied cleaning out an actual tub. Says Forni, "Had Boccaccio known the English of today, he'd write a story in which cats and dogs literally rain down."

Forni spent years teasing out the literary sources for some of Boccaccio's tales. "Boccaccio loved to play games with allusions," he says. The professor was particularly fascinated by the story of Zima, a young fop who covets the wife of a wealthy nobleman from Pistoia named Vergellesi. Zima makes a deal with Vergellesi-he'll trade a horse for the privilege of a single private conversation with the man's wife. Vergellesi agrees, but only after ordering his wife to remain mute during her "conversation." When the private chat takes place, Zima quickly realizes that the woman has been forbidden to speak, so he makes up a conversation in which he plays both parts, asking questions and answering for her. By this device he sets up a secret rendezvous, and eventually succeeds in cuckolding Vergellesi.

Did Boccaccio simply invent this tale? Forni suspected not. "I had a few clues," he says. "The story takes place in Pistoia, a real city. Why? Another clue was the name 'Vergellesi,' a real name from that area. A third clue was that when Zima talks to her, he uses the form of the courtly love tradition, that famous body of lyric poetry. I knew of an important poet, Chino from Pistoia. What if Zima, as he presents this seduction, does not simply use the common language, but the language of his illustrious fellow Chino? This, I said to myself, would be just like Boccaccio. Like a detective trying to think like a murderer, I tried to think in the way Boccaccio thought."

He continues, "Sure enough, I found that several of Zima's arguments had been lifted, sometimes literally, from different poems of Chino. Then I found Chino's 'Sonnet 47,' from which it is rather evident that Boccaccio has appropriated [more than] just a few lines-the whole story of Zima can be seen as a brilliantly concealed rearrangement of the context of that sonnet. It gives the reader an idea of the kind of games of allusiveness that Boccaccio was playing."

Warming to this subject, Forni adds that scholars have established that Boccaccio was in Naples studying law (his father was deadset against his becoming a writer) at the same time Chino was there teaching law. Forni is amused by the possibility that the young Boccaccio may have been Chino's student.

"What I like is to work as a detective, a psychologist, and a philologist at the same time," Forni says. "What interests me are the cognitive processes thanks to which the stories came to be. It's almost like being an archaeologist reconstructing the workshop of a writer--not only the internal workshop, how his mind worked, but also the books around him that he used for his sources."
-Dale Keiger

Not just a regular Joe

When Writing Seminars alumnus Ben Neihart '94 was at Hopkins, he worked on a novel about a 25-year-old Mennonite woman in Pennsylvania. He'd already published a short story about her in The New Yorker, but as the protagonist of a book she just wasn't working out. "I couldn't get any momentum going," he says.

So he did the only sensible thing. He transformed a Mennonite woman into a 16-year-old gay boy in New Orleans.

The result is Hey, Joe (Simon & Schuster, 1996), Neihart's first novel. The book follows sweet-natured Joe Keith through one eventful evening in and out of the French Quarter, where he hangs with a variety of hipsters; becomes smitten by a muscular, charismatic orphan boy; and inadvertently involves his weary mother in the fallout from a jury-tampering conspiracy.

"It ended up pretty far off from where I thought it would land," Neihart says of his book's plot. At one time, the novel was more of a horror-suspense story-an earlier draft included a flesh-eating virus and a car chase that Neihart hated to cut. But as he rewrote, the virus disappeared and Joe Keith moved to center stage.

It's Neihart's dead-on characterization of Joe that makes the book. The kid is so appealing and authentic as a character that a week after reading the book, you want to call him up just to make sure he's doing all right. Neihart's portrait is convincingly detailed, though he claims there was little reportage involved. "I'm not really fond of hanging out with 16-year-old kids," says the 32-year-old writer. "But by hanging around perpetual grad students, you're hanging around people who have extended adolescence."

Hey, Joe may not contain much reporting, but it benefits from some of Neihart's more interesting experiences. He lived in New Orleans while studying writing at Southern Mississippi University. The plot involves shenanigans on the part of a charitable foundation; Neihart worked for a while as a grant consultant in New York and as a fundraiser in New Orleans. One character serves on a jury in a much-publicized trial; the author was a juror for the 1991 civil trial of Jimmy Swaggart, who was being sued by a fellow televangelist.

Neihart has studied with novelists Frederick Barthelme at Southern Miss and John Barth and Stephen Dixon at Hopkins; all three generously praise the book on its dust jacket (although Simon & Schuster managed to mistitle Dixon's latest book, Interstate, calling it Intersection). Barthelme describes Neihart's work as "a remarkable first novel," one that "takes us into a strange small world in New Orleans and introduces us to a cast of wonderful characters busily driving themselves nuts with affection and desire."

When Neihart's not in New York or New Orleans publicizing Hey, Joe, he works the night shift at Hopkins's MSE library. He sometimes checks out books for students whom he taught when he was an instructor at the Writing Seminars. "They look at me and say, 'What happened? Did you get demoted?'" he says, laughing. He's also at work on his second novel.

On the musical fast track

Were one to think of a musical career as a train, Camara Kambon's would be the express, not the local. Only a year out of college, the 23-year-old Peabody Prep-trained musician just won an Emmy award for his film score for the 1995 HBO movie Sonny Liston: The Mysterious Life and Death of a Champion.

"I knew when I was 4 years old that I wanted to be part of the music business," says Kambon. "When I was 12 years old, I made the decision to do music for television and films. That's how I heard music--in relation to pictures."

The music for Sonny Liston was not his first score. He had already written the music for three PBS documentaries, including "Malcolm X: Make it Plain" and "Frederick Douglass: When the Lion Wrote History."

The HBO production concerned the life of the former convict and heavyweight boxing champion. Liston had once said that the perfect song about a boxer would be a slow blues for guitar, trumpet, and bell, and Kambon used those elements to compose the opening music for the film.

Kambon's manager and mother, Anana Kambon, recalls how early he showed signs of musical awareness: "At about 10 months, when he would tap on his high chair, it would be rhythmic." By age 2 he was studying drums; piano lessons started when he was 3. "By 6 he was writing his own little ditties," his mother says. "He would wake up and go to sleep to music. He knew he wanted to be a musician. My job was to let him have a childhood, too."

Kambon played ball and did all the other usual kid stuff, but also began serious piano study at Peabody Prep when he was 11, first working on jazz, then classical piano as well as composition. "I felt it was important to work on the technical aspects of my study," he says. "That's what Peabody was for me--the place to develop technical facility." He spent seven years at the Prep, and tested out of his first year of classes at the Berklee College of Music. At Berklee, he completed a dual degree program in music production/engineering and film scoring.

Kambon's short but already packed career has included the premiere of his composition "Korikabaya" by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; a stint as composer for two television series, A Different World and Living Single; and current work as keyboard player for the hip-hop recording artist Dr. Dre.

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