The writer Carlo Gébler has had a productive year. From his home in Enniskillen, a 1930s Lutyens-style schoolhouse that he shares with his wife, he has finished a new novel and produced a book inspired by The Decameron, a compendium of 100 stories put together by the Florentine man of letters Giovanni Boccaccio during the grim years of the Black Death in 14th-century Italy.
Gébler has compressed and contemporised the original, choosing 28 stories for Tales We Tell Ourselves. “Largely speaking, I’ve left the narrative trajectory, the one-thing-after-the-nextedness intact,” he says, in an interview over Zoom. “I haven’t f***ed around with it.
“Boccaccio is, for a medieval figure and a believer, extraordinarily modern. He understands the way in which the criminal justice system does not serve the interest of justice but of power. He understands the way power is exercised by those who have it, not in a benevolent way but entirely for their own benefit. He understands hypocrisy, double-dealing, that people will always serve their own interests first.”
We speak two days after the US election, when a winner had yet to be declared. Boccaccio’s insights seem eerily prescient. Many are still shocked by the number of people who voted for Trump. Was Gébler surprised? “I’m a catastrophist,” he deadpans. “There are millions and millions of people who believe the things that Mr Trump says. And they turned out for him. So no, I wasn’t surprised. Depressed, yes.”
The morning after the election, he watched the full speech that Trump gave claiming the election results were fraudulent. “A poisonous fantasy,” he says, “right up there with the poisonous fantasies of certain demagogues who we’re familiar with from the 1930s. He’s a thug. It was like a scene from Goodfellas. Hitler would say the same things. He would say, we’ve been traduced by outside forces and with enormous effort we will rebut those forces and having rebutted those forces we will triumph again. [Trump’s] is the same mantra.”
If 2020 is the annus horribilis of modern times, our medieval ancestors had it worse. The Black Death killed between 75 and 200 million people in Eurasia and north Africa from 1347 to 1351. Boccaccio wrote The Decameron as a way to distract his fellow countrymen and women from the horrors, but also as a wake-up call to the numbness that had set in. In Florence, where an estimated 60pc of the population died, people became so inured to death that they stopped burying their loved ones. Bodies putrefying in the streets were dumped in mass graves outside the city.
“What they needed was to be warmed back into life,” says Gébler. “Boccaccio saw narrative art as the process by which that could be achieved. Not just receiving narrative art as a reader. He also believed in giving and taking, telling and receiving, participating, in narrative communion. We know now that there are immense benefits from story. Neurologically, it helps us.”
Gébler knows more than most about storytelling. The eldest son of the writers Edna O’Brien and Ernest Gébler, he is an acclaimed novelist, biographer and playwright. A member of Aosdána, his novels include The Innocent of Falkland Road and The Dead Eight. Throughout the interview, he is a skilled storyteller, exacting in his details. He speaks slowly and fluidly, in a careful, orderly manner, repeating points if he thinks he’s been unclear.
Since March, he has stayed in Enniskillen with his wife Tyga, aside from going to Dublin twice when he was allowed. He has been to a restaurant three times and for a couple of nights to Ballyconnell near Lissadell, Co Sligo. The most irritating thing about this year has not being able to see his five adult children and grandchildren. For this current lockdown, he says the predominant mood in Enniskillen is one of confusion.
“Somebody delivered two baklava to me this morning and he asked me if he was allowed to come in. Neither of us knew. There are five jurisdictions and so many different rules. I’m completely baffled as to why they can’t decide that it’s a single piece of land that can have one set of rules for everybody. It’s ridiculous. I think the Irish government would agree to it. I don’t think they’re the problem.”
Gébler speaks candidly on a range of topics including what he perceives as a lack of literary culture in Ireland and the UK today in comparison to America. How did he feel about the infamous New Yorker profile on his mother in October of last year?
“[The journalist] Ian Parker has form in this area,” he says. “He did a profile on a writer, Dan Mallory, who supposedly had fibbed and exaggerated and was guilty of all sorts of things. There was this extraordinary amount of animus. It suggested that this writer was Satan’s spawn, whereas his behaviour, judged by the standard of Grub Street, was really not that bad. Yeah, porky pies, exaggeration, maybe not a very nice person, but really, was he Ted Bundy?”
Parker’s profile of O’Brien was widely condemned in Irish literary circles as ill-conceived and ignorant. The academic Maureen O’Connor, who was quoted in the piece, responded with an essay in the Dublin Review of Books titled ‘A Gratuitous Assault’. Gébler says he “echoes and reinforces” the observations.
“Essentially what he decided to do was to destroy her. And more importantly to destroy the book. That is a terrible thing to do. In America, which still has a literary culture, his piece unquestionably affected the reviews. The reviews cited it and were mindful of it, and that damaged the book. Why would you damage a book? I don’t know. I just don’t get it. Some people make their lives by doing this kind of thing.”
He mentions the former New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani as another example. “She used to write these incredible hatchet jobs. She made an entire career out of assassinating people, most famously Jonathan Franzen.”
Gébler’s own writing will be up for review next autumn with the publication of his new novel The Late King of Thebes by New Island. He finished it over lockdown, “except nothing is ever really finished. Ever. It’s just provisional.” The conceit of the novel is that Antigone is the world’s first biographer. “She writes Oedipus’ biography. To set the record straight,” he says, emphatically. The story, according to Gébler, gets at the duality of human behaviour. Although Oedipus is warned by the gods that he will kill his father and marry his mother, he still chooses, however unintentionally, to do these things. “We choose to do what we do,” he says.
“We’re free. And yet at the same time, it’s often strangely inevitable and we’re not free. When you go into the backstory of Oedipus, it’s all to do with things that happen long before he’s born and he’s caught in the cleft stick of these catastrophes that precede his origins. And which are inescapable.”
Gébler himself has written a number of non-fiction books that examine the past, including a memoir about the troubled relationship he had with his father Ernest and a biography based on the latter’s diary entries and letters. In 2008, Gébler wrote My Father’s Watch with Patrick Maguire, the youngest of the Maguire Seven, who were wrongfully convicted of providing the nitroglycerine used in the bombings of two Guildford pubs in 1974. With all these books about fathers, I wonder if he will one day write one about his mother?
“I’ve no idea,” he says. “It’s very bizarre you should ask that question now because I don’t know what I’m going to do at this moment in time. I’ve no idea what the future consists of. Text comes out of the psyche and I’m aware that the psyche at the moment is having an apocalyptic time. I mean, the dreams are biblical. I don’t know what I feel and therefore it’s very difficult for me to predict what on earth I’m going to do.”
For now, he takes solace in reading, and in listening to audiobooks on his daily walks. At the moment he has James Boswell’s 45-hour biography of Samuel Johnson to keep him busy. For the rest of us, there’s Tales We Tell Ourselves.
If the original helped people to get through the Black Death, this strange year seems the perfect time for a modern retelling.
‘Tales We Tell Ourselves: A Selection from The Decameron’, retold by Carlo Gébler, published by New Island Books is out now