When I picked up an unabridged (though yes, translated) version of the the Canterbury Tales a couple of weeks ago, I'm not sure what I was expecting. Stories, of course. So many novels lately successfully weave together loosely-related stories: A Visit from the Goon Squad, which was so exciting it had me up at 3:00 AM thinking about narrative; The Imperfectionists, which is not quite as good as I hoped it would be, but still worth reading; Olive Kitteridge; and the Ms. Hempel Chronicles, off the top of my head. I wanted to see how the master, and perhaps originator, of the genre pulled it off.
I knew some of the stories would be a little bawdy, others would be religious, and many, if not most, would have morals. But I was not prepared for what I found. In fact I was so unprepared that, reading it on the subway one morning across from an Orthodox mother and daughter, I got so flustered I had to turn the book over on my lap.
Friends, Chaucer likes the word "cunt."
Sure, he's not the only one. Characters on the Sopranos made liberal use of the word, usually as a prelude to or an excuse for murder. Henry Miller sprinkles it on his prose like salt. But everyone knows that Henry Miller is rated R, or NC-17. I had no idea the Canterbury Tales were. They seem so staid simply by virtue of being old.
That's the real shock here. It's not just that Chaucer enjoys an edgy, monosyllabic word that perhaps carried less weight in England 700 years ago than it does in the US today. (Seems possible, according to one etymological history.) It's that these pilgrims, Chaucer's characters, have such gleefully filthy imaginations. Wives cheat on husbands with students, lodgers, cousins, monks, anyone available, really. Virgins are hardly immune from the lust that seems to overtake married women: when they are surprised by amorous fellas, they give as good as they get. And men? Men will leap on anything with two legs and a hole.
That, in short, is the venerable, aged, enduring classic the Canterbury Tales: smut, smut, more smut, some boring moralizing, a dash of out-of-the-blue Jew hate, followed by smut, smut, smut, and smut. Okay! Now the naked Chaucer from A Knight's Tale makes more sense to me.
Also shocking: I discovered this weekend, when I went home to join my family in picking out a headstone, that my father had a gun. True story. The man who, as far as I know, only ever shot off his mouth, bought a Smith & Wesson in New Mexico and brought it to DC shortly after moving there. The same Wild West instincts that were guiding him told him not to bother with a permit, apparently.
My mother bound the gun up in a kerchief inside an Anne Klein shoebox, which she taped shut and kept in her closet. And that's where it stayed. I never heard about, nor saw, the gun. Until now.