Thursday, 8 November 2012

The Divine Comedy (Cary’s Translation) by Dante Alighieri: Book review

Drink with this: Campari and soda

Italian to the core of its fiery red depths. An acquired taste, appreciated by the connoisseur. The bitter herby tang of the campari is almost punitive, but stick with it and there are moments of glory.

What's what: 

In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct:
Pg 2, Ibid

How to review a 14th century classic, which the venerable Wikipedia describes as “the pre-eminent work of Italian literature, and….one of the greatest works of world literature”? In my case, as flippantly as possible!

Around two pages into the 650 page translation I realised a two-pronged approach would be advisable. First, an initial skirmish, a casual, shallow, skim over the surface. Much, much later – perhaps years  or even decades, who can say -  an in-depth re-reading and analysis, backed up by true scholarly understanding.

Unfortunately I don’t think The Divine Comedy lends itself very well to the 21st C casual reader. There is a wealth of historical and mythological information needed to fully tackle this classic, which in previous centuries would have been inherent to a gentlemanly education. Lacking even in Latin, I didn't muddy the waters by attempting to read any notes as I went along. Instead I read it in the same way I would any other book, in little bursts on the Northern line, straight up and on the rocks, no embellishments to sweeten the experience.

Centuries later, what endures is Alighieri’s command of language. The pain of never-ending sections where for pages I too was lost in the woods of indecipherable verse and convoluted sentence structure were almost eclipsed by the occasional blinding image or evocative phrase. The air in hell is ‘with solid darkness/ Stain’d,’ (pg 11, Ibid) and it’s impossible not to grasp Dante’s meaning when he says of the souls suffering in Inferno:

These of death
No hope may entertain: and their blind
So meanly passes, that all other lots
They envy.
Pg 12

I love the idea of the story as well. Symbolism aside, the premise of an Italian dude lost in the underworld, then on a journey through hell, purgatory and heaven seeking a beautiful woman sounds pretty awesome.

Having said that, much of the plot seemed pretty irrelevant now. Dante’s Odyssey was ultimately very parochial, and at times accompanying him didn't feel much different than walking to the shops of our small town with my gran – everybody was Italian and everybody knew him or at least his family and wanted a bit of a blether. This endless recitation of Italian names heightened the reader’s disconnection, and yes, boredom. I had constant sense of an entire story passing me by because I was too stupid to decipher it beneath the 14th C version of in-jokes.

I'm not a stranger to a bit of classic lit and in years gone by have munched through every Shakespearean sonnet, Ulysses, the majority of Dickens and so on and so forth. But Dante nearly did me in. There were whole pages, reams and reams of text, where I had no clue what was happening and cared less.

O foolish wrath! Who so dost goad us on

In the brief life, and in the eternal then
Thus miserably o’erwhelm us.
Pg 49

The biggest frustration for me was that I somehow had formulated an idea that this whole journey through the underworld was a mission to rescue Beatrice. I was greatly disappointed when she only appeared half-way through, in the form of an untouchable and awfully smug angel goddess oracle. Then her perfection was played up so much I thought (hoped) she was going to turn on Dante and banish him back to the Netherworld. But no, she genuinely was perfection incarnate,

‘with such a smile,
As might have made one blest amid the
Pg 400

There are ideas here which must have been big and revolutionary in their time, but which we are so accustomed to now that they seem commonplace. The image of a man lost in his own life, unsure of the way forward. The idea of purgatory as a never-ending toil up a mountain without end, trying to see through the fog. Heaven as a place of light and beauty where our deepest and most complex questions are explored.

Inferno was the most vivid section, with some of the most powerful imagery, which is no doubt why it is the best known. Purgatory was less impactful but easier to understand – more enjoyable with more of a clear story thread. Here it was actually possible to work out what was happening from one canto to the next. Paradise was densely impenetrable and deeply tedious. Lengthy metaphysical and religious speculations formed the body of this section, with little plot development. 
and that, which next
Befalls me to portray, voice hath not
Nor hath ink written, nor in fantasy
Was e’er conceived.
Pg 508

This was in keeping with the general movement through the work, with the first section dealing with the more base bodily functions (references to sex and excrement) the middle section dealing with prosaic actions such as exhaustion, endless toil, and confusion or other overpowering emotions, while the third section was concerned with the mind and the soul.

The shades Dante meets are all principally concerned with their reputation, and continuation in the world below. Yet throughout it is stressed that renown amongst other men is transient and what is crucial is the eternal life of the soul. Dante tells us that everything else passes while only God’s love remains. 


Wherefore if thou escape this darksome
Returning to behold the radiant stars,
When thou with pleasure shalt retrace the
See that of us thou speak among mankind.
Pg 67


Verdict: How can you evaluate something when you are fully aware that most of it has completely passed you by? There were some powerful phrases and beautiful language but I’m not sure the experience of reading it is one which has much to offer the average modern reader. Thematically powerful with glimpses of enduring brilliance hiding in a thicket of punishing verbiage.
 On the big screen:There are several, none of which I think I’ll ever be able to face. There is also a video game which it turns out follows the plot (rescue Beatrice) I wistfully imagined while reading. All adaptations I’ve discovered seem to focus on the visually stimulating Inferno, with good reason.

Highbrow/lowbrow:  Right up there with the Bible in terms of pedigree, but with a more tedious conceptualisation of heaven. Doesn’t quite live up to Milton with regards to its interpretation of hell, but certainly as reputable.

No comments:

Post a Comment