At the mid-point of the path through life, I found Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way Ahead was blotted out. The keening...more[Clive James translation]
At the mid-point of the path through life, I found Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way Ahead was blotted out. The keening sound I still make shows how hard it is to say How harsh and bitter that place felt to me— Merely to think of it renews the fear— So bad that death by only a degree Could possibly be worse. As you shall hear, It led to good things too, eventually, But there and then I saw no sign of those, And can’t say even now how I had come To be there, stunned and following my nose Away from the straight path.
I'd just got round to having a look through this new translation. After reading the above how could I not keep going? It was near enough the perfect time for me to read it, and I bolted the thing whole in 24 hours. Joanna Kavenna's Inglorious - a modern existential novel unfortunately mis-jacketed as chicklit, which I read earlier this year - took "Dante's mid-point of life", half threescore years and ten, as its starting point. Without that accidental prequel, I may not have been so primed. (And as long as I can remember I'd seen 35 as the big crunch in the way that most people seem to see 30. Possibly the fault of Martin Amis, whom I read in my teens and who makes it a pivotal age for some characters - perhaps he took it from Dante.)
Best of all, this doesn't feel like a translation: this is so good it feels like poetry itself. I've read quite a bit of translated poetry this year and the only other edition that had this effect was Edna St. Vincent Millay's Fleurs du Mal. Perhaps neither is the closest to the original; that's not, perhaps, the point: as a reading experience rather than an academic crib-sheet, each is wonderful. Of course there's the occasional off-note here - how could there not be in 500 pages? - but this really is a virtuoso work, and I think the fuss is justified.
It was for a long while impossible to correlate this beautiful poetry with that loud, sarky Australian bloke off the telly. (Who also had the temerity to write multiple volumes of memoirs - a practice which, as I remembered when I read Maya Angelou's Caged Bird recently, as a kid I seem to have been brought up to look down on; egotism should not be so overt.) That perceived incongruity, the sense of "does not compute", is a compliment, really: he's able to assume different registers so completely that I could have thought he was two separate people. However! Many translators or classic authors include innuendo which appears to be unintentional. (In an interview, the ubiquitous Pevear & Volokhonsky even referred to being confronted about this by an editor and insisting on retaining it although - IMO - it's distracting.) In Clive James' Divine Comedy there are occasional pieces of innuendo, subtly associated words and sensuality which look much too carefully placed to be anything but deliberate. A writer who was mischievously grinning at it too and who understands the skill of it - wonderful!
Readers who appreciate that sort of thing will probably also enjoy the little references the translator includes. Sort-of anachronistic, but not so in terms of producing a stunningly erudite epic poem which communicates with its readers. (In any case, there was no Divine Comedy translation into English until the late 18th century - if that's the only language you read well enough, it's futile to pretend towards the entirely authentick.) A few favourites I spotted: marvellous boy (Thomas Chatterton), misshapes, Bedazzled (with a capital), the fault in our stars, pale fire, late and soon (Wordsworth), the bit that put 'The Fool on the Hill' in my head though it's probably not close enough to the lyrics to quote. And, I've no idea if Clive James has any acquaintance with contemporary superhero comics, but: the sheer abundance of their flying - marvel, now – .
My previous experience of reading Dante was also a little unconventional, though not in terms of reading speed: about 15 years ago I read the Penguin Mark Musa Inferno and about half of Purgatorio, mostly in stonkingly unconducive settings like a music festival and working in a nightclub cloakroom. (My powers of concentration were never as good as you might infer from this. After all, I did give up.) I don't have the Musa editions to hand; whilst I do remember them being more interesting than expected, there wasn't this scale of wow. Whether that's because of me changing, or a better book, or both - dunno. Though of course after this, I'd recommend the Clive James to others who've previously abandoned Dante and wouldn't mind another go.
The Picador edition of the Clive James also has no notes. (Though some extra background info is incorporated into the text of the poem.) It's so wonderfully freeing and immediate*. I nearly always opt for notes but - and I'd hardly let anyone get away with this - I loved being told that for once I couldn't really have them. That's all very well for you to say, you're an ex-Catholic who's studied medieval history. True, but I am quite rusty and the history is a bit earlier than the stuff I know best; this was more a case of recognising lots of names whilst not being sure what they did. Anyway, on the subject of the Italian Wars (15th-16th century version, but not dissimilar to the delightfully named Guelphs and Ghibellines) I never met a tutor who didn't acknowledge that they were just a dull and fiddly background to more interesting things. Much of the time I simply let the poetry flow; poetry does that. It's straight into the vein; felt rather than thought; for me reading poetry is like being on an escalator where prose is climbing a staircase.
When I wanted to look up things behind the book's back, the Wikipedia list of cultural references in The Divine Comedy covered nearly everything I wanted to know. (With the exception of: William Longsword who was kept in a cage - and none of the chaps so named elsewhere on Wiki have this in their biogs; some saints mentioned in Paradiso - perhaps the Wikipedian gave up near the end; and one that you need abstruse knowledge to query in the first place, Dante saying Aquarius is near the beginning of the year - the English year began on 25th March.)
So, in brief (!), the three parts.
Inferno This is why some people tag TDC as Fantasy! It is so much like all those adventure-film journeys into molten pits with monsters. And often it made me think about how lucky I was as a child to be told in religious contexts "nobody really believes in hell any more". (Ranting old Irish priests were irrelevant and could be safely ignored). I've since known people who, in childhood, did live in constant terror of hell when they did the smallest thing wrong, experiences which make understandable Hitchens' ostensibly hyperbolic description of religion as child abuse. Dante's Inferno makes me understand anew, more deeply than ever, why and what you might be terrified of. I was hit full-on by the idea that millions of people lived their whole lives feeling that this was all true and certain, and how horrific that was - most of all that they felt there was no escape, that death may well not be an end to suffering, that extreme suffering may never end. The medieval mindset: so much trauma and brutality and loss all around. And that formed such bizarre logic, was so unforgiving and vengeful in an Old Testament style. Not what plenty of people would colloquially call "Christian" now: eternal torture for torturers, as well as for plenty of people who by many modern standards had done (practically) nothing wrong at all. (My theological history is rusty and generalised.)
Purgatorio At first it perhaps doesn't seem so exciting, or so visual, as Inferno, and the groups of residents aren't quite so clearly labelled; the poetry, though, especially the beginnings of most cantos, is noticeably beautiful. It is evident that this was a civilisation which for the most part believed in learning and change through fear and punishment: The sin of envy meets its scourge In this round, and of that scourge every thong Flaying that disposition must emerge From love. And thus the curb that speaks against The sin must sing the virtue. Feel sad for medieval people spending their whole lives that way with no choice. (Also that I'm being patronising and imposing values of l.C20th western psychology.) Wonder if many of them would seem wildly disruptive or severe, and violent and fearful if they materialised now; Genghis Khan in Bill and Ted was kind of an extreme example - like that but a bit less.
Whilst its main theme is almost as universal as Christianity, a lot of TDC is about Dante's mates or people who'd have been on the medieval equivalent of the regional news in his area. (A re-read after revising some of the history would be interesting.) Clive James' introduction mentions that even soon after publication many readers needed glosses because they didn't know who all these folk were either. In this respect, Dante is much like (the bawdier, briefer, Frencher, later) Francois Villon - and both big their own talent up in their verses almost as much as the average rapper. Later medieval european poet schtick? I'd have to read more to find out. The range of references recalls the smallness of even an educated person's world before printing: the local, the Biblical, the Classical; other countries are represented only by renowned kings, warriors and saints, or vague stereotypes.
Paradiso Reading The Divine Comedy was also a journey upward in mood (surely intended to inspire the original audience to greater religiosity). The horrors of hell by now seemed quite far away, in another world. The final section was also a blast from the past, personally - not just because the story of a journey into the underworld is one of the oldest around, Gilgamesh and Orpheus to name but two predecessors. As I may have mentioned before - or perhaps it's only in the mega-posts about God is not Great that I never finish or actually post - I had a voluntary phase of being quite strongly religious, aged about 7-9. (Its main focus was obsessive re-reading of Sixty Saints for Girls by Joan Windham.) During this time I would experience a sort of high from thoughts of religious devotion and aspiration, or from solitary prayer and chosen small self-denials, and regardless of actual belief, that high is occasionally re-awakened now by works of art about Christian worship. They don't even have to mean it - one of the strongest effects I can recall was from Luis Buñuel's satirical Simón del desierto . I experienced it again whilst reading Paradiso: buzzy calm, a liking for certain mild asceticisms, a background sense of safety and devotion, breathing changes and all. The poetry was still beautiful but I wasn't reading it as quite the same nitpicky person, more beatific. What I did notice was how effectively the verse conveyed someone trying to describe something too amazing to describe: it really was as if he'd seen it, not only imagined it. The last third of Paradiso, though not so much the very end cantos, is really lots of ways of saying "WOW". I couldn't help but be charmed by it; it's nice to see someone made truly happy by a thing even if I disagree with it.
Perhaps the most distinctively medieval-European part of Dante's Paradise (and a bizarre one to many readers, probably) is courtly love and Beatrice herself, that the loved one is ranked with saints and silently worshipped like one - and that that's absolutely fine. No cries of "idolatry!", or "unhealthy!". I for one find it very sweet, because, most importantly he never bothers her about it. And having had somewhat similar tendencies of my own towards a few lovers (a pattern almost certainly rooted in the relationship of those girl saints to Jesus in the aforementioned book), it was just nice to see someone else on that narrow little wavelength for once.
Another aspect of Catholicism I very rarely think or hear about now is the geekiness: lots of names of things to learn and remember. There are plenty of saints mentioned in Paradiso (really??), some of whom I'd not heard of for a long time, and I recalled for the first time in ages how saints were, in childhood, another thing with neatly categorisable attributes to learn, and spot (on pictures in different churches, for example)- in much the same way as birds, animals and cars were. (I used to be such a geek about cars; it's easy to do when you're a kid because you're nearer the height of the badges, model names, and engine capacity labels, and once you've started remembering those hooks it's easy to stick things on them.) Anyway, unfortunately none of these lesser-known saints were on the Wikipedia list and they needed separate searches.
This ability to understand parts of religion from the inside is one of the reasons I have difficulties with stricter parts of atheist doctrine. I find this understanding useful as a way of empathising with or just not much minding the devout, (who, let's face it, are not disappearing from the world any time soon) and it was probably good training for life in general to spend an hour or two a week being patiently bored with people I disagreed with in RE lessons and church services, once I'd decided, aged 10, that religion wasn't for me after all.
Obviously The Divine Comedy, even if it made me emotionally re-experience some of the sensations of religion, didn't convert me back. The triumphal feeling though, of "Yessss! I've actually finished that" (dizzying and surreal because it was unplanned and so swift) was tempered with something calmer and more benevolent. This is a lovely and astoundingly skilful translation simply as poetry, and I look forward to looking back through it.
*Another reviewer put it better: " the freedom and luxury of just reading the damn thing as a narrative is so exhilarating".(less)