Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Book One: Hell, translated by Clive James (Picador 2013)
My rudimentary Italian isn’t up to reading the Divine Comedy in the original. I have started out on a couple of translations, Dorothy Sayers’ being the one I remember, but each time after a couple of pages it started to feel pointless: I mean, he’s in a wood, when a leopard blocks his path, or maybe it’s a wolf, a lion and a leopard, and the evening star rises, then Virgil appears – as they say on the Internet, WTF! Apart from my ignorance of 13th Century Italian terms of reference, it was clear the prose translations were missing something crucial. I haven’t had any more joy with verse translations, in spite of having been fascinated by terza rima, the Divine Comedy‘s verse form, since I read John Manifold’s ‘The Tomb of Lt John Learmonth, AIF’ as a teenager. So it’s no small thing when I say that Clive James’s version, in rhyming quatrains, is readable. The narrative hums along, the action is mostly clear, and even some of the references are glossed (that leopard, for example, seems much less arbitrary thanks to a little parenthesis: ‘was this the leopard, Lechery?’).
One other thing helped me approach the book as something other than an exhibit in the Travelling Museum of Great Literature. I’d heard the late Peter Porter in one of his turbo-charged radio conversations with Clive James describe Dante’s Inferno as repellent because of its mean-spirited punitiveness. ‘Oh,’ I thought, ‘so I don’t have to read it on bended knee.’ That and the romantic circumstances of the translation: Clive James’s wife is a leading Dante scholar; he has terminal cancer and they are estranged; it’s hard not to see this huge labour as a deathbed love offering.
So, the book itself? Dante is having a midlife crisis when the Roman poet Virgil appears and takes him on a tour of the mediaeval Christian afterlife (for reasons that remain obscure to me, but that’s just quibbling). The tour takes 100 cantos, of which the set-up takes one and Hell, Purgatory and Heaven in that order take 33 each. I intend to read the whole work, but I expect I’ll have different responses to each of the books, so Hell has its own blog entry.
As I said, the narrative hums along, with so much ingenious, graphically-described hideous suffering it’s surprising a video game hasn’t been made of it. There are lots of allusions, to Classical mythology, to the politics of Dante’s time and place, to Italian history, to Arthurian legend, to scandals in the Papacy. No doubt if you knew your Guelphs from your Ghibellines and your Boniface from your Celestine you’d get more out of the poem than I did, and I can see how someone could devote their professional life to studying it. But for instance, I’ve read Virgil’s epic, the Aeneid, and know that Dante’s journey into hell refers to the section where Aeneas, like Odysseus in the Odyssey, visits the Underworld and has the shades of the dead speak to him. But knowing this doesn’t make all that much difference to how the story works.
Deeper levels of meaning resonate, of course. I dare to disagree with Peter Porter. Rather than being mean-spirited and punitive, I read Dante as challenging the orthodox doctrine of eternal damnation: over and again, his character feels pity for the suffering souls he encounters, which creates an undertow of implication that God is less compassionate than humans. I have no idea of course if such a challenge was in Dante’s mind, but there’s definitely a tension between an emerging humanist sensibility and a mediaeval doctrinal view. The mixture of classical and Christian references is another marker of that tension.
Less portentously, there’s a strong element of crowd-pleasing satire. Public figures who lied or murdered or allowed evil to triumph by standing by and doing nothing are all punished in gruesomely appropriate ways (and forget what I just said about compassion). Splitters are split; muckrakers drown permanently in muck; and so on. The idea of eternal damnation may be abhorrent to a modern sensibility – I remember fondly the Marist Brother who said to us in 1969, ‘I believe in hell because it is a dogma of the church, but I don’t have to believe that any human has ever been sent there by a merciful God’. Even in my traditional Catholic childhood we were told that none of us could know if any individual had been damned: even Judas may have repented as the rope tightened around his neck. But as I read Dante via James, atavistic vengeful impulses surfaced: I wondered what punishment should be meted out to those Labor Party MPs who undermined Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership and so gave the government of Australia to the current ruthless gang, and I wondered about the immortal souls of ostentatiously Christian political leaders who equivocate and plunder and gloss over deaths that happen on their watch. Satirists these days can do little more than mock and reproach: Dante could threaten the objects of his rage with eternal suffering.
Now, having passed through the knot at the centre of the earth and climbed back up to see the stars again, it’s time to move on. I’ll write again after Purgatory