Thursday, February 21, 2008

Daunted by Dante (or not)

Several months ago, as part of my ongoing effort to read through the Harvard Classics set sitting on my shelf, I picked up The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, translated by Henry F. Carey. Portions of the Hell (aka Inferno) part were almost too well written, if you ask me. (Nightmares, anyone?) But it certainly earned its reputation as an extraordinary piece of literature. (Although, may I state for the record that I'm glad Dante is long gone, and can't categorize or analyze me? Yinga.) Purgatory was likewise an amazing, and sometimes unsettling, read. But as I got closer to Paradise, I started wondering who the author was and what he'd done with Dante. For weeks and weeks now, my bookmark hasn't moved. The book sits in the dining room, reminding me of my failure (so far) to finish.

I don't blame the translation at all. In most places it's superbly clear, and there are intro notes to each Canto, and footnotes. It's a well-presented book, full of insight and wit. I just thought it rather fell apart when Beatrice entered the picture. Virgil she isn't. And, so far at least, I dislike her. I also felt the writing and insight fell off a bit. To be fair, though, I barely got into the Paradise part. For all I know, it gets better.

Julie D. (aka Happy Catholic) is also reading The Divine Comedy. She went to the bother of comparing translations before she started. See Happy Catholic: Which Version of Dante I am Reading ... and Why for what she found out. I figured there were probably several translations, but I had no idea, really. And I find it surprising that her library apparently didn't have the Carey translation. You'd almost think that the Harvard Classics version would be something of a standard.

I guess I shouldn't feel so bad, being a few months into the book, and not being finished. Julie D. says in her post that she's had the library's copy for about a year now, renewing it online as she goes.

She mentions that she was inspired to read The Divine Comedy by reading Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. That's a science fiction book, if you don't know, but one modeled after Dante's Inferno. She has a link to an earlier post of hers, about that book, and in it is an excerpt from the book:

"Fortune tellers," Benito said before I could ask. "They tried to see the future by magic." ...

Then I recognized one of the damned.

A little elderly lady, very prim and proper. She'd been a teacher in my nephew's school. Now she walked with her head turned backward, and tears ran down her spine and between her buttocks. I screamed. The damned looked up at me.

"Mrs. Herrnstein! Why?" I shouted.

She looked away. Then she stopped and looked up. Face and back turned toward us. She's always been thin, and I'd never thought of her as particularly feminine. Certainly she wasn't feminine now. "I belong here, Mr. Carpentier," she called. "Please leave. I don't want to be watched."

"You belong here?" I could not see Mrs. Herrnstein with a crystal ball.

"Yes. Whenever I had a pupil who had difficulty learning to read, I used -- I was a bad teacher, Mr. Carpentier."

"You were a good teacher! You taught Hal more in a year than he learned in five!"

"I was a good teacher with good pupils. But I could not be bothered with the ones who weren't so bright. If they had trouble learning to read, I said they had dyslexia."

"Are you here because of bad diagnoses?" This was monstrous!

"Dyslexia is not a diagnosis, Mr. Carpentier. It is a prediction. It is a prediction that says that this child can never learn to read. And with that prediction on his record --- why, strangely enough, none of them ever do. Unless they happen on a teacher who doesn't believe in educationese witchcraft."


"It was witchcraft, Mr. Carpentier. Please go now." She walked on, crying uncontrollably, her face toward us as she walked away. I watched until she was out of sight.

Food for thought, anyway...

Update: I've now read Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, and am issuing a language and content alert. In all but one place I thought the four-letter words, etc., were more or less 'appropriate' - that they were part of the story, in other words, and what you'd expect from certain types of characters. Overall, it was a powerful, thoughtful, thought-provoking, compelling, albeit sometimes unsettling, book. (Rather like its namesake.) For what it's worth, I'm glad I read Dante first.

1 comment:

Steve Emery said...

Good review - entertaining to read.

I'd forgotten that excerpt from Niven's and Pournelle's Inferno. I recall the parts about bad drivers...

It's one of the unfortunate and often remarked traits of Dante that he is at his best when writing the Inferno... but in general it might be easier to write good horror or satire than more uplifting stories (like Paradise). Or maybe it says something about us that we find the descriptions of Hell, and the more ambivalent Virgil more interesting than Heaven and the supposedly holy Beatrice. OR - maybe the fact that Dante's Paradise and Beatrice are a bit boring means the afterlife will not be like that - that Dante makes God and Heaven too vanilla, too clean, too neat, too (yawn).