viernes, 2 de julio de 2010

The Divine Comedy I: Inferno

The Inferno of Dante [Inferno] (The Noonday Press, 1997)
by Dante Alighieri [bilingual edition with a verse translation from the Italian by Robert Pinsky]
Verona, 1314

While reading poetry in translation is easily the compromise of all compromises, I have nothing but good things to say about how well Robert Pinsky's free verse translation of the Inferno flows (i.e. I can't speak for how accurate the translation is, but it reads like a thing of beauty terza rima or not).  Of course, it helps that the Inferno itself is so freaking good!  Since you can find better summaries of Dante's Virgil-led journey through the nine circles of hell elswhere, I'll merely mention a few of the things that made reading this so involving for me.  First up, there's that unresolved tension between Dante the poet and Dante the character in the poem.  While it takes a rather large amount of moxie to write yourself into history as the sixth world class poet in a continuum of "giants" including Homer, Horace, Lucan, Ovid, and Virgil (Canto IV, 70-87), Dante the poet's apparent hubris is lessened by the amount of times Dante the character is literally cowering in fear throughout his journey through the underworld.  In addition, there's something all too human, if not very forgiving from a Christian point of view, about Dante's reactions to particular shades he meets in hell: "and death to your family line," he angrily tells off one already-suffering victim late in the poem (Canto XXVIII, 100).  Although these "two Dantes" combine to form a fascinating character study, both poet and pilgrim at once, a second thing that's no less arresting from a psychological point of view is the Inferno's novel conception of the underworld.  Heroes from antiquity, various clerical and lay figures from recent history in the Italian city states, and even figures from literature and myth all vie for the reader's attention, forming an underworld cosmos that's like a hall of fame of the pagan, Christian, and schismatic damned.  While Dante's visceral descriptions of the punishments that are meted out are well worthy of his fame, I was actually more wowed by how you might run into Minos one minute and Saladin or a troubadour holding his decapitated head in his hands in the next.  Truly inventive.  Finally, Dante's own prowess as a poet is undeniable even in translation.  Whether providing a simple description (Canto II, 45-46: "her eyes out-jeweled the stars in splendor"), a provocative metonym (hell is described as "sorrow's hospice" in Canto V, 15), using repetition and contrast in close order (Canto XIII, 66-68: "My mind, in its disdainful temper, assumed/Dying would be a way to escape disdain,/Making me treat my juster self unjustly"), or trotting out a Homeric simile updated for the 14th century ("Like those who shake,/Feeling the quartan fever coming on--/Their nails already blue, so that they shiver/At the mere sight of shade--such I was then," we read in Canto XVII, 75-78), the poet is always up to the challenge, always in charge of his métier as a craftsman.  Amazing stuff, no?  Ha, what a surprise!

Dante by Botticelli

Although I kind of rushed through the Inferno this past week to be able to post on it in time for this weekend's readalong kickoff, I look forward to discussing it all month long if any stragglers care to join in on the fun.  Please let me know what you thought about it!

More on Dante's Inferno

21 comentarios:

  1. While normally I prefer to eschew paranormal books involving romantic liaisons, your review does make this sound appealing. I had forgotten that Dante met all those rock stars in Hell. I wonder (in vain, I suppose), how much Robert Pinsky, as a renown poet in his own right, manipulated the translation to add beauty in English. (It's so frustrating and awful to be monolingual!)

    By the way, if you're looking for a good time, put "abandon hope, all ye who enter here" into Google and check out some of the hits, which range from evangelical interpretations of who does and does not deserve to go to Hell, to hotel reviews....

  2. *Jill: Ha ha, you can rest easy--there are no mushy romantic entanglements in Inferno except for the cautionary tale of Francesca and Paolo in Canto V! I'll try to look into the Pinsky accuracy question before too long, but I'm not sure how far my remedial Italian will get me. P.S. Thanks for the tip on the hell quote amusement possibilities. I forgot to mention that sequence because I was trying to finish off my post in between the two World Cup matches today, but that scene/interpretation is a classic for sure. Cheers!

  3. I completely agree with you about Dante's novel conception of Hell; to me, it was more terrifying than any horror film could make it. So creative, and at the same time so real.

    I also loved this line from your post: "Dante the poet's apparent hubris is lessened by the amount of times Dante the character is literally cowering in fear throughout his journey through the underworld." Dante the character becomes very real to us (me) because we can see his humanity.

    My translation is from Ciardi, and I truly loved it. This is the first time through Hell for me ;), and it's good to have guides through the journey in this read along you're hosting.

  4. Yep, Dante does have an ego. In Canto 8 he implicitly compares his journey to that of Christ's. I like your idea of the two Dantes - the "rock star" and the frightened pilgrim.

    I echo the frustration of being monolingual! For my Dante class I had a professor who was actually Italian, and I loved hearing her read the original language. But I have the Durling translation of Inferno and Purgatorio and it's pretty good language-wise.

  5. Dante surprised me: I ended up loving Inferno far more than I thought I would--largely for his invention and his language. I agree, the issue of translation in poetry is tricky. The version I read (Mandelbaum) didn't employ terza rima, preferring to focus on the meter of the poem. Which is better to focus on, I suppose is a matter of personal opinion. I did sometimes wonder, though, about the use of English as compared to Dante's original words--how much of the translator's own poetic sensibility is coming into play? I read the first Canto in Italian to get a taste for it, but I'm afraid my Italian isn't good enough to really immerse myself in Dante's original words. Something to strive for, I suppose!

    I also was intrigued by Dante's combination of Classical and Christian personages and ideas. The combinations and inventions of his narrative feel fresh even 700 years later. Great stuff!

  6. *Bellezza: Although this was my second time reading Inferno in its entirety, I enjoyed it much, much more this time around (patience? maturity? better taste?). Agree with you about how almost cinematically terrifying and vivid Dante's hell was. And Dante's humanity has a great deal to do with our enjoyment of the poem, doesn't it? Makes it easy to identify with him on some levels even though his journey is so wild and nightmarish!

    *E.L. Fay: I think I was so starstruck by Virgil the last time around that I didn't realize how complex a character Dante himself was in this poem. Will be interesting to see how this changes in the next two installments since I've never gotten farther along than partway into Purgatorio. On the language issue, the nice thing about Italian is what you see is what you get pronunciation-wise. No trick pronunciation games like in English or French!

    *Amanda: First, so glad to hear that you loved Inferno far more than you had expected! Second, props to you for given Canto I a go in Italian! I'd like to do something like that sometime during the readalong, but I've only had a year of Italian and don't expect to get far--but we'll see. By the way, glad you mentioned the mix of classical and Christian "personages and ideas." I know that wasn't an unusual thing for late antique and medieval writers to do from Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy on, but Dante's approach was so fresh and so eye-opening it was still pretty stunning to me. Thanks to you, Bellezza and E.L. Fay for reading along--I look forward to checking out your posts tomorrow (have been away all weekend). Cheers!

  7. Yep, it's like Spanish - spelled the way it sounds. I used my knowledge of Spanish to read the Italian out loud in class and apparently I was perfectly comprehensible.

    I haven't gotten any further than halfway through Purgatorio either because that's where the class ended. I couldn't fit part 2 into my schedule so that means I can't cheat next month! I have no notes! I'm on my own!

  8. I apologize for being late to the discussion (I was out of town all weekend and the iPhone is just not conducive to discussions about Dante).

    This is my 3rd time reading Inferno...once in university, then again last year and now I've just re-read Pinksy's translation. Each time I come away with new impressions and yet I still feel like I am only scratching the surface.

    The comments about ego really got me thinking this time through. I saw more egotistical writing this time than on my previous reads. For example, I read this as a poem that Dante simply thought up and wrote down, not as a real dream he had (I could be wrong, but what the heck). That said, I think he is terribly egotistical placing political adversaries in Hell while he just skates through. And he continually mentions the pity he feels for the agonies they are suffering....I think it's entirely egotistical (and I could understand why some people might think heretical?) for Dante, as the author not a character, to assign judgement on his contemporaries.

    I thought it also egotistical of him to place the love of he and Beatrice on such a blameless, pure pedestal.

    I should also note here that despite my viewing Inferno as an offshoot of Dante's ego, I have a tremendous admiration of the work. Every time I read Inferno, I'm compelled to go back and re-read mythology again!

  9. *E.L. Fay: No cheating! Good for you!

    *Michele: Blogger has been acting up with the comments here yesterday and today, so I apologize for the hassle if your comments disappear again! In any event, your points about Dante's ego are well-taken. Whatever his overall message might turn out to be, it is a little harsh to see him sitting in judgement on his adversaries and a little over the top to see his love for Beatrice being assigned a celestial seal of approval. Of course, I totally agree with you that the Inferno itself surpasses all these criticisms. It has so much to offer, repeated readings or not. Thanks again for your extensive comments--sorry they got eaten!

  10. LOL - no problem, I wasn't worried. :) Blogger has been messing with all of us the past couple of days!

  11. I really only had a year of Italian also, but there's so many similarities with Spanish that I can muddle my way through with a good Italian/English dictionary on hand. If you have the time, I'd recommend trying at least a little out, maybe a favorite passage, just to get a little of the flavor of Dante's original words.

    In some ways I'm impressed by Dante's ego--not only did he have the audacity to place himself in a position of judge (as the author) over his contemporaries, but I especially noticed in the later part of the poem how he kept telling people that he would share their stories so that their name would live on. I wonder, even with his ego, if Dante ever imagined the poem would last this long and well?!

  12. The whole rock star angle has me tempted to read but I am firmly ensconced in my usual summer fluff parade. And really happy about it. But I am off on Jill's Google snark trail and pondering a point you make in the beginning about the difficulties of translating poetry as I take up the new Edith Grossman take on translation. But I can't seem to leave. Feeling I am missing something. But currently too lazy to act. See you for Oe.

  13. *Michele: Thanks--had no idea that the comments were a problem for so many other people till late last night!

    *Amanda: I'd love to find out more about what Dante thought about his poem while he was writing it. And ego or not, 700 years is a great first step towards immortality for anyone! Thanks for the language tip, too. :D

    *Frances: If you're "really happy" about being ensconced in your "usual summer fluff parade," you should have no reason to fret about missing out on ONE OF THE GREATEST POEMS OF ALL TIME, my friend! All kidding aside, you can always tune in via the comments box to catch Jill's rock star witticisms and the like even if you're not in the right frame of mind to read Dante with us right now. It's not like he's going out of print anytime soon, y'know?!? P.S. Look forward to the Oe and what you have to say about the Edith Grossman (have heard mixed things about the latter).

  14. True enough. And haven't started the Oe but (sigh) the Grossman is a mixed bag - all highs and lows. Some repeat material which I did not realize going in. I'm off. Some yummy foodie fluff is calling me.

  15. This was my first introduction to Dante. I was fascinated by the punishments he dreamed up for the sinners. They were all so fitting.

    Richard - I think that like you I would probably enjoy Dante more with a second reading. The first time through was a bit of a struggle.

    I posted about it here...

  16. *Frances: Too bad about the Grossman. You're not the first to mention highs and lows to me, though, so no real surprise on that end unfortunately. "Yummy foodie fluff" sounds stupendous, though. Enjoy!

    *Avid Reader: I'll be over to (re)visit your post in just a bit--the East Coast heatwave has sapped all my blogging energy of late! Anyway, glad you enjoyed aspects of the Inferno despite the effort required. I enjoyed it my first time as well, but I found the payoffs were exponentially higher the second time around. Cheers!

  17. Even if I don't read the rest of the Divine Comedy I will definitely be back to read the discussions. Thanks for hosting Richard!

  18. Got Cantos 27-34 posted. Week of Dante DONE!

  19. I finally posted my own thoughts on Dante last week. I know, 2 weeks late.

    "like a hall of fame of the pagan, Christian, and schismatic damned." I liked this. It's so true and it is one of the things I liked most about reading this. It was my first time reading Dante so I'm sure there is a lot to learn the second time around, but I'm simply glad that I finally gave this a go and wasn't at all disappointed.

  20. *Avid Reader: Thanks, but the pleasure was all mine! Will look forward to chatting again when the other "roundtables" take place. Cheers!

    *E.L. Fay: Sorry for the delay in updating/reading your last post. What a terrible host I am!

    *Iris: No worries--thanks for participating in the readalong and thanks for letting me know about your post! Will be by soon to check it out. By the way, I'm glad you found the experience worthwhile. So many people seem to be scared of Dante for some reason. Cheers!

  21. I finally got to reading Inferno and whoa, awesomeness. I am in love with the Hollanders' translation. It's so beautiful. How ironic right, given that the scenes and images were horrific.

    I am, like you, amazed at the breadth of characters he peopled the book with.. Looking forward to Purgatorio very much.