P.S. Dante's salty bread

Credit: Fastily While a Kirkus Review item on Prue Shaw's Dante book praises Shaw for showing us the genius of Dante's work, there's something else I'd like to mention -- more of an aside than anything else -- that is just as worthy as her assessment of that mighty poem.

The poet's biography, embedded in the lines.

Not the major elements of his biography -- not his encounters with actual friends and family members, enough's said about that -- I'm thinking more of stray, little bits that dramatically illustrate his own circumstances.

One is especially moving to me, my friends. Maybe it will be to you, too.

In Paradiso, canto 17, Dante speaks of his exile from Florence. Following a gorgeously-stunning line that I can't help but think inspired Cavafy -- Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta/piu caramente... ("You leave behind everything that you love most dearly"), he continues:

Tu proverai si come sa di sale lo pane altrui, e come e duro calle lo scendere e 'l salir per l'altrui scale.

("You will know how salty is the taste of another's bread, and how demanding a road it is to climb up and down another's stairs")

There's the real cost of being exiled -- the realization that one is lost comes with every bite of food and every movement through another's house. (I'm sure that anyone who's ever  had to sleep on a friend's couch for a few weeks  can appreciate this sentiment.)

Shaw is oh-so wise to include it. Yet another way to remind us of the poet's circumstances.



Second only to Paris ... 700 years ago, that is

Florentine sunset: courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/people/sherseydc/ Well, we wouldn't have Shakespeare's sonnets if plague hadn't closed all the London theaters; we wouldn't have Henry James' novels (a mixed blessing) if he'd struck gold as a playwright; and we definitely wouldn't have Dante's "Comedy" if the poet hadn't been driven out of Florence.

In other words, misfortune's often been the handmaiden to great art.

That last example is taken from Prue Shaw, whose recent book "Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity" (Liveright/W.W. Norton) achieves what seemed impossible -- to provide a fresh assessment of the poet and his poem for modern readers.

Why impossible?

It's not hard to understand, my friends. Go to the "D" shelf in your local university library. Or do a quick Google search. You'll find that Dante's poem is encased -- entombed (like Farinata in circle 6 of Hell) -- within layers of critical commentary (both scholarly and mainstream) . It seems that everything that could be said about the poem has been said about it.

And besides that, most of us cling to some snobby presumption about Dante that sounds like this:

"Devils and circles, a big terraced mountain and a damsel, and heaven at the end of it ... what else is there to know?"

What would Dante think of such a response? There's a Dore engraving that, I think, says it all:


He definitely didn't suffer fools. A pretty intimidating image.

And for those intimidated by the poem itself, the great mediator lately has been thriller-king Dan Brown, whose latest psychopath in the Robert Langdon series is a lover of "Inferno" (ok, so what does that say about the rest of his fans?).

ReadingDante_978-0-87140-742-9-1Shaw's the one, though, who really deserves the honor of being mediatrix, not Brown -- her book makes a compelling, poignant  case for why we should really care about this epic  composed some 700 years ago.

Why? Because it is easy to forget the ingenious, intricate structuring of the tripartite poem, the scathing political commentary, and the risks that Dante took -- which is why Shaw spends the first half of  her book on vivid descriptions of 13th century Florence's socio-political landscape. Today, she's a picturesque tour stop; in Dante's day, Florence was far more, "a huge metropolis in medieval terms. Only Venice and Milan equalled Florence in size; only Paris was larger."

When it comes to Dante, historical context is easily lost. But Shaw deftly sets his struggles against a tumultuous world and a corrupt pope (Boniface VIII) in terms that we can all easily understand:

Dante is as "engaged" a political writer as there has ever been, and as brave a one. A modern parallel would be Russian writers exiled under Stalin for speaking out: Osip Mandelstam comes to mind.

Dante as political dissident -- this is the sort of revelation that cracks away at all of the scholarship that's hardened over the poem through time.

There are plenty of other examples, like the "literary shoptalk" between Virgil and Statius which causes Dante to say of himself, "I listened to their talk, which gave me insight into writing poetry."

Or this bit about why, from a practical standpoint, Dante may have chosen to write in terza rima:

Medieval scribes often took liberties with the texts they copied. They cut bits they didn't like, added lines of their own, rather as a musician might treat a score as a basis for skilled improvisation. There is a whole scholarly industry devoted to scribal rewordings of the Roman de la Rose. Given the controversial nature of some of Dante's material, scribes might well have been tempted to censor the text by cutting awkward passages. But this is virtually impossible with the terza rims. Any cut will leave a text which is obviously botched. Any attempt to add material is likewise doomed to failure.

What Shaw accomplishes with passages like these is to inject blood back into the poet: He was human. He struggled as a writer, and he anticipated the meddling of editors by making his poem a bit harder to edit.

Scholar extraordinaire: Prue Shaw (photo by Cordelia Beresford)

(In this she is very much like "The Swerve's" Stephen Greenblatt, who is also published by W.W. Norton and who yours truly heard speak not long ago.)

My friends, I could easily go on, but then I'd have a 5,000-word blog post, which sort of defeats the purpose of a blog. If you've perused Call of the Siren before, I'm sure you know how much I adore Dante. But instead, I'll humbly point the way ahead to paradise, like Virgil did for the poet, and ask you to explore the riches of Shaw's book for yourself. Ciao, amici.





Want to blog about books? Here's how you do it ... plus new Dante

Writing_ball_keyboard Many folks write about books, and one of the most effective practitioners is a WP friend of mine, Jil Hoffmann. I want to point you in the direction of one of her recent posts --  a blend of reporting/commentary/mixed media as she describes Dan Chaon's insights into the craft of writing. "The Uncanny, Hope, and the Short Story" takes us from a reading of a Chaon short story into his literary reviews via an interview and a video clip. I like how the post gives us a rich taste of the experience of this particular story  ... and it doesn't drag readers through a long, long, long explanation. There's a knack to writing that has brevity and depth, and Jil's got it. Check it out.

Another impressive writer in the WP realm is Kathara, ruler of The Red Serpent. Lately there's been a storm of posts on that blog, and I just haven't been able to keep up. If you're interested in excursions through the enigmatic Grail countryside of Rennes-le-Chateau and all things occult, this is another worthy stop on your WP ambling.

book_inferno_revealedNew Dante: Ok, that's misleading. I admit it. No, Dante didn't write anything new. I'd be very surprised if he did. Being dead for more than 700 years produces serious writer's block. A new book, however, did land on my doorstep, Inferno Revealed: From Dante to Dan Brown by Deborah Parker and Mark Parker (published this month by Palgrave/MacMillan). The Parkers explore the first of the Commedia's three canticas and its legacy. Brown might be the most prominent popularizer of Dante because of his latest bestselling thriller, but he's far from the best or only one. What I enjoy most about the Parkers' book isn't their examination of the Inferno (I'll stick with Barbara Reynolds or Charles Williams or T.S. Eliot or John Freccero) but their exploration of Dante today, from David Fincher's film Se7en and the paintings of Sandow Birk to Tim Burton's film Beetlejuice and Ridley Scott's film Hannibal, etc. The book serves as a very helpful guide to Dante aficionados interested in tracing the immortal Tuscan's influence in modern pop culture. Stop here to visit the Palgrave/Macmillan website; or stop here to visit Deborah Parker's site, The World of Dante.

Coda: There's also a recent essay by Robert Pogue Harrison in the New York Review of Books. He takes on both Brown and Clive James' Commedia translation in a wonderful piece sent to me by the above-mentioned Ms. Hoffmann (thanks for that, Jil!).

Related at Call of the Siren

Translating the translator (part 1): Talking to Andrew Frisardi

Vanitas (still life): Michael Conrad Hirt, 1630 Now that the buzz around Dan Brown’s novel “Inferno” is settling down, let’s talk about Dante—the real Dante.

Andrew Frisardi is a celebrated translator and poet who calls Orvieto, Italy, his home and whose creative home is Italian literature. His most recent translation work includes the prize-winning Selected Poems of Giuseppe Ungaretti and Dante's Vita Nova. He's also an excellent critic, and I've had the pleasure of editing his book reviews (reading more than editing, actually) on several occasions.

Often, Brown gets kudos for introducing unfamiliar readers to a classical artist through his thrillers. Ok, that's superficially true, but the fact is, anyone truly interested in a deeper understanding of medieval Christendom's greatest poet would do better by considering Frisardi's translation, which critic Adam Kirsch praises as a "rich new edition" in his Barnes and Noble review.

In part 1, recently conducted via email (part 2 is coming later this week), Frisardi discusses his affection and admiration for Dante, as well as his views of the extremely cool circle of young Italian poets, the stilnovists, who changed 13th century poetry with their "sweet new style."


You’re known as an acclaimed translator of Giuseppe Ungaretti’s poetry. How did the decision to translate Dante's Vita Nova come about? 

I’d actually translated most of the Vita Nova a few years before the Ungaretti, long before I was ready to do it. Not that this helped me this time around--in fact, I never even looked at the old version, although I think I still have it somewhere in a box. That translation was awful anyway. But when I came back to the Vita Nova I was returning to an old love.

vita nova coverAn old love?

Yes. A little while after the Ungaretti, I fell for Dante even more than before. My earlier reading of Dante didn’t have the knowledge of Italian I’d gained by living in Orvieto for a number of years. By then I was in a position to notice my semi-literate neighbor using idiomatic expressions that Dante uses in the Divine Comedy—even though she’d never read Dante. Orvieto is in central Italy, as is Florence, so there is plenty of overlap of idiom. All of this really got me interested in the language of Dante, in a much more personal way. And, for three years, I was very enjoyably focused on the Divine Comedy, as part of an ad hoc reading group in town. I’ve been reading him ever since.

 Why does Dante's work continue to attract you, and how does translating Dante differ from translating Ungaretti? I can imagine that it was difficult to shift gears between them.

What drew me to Dante most of all was my own search for a visionary and metaphysical poetry. Dante is a great spiritual poet, maybe the greatest in the Western tradition. His writing goes to the roots of what it is to be human, to the most fundamental questions of who we are, where we come from, and where we are going. Ungaretti doesn’t have anything close to Dante’s range and scope and profundity. Then again, hardly any other writers do.

Ungaretti and Dante are very different poets, from very different periods of Italian history. But poetry is poetry—artful language and thinking/imagery/metaphors that get us out of the mindset of what Yeats called the “bundle of accidents that sits down to breakfast.” I don’t think of their differences so much as that they are both poets who have been important to me at particular phases of my life.

Was it difficult to keep the influence of other translations of Vita Nova from interfering with your work? 

This was easy for me for a few reasons. I didn’t look at any other translations of the poems until my version of a particular poem was more or less set. My process is to read the poem in Italian, go over it with a fine-tooth comb, using commentaries and other secondary sources, and then to do a prose translation. Then I memorize the original poem. Only after this do I begin translating it. Memorizing it enables me to see and hear things in the poem I’d miss otherwise.

Once my translation is all done, I often look at others’ versions at some point, to check against mine, but not always. I’m certain of the accuracy of my translation, so the only test left is the translation’s sound and texture, which I can get from the poem itself. That, and of course feedback from other poet-translators.

At this distance, I think it’s easy to forget that the stilnovists were flesh and blood. But they wrote in response to each other, challenged each other. (If they were alive today, they'd probably be bloggers on WordPress. That's the sense I get from the introduction to your new book.) Were Dante, Cavalcanti, and Company very aware of the larger public beyond their circle?

frisardiThey were a dynamic group, no doubt about it. Guido Cavalcanti was incandescently brilliant, both as a thinker and as a poet, and others such as Cino da Pistoia were very much engaged with the society of their time. Cino was a jurist. Dante was a leading politician in the Florence of his early adulthood, before his exile.

That said, the stilnovists or poets of the so-called “sweet new style” (as Dante calls it in Purgatorio canto 24) were not populists in our sense at all. They were avant-garde poets, but their accessibility quotient was closer to that of the French Symbolists than to the American Beats. They didn’t hesitate to express their vitriol for people they considered willfully ignorant--those who put material riches and prestige before the life of the mind or the soul.

In other words, they had swagger.

Definitely. Boccaccio tells a story in the Decameron of how Guido Cavalcanti was walking through a cemetery in Florence one day, when a group of young Florentine party animals--into being popular and rich, and that’s about it--came riding in on their horses, cornering Guido among the tombstones. They wanted to goad him, and started to ask him in an ironic tone why he always snubbed them.

He gave a brief and enigmatic response: “You can say anything you want to me in your own house.” And with that he leaped over one of the tombstones and started walking away. When he’d gone, they weren’t sure what he meant, until one of them realized he was referring to the graveyard, to their affinity to dead places. He was saying that people as ignorant and dull as they were, in comparison with him and his literary friends, were like dead men.

It definitely sounds like they didn't worry too much about cultivating an audience.

One common statement of the stilnovists is that their refined love poetry is for those who can get it, and those who cannot--well, that is their tough luck, they’re going to have to try harder.

Yes, they were aware of a public but they weren’t concerned with appealing to everyone. On the other hand, they were as famous in their time and place as lyrical poets generally get. Dante’s poem that we discuss [in Part 2 of the interview] was popular enough to be copied down by a scribe in Bologna well before the Vita Nova was published. But the stilnovists saw themselves as innovators in Italian poetry, ahead of their time--as in fact they were.

Related articles on Andrew Frisardi and Dante

Reviews of Dan Brown's latest ... ugh

Il Miglior Fabbro in a pensive mood (perhaps thinking about books and book reviewers): portrait by Agnolo Bronzino

Another Dan Brown novel, another pack of smug reviews.

Here’s my confession:  I’m already sick of the reviews of Brown’s "Inferno," and the book only pubbed a day ago. Reviewers say that Brown doesn’t do anything new in his latest, but here’s the thing: neither do they.

The criticisms are predictable; the angles are all the same. "How can he write such drivel?” they say, wringing their hands. At this point, after four books, attacking Brown's prose style or story line is unimaginative and tiresome -- like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel.

If they can do better than Brown, then they should give it a try. Please. That’s what’s changed for me, my friends. As I've worked with historical material and puzzles in a book of my own,  I’ve come to appreciate Brown even if I wouldn’t make the same narrative choices.

Every reviewer, in fact, should try to write a novel or a story before offering to review one. That doesn't mean that you'll become an instant cheerleader. But at least you'll have a broader perspective ... and maybe you'll avoid carpal tunnel syndrome from all that hand-wringing. Writing  is an extraordinarily humbling, powerful journey.


Good: New York Times (keeps perspective on the story, and the thriller genre): http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/13/books/inferno-by-dan-brown.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Decent: The Globe and Mail (it starts off like all the rest, and then changes) http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/book-reviews/has-dan-brown-become-gasp-a-better-writer/article11940973/ New York Daily News:  http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/music-arts/dante-catholicism-fill-brown-sizzling-inferno-article-1.1343823

Eye-rollers The Standard: http://www.standard.co.uk/arts/book/review-a-chase-a-blonde-some-dimwit-culture-it-must-be-dan-browns-new-blockbuster-inferno-8615057.html Clives James in USA Today: http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/books/2013/05/14/clive-james-dan-brown/2155487/

Praise (with an extreme back of the hand) The Telegraph:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/10053517/Inferno-by-Dan-Brown-review.html

Completely lame: The Guardian (imitating Brown’s writing)  http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/may/14/dan-brown-inferno-first-look

Mea culpa: I’m no innocent bystander. I was once guilty of this sort of holier-than-thou reviewing too  http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-et-lost-symbol14-2009sep14,0,5481048.story (blech)