Call of the Siren exclusive: Andrew Frisardi's response

It isn't criticism that irritates--we're all adults here, right?--but what does is criticism that misinterprets and, in the process, misleads potential readers. frisardi-dante-coverWhen poet and translator Andrew Frisardi was on the receiving-end of such treatment for his translation of Vita Nova (Northwestern University Press) in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement, he did what anyone would do. He wrote to the editors to set the record straight.

They haven't printed his reply, but he's graciously passed it along to Call of the Siren. Frisardi's reply already appears in the comments thread of the post "Some painful reading," but it also deserves special attention here. Why?  Because I think it's a model example of how to respond if you're ever caught in a similar situation.

Frisardi could very well have let his temper flare, but instead he offers a measured response that's very much in the spirit of other TLS letters (so I can't understand why the editors haven't printed it) and that covers a lot of terrain in a short amount of space:


I agree with Adam Elgar’s disagreement with Paul Howard’s review of Anthony Mortimer’s and my editions of Dante’s ‘Vita Nova’. The review was off the mark in a number of ways, not least of which was his characterization of contractions such as ‘don’t’ as ‘modern’. Has Mr Howard read Shakespeare or Donne (who don’t hesitate to use ‘em)? Are the Elizabethans ‘modern’? Has he read Dante? Is he familiar with the very frequent speech-register Florentine diction—including contractions—even in the early poems? As for ‘cool’, the 1828 edition of ‘Webster’s’ says it means ‘manifesting coldness or dislike; chilling; apathetic; as, a cool manner’—a meaning still current, certainly an apt one for the context in the poem he cites, and hardly ‘modern’ or ‘politically correct’. Mr Howard criticizes the choice of adjectives in my translation of ‘Tanto gentile’, too, as being intrusively or self-consciously modern. I have the poem describing Beatrice as ‘open’ and ‘self-possessed’, which actually (as I explain fully in the notes section of the book) are truthful interpretations of the untranslatable words ‘gentile’ and ‘onesta’. Anthony Mortimer gives ‘gentle’ and ‘noble’ for the same words, thus ignoring altogether ‘onesta’, the thirteenth-century meaning of which can be given as ‘dignified’–or ‘self-possessed’. Instead he translates ‘gentile’ twice (and ‘gentle’ is questionable at best as a translation for that word). Neither Mr Mortimer nor Mr Howard ask themselves, apparently, why Dante says in the next lines of ‘Tanto gentile’ that people’s tongues tremble and their eyes don’t dare to look at her as Beatrice approaches. Would that be a normal reaction to someone who is merely ‘gentle and noble’, or was everyone in Florence prone to seizures? Rather, self-possession and openness certainly can be disconcerting, precisely because they are qualities of someone who is totally, vibrantly alive. This fits Dante’s view of Beatrice very well, despite the ‘seven centuries of reverence’ that Mr Elgar rightly points out throws a wet blanket over contemporary readings of the ‘Vita Nova’.

Andrew Frisardi Castiglione in Teverina, Italy

'I'm still looking for the answers': An interview with Ross King

Ross King, author of "Leonardo and 'The Last Supper' "; Credit: Judith Ghilks Why Italy? Why Leonardo? Why Michelangelo? Yes, these are simple questions, but they're the best ones to present to novelist and historical biographer Ross King, whose latest book is "Leonardo and 'The Last Supper' " (Walker & Company).

I borrowed a page (and some inspiration) from another book blog, The Arched Doorway -- and a nice interview of Karen Dales -- and decided to ask Ross  to discuss the motivations behind his writing (he's far too polite to ever refuse; note his friendly expression to the left).

Our discussion also moved in the direction of thriller writer Dan Brown, but this  conversation took place well before the announcement this week that Brown's forthcoming new Robert Langdon novel is situated in Italy, a country that Ross continually revisits in his nonfiction work.

You've written about Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Machiavelli, now Leonardo --- Where does your fascination with the Italian past come from?

Ross King: I’m interested in those moments in history when there’s a very definite shift -- a revolution even -- in the way people design, paint and think. Fifteenth-century Florence was probably the best example we have of these intellectual and artistic tipping points.

I’m interested in how it was that a city of only 30,000 people managed to produce, in the space of a century, geniuses such as Brunelleschi, Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Machiavelli. I’m still looking for the answers!

Your earlier books included novels, but your most recent books are works of nonfiction -- do you consider nonfiction to be your home, now, or would you consider a return to fiction if the right subject presented itself?

RK: I would definitely love to do another novel. Unbelievable as it seems to me, it’s been fifteen years since I wrote my last novel, “Ex-Libris.” I do have a few ideas, so it’s a matter of finding the time to develop them. I’ve learned a lot about writing in the last fifteen years, so I’m hopeful that I could do a reasonably good job!

How do you feel about books like "The Da Vinci Code" which suggest hidden conspiracies and messages in Leonardo's work? 

LeonardoRK: I don’t agree with many of the popular interpretations of Leonardo’s work. They say more about our own obsessions than those of Leonardo and his contemporaries. But on the other hand I don’t object to anything that makes people look more closely at works of art, or anything that brings artists to public consciousness. Funnily enough, “The Da Vinci Code” was in part responsible for my book on Leonardo.

It was? So Dan Brown deserves some credit for leading you to the subject of your newest book?

RK: Yes, in a way he does. Back in the heyday of Dan Brown, I used to get asked to give lectures on the “real” Leonardo and the truth, or otherwise, of “The Da Vinci Code.” The novel forced me to look very closely at the paintings and also to study the documentary evidence and historical record. It was while doing my research for these lectures that I realized how the full story of how Leonardo painted “The Last Supper” would be a fascinating subject for a book. So I suppose I ultimately do have Dan Brown to thank for that!

Your new book sheds so much light on the creation of a world masterpiece, and I wonder if thriller writers like Brown have actually helped you in another way: to reach an even wider audience. I'd bet that more people know about Leonardo now, thanks to Brown, and that must be helpful to writers with a more scholarly, serious interest.  What do you think?

RK: Yes, it may well be that “The Da Vinci Code” has helped writers tackling the historical Leonardo - such as Charles Nicholl or myself - reach a wider audience. So for that, too, I can make no complaint.

The 'D' in 'Dan Brown' stands for 'Dante'

IS THIS WRITTEN IN CODE? Dan Brown's signature. In "The Lost Symbol," the most recent of Dan Brown's thrillers featuring symbologist Robert Langdon, there's a moment when Langdon compares the murky, distant secrets of Europe with those of colonial America.

This nation may not be too old in comparison to the world across the pond, but there's a rich tradition of secrecy in this country that is exciting and intriguing. That's what he thinks. Soon after these musings, Langdon sets off on another chase-and-race-against-the-clock that is rooted firmly in red-white-and-blue soil.

In his forthcoming novel, however, Brown -- and Langdon -- are heading back to Europe. The publisher Doubleday announced today that it will publish a new Dan Brown novel in May. The title, "Inferno," refers to the one and only Dante Alighieri and his epic poem of medieval Italy, The Divine Comedy.

Here's Brown, from the news release, on what drew him to the immortal Tuscan:

"Although I studied Dante's Inferno as a student, it wasn't until recently, while researching in Florence, that I came to appreciate the enduring influence of Dante's work on the modern world," Brown says.

What exactly does "enduring influence" mean?  In Brown's world, it also points to a familiar theme in his past books: conspiracy. "With this new novel," Brown adds, "I am excited to take readers on a journey deep into this mysterious realm.... a landscape of codes, symbols, and more than a few secret passageways."

An exec editor at Doubleday also mentions that "Inferno" includes "a mystery that has global ramifications..." (Hm, I wonder if the Priory of Sion ever traveled to Italy.)

I'm looking forward to May so that I can see what Brown makes of a figure whom I've adored for all of my reading life.

My interest in the book isn't entirely neutral -- I have a story of my own involving the poet in the works -- but regardless of that, any time that is spent with Dante is time well spent. There's nothing better than turning off the television and wandering for a few hours with Virgil in Hell or up the slopes of the mountain in Purgatory.