Some painful reading

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Beata Beatrix, ca 1864-70.Here is the look of a great lady on the verge of death. Here is also the look of something else: What it feels like to read a bad book review.

I love the grim, gray pages of the Times Literary Supplement -- make that grim, grey pages -- even though the reading can get pretty tough at times, especially when you stumble on a bad review. They're not exactly hatchet jobs, but they seem just as pointless.

I was disappointed -- and a bit dismayed -- by a recent TLS piece on two translations of Dante's Vita Nova by a fellow who hasn't finished his doctorate yet.

It didn't bother me that he didn't care for the version by a guy I've worked with before -- Andrew Frisardi -- but it's all the high-minded nonsense in his criticism that's hard to take. It's the I-know-Dante-better-than-Dante-himself tone that all graduate Lit students suffer from (speaking from experience here).

"One wonders," the review says about a modern euphemism Frisardi uses, "whether the quest for modernity extends to political correctness. How else to explain the female subject of 'acts cool' when the Italian has a genderless (etymologically masculine) 'colui'?"

This graf is so full of posturing that I'm not going to waste space on an explanation.

A few lines later, there's a nice backhanded compliment: "Where Frisardi's edition excels is in its use of current scholarship. With over 200 pages of notes... it is surely intended for students, though echoing their speech in the lyric is a questionable strategy."

"it is surely intended..." Good grief.  That sounds like the assessment of someone who never steps outside or takes a break from the books. Or hasn't read David R. Slavitt. Or Lowell's imitations.

I'm adding this to my folder of bad examples of book reviews -- right alongside a ridiculously negative review (also in the TLS) of Arthur Phillips' novel The Tragedy of Arthur by an Elizabethan scholar who didn't think Phillips' Shakespearean verse was Shakespearean enough.

If you're ever the subject of such a review, my friends, please take heart. Even though the printed page gives validity to these pieces, try to work through your feelings and just remember that your most important critic should be you (etymologically neutral).