Dante. 2021 is Looking Up

Who knew 2021 was a year of celebration for Dante’s Comedia? Dante 2021 starts on BBC R4 tomorrow 1th Jan with an introduction from Katya Adler broadcast last week. Apparently there are many events planned in Florence and beyond in 2021, the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death, having only just completed his magnum opus the previous year. I didn’t know any of that when I started a serious attempt to read it the weekend before Christmas 2020.

It’s a read that’s been on my list for most of the last two decades and probably 15 years since I acquired the Everyman Library translation by Allen Mandelbaum. I can even remember buying it, at Barnes & Noble on University Drive in Huntsville Alabama. The first of many false starts to actually reading it, prompted invariably by intriguing references in other works.

The next significant milestone was acquiring the Clive James translation in 2013. It looked more promising language but in fact proved another false dawn. But James’ notes did provide an important piece of information. As a read, it’s written backwards. With all the action in part 1 Inferno, and the dry philosophical theses in parts 2 and 3 Purgatorio and Paradiso. BBC Radio4 serialised the whole thing in 2014 and it’s being rebroadcast from tomorrow on BBC Radio4 Extra.

There was hope in early 2020 when I discovered Mark Vernon, active on my Twitter timeline, was a Dante scholar. But we know what happened to 2020! The tipping point to the latest attempt was reading the many references to Dante in Carlo Rovelli’s There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness a collection of his essays published in Italian media in recent years. As a big fan of Rovelli in my wider agenda concerning the metaphysical boundaries of physics and consciousness, that read was ultimately disappointing (a longer story) but I posted references to 6 or 7 really wonderful pieces in the first half.

I can confirm having completed Inferno and Purgatorio – skim-reading towards the end of the latter, and now thinking hard about embarking into Paradiso – that Mark, like Clive James, is right. Parts 2 (and 3) much tougher going than part 1. (After trying both versions – quite different in style – I did find the traditional translation easier, feeling closer to Dante himself.)

Though even in Purgatorio there is the recurring “virtual reality” of the physical geometry / topology of Dante’s world being somehow other than our orthodox 3D.

Anyway obviously I’m not writing “a review” of Dante, but I can say I’m really glad I shared Inferno and Purgatorio with him, even if I never venture into Paradiso. I am of course going to have to revisit the first two to pick out the metaphysical links – it’s not the kind of read you can really annotate as you read. The rhythm demands attention. Wonderful stuff, as many greater than I have commented previously.

Loved our visit to Florence and Pisa in 2018, focussing on Galilean connections. I can see future Dantean visits are on the cards, but maybe 2021 will enforce other priorities.


(Aside. One linguistic observation, the occupants in translation are referred to as “shades” – is that ghosts of souls?)

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