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?)

10 thoughts on “Dante. 2021 is Looking Up”

  1. I found this a few years back after been looking it for ages. This is the Peter Greenaway/Tom Philips collaboration ‘A TV Dante’ from 1989. It was broadcast on Channel 4, back when it was still an innovative service. Although the project was never competed, this remains a brilliant exploration of both the first seven cantos and what television could be in the right hands. I was spellbound at the time. Now (2021) seems the right time to watch again.

    Not great quality, and intrusively subtitled in Spanish, but I was just happy to find it again.


  2. ‘after having looked for it…’
    Forgive me, Dante, fir mangling my mother tongue.

  3. Last thought.

    There is a chapter of Primo Levi’s If This is a Man called The Canto of Ulysses. It refers to canto 26 of The Inferno. It contains a wonderful moment, hardly possible, you’d think, under those circumstances of grinding misery, which attests to the power of Dante’s poetry and Levi’s receptiveness to it.

    Levi is walking with his friend, Jean (known as Pikolo), and translating into French for him, lines from canto 26:

    Ma misi me per l’alto mare aperto
    sol con un legno e con quella compagna picciola da la qual non fui diserto.

    Out, then, across the open depths, I put to sea,
    a single prow, and with me all my friends – the little crew that had not yet abandoned me.

    In attempting to capture the exact nuances of the lines, he tastes for a moment a blue Mediterranean freedom far from his terminal slavery on the bitterly cold and grey Polish plains:

    ‘It is throwing oneself on the other side of the barrier, we know the impulse well. The open sea: Pikolo has travelled by sea, and knows what it means: it is when the horizon closes in on itself, free, straight ahead and simple, and there is nothing but the smell of the sea; sweet things, ferociously far away.’

    And there it is, a beautiful instant, the impressive power of the entanglement of language and experience in poetry. One poet, in recalling the words of anothers’ imaginative conjuring of hell, finding momentary, if all too short-lived, release from his experience of the closest our species have come to actually instantiating it in this world.

  4. Fascinating. Primo Levi is another “on my list” I only know second hand so far.

    That line “nothing but the smell of the sea; sweet things, ferociously far away”
    Ferociously, puts me in mind of Melville.
    The scent of the thing sought, at sea, but in Ahab’s case “nothing but” the immediate stench of butchery.
    Wrote something around that when I read Moby Dick.

    And “the horizon closing in on itself” too. (Back to Rovelli’s “3-Sphere”)
    Quite different living amongst the Cleveland Hills, compared to the claustrophobia of “big sky country” like the US plains (or Cambridgeshire) or the open sea.

    Thanks again.

  5. There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness. Two articles in and smitten.

  6. I have limited myself to one Rovelli article per week, or thereabouts. I suppose you shouldn’t bolt down pieces intended for occasional consumption all in one go, like you would a continuous argument. But what a wealth of knowledge! What a largeness of heart! Like Montaigne, without the rambling, even though the rambling is one of the things to cherish in Montaigne (Raymond Sebond, anyone?) Still, a marvellous collection, with only a few points of disagreement and many of mute admiration.

  7. Overall I loved the Rovelli collection, though I did note the last third or so were progressively weaker IMHO – so as so often, I never really completed a full review.

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