Of black coffee and the Comedy

Since finishing the MFA I’ve lost the ability to stick to any sort of reading project. I want to read or re-read all sorts of things, but then when I try I immediately stop. I’ve also lost the ability to sleep much at all. There’s just too much going on in my life, I’m too anxious. Perhaps this also explains the reading distraction. At any rate, it’s not all so bad. I like being awake in the small hours, the quiet and dark, alone, listening as I have these past few nights to the rain. It doesn’t happen a lot for me: my house is full; any day it will be fuller with a new child. So I make coffee at three in the morning, four in the morning, I write — and just in these past few days, or nights (neither term seems quite right), I’ve been reading La Commedia. And for once it’s the right words at the right time.

I’m trying to read the Comedy only in Italian, so I’m going a little slower than I otherwise might. But I’m not going too slowly, because I’m not reading any notes or researching anything I find obscure. I’m not looking back into anything written about the Comedy, though I know some excellent paraphernalia — by T.S. Eliot, Auerbach, Mandelstam, and there’s Charles Williams’ book on Beatrice, some essays by Dorothy Sayers. This is how I first studied Italian, by reading the Comedy with the Singleton prose crib handy. I read it and then Petrarch’s Rime Sparse, his 366 poems for Laura, written one to two generations after the Comedy, again with a prose translation handy in case I got too lost. I did this in the autumn of 2002 and the winter of 2003, the only previous time in my life in which I was as anxious as I am now, my mind and heart (Dante would perhaps say my will) going off in as many different directions. I wish I could read the Comedy again in the place where I read it that first time, a dingy cafe on Calhoun Street, in Cincinnati, called Baba Budan’s. The cafe is ancient history now, and the whole neighborhood there, by the University, has changed so drastically in the last fifteen years that I can barely recognize it now when I go back. Of course I was never exiled from Cincinnati, like Dante from Florence, but time makes exiles of everyone eventually, as surely as do any rivalrous Guelphs and Ghibellines.

I am not a huge fan of any of the verse translations of the Comedy. I’ve looked into many over the years. Perhaps I am too picky. If you can tolerate a somewhat dated and British style, Dorothy Sayers’ verse translation is technically admirable, at least much of the time, and it can be read smoothly as a whole — which is important. Even if I’m not reading them now, I certainly recommend Sayers’ essays ancillary to Dante’s art, of which there are quite a few. But for what it’s worth as an aside, the way I would suggest reading the Comedy today, if you have no Italian or not very much and especially if it’s your first time through, is by means of Charles Singleton’s en face prose translation. Read it first without bothering to look up references. Pause only sporadically, at most two or three times per section — ideally I would say only at the end of each of the three sections — to read through the commentary that Singleton provides. I would also read the commentary that Anthony Esolen provides to each canto. Together, these are the best notes. Sayers’ notes are also decent, but her translation is out of print and harder to find. Esolen’s is the best modern verse translation, and it is in American idiom. This would be the most affordable option. Singleton is in print but expensive. Nevertheless, I really think that versification hinders most people from reading something like the Comedy (this is simply a factor of how we read narrative and discursive material today and no comment on anyone’s literary acumen) and so my first recommendation, if you want to tackle what is arguably the first novel (sorry, Cervantes) in the Western tradition, is to pick up Singleton’s prose and notes.

You will never hear me call it the “Divine Comedy.” That’s Boccaccio’s handle; I’ve always thought it was stupid. The whole point of the Comedy is to collapse the distinctions we concoct (so as to hide behind them and live an unreflective life) between nature and supernature. To call the poem “divine” comedy is to let anyone not interested in “divine” things off the hook for reading it. And most of us, in fact, are not interested in “divine” things, because when things are classified as divine in contradistinction to earthly (I guess?) they tend to be very boring, because very abstract. The Comedy is indeed philosophical and theological; you could even say its intellectual content is more important than the intellectual content of any other hallowed work of literature in the Western tradition. And it can be fun to learn all that stuff. But why would someone sit up in the small hours reading the Comedy today? Perhaps the better question is: How can a postmodern like me read the Comedy? I think we can read it as what we now call fiction and as what we now call fantasy. Our use of the word fantasy in its literary connotation is directly related to Dante’s use of the same word in the Comedy… I’ll talk about that when my reading gets to those instances, which are — significantly, I think — in the Purgtorio and the Paradiso. I’m going to try to think a little about the Comedy in the next few posts, maybe one for each of its three parts. Here at the outset I want to propose a very basic, simple, schematic idea: If you read the Comedy with an eye to structure, its cosmic geography and imagery and the arrangement of mythical, legendary, and historical figures, monsters, wonders and so forth, then you have a masterpiece of fantasy; and if you read it with an eye to Dante the the poet-within-the-poem — the Narrator, I’ll simply call him — then you have an instance of what we usually mean by the term fiction, something utterly realistic, and it is realistic because it is interested primarily in Dante’s psychology or inner state (only occasionally and secondarily in the inner state of the people he meets). In other words, the Comedy is a prototype of the narrator-driven fiction that is, many people in addition to myself believe, the best and most interesting fiction (you can simply say prose) being written today.

Perhaps I’ve started reading the Comedy in these dark hours because I was craving both these kinds of writing, the fantasy and the fiction, and I wanted them seamlessly blended. And I think, also, that I wanted to read something that was a great love story and not also a tragedy. Just before I started the Comedy, I was going back over Chaucer’s masterpiece, which is not as many people have been told the Canterbury Tales, but Troilus and Criseyde — which is a tragic love story. I also recently read Rachel Cusk’s Faye Trilogy. I thought this was one of the most beautifully written and brilliant and important literary works I’ve encountered in a very long time. But it is also, at least as I read it, a eulogy for European civilization and for the relation between the sexes that has, for all its often horrible flaws, until now sustained and guided that civilization. I hope to weave in a few remarks about the Faye Trilogy as I write about the Comedy. In any case, I know the Comedy is the comedy of love. The mode of love that we see in the Inferno is pity. That will be the subject of the next post.