Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Xmas Poem

[Ponsonby (1960s)]

(after Dante, Inferno i: 1-30)

12 years into the new millennium
the shops and offices on Albert St.
are emptyingFOR LEASE

Only the trees seem satisfied to lean
over the motorway approaches

greener – REDDERLARGER than before
but on benefit day (as you might guess)
every bar and park-bench’s fullYour old

Ford Laser looks right at home
on Fanshawe St.Pull over
(no reason why) by Victoria Park

and walk up College Hill
where once the HYDRA bacon sign
frowned down on us with threats of

steelthough you’ve lost sight
of such-like pieties in these
pre-xmas madness days

So even when you get the fear
at the sight of some photographer’s
shop window full of soon-to-be

knocked-up teenagers in skin-tight
gownswith their barely human
dates crammed into tuxedos

horny wrists protrudinglike when
you’ve swum sideways out of a rip
and staggered ashore exhaustedglad

you made it but not sure how you did
you look down on spaghetti junction
and resolve to complete your gift shopping

then see The Hobbitfinally


[AUP New Poets 3: Janis Freegard, Katherine Liddy, Reihana Robinson (2008)]

So far only Katherine Dolan (published above as Katherine Liddy) has responded to the challenge to produce her own version of the opening of Dante's Divine Comedy. Her translation is characteristically sharp and focussed, I feel, with some particularly happy choices in "my self's mere" for lago del cor [lake of the heart], and "feral bush" for selva selvaggia [savage forest].

I very much admire her transposition of that trade-mark Dantesque extended metaphor about the swimmer escaping from the waves, too:
And just like one who, gasping,
spat up from the sea on the shore,
turns to the breakers and stares,

so my soul, still a runaway,
turned back to look on the pass
that never let out a living soul.

I suppose I still have to have a go at it myself (as promised), though, despite feeling a marked inability to compete with Katherine.

I don't know if the above can count as any kind of a translation, but it's the best I seem able to produce at present. I guess it's more of a continuation of the poem "Xmas" which I posted on this blog some six years back, on 3rd December 2006, than any kind of response to Dante's quest narrative.

Is he just a "garrulous old Italian," though, as Katherine claims in her comment? I take her point that a lot of people may undertake the task of re-presenting his words as a kind of embodiment of the spiritual path (a little like walking the lines of the Chartres labyrinth). I can't help feeling a certain awe at the precision and sharpness of his imagination, though, even after all these centuries.

It may be a bit much to claim him as a proto-SF writer (as so many have done), but his tale still remains far more readable and even terrifying than any other medieval (or even classical) epic I can think of - with the possible exception of certain sections of the Iliad ...

[Tara Beth Weishaupl: Walking the Chartres Labyrinth (2009)]

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Divine Comedies (3): A Dante Translator's Primer

[Francesco di ser Nardo da Barberino:
Ms. of Dante's Divine Comedy (1337)]

A couple of years ago I posted a version of Eugenio Montale's poem "L'Anguilla" [The Eel] on this blog: first in my own translation, then as a literal Italian / English dual-text crib.

Quite a few of you took the opportunity to write in with your own suggested translations - while my one actually ended up in Marco Sonzogni's book Corno inglese: An anthology of Eugenio Montale's poetry in English translation (Novi Ligure: Edizioni Joker, 2009).

It occurred to me that it might be fun to try out the same thing with Dante. After all, as I've tried to illustrate in my last two posts, the English-speaking peoples seem to have a positive obsession with the Divine Comedy, so it seems a pretty safe bet that at least some of you are harbouring a secret desire to compose your own version of the whole colossal thing.

I don't think we can go quite that far (though if you do want to, there are plenty of resources to help you here). Instead, I thought I'd take the first 30 lines of the first canto - technically an introduction to the whole poem rather than just the first of three Canticas (which explains why the Inferno seems to have 34 cantos, rather than the 33 cantos of Purgatorio and Paradiso).

I've given them in various different versions:
  1. First, in the original Italian;
  2. Secondly, in Longfellow's nineteenth-century blank verse translation;
  3. Thirdly, in Dorothy Sayer's mid-twentieth-century verse translation (which preserves the original terza rima rhyme scheme);
  4. Fourthly, in Sandow Birk & Marcus Sander's millennial recasting into contemporary West-coast Valley-speak;
  5. and Finally, as a dual-text, with my own literal prose translation (together with a few notes).
I promise to try my hand at a verse translation of my own if any of you do. Otherwise, I can't help feeling that there are quite enough of them in existence already.

[Giotto (attrib.):
Dante Alighieri (c.1314)]

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!

Tant'è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch'i' vi trovai,
dirò de l'altre cose ch'i' v'ho scorte.

Io non so ben ridir com'i' v'intrai,
tant'era pien di sonno a quel punto
che la verace via abbandonai.

Ma poi ch'i' fui al piè d'un colle giunto,
là dove terminava quella valle
che m'avea di paura il cor compunto,

guardai in alto, e vidi le sue spalle
vestite già de' raggi del pianeta
che mena dritto altrui per ogne calle.

Allor fu la paura un poco queta
che nel lago del cor m'era durata
la notte ch'i' passai con tanta pieta.

E come quei che con lena affannata
uscito fuor del pelago a la riva
si volge a l'acqua perigliosa e guata,

così l'animo mio, ch'ancor fuggiva,
si volse a retro a rimirar lo passo
che non lasciò già mai persona viva.

Poi ch'èi posato un poco il corpo lasso,
ripresi via per la piaggia diserta,
sì che 'l piè fermo sempre era 'l più basso

- Dante Alighieri (1308-21)

[Johann Neumeister & Evangelista Angelini:
First printed edition of Dante's Divine Comedy (1472)]

[Southworth & Hawes:
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (c.1850)]

MIDWAY upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.

I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
So full was I of slumber at the moment
In which I had abandoned the true way.

But after I had reached a mountain's foot,
At that point where the valley terminated,
Which had with consternation pierced my heart,

Upward I looked, and I beheld its shoulders
Vested already with that planet's rays
Which leadeth others right by every road.

Then was the fear a little quieted
That in my heart's lake had endured throughout
The night, which I had passed so piteously

And even as he, who, with distressful breath,
Forth issued from the sea upon the shore,
Turns to the water perilous and gazes;

So did my soul, that still was fleeing onward,
Turn itself back to re-behold the pass
Which never yet a living person left.

After my weary body I had rested,
The way resumed I on the desert slope,
So that the firm foot ever was the lower.

[Gustave Doré:
Divine Comedy, Plate 7 (1861)]

[Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1928)]

Midway this way of life we're bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.

Ay me! how hard to speak of it - that rude
And rough and stubborn forest! the mere breath
Of memory stirs the old fear in the blood;

It is so bitter, it goes nigh to death;
Yet there I gained such good, that, to convey
The tale, I'll write what else I found therewith.

How I got into it I cannot say,
Because I was so heavy and full of sleep
When first I stumbled from the narrow way;

But when at last I stood beneath a steep
Hill's side, which closed that valley's wandering maze
Whose dread had pierced me to the heart-root deep,

Then I looked up, and saw the morning rays
Mantle its shoulder from that planet bright
Which guides men's feet aright on all their ways;

And this a little quieted the affright
That lurking in my bosom's lake had lain
Through the long horror of that piteous night.

And as a swimmer, panting, from the main
Heaves safe to shore, then turns to face the drive
Of perilous seas, and looks, and looks again,

So, while my soul yet fled, did I contrive
To turn and gaze on that dread pass once more
Whence no man yet came ever out alive.

Weary of limb I rested a brief hour,
Then rose and onward through the desert hied,
So that the fixed foot always was the lower;

[Dorothy L. Sayers:
Hell (1949)]

[Sandow Birk & Marcus Sanders:
Dante's Inferno. Illustrated by Sandow Birk. 2003
(San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2004)

About halfway through the course of my pathetic life,
I woke up and found myself in a stupor in some dark place.
I'm not sure why I ended up there; I guess I had taken a few wrong turns.

I can't really describe what that place was like.
It was dark and strange, and just thinking
about it now gives me the chills. It was so bleak
and depressing. I remember thinking I'd rather be
dead than stuck there. But before I get too far off track,
I should tell you about the other stuff that happened,
because, in the end, everything came out alright.

First off, I don't have a clue how I ended up there. I can't
remember anything about it because I had been pretty
tipsy when I wandered off the night before, and I was tired
and must've fallen asleep. After I got up, I wandered around
in the dark for a long time looking for a way out. Just when
I was feeling completely lost and was ready to give up,
I looked up and saw a faint light in the distance.
I figured that meant there must be a way out up ahead
somewhere. When I saw that light, I felt better, and the
fear I'd been holding inside of me that whole time started
to lift a little bit, because I figured I'd be outta there soon.
It felt like I'd almost been pulled over for something in a
car, but then the cop had turned away. I was sweating with
relief after making it through such a close call. As I started
up the hill, I looked back into the darkness behind me and
it seemed like no one could ever find their way out of there.

I was so exhausted; I sat down for a short rest,
then dragged myself uphill toward the glimmer
of light, leading with my left foot at every step.

- Sandow Birk & Marcus Sanders (2003)

[Birk & Sanders:
Inferno (2003)]

[Christopher D. Cook, curator:
Dante in Translation Exhibition (c.2005)]

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
[In the middle of the road of our life]
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
[I found myself in a dark wood]
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
[because the straight way was lost]

You can see straight away just how accurately Longfellow has echoed the word order of the Italian. Unfortunately, that makes for pretty barbarous English:
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

The noun-adjective inversion "forest dark" doesn't sound very idiomatic to me - neither does "the straightforward pathway." But is Sayers much better in this respect? There's been quite a lot of criticism of her decision to change the "road of our life" to "this way of life we're bound upon," but I don't myself see any falsification of the original meaning there. The expansions of simple Italian expressions - "wholly lost and gone" for smarrita, for example - required to pad out her lines to the requisite length (and to provide a convenient rhyme) seem rather more serious. Strangely enough, I find myself preferring Sandow and Birk's rather prolix - but conceivable - slacker-speak:
About halfway through the course of my pathetic life,
I woke up and found myself in a stupor in some dark place.

True, there's nothing to match "my pathetic life" in the original, nor does actually Dante find himself "in a stupor" - but both could be seen to be justified by the illustrations of the poet's spiritual state given further down.

Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
[Oh, it's such a hard thing to say what it was like]
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
[that wild and harsh great forest]
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
[that in thought it renews the fear!]

Longfellow's forest is "savage, rough, and stern;" Sayers' is "rude / And rough and stubborn." One can't really reproduce the effect of the expression "selva selvaggia" in English: perhaps the closest approach would be Shakespeare's "wood within this wood" (using "wood" in the old sense of mad, you understand) ...

Tant'è amara che poco è più morte;
[It was so harsh that death isn't much worse]
ma per trattar del ben ch'i' vi trovai,
[but to treat of the good that I found there]
dirò de l'altre cose ch'i' v'ho scorte.
[I'll speak of the other things I discovered there.]

Birk & Sanders' "other stuff that happened" actually isn't too far off from the simplicity of "l'altre cose ch'i v'ho scorte" - the real trouble with putting Dante into English is that one tends to lose the directness and casualness of his phrasing. Finding equivalent expressions tends to shift one into a rather more pompous register, partly, also, because of the (comparative) paucity of rhymes in our language.

Io non so ben ridir com'i' v'intrai,
[I don't really know how to repeat how I entered there]
tant'era pien di sonno a quel punto
[so full of sleep was I at that point]
che la verace via abbandonai.
[when I abandoned the true way]

Longfellow has him as "full of slumber," Sayers "heavy and full of sleep" - there's certainly no suggestion of his being "pretty tipsy," but then Birk & Sanders' Dante does seem to be far more of a contemporary Angeleno than a medieval Italian.

Ma poi ch'i' fui al piè d'un colle giunto,
[But since I had arrived at the foot of a hill]
là dove terminava quella valle
[there where that valley ended]
che m'avea di paura il cor compunto,
[which had filled my heart up with fear]

Birk & Sanders leave out the hill altogether at this point; Sayers makes it a "steep hill," Longfellow a "mountain." Some have seen it as Mt. Purgatory itself, which Dante is trying to approach without having first acknowledged and named his sins. Certainly its sunlit top looks like a prefiguration of the earthly paradise which he'll encounter towards the end of the Purgatorio. If so, he must travel pretty far (from the Earth's Antipodes to Jerusalem) in the next few lines of the poem.

guardai in alto, e vidi le sue spalle
[I looked up on high, and saw its shoulders]
vestite già de' raggi del pianeta
[already dressed with the rays of that planet]
che mena dritto altrui per ogne calle.
[which leads everyone straight on every path.]

The "planet" is the sun - Longfellow is probably correct in writing "Which leadeth others right by every road" [my emphasis], rather than Sayers' "Which guides men's feet aright on all their ways." The question is, though, is Dante himself included among those who are guided by its light? I don't see how he can be excluded from their number, however far astray he's gone lately.

Allor fu la paura un poco queta
[Then my fear quietened down a little]
che nel lago del cor m'era durata
[which in the lake of my heart had lasted ]
la notte ch'i' passai con tanta pieta.
[the night that I had passed so pitifully.]

There's not much that one can do with that "lago del cor" metaphor: Longfellow calls it "my heart's lake," Sayers "my bosom's lake" (mainly for metrical reasons, I suspect). Perhaps the idea of a lake of blood at the heart of every individual seemed more natural before Harvey's 17th-century discovery of the circulation of the blood ...

E come quei che con lena affannata
[And just like one who with panting breath]
uscito fuor del pelago a la riva
[escaped out of peril to the bank]
si volge a l'acqua perigliosa e guata,
[turns back towards the dangerous water and looks,]

Longfellow gives us "with distressful breath," Sayers cuts that down simply to "panting." Birk & Sanders try out the first of their substitute metaphors for Dante's originals. In this case, they turn the drowning swimmer to a DUI driver:
It felt like I'd almost been pulled over for something in a
car, but then the cop had turned away. I was sweating with
relief after making it through such a close call.

Personally, I rather like their boldness. I can see how purists might be irritated, though.

così l'animo mio, ch'ancor fuggiva,
[so my soul, which was still fleeing,]
si volse a retro a rimirar lo passo
[turned back to look again at the pass]
che non lasciò già mai persona viva.
[which no-one alive has ever yet left.]

Longfellow calls it "the pass," Sayers the "the dread pass," Birk & Sanders simply "the darkness" - whatever one calls it, it's clearly the same as the "dark forest" Dante's just emerged from: one might with perfect fitness call it the "Valley of the Shadow of Death," given the fact that no one has hitherto escaped from it alive.

Poi ch'èi posato un poco il corpo lasso,
[Then, after I had rested my tired body for a bit]
ripresi via per la piaggia diserta,
[I resumed my way along the desert shore]
sì che 'l piè fermo sempre era 'l più basso
[so that the more firmly planted foot was always the lower.]

Does he lie down for a sleep or simply have a bit of a sit-down?. Birk & Sanders are perhaps a bit over-explicit here:
I was so exhausted; I sat down for a short rest,
then dragged myself uphill toward the glimmer
of light, leading with my left foot at every step.

It's hard to dispute their reading of that last detail about the "more firmly planted foot," though - it clearly means that he's heading upwards (though he'll shortly be chased from his path by those three famous wild animals: the leopard, the lion and the wolf ...)

- JR: literal translation & notes (2012)

[W. S. Merwin:
Translation drafts for Purgatorio (2000)]

So there you go. Not so easy as it looks, is it? Hats off to everyone who's ever accomplished the task of a Dante translation - even those (such as Seamus Heaney) who've only given us a few cantos out of the whole hundred ...

Friday, November 30, 2012

Divine Comedies (2): Translations

I was fascinated recently to run across this rather strange translation-cum-art project version of Dante. Written by a couple of Californians with delusions of grandeur, the pictures deliberately update Doré's classic nineteenth-century illustrations to the Commedia to a modern West Coast cityscape.

  1. Birk, Sandow, & Marcus Sanders, trans. Dante's Inferno. Illustrated by Sandow Birk. Preface by Doug Harvey. Introduction by Michael F. Meister. 2003. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2004.
  2. Birk, Sandow, & Marcus Sanders, trans. Dante's Purgatorio. Illustrated by Sandow Birk. Preface by Marcia Tanner. Introduction by Michael F. Meister. 2004. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2005.
  3. Birk, Sandow, & Marcus Sanders, trans. Dante's Paradiso. Illustrated by Sandow Birk. Preface by Peter S. Hawkins. Foreword by Mary Campbell. Introduction by Michael F. Meister. 2005. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2005.

So far so good, but when it comes to the text, the artist and a non-Italian speaking writer friend of his decided to produce it themselves, with the aid of a few academic advisors and a lot of earlier versions. Dante's poetry is transmuted into a kind of slacker valley speak, with frequent modern allusions to make the whole thing more "accessible" to readers (adding Elvis and Rush Limbaugh to the list of gluttons in the Inferno, Jimmy Swaggart to the liars, etc. etc.)

Funnily enough, the result turns out to be extremely readable, even to a nit-picking pedant such as myself. In fact, my only quarrel with their method was that they didn't take it quite far enough. I like very much their updated versions of Dante's famous extended metaphors, but for the most part their content to insert "moderns" only into lists of famous sinners - the central dramatis personae: Paolo and Francesca, Ulysses, Ugolino, all remain the same.

It's not nearly as "poetic" as a lot of other modern versions, but that actually turns out to be something of a virtue. Anything is better than the high-flown translator-speak that so many more self-conscious writers have turned it into.

[Sandow Birk: Dante's Divine Comedy: The Complete Paintings (2005)]

[Gilbert F. Cunningham: The Divine Comedy in English, 1782-1900 (1965)]

Which leads me to my larger question: why are there so many English versions of Dante's Divine Comedy? It doesn't seem to obsess readers of virtually any other nationality the way it does us.

And, lest you think I'm exaggerating (which I must admit I do have a tendency to do at times), please accept as evidence the following list of versions, extracted from Gilbert F. Cunningham's magisterial two-volume discussion / bibliography of the phenomenon:

[Gilbert F. Cunningham: The Divine Comedy in English, 1901-1966 (1966)]

  1. Cunningham, Gilbert F. The Divine Comedy in English: A Critical Bibliography, 1782-1900. Edinburgh & London: Oliver and Boyd, 1965.
  2. Cunningham, Gilbert F. The Divine Comedy in English: A Critical Bibliography, 1901-1966. Edinburgh & London: Oliver and Boyd, 1966.

Cunningham's first volume covers the forty versions produced between 1782 and 1900; his second discusses the forty-three written between 1901 and 1966. 83 is an awful lot of translations, but of course the pace has hardly slackened since. I can name at least ten partial or complete translations which have appeared in English in the past few decades:

  1. 1967–2002: Mark Musa - Comedy (Penguin Classics)
  2. 1970–1991: Charles S. Singleton - Comedy (prose)
  3. 1980–1984: Allen Mandelbaum - Comedy (verse)
  4. 1981: C. H. Sisson - Comedy (verse)
  5. 1994: Robert Pinsky - Inferno (verse)
  6. 2000: W. S. Merwin - Purgatorio (verse)
  7. 2000–2007: Robert & Jean Hollander - Comedy (Princeton Dante Project)
  8. 2002–2004: Anthony M. Esolen - Comedy (Modern Library Classics)
  9. 2006–2007: Robin Kirkpatrick - Comedy (Penguin Classics)
  10. 2010 Burton Raffel - Comedy (Northwestern World Classics)

There's an interesting online discussion at the Librarything website on the topic "Which is the best translation of the Divine Comedy?"

The various candidates who come up are (in alphabetical order): John Ciardi, Robert and Jean Hollander, Allen Mandelbaum, W. S. Merwin, Mark Musa, Robert Pinsky and Dorothy Sayers, so I guess it's fair to say that modern American pet-translators are in the ascendent. It's interesting that Dorothy Sayers is still hanging in there, after so many years, though.

[Gustave Doré: Inferno 1: 88 (1861)]

I suppose the question really comes down to the precise reason why one needs to read Dante. If you have any Italian at all - or even a rough acquaintance with one of the other Romance languages - I think a prose dual-text is by far the most practical option. The best of these is probably Singleton's (listed above), though I do myself still find myself reading my old Temple Classics edition, archaic though it is - partially because I know it was the edition that T. S. Eliot used. What's good enough for Possum, is good enough etc.

  1. The Inferno. Ed. & trans. Philip H. Wicksteed et al. 1900. Rev. ed. 1932. The Temple Classics. London: J. M. Dent & Sons. Ltd., 1964.
  2. The Purgatorio. Ed. & trans. Philip H. Wicksteed et al. 1901. Rev. ed. 1933. The Temple Classics. London: J. M. Dent & Sons. Ltd., 1964.
  3. The Paradiso. Ed. & trans. Philip H. Wicksteed et al. 1899. The Temple Classics. London: J. M. Dent & Sons. Ltd., 1965.

When it comes to getting a grasp of the story, I suppose that nostalgia (again) might have something to do with it, but I still like Dorothy Sayers rather slangy - but ingenious - postwar verse translation. It was the first one I read, and it's certainly full of diagrams, maps, and explanations of everything one could want to have explained. She died before finishing it, but Barbara Reynolds was certainly a very worthy successor (witness her own immense Penguin Classics translation of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso).

  1. The Comedy of Dante Alighieri the Florentine. Cantica I: Hell [L’Inferno]. Trans. Dorothy L. Sayers. 1949. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.
  2. The Comedy of Dante Alighieri the Florentine. Cantica II: Purgatory [Il Purgatorio]. Trans. Dorothy L. Sayers. 1955. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.
  3. The Comedy of Dante Alighieri the Florentine. Cantica III: Paradise [Il Paradiso]. Trans. Dorothy L. Sayers & Barbara Reynolds. 1962. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

If you're more of a fan of Ezra Pound than T. S. Eliot, there's always Laurence Binyon's immediately post-WW1 version, which Pound (allegedly) gave him a good deal of assistance with. It's pretty readily available still in a volume of Dante's selected works:

  • Milano, Paolo, ed. Dante: The Selected Works. Trans. Laurence Binyon, D. G. Rossetti et al. 1947. London: Chatto & Windus, 1972.

If your Italian is good enough to take on the text unmediated, I myself found Natalino Sapegno's notes and comments particularly helpful. (Unfortunately I couldn't get all three volumes in the same version, so you'll observe that the Purgatorio below has a different editor. It was with some relief that I came back to Sapegno for the Paradiso, though.)

  1. La Divina Commedia. Vol. 1: Inferno. Ed. Natalino Sapegno. 1955. Second Edition. 1968. Scrittori Italiani. Firenze: “La Nuova Italia” Editrice, 1982.
  2. La Divina Commedia. Vol. 2: Purgatorio. Ed. Luigi Pietrobono. I Classici della Scuola. Torino: Società Editrice Internazionale, 1967.
  3. La Divina Commedia. Vol. 3: Paradiso. Ed. Natalino Sapegno. 1955. Second Edition. 1968. Scrittori Italiani. Firenze: “La Nuova Italia” Editrice, 1978.

For a more recent (and almost maniacally well-annotated) Italian text, you can try:

  1. Inferno. Ed. Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi. Oscar Classici. 1991. Milano: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 2005.
  2. Purgatorio. Ed. Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi. Oscar Classici. 1994. Milano: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 2005.
  3. Paradiso. Ed. Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi. Oscar Classici. 1994. Milano: Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 2005.

For a good overview of the whole immense saga of English literature's infatuation with Dante Alighieri, you can't really go past the following excellent anthology:

  • Griffiths, Eric, & Matthew Reynolds, ed. Dante in English. Penguin Poets in Translation. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2005.

And finally, if your interest is really more in the influence of Dante's Divine Comedy on the visual arts, you could do worse than have a glance at a few of the following:
  1. Birk, Sandow. Dante's Divine Comedy: The Complete Paintings. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2005.
  2. Bindman, David, & Deirdre Toomey. The Complete Graphic Works of William Blake. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1978.
  3. Keynes, Sir Geoffrey, ed. Drawings of William Blake: 92 Pencil Studies. New York: Dover, 1970.
  4. Clark, Kenneth. The Drawings by Sandro Botticelli for Dante’s Divine Comedy: After The Originals in the Berlin Museums and the Vatican. London: Thames & Hudson, 1976.
  5. Doré, Gustave, illus. Dante’s Divine Comedy: Hell; Purgatory; Paradise. Trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Ed. Anna Amari-Parker. London: Arcturus Publishing Limited, 2006.

[Sandro Botticelli: Punishment of the Panderers & Flatterers (c.1481)]

So, in conclusion, why Dante? Why is that the epic-of-choice for so many aspiring verse translators? One reason must certainly be the comparative ease with which one can acquire a working knowledge of Italian, by contrast with Greek or even Latin or German.

Or is it the Christian cast of his epic? Dante's Comedy is, after all, in accord with the dominant religious philosophy of the past two hundred years - and provides a useful summary of basic Thomism for those wishing to dispute the basic tenets of the Enlightenment.

Is there something reactionary about Dante, then, which explains his continuing vogue? That would seem a beguiling theory if one hadn't actually read him. I prefer to think of Dante as a quest-hero, a benighted traveller looking for answers in the least likely places. That constitutes a good deal of his appeal as a character, I think, and goes a long way to explain why one's enthusiasm for the story is a little difficult to sustain in some of the more abstract sections of the Paradiso, when the poet turns to providing us with long, wrong-headed explanations of elementary physics through the mouths of the various saints and angels he encounters there.

To claim the Divine Comedy as proto-SF is perhaps to take it a step too far, but there's no denying that it's one of the great narratives in world literature - every bit as beguiling (and far better structured) than the Odyssey, and without the grim, bloody pointlessness of so much of the Iliad and Aeneid.

In the final analysis, though, your guess is as good as mine. There are as many comedies as there are readers, and - it would appear - almost as many translators.

[William Blake: Dante's Hell Canto V (1826-27)]

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Divine Comedies (1): Trilogies

[Domenico di Michelino: La Divina Commedia di Dante (1465)]

[Milla Jovovich: The Divine Comedy (1994)]

I guess there are two questions, really:
  • First, why do so many people insist on translating Dante's Divine Comedy (or separate sections of it) into English verse?
  • Second, what is it about that Inferno / Purgatory / Paradise three-part structure that has so appealed to writers and artists - plus whatever exactly the lovely Milla Jovovich might be described as - ever since?

Let's start off with some examples of the latter syndrome:

[Wyndham Lewis: The Human Age (1928-1955)]

1/ - Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957)

  1. The Childermass. The Human Age, 1. 1928. Jupiter Books. London: John Calder (Publishers) Limited, 1965.
  2. Monstre Gai. The Human Age, 2. 1955. Jupiter Books. London: John Calder (Publishers) Limited, 1965.
  3. Malign Fiesta. The Human Age, 3. 1955. Jupiter Books. London: Calder and Boyars Ltd., 1966.

Horrible old Wyndham Lewis was apparently working on a fourth volume of his interminable "Human Age" when he died, but it's doubtful that any of his characters would ever have got anywhere much anyway.

The whole thing reads more like a vision of hell than of any imaginable Purgatory or Heaven, but then I guess that tends to be the trouble with most of the twentieth-century adaptations of Dante's schema. They start off fine with the Inferno, but then things get increasingly unconvincing the further one moves up the great chain of being.

In this case, the First World War was the initial inspiration (the two main characters have just been killed on the Western front), but as it continued, influences from the Second World War and even the Cold War started to predominate.

[Mervyn Peake: The Gormenghast Trilogy (1946-1959)]

2/ - Mervyn Peake (1911-1968)

  1. Titus Groan. Illustrated by the author. 1946. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.
  2. Gormenghast. 1950. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.
  3. Titus Alone. 1959. Rev. ed. 1970. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.
  4. The Titus Books: Titus Groan / Gormenghast / Titus Alone. 1946, 1950, 1959. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.

Is the Gormenghast trilogy linked to Dante in any clear way? Beyond merely being a trilogy, that is?

I suppose that it depends whether one regards the stultified madness of the ancient castle of the Groans as being heavenly or infernal. It's true that one begins to feel a certain nostalgia for its solid certainties amid the chaos of Titus Alone, but its aspect as a bildungsroman does lead Titus to reject the simple alternative of going home at the end of the series.

In that sense, then, like the protagonist of Dante's poem, Titus has achieved a kind of independence by the end of his journey - and has rejected the Luciferian temptations both of Steerpike's anarchy and his mother's orthodoxy. There's probably as much of Paradise Lost in Peake's long epic poem in prose as there is of the Divine Comedy, but that simply serves to underline the seriousness of his teleological concerns.

[Samuel Beckett: The Beckett Trilogy (1950-1953)]

3/ - Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)

  1. Molloy: Roman. 1950. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1967.
  2. Malone Meurt: Roman. 1951. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1963.
  3. L’Innommable: Roman. 1953. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1965.
  4. Three Novels: Molloy; Malone Dies; The Unnamable. 1950, 1951 & 1953. Trans. Samuel Beckett & Patrick Bowles. 1955. An Evergreen Black Cat Book. New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1965.

The Beckett trilogy seems to approach the problem of progression upwards simply by reversing it. However grovellingly low the abasement of Molloy may seem, it's nothing by comparison with the mollusc-like existence of the Unnamable.

Beckett's work is (of course) a masterpiece, but getting to the end of it requires a kind of courage that not all readers possess. If it weren't for the zany bolts of Hibernian humour that flash out from his prose from time to time (in the English version, at any rate - I'm not so sure about the French), it would be almost literally intolerable. Cheers, Sam!

[Phillip Pullman: His Dark Materials (1995-2000)]

4/ - Phillip Pullman (1946- )

  1. Northern Lights. [USA: 'The Golden Compass'] His Dark Materials, 1. 1995. Point. London: Scholastic Children’s Books, 1998.
  2. The Subtle Knife. His Dark Materials, 2. 1997. Point. London: Scholastic Children’s Books, 1998.
  3. The Amber Spyglass. His Dark Materials, 3. 2000. Point. London: Scholastic Children’s Books, 2001.
  4. Lyra’s Oxford. Engravings by John Lawrence. 2003. London: Corgi Books, 2007.

Like Peake, Phillip Pullman sets out to rewrite Milton and "justify the ways of God to man" in an entirely new way. Philosophically, he's not really up to the task, but his fictional inventiveness carries one a good deal of the way with him in any case.

There seem to be fragments of a projected fourth volume lurking in the otherwise unremarkable Lyra's Oxford. Whatever it's all really about in the end, though, his work clearly aspires to the status of an secular-eschatological epic.

It's certainly a fine tribute to him that he's managed to achieve second place on the prestigious list of "the top 10 books that people have tried to ban across America" (Guardian Online, 30/9/09) ...

[Mike Carey: Lucifer (1999-2007)]

5/ - Mike Carey (1959- )

  1. Lucifer 1: Devil in the Gateway. The Sandman Presents – Lucifer 1-3: 1999 & Lucifer 1-4: 2000. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2001.
  2. Lucifer 2: Children and Monsters. Lucifer 5-13: 2000. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2001.
  3. Lucifer 3: A Dalliance with the Damned. Lucifer 14-20: 2001. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2002.
  4. Lucifer 4: The Divine Comedy. Lucifer 21-28: 2002. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2003.
  5. Lucifer 5: Inferno. Lucifer 29-35: 2003. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2004.
  6. Lucifer 6: Mansions of the Silence. Lucifer 36-41: 2003. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2004.
  7. Lucifer 7: Exodus. Lucifer 42-44, 46-49: 2004. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2005.
  8. Lucifer 8: The Wolf beneath the Tree. Lucifer 45, 50-54: 2004. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2005.
  9. Lucifer 9: Crux. Lucifer 55-61: 2005. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2006.
  10. Lucifer 10: Morningstar. Lucifer 62-69: 2006. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2006.
  11. Lucifer 11: Evensong. Lucifer – Nirvana: 2002 & Lucifer 70-75: 2006. New York: Vertigo/DC Comics, 2007.

One of my favourite comics ever, Mike Carey's Lucifer series goes way beyond its progenitor, Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, to become its own mad series of riffs on life, death, the afterworld, creation, destruction, retribution, and virtually everything in between. The elegance of his writing is only matched by the absurd ambitiousness of his scheme. It's hard to see how anyone could ever go beyond this avatar of Dante's Commedia ...

[Jack Ross: The REM [Random Excess Memory] Trilogy (2000-2008)]

6/ - Jack Ross (1962- )

  1. Nights with Giordano Bruno. The REM Trilogy, 1. Wellington: Bumper Books, 2000.
  2. The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis. The REM Trilogy, 2. Auckland: Titus Books, 2006.
  3. EMO. The REM Trilogy, 3. Auckland: Titus Books, 2008.

What Jack Ross is doing in this prestigious set of listings is anyone's guess. No doubt he conspired to crash the party somehow. His trilogy of novels about contemporary alienation (focussed, respectively, on insomnia, amnesia and blindness as the vehicles of his three plots) does seem to be trying to tread an upwards path from the "urban inferno of Nights with Giordano Bruno (2000) and the purgatorial stasis of The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis (2006) [to] the closest thing to a paradise his cast of crazies can conceive of – let alone aspire to", as the blurb to EMO puts it.

[Eileen Myles: Inferno (2010)]

7 (a)/ - Eileen Myles (1949- )

  1. Inferno (a poet's novel). New York: OR Books, 2010.

I thought it might be nice to round off the list with some examples of the many, many individual works called "Inferno," "Purgatory," or "Paradise" ...

I have to admit that I haven't read this novel, but it sounds pretty cool: according to the publishers, OR Books, the first sentence reads "“My English professor’s ass was so beautiful,” which sounds like an excellent beginning for any book.

[Tomás Eloy Martínez: Purgatorio (2008)]

7 (b)/ - Tomás Eloy Martínez (1934-2010)

  1. Purgatory: A Novel. 2008. Trans. John Gaffney (2010)

Author of the classic Santa Evita (1995) and The Perón Novel (1985), this Argentinian journalist and writer died of a brain tumor in January 2010. This was his final novel, published in English shortly after his death. It deals with the dictatorship that afflicted his country between 1976 and 1982, and in particular with the fate of the "disappeared" from those years - territory previously mined by Fernando E. Solanas' beautiful film Sur (1988), as well as Ernesto Sábato's Nunca Más (Never Again): A Report by Argentina’s National Commission on Disappeared People. 1984 (London: Faber / Index on Censorship, 1986).

[José Lezama Lima: Paradiso (1966)]

7 (c)/ - José Lezama Lima (1910-1976)

  1. Paradiso. 1966. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. 1970.

The only novel by this Cuban poet to reach print in his lifetime, Paradiso deals with "the childhood and youth of José Cemí, told in a highly baroque experimental style, and depicts many scenes which have remarkable resonances with Lezama's own life as a young poet in Havana," according to Wikipedia.

[Judge Dredd (1980)]

And finally, last but not least, I didn't think I could close my account without mentioning this miniseries within the larger plot arcs of Judge Dredd.

"Purgatory" (written by Mark Millar and drawn by Carlos Ezquerra) appeared in British SF magazine 2000 AD between 8 May and 26 June 1993; its sequel "Inferno" (by Grant Morrison and Carlos Ezquerra) appeared between 3 July and 18 September 1993. Judge Grice is a kind of Lucifer figure, crushed finally (surprise! surprise!) by Dredd himself on his lawmaster bike ...

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Intrepid Ghost-Hunters (1):

[Warning Notice: Waitomo Caves Hotel]
[unless otherwise noted, all photographs: Bronwyn Lloyd]

Waitomo Caves

"Did you see any ghosts?"

I don't know how many times I've fielded that particular question since we came back from our weekend away in the picturesque (and famously haunted) Waitomo Caves Hotel.

The straight answer, I'm afraid, is "no." But I do have to make a number of provisos to that. Perhaps, in fact, it would be better to begin by telling you the whole story from the start ...

It was Bronwyn's idea, essentially. She was the one who came up with the notion of a weekend in a haunted house to celebrate my fifieth birthday (yes, I say it without a blush or a shudder: fifty years old today, hooray hooray hooray, you'll never be fifty years old again ... etc. etc. etc. AAAAaaagh! I'm old!!!! ... !!!)

Anyway, she ascertained that the most haunted hotel in New Zealand was the Waitomo Caves Hotel, and so we found ourselves barrelling down the highway towards it on Friday last, 2nd November.

The first sight of it from the road is pretty epic.

They don't exactly advertise, to be honest. All the way from the main road we were running into signs for this backpackers and that B & B -- but the moment you see that vista, you understand why they don't have to. Talk about the Overlook Hotel in The Shining!

[Jay Weidner: Overlook Hotel (1980)]

Actually, from the front, it looks even more like the Stanley Hotel in Colorado, which was used in the filming of the 1997 miniseries (overseen by Stephen King himself, and unfortunately pretty lame by comparison with Kubrick's original masterpiece):

[Big B Bob: Overlook Hotel (1997)]

[Waitomo Caves Hotel (2012)]

Anyway, we followed the long snaking driveway up through the village and towards the hotel itself.

Pretty cool, huh? I have to say that the shots of the hotel on their own website simply do not do it justice.

After that, of course, it was time to explore the interior of the place. Nobody offered to carry our bags, which suited us fine, as it enabled us to snoop around the practically deserted corridors by ourselves (it was early afternoon when we arrived):

[looking down at the lobby]

[one more flight of rickety stairs]

[the creepy corridor]

[the door of our room]

[the spyhole from the inside]

As for the view out of the window, that was quite spectacular, too.

There was a little balcony adjoining it, which we proceeded to explore:

[up, anyone?]

Now, one of the most famously haunted rooms in the hotel is No. 12A (between 12 and 14 -- get it? No hotelier ever wants to label a room "Number 13" for fear of bad consequences). And here it is:

It's situated in a small alcove at the top of the main stairs, but - curiously enough - the first time we looked for it we couldn't find it anywhere! No. 12, that was there - no. 14, too, but no 12A. Later that evening, when we walked back to our room from the restaurant (also famously haunted with orbs and cold spots), we spotted it right away. Weird - or what! ...

The owners of the hotel sure have interesting taste in art. This cheerful piece was up on the wall opposite our room:

Kind of puts one in mind of this masterpiece from the original Shining, wouldn't you say?

Or even this shot from the more recent - and rather underrated - Stephen King film about a haunted hotel, Room 1408 [Get it? 1 + 4 + 0 + 8 = 13! Bwah, hah ha ha ha!]

[sengook: Room 1408 (2007)]

More to the point, though, is this rather atmospheric painting of the original discovery of the glow-worm caves, which is pretty much the first thing you see when you come into the hotel:

[The first discovery of the GLOW WORM GROTTO
by FRED MACE and TANE TINORAU - December 28th 1887

Enough of all these atmosphere shots, though. What of the investigation? Bronwyn's already written a post on her blog about her preparations for the trip, and -- in particular -- the ghost kit she put together for the occasion.

With all due respect to her subsequent post lamenting a general absence of ghosts, I think I'd have to say that the evidence does really have to be allowed to speak for itself.

First of all (and most impressively), there's the undoubted movement of a trigger object during our first night in Room 7. As you can see below, the stone adze has clearly moved - not much, but a little - between the first shot and the second. We'd drawn a pencil line around it, and there was a perceptible shift in its position.

Now, it's true to say that it's a very old wooden hotel (the wing we were in was opened in 1910), and it creaks and groans quite a lot - and anyone moving around outside can cause the floorboards to shift ... So maybe that explains the shifting adze. But the direction of the movement was not what one would predict from the slight slope in our bedroom floor.

Also, the shift took place while I was reading out a particularly creepy version of the story of the terrible ghost Glám from Grettir's Saga. This story certainly seemed to strike more of a chord than any of the others we read aloud on either night. Certainly there was no further movement in any of our trigger objects after that first one:

[Power Objects (Night 2)]

Secondly, there's the series of strange coincidences that plagued us throughout the trip. Here's an example of one of them, a notice dating from 1962, the year of my birth, situated oh-so-casually up on the wall near our room. (Do remember that this was a jaunt designed to celebrate my fiftieth birthday):

And there was the fact that, when we stopped for breakfast at a cafe in Te Kuiti after our first night in the hotel, the number we were given at the counter was "50" - and there was the fact that Bronwyn got a distinct feeling of coldness and paralysis just while I was reading out a story from Lord Halifax's Ghost Book called "Here I Am Again!" which described just such a feeling in its protagonist ...

Easy enough to write off individually, but taken in aggregate, perhaps less so. Who can say? They certainly struck me as a little ... suggestive, overall.

There's no denying the beauty of the hotel grounds, and their rather neglected state just adds to the effect.

The back of the building is almost as good as the front:

The old walkway down to the caves is too overgrown to follow now, unfortunately:

Up above the hotel is an old, dried-up fountain:

and a wishing well.

[photo: JR)]

It's the path leading down to the village that's really spectacular, though:

There are fine old trees ...

with strange faces visible in their bark ...

and up in their branches ...

There are strange overgrown glades ...

and a picturesque old park ...

with a great view of the hotel ...

from the balcony of the pub ...

before you have to climb back up again.

What can I say in conclusion? We didn't detect any orbs or clouds of mist (or ectoplasm) in any of our photos - but we did feel some strange twinges when we said disrespectful things about the place. Make of that what you will.

So, no, we didn't actually see any ghosts, but I wouldn't be prepared to swear that there weren't any lurking around. It's certainly one of the most atmospheric places I've ever stayed, and there is that strange detail of the moving stone adze ...