‘The Divine Comedy is a book that everyone ought to read,’ according to Jorge Luis Borges, and every Italian has read it. Dante’s midlife crisis in the dark wood, his journey down the circles of hell, up the ledges of Purgatory and into the arms of Beatrice is mother’s milk to Italian schoolchildren. Today lines from La divina commedia are printed on T-shirts; before the war, as Primo Levi recalled, there were ‘Dante tournaments’ on the streets of Turin, where one boy would recite the start of a canto and his rival would try to complete it.
I had two Italian students in an English literature seminar last year who sniggered when I mentioned the once standard Penguin translation of the Comedy by Dorothy L. Sayers, inventor of the Dante-loving Lord Peter Wimsey. ‘Dante in translation,’ they explained, ‘isn’t the real Dante.’ But, as Ian Thomson shows, the real Dante is hard to find even in Italian. Over 800 pre-Gutenberg editions of La divina commedia are known to exist, most marred by errors and nibbled by rats, but because none is in Dante’s hand we can’t be sure what he actually wrote. An example of the way his poem was doctored by the copiers can be seen by the fact that it was Boccaccio (author of The Decameron and Dante’s first biographer) who added the divina to what Dante had simply called La commedia.
As Thomson explains, by ‘comedy’, Dante did not imply that he was trying to be funny, although he very often is, particularly when he details the punishments meted out to his enemies in Hell. A comedy was a story with a happy ending, but Dante also referred his readers to the fact that this was ‘low’ rather than ‘high’ literature, written not in Latin but the Tuscan vernacular and therefore accessible to weavers, brewers, workers and even women. The reason Dante still matters, Thomson argues, is not because readers today ‘fear damnation or are moved by the beauty of the Christian revelation, but because he wrote the story of an ordinary man — an Everyman — who sets out hopefully in this life in search of renewal’.
Thomson’s divinely produced book is also written for everyone. Packed with beautifully reproduced images, from medieval manuscripts to film stills — including one from the sixth series of Mad Men in which Don Draper, in shades and swimming trunks, is reading The Inferno on a Hawaiian beach — this is a history of the translations, interpretations and reception of the world’s most audacious poem. Dante’s Divine Comedy is also a comedy in the sense of being funny. If Dante’s Inferno inspired awe, says Thomson, Dan Brown’s Inferno is just awful; and one of Thomson’s epigraphs is a news story from Private Eye with the headline ‘Dante in Ferno Shock’: ‘Phew,’ says Dante, ‘I’ve been trapped in this circle of hell for so long, I can’t wait to get out of it.’
What is the nature of the beast that has held us captive for 700 years? Thomson describes The Divine Comedy as a ‘giant judicial machine’, ‘a gleeful dream of retribution’, a classic conversion story and also — ingeniously — a 12-step recovery programme for those others who have lost their way. Dante Alighieri is the patron saint of the persecuted: Oscar Wilde kept the Divine Comedy with him in gaol, Primo Levi struggled to remember lines from the poem when he was in Auschwitz and, during Stalin’s oppressions, Osip Mandelstam never left his flat without first putting Dante in his pocket.
Exiled from his native Florence — Thomson does a noble job of explaining the tiresome feud between Guelfs and Ghibellines — Dante avenged himself on politicians, popes and public figures by hurling them into his inferno, where they are variously boiled in tar, trapped in ice and smeared in their own excrement. Today, Thomson suggests, Dante would put the bankers in the seventh circle of Hell, their bonuses hanging heavy around their necks.
There are now around 50 English translations of the Comedy in which poets and scholars alike have done battle with the terza rima (aba bcb cdc etc) which creates what Thomson calls the poem’s ‘tremendous forward momentum and drumbeat stress pattern’. The first English version in 1802 was by an Irish cleric called Henry Boyd. In Boyd’s hands the word ‘eagle’ was translated as ‘plumy ranger of th’ OLYMPIAN throne’, thus paving the way for the 19th-century Dante. Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites leant heavily on his love for Beatrice, while Keats, Shelley and Byron saw Dante as a romantic outsider, doomed, as they were, to wandering the earth. Shelley, who was translating cantos from the Comedy when he died, described Dante’s poetry as a ‘bridge thrown over the stream of time, which unites the modern and ancient world’ — which is about as good a summation of the Divine Comedy as we have.
Erudite and urgent, Ian Thomson makes an excellent Virgilian guide and his Dante’s Divine Comedy is another book that everyone ought to read.