Notes on a failure

If one is given to speaking in clichés, I suppose one could say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but it’s even worse than that with me: I love my old tricks so much that I see little reason these days to put myself to the trouble of learning new ones. But I do keep trying, really I do.

Until a few years ago, I had not read anything by Dante. Then, feeling (quite rightly) that someone claiming to be interested in literary culture – especially the literary culture of the Western world, in which I live and in which I have grown up – really should have some acquaintance at least with one of the major pillars of that culture, I bought myself Robin Kirkpatrick’s very highly rated translation of the Commedia. It came with copious and scholarly notes (which I read avidly); and it was a dual language edition, so I could look across to the other page and discover for myself at least something of Dante’s verbal music.

First of all, I read the Inferno. Naturally. And I even wrote a post about it here on this blog, pretending – or, maybe, trying to convince myself – that I got something out of it. Reading that post over, it was a fine attempt: I think I really did manage to convince myself, at least up to a point, that I was getting something of that literary exaltation that I never doubted the Commedia could inspire in its readers. However, that was eight years ago, and only recently have I returned to fulfil that promise I had then made to myself to read the Purgatorio and the Paradiso. And I did so in the hope that in those eight years, I may have matured sufficiently to respond to this work. So once again I picked Robin Kirkpatrick’s translation, once again I pored over those splendid introductory essays and long and detailed notes; once again I glanced across to the Italian text to hear some of Dante’s verbal music. And once again, I am sorry to report, I failed.

Let me make it clear right away that I am not commenting here on Dante, but on myself. I had hoped to raise the intellectual profile of this blog by writing a few posts on the Commedia, but there is little point in pretending I have anything to say about the work that could possibly be of interest to anyone: so I find myself reporting instead on my own failure. I am sure that, even in translation, the Commedia can strike rich, powerful, and resonant chords in the minds of readers. The problem is that I seem to be lacking many of the notes that make up these chords. And I really am curious to know what those notes may be that I am missing. Such knowledge probably won’t, it is true, enhance my appreciation of Dante, but it may perhaps enhance my understanding of myself.

In the meantime, I am wondering how best to spend my reading time. Should I go back to those immense masterworks that are already permanent fixtures in my mind – King Lear, Don Quixote, Anna Karenina, and the like – but where I know there are even greater depths to plumb? Or should I force this old dog to learn a few new tricks, and immerse myself in Dante in the hope that it may eventually penetrate through my thick skull? Or, maybe, I should just say “to hell with it all”, and settle back in my armchair with a warming dram of whisky in one hand, and a volume of the kind of good, creepy ghost stories that I so love in the other. I’d like to do all three, to be honest. The problem is not really finding the time, as such: the problem is striking a reasonable balance.

In the meantime, if there is anyone out there who dearly loves the Commedia, and can give me, not necessarily a scholarly exegesis (there is no shortage on that score), but, better, a personal account of what this great poem means to them, and why, then I shall be extremely grateful. I do know there are, and have been across the ages, a great many extremely intelligent and discerning people for whom Dante’s Commedia is, and has been, life-enhancing. In one of the most moving and unforgettable passages of If This is a Man, Primo Levi tells us how, even in the death camp of Auschwitz, a few lines of Dante suddenly seemed to him to be of inestimable value. And I find myself thinking: whatever it is that admirers get from the Commedia, I want some of it.

20 responses to this post.

  1. This raises lots of points for discussion :). First up, I don’t think you or anyone else should feel ‘forced’ to read something. Reading should be a pleasure not a punishment. By all means try something different as you did, but if it doesn’t work, then don’t consider this a judgement on you as a person. Just accept that not every book or author works for every reader. Just accept this one didn’t work, and move on. Sooner or later you’ll find one that is an unexpected delight. Don’t give up just yet!


    • Hello, and thank you for your thoughtful response. I agree that my post does indeed raise a number of points for discussion which I did not explicitly address.
      Of course, no-one should be forced to read any particular book – unless they have chosen to study literature, in which case, their choice regarding which texts they should read is of no greater importance than my choice on which text to read when I was studying mathematics. But for the general reader, yes, agreed, there is no compulsion.

      And yes, once again, reading should be a pleasure. However, I think there is a complication here, in that there are many different kinds of pleasure. The pleasure I get from a Wodehouse novel, say, is immense, but I don’t think it is the same kind of pleasure as that I get from reading, say, The Brothers Karamazov. If we use the same word to describe what we get from Wodehouse and from Dostoyevsky, then, possibly, we are stretching the definition of that word beyond the point where it is useful. For the Wodehouse novel requires very little effort on the reader’s part. That is not to denigrate Wodehouse (far from it), but it does mean that the reader’s response to it depends almost entirely upon that reader’s sense of humour, and if one doesn’t “get it”, moving on is, most likely, the best option.

      With something like The Brothers Karamazov, it’s a bit different: it’s a book that requires tremendous effort from the reader. That effort can indeed be rewarded, but the converse is that failure to be rewarded is often a consequence of failure to put in the effort in the first place. This is not to say that effort will necessarily be rewarded – we all have different temperaments, and different receptivities – but it is to say, I think, that merely moving on may not always be the best response. Because the rewards awaiting us can be great indeed, putting in a greater effort may be an entirely apt response.

      Of course, there is no compulsion in any of this. If the reader doesn’t want to put in any extra effort into Dostoyevsky or Dante, that is entirely their choice. And it is also possible that the reader’s temperament is such that even with the maximum effort, they’ll still be left cold by Dostoyevsky or by Dante. However, putting in that effort rather than just moving on is really not a bad choice either.

      In my case, I could, of course, just say that Dante is not for me, and move on. There are many other writers whom I love, after all: I’ll hardly be short of things to read. But I love literature, and I feel I have been enriched by what literature has to offer. And, given the reverence in which Dante is (and has been) held by so many, I really wouldn’t want to miss out!


      • Good point about the different levels and types of pleasure. One could be ‘instant’ – the pleasure from say a crime novel which is a page turner. Versus the slow burn – the pleasure from discovering layers of meaning in a Dostoyevsky or a George Eliot. Neither is ‘worse’ or lesser than the other, just different

      • Hello,
        I am not entirely sure about “better” or “worse”. As ever, such terms are only meaningful in specific contexts. If I want something relaxing, a good thriller (and some thrillers are surely better than others) would be better than a Dostoyevsky novel. But if I want to read a work that considers profoundly what it means to be human, and presents a visionary account of the human mind and soul, then surely it would be the Dostoyevsky novel that is better. I don’t know that terms such as better or worse can, or should, be banished. As long as the context is made clear, of course.
        Best wishes, Himadri

  2. The only failure I see here is the bizarre decoupling of Dante and whisky. That stuff goes with Dante, too. But I am more of a wine guy. Maybe that’s the difference.

    I don’t know how many times I’ve read Inferno. It is a permanently etched book, as you say. I read it as a great fantasy novel, more or less, much like The Odyssey and Gulliver’s Travels, to pick two other great fantasies from your top 100 list. It is a highly visual, sensory, material book. There is an implicit map.

    Inferno is a super-intellectualized fantasy, and thus pretty difficult, but that is part of the fun, even if the balance tips in Purgatorio and Paradiso, which I have never enjoyed as much.

    I do not mind not moving much past the surface. I think we have discussed this before, that I think readers often underrate surfaces. More work on the surface will reveal the depths. Dante’s surface is enormous.

    Sorry I can’t give you a personal account of what the poem means to me, but, well, you have seen how I write. Plus, asking readers to match their use of the book to Primo Levi’s – no thanks!


    • We are spending a few days in Florence soon. I suppose I should be packing my copy of the Commedia: what better place to read Dante after all? And I’ll try some Chianti to go with it. Sit in a café between churches and art galleries, a glass of Chianti at my side, reading Dante: what could be better? Because, diffident though I may have appeared in my post, this is a nut I am determined to crack.

      I hadn’t actually realised you were such a keen aficionado. As soon as I have posted this, I’ll be going to your blog and do a search on Dante. And yes, I will focus on the surface this time round before diving into the depths!


    • I wonder how much Dante there is on the blog, explicitly, I mean. He is like Homer, Shakespeare, and so on at that level, like a background hum behind the rest of literature.


      • “… like a background hum behind the rest of literature”

        Indeed. That’s a good way of putting it. Although that hasn’t stopped me from rattling on about Shakespeare on this blog at the slightest opportunity. My excuse, I think, is that I can’t help talking about things that fills my mind.

        But you’re right: there isn’t much explicitly about Dante in your blog. Not that I’d presume to dictate what you should write about – heaven forfend! – but I’d certainly love to read your perspectives on this particular background hum!

  3. I’m wondering if you might have enjoyed The Inferno more if you’d tried Dorothy L. Sayers translation. I don’t know if it’s still in print, but I bought my Penguin classics edition when I was in the 6th form, and found it the perfect introduction to Dante.


    • I doubt whether it’s the translation: Robin Kirkpatrick’s version seemed absolutely fine to me. Of course, each language has its own sounds and rhythms which cannot be replicated, but Kirkpatrick finds his own sounds and rhythms in English that sound very good indeed. It was the content that failed to make an impression – although I do realise that one shouldn’t try to separate content from style.

      But I shall try again. I am in Florence soon, and surely there is no better place to try to read Dante!


  4. I would second the idea of the translation – I’ve found I responded very differently to a work when reading a different rendition. I read Inferno once and I think Purgatory but never got to Paradise (story of my life). Not all books are for everyone – I would say don’t beat yourself up and perhaps dip into different renderings!


    • Hello Kaggsy,
      Far from beating myself up, I remain the smug, self-satisfied git I always have been!

      But no – I am not giving up on Dante. The Kirkpatrick edition, as I said to Sue, does seem to me very good indeed, but I do take Janet’s point that different translations, not necessarily better or worse than each other, look at a multi-dimensional work from different angles, and hence offer different insights. I don’t think I’ll be packing my suitcase full of books when I go to Florence, but I’ll certainly be taking one version of the Commedia, and another of La Vita Nuova. Given the various odd opening times of the various chapels and galleries in Florence, I think I’ll be spending quite a lot of time in cafes with a coffee – and I’d need something to read there after all!

      All the best, Himadri


  5. Posted by Shonti Mukherjee on September 18, 2019 at 7:25 pm

    I have also read Inferno and delved into the other two books of The Comedy.

    I can perceive that it was and is a colossal excercise of imagination. But it is also a moralising sermon that I dont easily take to as a religious sceptic.

    Its failure to penetrate, at least as an initial discovery. may not be any more complicated than that.

    Children saturated with CGI imagery will cite their own epics as being just as graphic and compelling.

    The Comedy is an absolute invention of the fate of sinners and their sufferings. If you dont believ I dont think you can capture its full effects and returns


    • Hello Shonti,

      I think I could buy that were it not that there are many who are similarly sceptical of the idea of Heaven and hell and of the afterlife, but for whom Dante remains the great literary touchstone, the benchmark against which all other works are measured. In our times, I don’t think anyone, including many (most?) Christians, who take literally the idea of heaven, hell, and purgatory. And yet, the reputation of the Commedia remains as high as ever.
      No, there is a mystery there I haven’t quite got to the bottom of…

      Cheers, Himadri


  6. Posted by Janet on September 19, 2019 at 2:35 am

    Hamadri, you will love Dante, but back up and go the other way around.

    The problem with Dante in translation is that he was doing so many things at once that no translation can capture it all. I’m not familiar with the Kirkpatrick, but try another translation, not because it must be bad but because you need another angle. There is so much nuanced meaning layered in there, changes in tone, winking jokes, moments of awful poignancy–Dante was a one-man proto-Renaissance, and whatever came after him came because of him. In other words, the depth of his cleverness was unbounded. Various renderings of the content reveal different things, and translators imbue the content with what they perceive themselves. This goes for the scholarly notes too. (I like Hollander, myself.)

    My second recommendation is to forget about Inferno when you are in Florence and read La Vita Nuovo instead. It’s beautiful, it’s funny, and you can’t really get a grip on Commedia unless you’ve got LVN well tucked into your belt. If you can find some of his early poetry, so much the better. The early work illuminates the epic. Without it, Inferno may plod along as a sadistic and monotonous hellscape, and one may get the idea that Dante was a moralistic monster who relished inventing tortures for people he judged to be sinners.

    It is important to place Dante in the thirteenth century and not in the modern world. Much of what people understand to be the Christian view of Hell is actually derived from Inferno rather than the Bible. Dante, like Milton later, was riffing like crazy on relatively thin strands of Scripture. Also like Milton, Dante was a political animal with a lot of policy issues on his mind and all the roiling ideas about freedom and human agency. These two guys were in a league of their own as poets, but they didn’t see poetry as come-to-the-fair entertainment. It was serious stuff in those days, so to be a force in the world of politics, it was no small thing to also be the greatest poet in Europe. Also came in handy when their political enemies wanted to kill them but didn’t dare, given their status among poetry lovers. Ah, those were the days. My point is, every episode in the Commedia is a box of Cracker Jacks and there is never just one thing or one idea happening at once.

    The Commedia is also Grand Central Station for everything literary in Europe at that point in history. Inferno opens with a despondent Dante lost in the woods, unable to find his way. Mid-life crisis? Probably, but meaningfully exacerbated by a failure so awful that, well, he might as well be dead. What is it? One must read the scholarly notes to find out–or, read LVN. He has not written the epic he swore on Beatrice’s grave he would write. And who is Beatrice? She is totally nobody. She’s some random chick he had a passing acquaintance with way back when he was trying to write hot poetry in the chivalry genre as a callow youth. She probably thought of him as that weird kid. But as all good readers of Romance know, every knight must have a fair lady, preferably one way out of his league and not likely to pay him much actual attention–certainly not one who would expect anything romantic from him. Beatrice is his ideal object–the dress dummy–on which he spun his lines. This is why, when Mary becomes aware of Dante’s pickle–Oh, my, where’s our promised epic? The situation is dire (see George Bailey)–she sends word down the line to get Beatrice off her butt. Bea has been having a delightful time in Heaven and hasn’t given the weird kid a backward thought, but she is reminded that, as his lady fair, she is totally responsible for letting down the Italian national poet and allowing a landmark in world literature to go unwritten. A chastened Beatrice is left with the awesome task of giving Dante what he needs to get the thing done.

    Hmm, thinks she. I’m not going down there.

    Now, you can make the case that Beatrice couldn’t very well go herself for any number of trumped up reasons, but then you wouldn’t be letting Dante have his ironical fun. Plus, you’ll meet Beatrice later and she’s not somebody one would get anything from taking a stroll through Hell. But, heavenly being! she has a brainstorm. Pluck the man’s literary hero out of Limbo and send him instead. Whew! We are all relieved.

    Assignment: Compare and contrast Beatrice with Dulcinea del Toboso.

    Having proposed that reading, I have to say that it is also correct–and even essential–to recognize the forms and devices that Dante uses, giving them both full respect and a revolutionary, then-modern twist. He applies the tropes of Romance to an exploration of Catholic doctrine and Tuscan politics at the same time. (In fact, the two are so entwined that Dante cannot put forward a point of doctrine [and he is at times, extremely radical] without striking against some more earthly application.) And Tuscan politics are always a microcosm of the larger questions of free will, human decency, justice, and good governance.

    Then Virgil appears, and all that medieval chivalry stuff (but not its purpose) kinda sinks (temporarily) out of sight in favor of the ancients. What kind of an underworld would it be, after all, without some Homer guys to liven things up? What? You have to cross the Styx in a ferryboat? Dante didn’t get that out of the Bible. (It’s a wonder he got it from the Greeks! History is amazing.) Dante the despondent poet is on a dream road trip with Virgil–of course he would have to cross the Styx.

    And here is where I would say, the thing to keep in mind with Dante is that he never forgets that he is writing a story. What people tend to criticize with Inferno is the way Dante sticks everybody he disapproves of or doesn’t like in Hell and then figures out more and more sadistic ways of torturing them. But that isn’t what is happening at all. Dante isn’t putting anybody in Hell. It’s just a story. Occasionally, he does have a little literary revenge (What’s that guy doing here–I just left him alive and well on earth! / Oh, his body keeps moving but his soul has been dead for years), but that is a lot different from the psychotic self-righteousness people mistakenly attribute to him.

    Each circle is a question about human agency and cosmic justice–the action and its equal and opposite reaction. But nothing is as simple as it seems. Paolo and Francesca suffer for their incontinent love. Ah, sad. All about people fornicating and going to Hell for it. Not so fast. Why did these two lovebirds succumb to lustful desire? All those kinky kind of Romance poems Dante used to write, of course. They were reading and couldn’t help themselves. Doh! And that’s why you need to start with Dante’s early works. It also helps to know that the couple were married to other people via political match and didn’t have much reason to like their lawful partners. So that whirlwind the doomed pair are caught up in is not entirely of their own making, which begs the question, what responsibility lies heavy on the heads of the other contributing parties outside the frame. Including Dante, whose early verses devoted to, for example, Beatrice were surely intended for setting the mood and presumably contributed to the fall of many a horny young couple.

    Interesting to note: Dante and Beatrice both married other people. Dante was separated from his wife when he was driven into exile by, well, her family. Not sure if it was a political marriage, but it sure was a political divorce. Beatrice was a banker’s kid married into another banking family. While Dante certainly took seriously his shtick that Beatrice was his eternal courtly love and hung his poetic oeuvre on that peg, what then of Romance, given their (probably) pragmatic unions. Is there not in here somewhere a pair of red hot lovers escaping behind the woodshed from the constant watch of their lawful captors? But that would be wrong, right?

    Are P&F a type of D&B if B had fallen for D the way Gwenyvere fell for Lancelot, as advocated for in the mode of D’s earlier poems? Must the poet work his way through Hell in order to get clear of his youthful error (journeyman love lyrics), comprehend the music of the spheres, and attain the greatest available height in the cosmos (epic)? That reading might strike some readers as too abstract or symbolic, but that’s okay ’cause there are so many alternative ways to read it, you get to pick the one that is most compelling to you.

    Things to keep in mind:

    If it’s a plot hole, it isn’t a plot hole–but it goes pretty deep.
    If it strikes you as comic, it probably is on one level or another.
    If the torture seems gruesome, remember the era–Dante knew what real torture was, and what he wrote is stylized grotesquery. People enjoy reading it voyeuristically–one reason Purgatorio and Paradiso don’t ring any bells with a lot of Inferno fans. In its way, it’s pretty entertaining, but each punishment is intended as a mirror into the sin, a way of seeing cosmic rebellion/cosmic consequence in a single frame.
    If you find yourself asking, And just what makes this a sin? consider that Dante was asking the same question. The answers are never as simple as wham-bam-damn-you, maam.
    When you gasp near the top of Purgatorio and cry aloud Virgil, Nooooo!, it’s all right to be haunted for life because the mystery of cosmic justice is not ultimately solved with Dante’s view of the Rose. Dante returns home, not as an omniscient guru but as an epic poet, and all the hard, heartbreaking questions of life remain.


    • Dear Janet,

      Thank you very much for your wonderfully informative and entertaining post. I think I knew that I was missing out on much. I missed out almost completely, I think, on Dante’s sense of irony, and of fun. I did, I confess, find each new torture gratuitously sadistic, and felt Dante’s condemnation to hell of various people he did not like pompous and self-righteous. Truth is, I think, I just did not know how to approach the work, and couldn’t figure it out either while I was reading it.

      There were some passages that did indeed seem to me ambivalent in its morality. In my old post on the Inferno, for instance, I did wonder why Ulysses had been consigned to Hell when both his action and his reported speech seem so heroic and so virtuous. But generally, I didn’t get far. “There is so much nuanced meaning layered in there, changes in tone, winking jokes, moments of awful poignancy…” I missed just about all of that.

      But I am determined to get it. This is a nut I am determined to crack. I shall bear in mind all you have to say, and get myself a copy of La Vita Nuova to take to Florence.. Maybe in two different translations. I do agree with you that different translations will throw different lights: each translation is an interpretation, after all. I tend to go for many different translations when it comes to foreign language works that I particularly value.

      Thank you once again for your post,


  7. For La Vita Nuova, you want Rossetti, right? Dante and His Circle (1874). The later Dante just about fools me into thinking he was hanging out with the older one.

    I am acting as if this book is easily available in England. It probably is not. Don’t tell me; I’d rather retain my illusions.


    • Oh yes, it has to be Rossetti. It’s not as readily available here as some other translations, but it is available, and may be ordered. Now, in our small local bookshop, any book less popular than The Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird has to be ordered, but they are very good with this, and usually have the book you asked for within a few days. So all’s good.

      And once I have mastered Dante, I’ll be having another go at the second part of that bastard Faust


  8. Posted by Roger on September 20, 2019 at 10:40 am

    When I read the Comedy a few years ago I followed along with Giuseppe Mazzotta’s magnificent lectures available online for free at Yale Open Courses. He covers many of the points Janet brought up and with similar enthusiasm.


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