Saturday, April 4, 2009

Review: Dante - The Inferno- A Classic

A review I saw used the well-worn, but very descriptive phrase: “I can’t believe I read the whole thing!” In my case, I read the Inferno as part of an on-line discussion for LT. There were 12-15 people participating, and we tackled this using about 6 different translations, two audio readings, a sprinkling of Roberto Begnini reading on YouTube in the original Fiorenzian dialect (absolutely splendid –see it here. )

We chatted about the politics of 12th and 13th century Florence, the classical references to Greek and Roman mythology, to Virgil, his hatred of the religious figures of the day and his references to Biblical figures of the Old Testament. I can see why this is considered one of the greatest poems ever written. Greater men and women than I have attempted to explain, commentate, educate and bloviate about this work, so I’ll refrain from that and instead offer some general conclusions/afterthoughts. You can see our entire discussion on this thread at LT.

1. I actually want to continue on with the Divine Comedy and read Purgatorio and Paradiso –but NOT this year. I think this must be taken in small gulps unless you’re doing an actual college course. Probably one a year is all I'm going to be able to handle.

2. I had to smile (How can you smile at hell?) when I got to the ending cantos and found to my surprise that Hell –according to Dante—has indeed frozen over. At least, the lake supporting the various circles of Hell has frozen.

3.I wish, oh how I wish, I had learned to speak and read Italian when my father and uncles were alive. I studied enough Latin and French and was around the spoken Italian long enough that I can scan the poem in its original and at least hear the tertia rhyma in its original beauty. What a glorious language! Although I actually read four different translations (Mandelbaum, Cary, Norton, and Longfellow) doing this study, and listened to the Pinsky translation read by George Guidall (who is such a great actor/narrator that he could read the phone book and I’d listen), I still ended each canto by skimming the Italian…no translation comes close for beauty. By the way, for the English, I like the Longfellow translation the best. (see sample side by sides here.)

Classics are classics for a reason. No matter when they were written, or what purpose the author had in writing them, they can be read and appreciated in later times and still be a great read. Granted, depending on the overall education and background of modern readers, many notes and commentaries may be needed to enhance the experience, but the original cannot be bettered. Shakespeare, move over.


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