The Divine Comedy
BY DANTE ALIGHIERI
TRANSLATED BY CLIVE JAMES
LIVERIGHT, 560 PAGES, $29.95
For me, the appearance of Dan Brown's newest Robert Langdon novel, its dust jacket adorned with Dante's flinty profile and a misappropriated title, poses a purely historical question: Has there ever been another case anywhere in the annals of the printed word of a literary figure as majestically imposing as Dante--or of a work as monumental as the Inferno--featuring as the central "motif" (or theme, or plot device, or MacGuffin, or whatever) in a book by a writer as ineffably horrid as Brown? (It seems unlikely, by several orders of statistical magnitude.)
Another question it prompts, and one probably of more immediate cultural concern, is whether Dante today can command the attention of even a vanishingly minuscule fraction of the readers that Brown can summon from the four quarters of the wind with a single inept metaphor. (Here too, I suppose, the answer is obvious.)
One should not worry, of course. The flame of Dante's greatness will continue to shine out, quietly but persistently, through our current Dark Ages and long into the future, while the nerve-wracking fluorescent glare of Brown's celebrity will turn pink and finally fade away whenever its mercury is exhausted. At least we have to believe that, as long as some vestige of civilization remains, readers will continue to return to The Divine Comedy for its astonishing imaginative scope, its moral and spiritual passion, its lyrical genius, and so on.
The few valid complaints against it, such as they are, will consistently recur: that the ghastly solidity of Dante's imagined hells often seems so much more absorbing than those shimmering saints floating in his pale, impalpable heavens; that by the end dull theological discourses have largely crowded out the gripping personal narratives that had carried the poem all the way up from the dark wood of Dante's midlife wanderings to the terrestrial paradise where Beatrice was waiting for him; that Dante's final description of the Trinity encircled by the celestial rose conjures up an image about as engrossing as what one might see in a kaleidoscope bought on a boardwalk. But the poem will never lose its hold on the discerning.
All of which being said, it is nevertheless the case that the full power of the Comedy lies beyond the grasp of the great majority of readers, for two simple reasons: Most must rely on inadequate translations, and very few...