Dante: a Very Short Introduction

Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian:

DanteRegular readers of this column may recall that I get pretty excited about Dante. This usually involves recommending a new translation rather than critical work on the 14th-century poet; you’re not, I presume, going to be taking an exam on him. But he is such a complex poet – the number of people who have devoted a lifetime to the study of him is extraordinary – that even the casual reader could do with a guide; rather as Dante himself had guides to the afterlife. And here is just the thing for the nonacademic Dante reader: a short, pithy guide by academics who know what they’re talking about and which opens up and refreshes the work as well as our reactions to it.

Hainsworth and Robey begin with Ulysses’s speech in “Canto 26” of the Inferno: “Fatti non foste a viver come bruti … ” Or in their translation: “You were not made to live like brute beasts, / but to pursue virtue and knowledge.” As the book reminds us, these lines helped carry Primo Levi (in If This Is a Man) through his darkest times in Auschwitz. They represent the core principles that motivated Dante himself, and yet, Ulysses is speaking as one of the eternally damned: his body is hidden, enveloped in a double-tongued flame, and Dante cannot address him directly. Ulysses’s injunction is freighted with ironies and complications. The business of sending sinners to judgment is not a simple one.

More here.