The perfect guide to a book everyone should read

Frances Wilson in Spectator:

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 commediaare 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’.

More here.