The Divine Comedy translated by Clive James: Writing as reparation

Dante turned his non-relationship with Beatrice into a story of passionate significance in La Vita Nuova. Likewise, Clive James is paying tribute to his Dante scholar wife, from whom he is estranged.

The Divine Comedy
Dante Alighieri
Translated by Clive James
Picador, 560pp, £25

Around the millennium, I spent several years running writing projects in health and in social care. This seemed to me to be a socialrestorative activity, allowing people who had been institutionalised for a long time the authority of “their own words”. Writing, however, is not intrinsically therapeutic. If it changes things for the better, it does so in practical ways, as experience revealed or understanding shared. Yet, clearly, the impulse to write fiction or compose poetry is something more than practical. It’s an attempt to imagine how things might be, to invent an alternative. It is ultimately a pitting of will against circumstance; in Philip Larkin’s phrase, a “joyous shot at how things ought to be”. 

Dante Alighieri is the prime proponent of writing as reparation. In his late twenties, in La Vita Nuova(The New Life), he turned his non-relationship with Beatrice into a story of passionate significance. Towards the end of his life, exiled as a victim of political misfortune, he composed La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy). This tripartite vision of ultimate justice is set in 1300, the midpoint of his “three score and ten” and his last full year in his home city, Florence. Although Dante didn’t start work on the poem until around 1308, it still faces towards that city as it embarks on its task of imaginative repair.
 
Former friends and enemies appear among the tortured souls in the Comedy’s hell; later, it is Beatrice who leads the narrator to paradise. Despite Dante’s opening – which Clive James’s new version renders: “At the midpoint of the path through life, I found/Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way/Ahead was blotted out” – this is not the story of a midlife crisis. The Romantic notion of literary selfexploration did not emerge for another five centuries. Instead, the Comedy is a schema of the kind of justice that is needed to trump human injustices. 
 
Divine reckoning is not only necessary; it is both inescapable and precise. Deceivers, in the eighth circle of hell, are put into ten subdivisions, including seducers, flatterers, hypocrites and false counsellors. The imagination of medieval Christendom was often highly literal, as well as visual, in this way. The concentric circles Dante pictured in the afterlife also appear widely elsewhere over the next few centuries – in Vasari’s designs for the frescoes in the dome of Florence’s cathedral, or the “doom” window of the Church of St Mary in Fairford, Gloucestershire. Christendom’s world-view was equally hierarchical. Dante was formed by a culture in which where you were to a large extent defined what you were. To write the Comedy in exile must have been a tremendous act of individuation.
 
Its hold on poets has remained strong. Percy Bysshe Shelley and T S Eliot both wrote the Comedyinto their verse. Those who have been lured into translating it include Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Laurence Binyon, C H Sisson, Robert Pinsky and Sean O’Brien. Now, the polymath Clive James, writing from his own elective exile in London, has joined them. 
 
There are at least two dozen English translations of parts or the whole of The Divine Comedy in print today, their number suggesting there is something symbolic about the enterprise itself. James’s introduction tells us that, for him, an important part of this symbolic value is in paying tribute to his wife, the Dante scholar Prue Shaw, from whom he has been publicly estranged.
 
Yet he also advances another reason for publishing this version. According to James, most English translations fail to bring across the assonant and alliterative interplay of Dante’s original, because they are busy with the almost impossible task of reproducing its terza rima, the chain-link rhyme scheme. He is right: the strengths of polyglot English are also its weakness when it comes to rhyme. The kind of music that is almost automatic in Italian is achieved only with invention – and sometimes evident strain – in English. Here, for example, is Binyon’s translation, published between 1933 and 1943, of the opening of the second canto of Inferno:
 
The day was going, and the darkened air
Was taking from its toil each animal
That is on the earth; I only, alone there,
Essayed to arm my spirit . . .
 
The old-fashioned tenor of this – “toil” and “essayed” scarcely belong to the era of the jet engine and nylon stockings – is exacerbated by Binyon’s counter-intuitive word order: “animal” has been placed at the rhyming line’s end because he has an “all” and a “recall” coming up. The ugly, near-tautological juxtaposition of “only, alone” that follows surely has to do with making the metre add up. James’s solution is to turn the tercets of the original into quatrains, usually rhyming A-BA- B. This is a more familiarly English form, long used in ballad storytelling. The challenge it sets the poet over the long structure is to equal terza rima’s propulsive mechanism.
 
James’s decision also makes his Comedy a third longer than the original. He uses this extra space to incorporate the contextual information Dante’s peers would have understood but for which today’s readers need footnotes. A passing reference to a Balkan king, for example, becomes: “. . . he/Of Serbia, who forged the means to call/A lead plug a Venetian ducat”. 
 
This, then, is a substantially “remastered”, if not exactly rewritten, Dante. James’s mission is to have us read the Comedy as poetry rather than as a historical text. To do this, he must not only solve problems of form and footnotes; he must create a coherent imaginative world, with its own atmosphere and tonal music. We must listen to the verse. Here is James’s translation of that second canto passage:
 
The day was dying, and the darkening air
Brought all the working world of
    living things
To rest. 
 
Alliteration clicks along these iambic lines, holding them in place. You can almost hear the clever mind tightening the bolts. By contrast, in 1994, the American formalist Robert Pinsky uses a slightly broader-brush, hymnal diction, with an attention to vowel sounds and half-line patterns that recalls Anglo- Saxon prosody:
 
Day was departing, and the darkening air
Called all earth’s creatures to their
evening quiet.
 
In 2006, Sean O’Brien clarifies and demys - tifies. His Inferno doesn’t rhyme but uses a blank verse metre that’s so fully digested and flexible that this Dante speaks with frank directness:
 
The day was fading now. The darkening air
Had summoned all the creatures of the earth
To rest after their labours. 
 
It seems that the old Italian proverb “Every choice is a renunciation” holds true in translation as in life. Each of these approaches has strengths. Each makes compromises to achieve those strengths.
 
Translations can show us what’s going on in an original. Their tragedy is that they can never re-create it. Perhaps the only truly conscientious approach to this extraordinary work is to have, alongside the Italian, a whole shelf-full of translations, each able to throw partial light on the text. A worthy member of any such library, James’s Comedy has the peculiar steadiness that comes from the wellbalanced quatrain and familiar pentameter line. As we read it, we may remember that his first love was poetry and reflect on the extent to which serious illness, such as the Australian has suffered recently, concentrates the mind and returns it to its lasting concerns. Not least for this reason, like Dante’s Virgil, James is a trustworthy poet-guide here as we explore once again the complexities of this multi-storied masterpiece. 
 
Fiona Sampson’s latest collection is “Coleshill” (Chatto & Windus, £10). She is professor of poetry at Kingston University

 

Comic-book hero: Clive James with his eldest daughter, the artist Claerwen James, in her Cambridge studio. Photograph: Paul Stuart/Camera Press.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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