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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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis