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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Politicians and fashion? Why their approach can be telling

My week, from spying on the spies to Theresa May’s fashion charm offensive – and how Sadiq stole hearts.

About nine months ago I was asked if I wanted to spend a morning with Zac Goldsmith, as he appeared to be wakening from the slumber that had obviously taken hold of him when he decided to run for mayor of London. However, after about three minutes in his company (maybe less, actually) I realised that not even his campaign team – let alone voters in the Borough of Southwark – thought he had a hope in hell of winning.

There was only ever going to be one winner, and the enthusiasm with which Sadiq Khan has been greeted by London has been heartwarming. He won the politician award at GQ’s Men of the Year Awards a few weeks ago, and I’d never heard such a roar as he leapt up on stage to collect it. Well, I’ve heard such roars for the likes of Michael Caine, Elton John and Amy Schumer, but rarely for a politician. In fact, the last time there was such fulsome applause for a politician at the GQ awards was when we gave one to a pre-Sextator David Blunkett. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised: the last time Noel Gallagher graced us with his presence, he asked: “Is this what a Conservative party conference looks like?”

 

On the dole

The recent past is being hauled over so repeatedly that soon there are going to be ­retrospectives of events that happened only last week. Or next week. On paper, the new exhibition at the V&A in London, entitled “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970”, seemed slightly behind the curve, but the reality is very different – as it’s probably the best exhibition you’ll see in London this year.

This is all down to the curation, which was handled by Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes, the wizards behind “David Bowie Is”, the most successful show in the V&A’s history. It’s a terrific exhibition, although being reminded of the cultural and political insurrection of the Sixties also reminds you of the period’s seemingly innate optimism as a new London was mushrooming into life. Winston Churchill was dead, abortion was about to be made legal and the rise in happiness seemed exponential. Britain was experiencing almost full employment (though the government wobbled slightly in the spring of 1966 when it was announced that the jobless total had gone up to half a million). It never occurred to anyone that there might not be a job
waiting for them when they left school or their red-brick university.

 

Priced out

There certainly won’t be a house waiting for them, not if they intend to live in London. The marketing bods behind the new development at Battersea Power Station came in to make a presentation at Vogue House a few weeks ago, showing us lots of slides and videos about their fabulous ­development. There’s a Frank Gehry this and a Frank Gehry that, a swimming pool, a private members’ club and lots of artisanal independent retailers selling organic rhubarb and fancy beer, blah blah blah.

Their roll-call of “good things” included the ominous words “affordable housing”, but this appears to be anything but. After the presentation, I promptly stuck my hand up and asked them what they actually meant by affordable housing. The answer I got wasn’t satisfactory, so I asked again: “What does your entry-level accommodation cost?” And the very charming man with the lapel-mike coughed apologetically and almost whispered, “£350,000.” At which point I made my excuses and left.

The idea that my daughters can one day get on the property ladder in London is pure fantasy, and they certainly won’t be living in Battersea, or indeed anywhere near it.

 

Back in fashion

Last Thursday, Theresa May hosted her first reception at Downing Street for the British fashion industry, an event that usually takes place twice a year, and which is attended by fashion designers, industry figures, newspaper and magazine editors and the like. ­Samantha Cameron was always a significant supporter of the sector (which contributes more to the country’s GDP than the car industry), as was Sarah Brown before her, and it is instructive that May has decided to follow in their footsteps.

It’s also telling that Mrs Cameron was not only invited to the event at No 10 but turned up, which says a lot about both women. Theresa May is a fundamentally shy person, yet she not only made a pitch-perfect speech in front of a Brexit-sensitive (and quite possibly suspicious) crowd, but chose to embrace the opportunity to espouse the growing importance of an industry that was so closely associated with the wife of her predecessor. There is such a lot of noise at the moment surrounding the PM’s apparent lack of interest in remaining on good terms with David Cameron, so one wonders what, if anything, is going on here. Taken at face value, May’s move at the reception was extremely classy.

 

The spying game

The following day I found myself in Cheltenham for a five-hour briefing on counterterrorism, cyber-defence, drug smuggling and child kidnapping at GCHQ.

I had expected the place to be like the Foreign Office, but it’s actually more like Google, Apple or Nike, and feels as though it could easily be a campus on America’s “Left Coast”.

There is an incredible sense of purpose at GCHQ, a feeling that they are all working for the common good, and frankly I found it infectious. While the denizens of Silicon Valley might be very adept at pushing the frontiers of consumerism, designing training shoes, telephones and algorithms, it felt far more appropriate to be spending time with men and women obsessed with making the world safer.

Dylan Jones is the editor-in-chief of GQ and a trustee of the Hay Festival

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times