Monday, June 25, 2012

What Paolo Read: There and Back Again (The "There" is Hell)

It's been awhile but my friend Paolo is back with another post about his Classics Challenge reading. Enjoy!

Hi. It's Paolo. Remember me? I'm the guy who's supposed to be writing updates based on the books he's read in the Classics Challenge. You know, to give Red a chance to watch Clueless break from time to time. If you don't, just know that I'm a roguishly handsome yet erudite semi-blogger. (To be fair, I am my own harshest critic.)

I dove head first into Inferno. It's an intimidating poem to start reading - any work with so many competing translations shouts, "I'm a Classic. You heard right; that's a capital C." Of course, this is the Classics Challenge, and this is the translated work category. I should hardly be surprised. I settled on Ciardi; he seemed to be both well-recommended and easily accessible on the Kindle. Two pluses.

For those of you who haven't read any of the Divine Comedy, a brief overview. First, Dante loved Catholicism (if not the Catholic Church of his time). You'd kinda expect that from a dude who's known for writing The Divine Comedy, but it infuses everything he does. The rhyming schema he invented, terza rima, has triplets in both line and rhyme: ABA, BCB, CDC, DED, EFE, and so on. (If you're having trouble figuring out what comes next, e-mail Red. She loves questions like those.)

With me so far? Good. Now imagine a dialogue between two Italians. You don't have to speak the language; make up some representative giberish and you'll do just fine. Hear all those vowels at the ends of the words? This makes rhyming Italian[1] a lot easier than rhyming in English. Ciardi had a seriously uphill battle translating the Comedy with the terza rhima intact, so he punted. Or, to stretch the football analogy far past its breaking point, he punted on 3rd down[2]. So yes, there is a rhyming scheme in Ciardi's Inferno, but it's not quite the same. Instead, it simply goes AXA, BXB, CXC, etc.

This is not do diminish the effort or accomplishment. Ciardia did a marvelous job making the rhyming work. This seems incredibly hard to manage in English, and it only rarely falls into Princess Bride territory. It definitely works, and feels like poetry to boot, but I found myself looking for a little more flow in the text. For the most part, I found the subject matter compelling, but I felt like I was still missing out on the much-lauded brilliance of Dante's work.

Speaking of the much-lauded brilliance of Dante's work: dude needs an editor. I dug the concept, love the exploration of hell, found Dante and Virgil to be great characters, and found the first 6 (of 9) circles quite interesting. Then I still had 80% of a poem to go. Needless to say, the pacing was a little ridiculous. Perhaps the people in the inner circles were more interseting and deserved a more in-depth treatment, but it often felt like Dante changed his plan partway in. Further, Dante's editor would also have done well to tell him, "Hey, dude, people are going to be reading this 600 years down the line. Nobody really cares about some petty noble in Tuscany[3]." You'd think he'd have considered that.

I'm not trying to be overly critcal, though. The pacing, obscure dead guys, and difficulty of transation are my only real complaints. Beyond that, I'd been exposed so much to intrepretations, applications, and other references to Inferno throught other works that a lot of it felt familiar. Still, it was really awesome to drill down deep into the source material. Even after translation, the poem retains a lot of it weight, and Dante manages to put enough horror into Hell for even a jaded 21st century interent person.

If you've got a smartphone, I'd take the time to put Inferno on your ebook reading app of choice[4]. The individual Cantos (33 in total for Inferno) are short enough to read in those 5-to-10 minute bits of downtime where you're tempted to find a book, but don't have enough time to really read. I'd put it up there with Milton in the "definite read if you care at all about religion's influences" category.

[1]Dante pretty much invented modern Italian (when he published The Comedy) by slamming together a number of the local dialects with some Latin. The poem was so overwhelmingly popular that it essentially established the rules of the language. Look into it from a better source than me - it's cool stuff.
[2]American football. Canadians, substitute second down. Europeans, he took a shot from midfield. Australians, he showed up to a prison riot with just a sharpened toothbrush.

[3]A decent number of footnotes on Dante's contemporaries read, more or less, "there's no real historical record of this guy" or, "this guy was a prominent politician of his time"

[4]Preferably one with a more adjustable font size. Most of my lines were about 1 or 2 words too long, looking awkwardly like this: