The Divine Comedy

Some books can’t merely be read; they must be studied. Dante’s epic 14th century poem is an amazingly complex work, expertly combining ancient Greek and Roman literature, Christian theology, human psychology, and contemporary politics. If you don’t read the endnotes, you miss a lot of the work’s value.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the approach I took on my recently completed first reading of the text. I used the same approach that’s worked well for my reading of William Shakespeare, James Joyce, and Thomas Malory — download an audiobook and read along to the recital. I chose the Robin Kirkpatrick translation, as Audible had a matching recording. The performance, done by Kirkpatrick and two other readers, is fine, but the experience was unsatisfying because I realized how much I was missing by not stopping the recording and checking the notes.

I can say I’ve finally read the work, but I’m a long way from appreciating it.

Several moments do stand out from this initial reading, one in particular during Canto 24 of Inferno. Dante and his guide Virgil encounter a thief, named Vanni Fucci in Dante’s text but translated by Kirkpatrick as Johnny Fucci. Anglicizing the name makes this character more relatable to readers like myself, and I also appreciate that Kirkpatrick doesn’t attempt to whitewash Johnny’s blasphemous diatribe against God. I did not expect to see an f-bomb, but there it was on line 2 of Canto 25. According to Wikipedia, Vanni Fucci has been used by a couple contemporary writers, and should the situation arise I might use him in one of my own stories.

Should I decide to read Dante again, I’ll take the studious approach I used for Ulysses — do the Great Courses overview, then read a canto or two at a time, flipping back to the notes whenever one’s available. That’s going to be a long project, but I picked up enough of the work’s majesty to know the experience will be worthwhile.

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