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Reading the Commedia

Alberto Manguel

Every book opened, every page turned, renews the hope of understanding the book a little more than on the previous reading.

Dante wrote his great poem in three parts (Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso) during the early part of the fourteenth century. Since the sixteenth century it has been known as the Divine Comedy, a work of enormous power reborn with each generation of writers, readers and translators.

One of the common experiences in most reading lives is the discovery, sooner or later, of one book that like no other allows for an exploration, of oneself and of the world, that appears inexhaustible and that, at the same time, concentrates the mind on the tiniest particulars in an intimate and singular way. For certain readers, that book is an acknowledged classic, a volume of Shakespeare or Proust, for example; for others it is a lesser-known or lesser agreed-upon work that deeply echoes in the mind for inexplicable or secret reasons. In my case, throughout my life, that unique book has changed: for many years it was Alice in Wonderland, Ficciones, Don Quixote, The Magic Mountain. Now, not far from the prescribed three score and ten, the book that is to me all-encompassing is Dante’s Commedia. I came to the Commedia late, just before turning sixty, and from the very first reading, the Commedia became for me that utterly personal and yet horizonless book. To describe the Commedia as horizonless may be simply a way of declaring a kind of superstitious awe of the work itself: of its depth, breadth, intricacy and flawless construction. Even these words fall short of my renewed experience of reading the text. “Construction” implies an artificial mechanism, a function dependent on pulleys and cogs, which, even when evident (as in Dante’s invention of the terza rima, for instance, and accordingly his use of the number 3 throughout the Commedia), merely points to a detail of the complexity but hardly illuminates its apparent perfection.

In a parody of twentieth-century artistic currents, from the nouveau roman to conceptual art, Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares imagined a form of criticism that, surrendering to the impossibility of analyzing a work of art in all its greatness, merely reproduced the work in its entirety; so that in order to explain the Commedia, the critic ended up by quoting the entire Commedia. Perhaps that is the only way. It is true that, when coming across an astonishingly beautiful passage or an intricate poetic argument that had not struck us as forcibly in a previous reading, our impulse is not to comment on it as much as to read it out loud to a friend, in order to share entirely the original experience.

There is an essential problem with which every writer (and every reader) is faced when engaging with a text. We know that to read is to affirm our belief in language and its vaunted ability to communicate. Every time we open a book, we trust, in spite of all our previous experience, that this time the essence of the text will be conveyed to us. And every time we reach the last page, in spite of such brave hopes, we are once again disappointed. Especially when we read what we agree to call “great literature,” our ability to grasp the text in all its multi-layered complexity falls short of our expectations, and we are compelled to return to the text once again, in the hope that this time we will achieve our purpose. Fortunately for literature, fortunately for us, we never do. Generations of readers cannot exhaust these books, and the very failure of language to communicate fully lends them a seemingly limitless richness that each of us fathoms but only to the extent of our capacities. No reader has ever reached the depths of the Mahabharata or King Lear.

The realization that a task is impossible does not prevent us from attempting it, and every book opened, every page turned, renews the hope of understanding a book, if not in its entirety, at least a little more than on the previous reading. That is how, throughout the ages, we create a palimpsest of readings that continuously re-establishes the book’s authority, and always under a different guise. The Iliad of Homer’s contemporaries is not our Iliad, but it includes it, as our Iliad includes all Iliads to come. In this sense, the Hasidic assertion that the Talmud has no first page because every reader has already begun reading it before starting at the first words, is true of every great book.

The term lectura dantis was created to define what has become a specific genre: the reading of the Commedia. Perhaps, after generations and generations of commentaries (beginning with those of Dante’s own son, Piero, shortly after his father’s death), it is impossible to be comprehensively critical or even original in what one has to say about the poem. And yet, I might be able to justify such an exercise by suggesting that every reading is, in the end, less a reflection or translation of the original text, than a portrait of the reader, a confession, an act of self-revelation and self-discovery. If this is true, then the Commedia has become over the past few years the unavoidable and secret autobiography of this reader.

I’ve read the Commedia in a number of translations: I began with Dorothy L. Sayers’s somewhat arch but moving version; now I always carry with me the Reverend Philip H. Wicksteed’s literal version, facing the Italian original, in the beautifully printed Dent edition of 1899. I like Robin Kirkpatrick’s version; I’m less keen on J.G. Nichols’s and Allen Mandelbaum’s. There are excellent translations of the two first sections: Ciaran Carson’s Inferno and W.S. Merwin’s Purgatorio. I don’t know any first-rate English version of Paradiso. Now, after several years’ practice, I can read the Commedia in the original, helping myself along with a shelfful of commentaries.

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Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) Fabulous Monsters, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, Curiosity and All Men Are Liars. He lives in New York. Read more of his work at manguel.com.


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