Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Inferno, by Dante Alighieri


There's a reason it's a classic.  As with most non-English works, a lot depends on the translation you get and the quality of the annotations.  Near as I can tell, Ciardi does a great job capturing the feel of the original--he even makes it rhyme! 

Dante clearly had a very creative mind.  Many of the punishments he envisions are not only painfully disturbing, but quite ironic as well.   I particularly appreciated Ciardi's translations of some of the cruder and bawdier passages, as the striking change in tone is a very effective literary device.  It is also worth noting that Dante's heirarchy of sin does not resemble the popular view of wrongdoing as demonstrated in the judicial or social consequences meted out upon the perpetrators.  For example, betrayal and fraud are treated as worse than mere violence.  Dante's interpretations and conclusions are not always biblically sound, but they certainly provide ample food for thought. 

The imagery is quite vivid, but I found myself longing for a capable artistic rendering of the scenes Dante conjurs.  The text simply begs to be illustrated, and I'm told that Gustave Doré's engravings are quite moving. Indeed, the poem should really be a multi-media affair--it works quite well when read aloud, and I suspect there are many quality audiobook versions available. The Cantos are short enough to be easily digestible, even for those less inclined to appreciate long passages of epic poetry (such as myself).

A caveat to the reader:  The book is chock full of cultural and historical references, most of which will likely be unfamiliar to the average lay reader (again, such as myself)--for this reason, it is essential to find a well-annotated version that will explain the identities and significance of the various persons Dante encounters in Hell, as well as the places and events to which he refers.

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