Book review: Hell: Dante’s Divine Trilogy Part One, by Alasdair Gray

Alasdair Gray PIC: John Devlin
Alasdair Gray PIC: John Devlin
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Dante is a poet whom everyone acknowledges as canonical, and whom very few actually read. I have several translations of the Divine Comedy to hand: Henry Carey’s earliest one of 1814, the Penguin Classics version by Dorothy L Sayers – yes, the crime novelist – Mark Musa, Robin Kirkpatrick, Ciaran Carson, Clive James – yes, him off the telly – and others. All have their virtues and their faults.

I would like it if perhaps someone began their translation with Paradiso rather than Inferno. Inferno is the easiest sell – bleeding trees, lovers in the gale, twisted bodies, frozen horrors, ring after ring of filth and flame. What’s not to like? Well, to my mind the later parts of the poem are more significant and sublime. There is a schoolboy nastiness to the Inferno which sheds away, away, away as Dante reaches the Divine. The story of a lovelorn man being guided through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, its opening attracts most who want to stay with the ghastly.

To the list of translators one can now add Alasdair Gray, one of Scotland’s most noted novelists. This is not his first foray into adaptation – Fleck, his version of Goethe’s Faust, pre-dates it. The title shows the extent to which Gray plays fast and loose with the original. The title of the book is the Commedia, and it is not a trilogy; it is one poem, with three-ness an integral part of it. It is not so much decorated but etiolated. Gray, in the faux humility of the title, says he did not translate so much as “cut Dante’s epic down to the range of my intelligence”. Good luck with the theologically sophisticated Paradiso then.

Dante’s epic uses a particular verse form – terza rima – which is notoriously difficult to replicate in English and Gray’s half-use of it works rather well. Instead of rigid rhymes, there are assonances and unexpected couplets. It sticks to what most writers in English use to deal with Dante, the iambic pentameter, but Gray’s version tends towards the declamatory rather than the flowing. There are so many end-stopped lines I had to re-read them to make sure there was not some error. There wasn’t, but some wandering is sometimes better. It has been said by many people that the difficulty in Italian is not to find a rhyme, and transforming the poem into English, which notoriously doesn’t even have a rhyme for orange, means some tweaks; either of sense or style.

In terms of translation: well, it’s not one. What it is is slick, easy to read and it bounces along regardless. Certain sections of the text are expunged completely, and although they may be rather obscure classical references or disquisitions on Florentine politics, they were part of the whole. It is why I have a strange affection for the Sayers translation, given it is positively larded with footnotes just in case it has momentarily slipped your mind who Guido Bonatti or Filippo Argenti were. Dante wrote in vernacular Italian rather than classical Latin, and Gray is rather good at catching the colloquial nature of the poem. The opening cantos include “dominie”, “blethering”,”glen”. Later Gray changes the names, wisely, of the demons in Canto XXI from Italian neologisms like Alichino, Calcabrina, and Barbariccia to Stinytail, Clartyclaw, and Snotbeard. The poem does indeed reek – even the most recent translations have shied from its stench, but Gray is undeterred. He makes the vaguely pious point where Vanni Fucci traditionally makes “the sign of figs” with his fingers into the sinner flicking the vickies at God Himself, and spewing swear words.

Not always does this contemporary version work. I was slightly put off by Gray “translating” the Florentine parties, the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, into Whigs and Tories, given it means (as with Fleck) he can overlay his own politics on the text. Likewise, referring to Satan as “God’s prime minister” is jarring. He dodges two of the most contentious lines in the Inferno, the two untranslateable lines: the first words of Plutus (“Pape Sàtan, Pape Sàtan Aleppo”) are rendered as “Daddy Mephisto! Daddy Bugaboo” which sounds more like Tim Burton’s Oogie Boogie in The Nightmare Before Christmas than a genuine horror. The maniac words of the giant Nimrod are given as “Agargal grabgeeky glubdrib yak!” Virgil does say his language is meaningless but the original is “Raphel mai amech izabi almi” which is more horrible in that it seems to be meaningful (one scholar has suggested it might be a phonetic transcription of Hungarian, a not wholly ludicrous hypothesis).

This is, in some ways, an excellent primer to Dante, and readers who are drawn to this epic of redemption, forgiveness and love will hopefully find other translations that include more of the original. But in terms of verve, vim and vigour Gray has succeeded here. It is, if such a thing can be, an “easy” Dante, and one that does capture the comedy as well as the pathos and anguish of the poem. But that will get more difficult as the book progresses. The mountain of Purgatory is high and the soaring into the celestial even more complex.

Hell: Dante’s Divine Trilogy Part One Decorated And Englished in Prosaic Verse, by Alasdair Gray, Canongate, £14.99