Zingers aside, Clive James’s comedy isn’t quite divine
The Australian polymath’s translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy is reliable but lifeless
Hell: Dante finds Ciacco among the gluttons, in an engraving by Gustave Doré. Photograph: Prisma/UIG via Getty
Dante’s Divine Comedy has inspired generations of poets, novelists and, more recently, film-makers and computer-game writers. Translators flock to its audacious combination of epic quest story, philosophical meditation, score-settling character assassination and idealistic romance.
Dorothy L Sayers, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert Pinsky, Ciaran Carson, Sean O’Brien and dozens of others have attempted its famous opening lines, rendered in Dante: The Divine Comedy (Picador, £25), a new translation by Clive James, as “At the midpoint of the path through life I found / myself lost in a wood so dark the way / Ahead was blotted out”. Every one of its translations has its merits – Dante’s poem survives translation easily – but the translator’s chief problem is formal. Dante maps his multidimensional stairway to heaven on to regular lines in a recurring, unstoppable-feeling daisy- chain-like rhyme scheme called terza rima, which gives the poem a comprehensive authority in its verdicts on individuals and ideas.
Clive James is best known for his polymathic journalism about television, European history and the weightiest of literary and philosophical figures, many of them summarised or despatched to within an inch of their lives. Alongside this career, James has always written poetry, which at its best combines his essays’ summarising brio with an often satirical tendency, as in his mock-epic Peregrine Pryke’s Pilgrimage. It is easy to imagine that this style would suit the short and often vicious character sketches Dante locates in the various circles of Hell and Purgatory.
And James the essayist is positively present when he writes with teacherly clarity, especially in his versions of Paradise, whose first canto imagines the soul’s transition to an unimaginable realm (an “eternal wheel / – Constructed and set spinning by desire”) and in Purgatory, as when Canto 18 records with a relaxed fluency Virgil’s responses to Dante’s questioning about the nature of love: “It is not learned, / It’s instinct, to be reinforced by all / The pleasures you might have. For just as fire / Moves upward, as a form that’s born to climb / To where it most thrives, so, into desire, / The mind thus seized must enter at the time / Of being taken – for desire moves as / The spirit moves it – and may never rest.”
James’s habitual one-line zingers add drama, as when he declares, in Canto 1, “The root cause of all joy is in the sky,” or in The Wood of the Suicides canto, “The scorned, discarded one will always guide / Its path to civil war, us against us.”
In Canto 15, though, when Dante encounters the writer Brunetto Latini, the problems of James’s approach emerge. Virgil advises, crisply, “He listens well / Who takes notes”, while we see the point of Latini’s epigrammatic “My book, called Treasure, is at your command. / Read it. I ask no more. There, I’m alive.” However, also present is the baggier self-indulgence of lines such as “Let Fortune turn its wheel at will, and more: / Let the hick hack with his mattock,” whose overegged jingling James should have resisted.
Those lines indicate, in miniature, a serious issue with the enormous task James has set himself. Early on he decided to set aside Dante’s terza-rima form and to re-cut the poem in the alternating rhymes that, James argues, are more native to the English language. This means he departs from a line-by-line fidelity. At times it leads to nonsensical constructions such as “Let Fortune turns its wheel at will, and more”; elsewhere it grants him room for his translation’s other innovation, the inclusion of informative glosses in the body of the text rather than using footnotes.