The Inferno by Dante Alighieri: Book Review

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Cover of The Inferno by Dante Alighieri

3 Stars

To summarize for those who don’t know, this is an epic poem, part of a greater poem called The Divine Comedy. Dante the Poet travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise at the behest of his dead true love, Beatrice. His guide for his tour of Hell is the great Roman poet, Virgil.

This was tough. I rip through books quickly, but this took me a good six weeks to read. I could only read one or two cantos (about four pages) at a time. I would start to fall asleep. I’m not one of those people who reads to fall asleep. I read for enjoyment. I watch tv to fall asleep. I also read a couple of other books at the same time, so that slowed me down too. Part of what slowed me down is the translation. It was translated by Longfellow. So, here I was, reading a 14th-century Italian poet translated by a 19th-century American poet. You see the trouble? It felt like a very word-for-word translation. I know that poets are allowed to play around with English syntax, and that’s fine. But everything felt sort of backwards. I don’t know anything about Italian, but when I’ve waded through French in school and now trying to learn Spanish, a lot of their syntax is backwards to me. I assume Italian is the same way since it’s also a Romantic language. So I would read a line and then mentally turn it around to a form that made sense to a modern English speaker. Wow. That really bogged me down.

Another thing that really slowed me down is that in the B&N version, there were at least as many pages of endnotes as there were of actual poem. Don’t get me wrong–the endnotes were mostly a huge help. Dante placed real people whom I’ve never heard of in Hell. (I kept thinking, “I hope I’m not making my generation’s epic poet angry with me. I don’t want to be known forever as That Woman In Whichever Circle of Hell!”) It helped me to understand even what the sin being punished was when I read the endnotes. (I didn’t have a clue what simony was. It’s the selling of religious offices.) Sometimes they explained things that were perfectly obvious though. There were some footnotes also. Those were absolutely useless. If you’re trying to read The Inferno and you don’t understand that e’en is poet-speak for even, you should just put the book down.

One thing that was sort of interesting is seeing how Western society’s values have changed (or not) and how Dante “rates” the sins. For example, the third circle of hell is occupied by gluttons. I know that gluttony is included in the seven deadly sins, but I don’t think most people living now would actually have placed gluttons in Hell. It just doesn’t really seem to be that big a deal to us anymore. But maybe that’s just me. And as for Dante’s judgments as to which sins were worse than the others, sometimes they seemed a little off to me. I don’t think God would punish those who sell their political office for personal gain more harshly than those who sell their religious office for the same reason. But Dante, who was somehow exiled in part because of someone using their political office in such a way, chooses to punish the political person more harshly than the religious person.

In reading the endnotes, it seemed to me that the leaders in Dante’s time came up with punishments worse than any Dante invented for his version of Hell. King Frederick II of Naples encased traitors in capes of lead and then melted the lead. Think about that. Makes you glad you live today, doesn’t it? Getting a glimpse into history from someone who was living it was actually pretty interesting.

Overall, I’m glad I read this. I feel sort of like I get bragging rights now. Plus, there are a lot of references to The Inferno out there, so now I’ll understand those better. I do wish that I had looked around for a more modern translation though.

Reviewed March 6, 2008

A friend on Goodreads shared this video with me. It’s Roberto Benigni reciting Canto V. I don’t understand a word, but it’s beautiful to listen to!

Friday Flashback Reviews, a feature at The Introverted Reader

Friday Flashback Reviews are a weekly feature here on The Introverted Reader. These are old reviews I wrote on GoodReads. Thanks to Angieville and her Retro Friday Reviews for the inspiration and encouragement!

I have an affiliate relationship with Malaprop’s, my local independent bookstore located in beautiful downtown Asheville, NC; and Better World Books. I will receive a small commission at no cost to you if you purchase books through links on my site.

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