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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

This book has a misleading, too sweet title

by Jamie Lutton

Dante in Love by Harriet Rubin

I have been reading Dante's Inferno since I was a child, living in my parent's house, in the Tri-Cities, Washington State, hiding from the heat of the summer. I was eleven that summer, turning twelve. What drew me in was the large gruesome, horrific ink drawings in the big picture book edition I had. The drawings were by Dore, a french illustrator from the 19th century. I think this edition was translated by Cary. I am writing this from memory, and and doing all this without notes. It was a beat up copy, that I curled up and around, in an old black leather chair that I still have, reading almost upside down.

My encounter with Dante suited my dark little bookworm soul. I had mostly stopped reading children's books, and I was on the prowl for dark and delicious adult books like this, till I discovered that great distractor, Science Fiction, which then occupied my free time for most of my adolescence.

The combination of the stately verse, and the glorious black line drawings of Dore brought HELL to my heart. I walked in HELL with Dante and Virgil, and was haunted by sin and sinners, searching for the divine will in the blackness of this medieval verse book. When you are twelve, and either are the kind of child I was who either disliked or hated most of the people around me, the vicarious pleasure of reading about the damned in hell was enormous. Even as I aged into rocket ships and hobbits, I did keep coming back to HELL, for a march down among the wailing damned, and a glorious examination of Dore's illustrations. ( Dore also illustrated French fairy tales - his Puss in Boots is extraordinary, as is his Little Red Riding Hood. I will spend an entire blog on just Dore as an illustrator another time.)

The problem was, I could not get any further, as I got older. Oh, yes, I faked reading the whole Divine Comedy. I skimmed Purgatory and Paradise, so I could tell the story if someone asked me, by the time I had been a bookseller for years, and I was hawking The Comedy in a used bookshop I owned. I even began to collect different translations of Dante, and make huffy noises along with the best of them about which translations were better. But, but, I was always more comfortable in HELL. HELL spoke to me, with its bone chewing hatred and revenge taking, where Dante put all of his enemies, from rivals to long dead popes to fry or freeze or be chased by monsters, wailing over their lost souls.

Till I read Dante in Love.

Till then, Beatrice, with all her grace, had not yet spoken to me.

.........ever read a book that a author bled into? Dante bled into his Comedy, and it shows when you have a good guide. Harriet Rubin bled into Dante in Love. And it took a writer who suffered to write Dante in Love, to open up the mind of Dante for a modern reader, and a female reader in my case.

I had missed the point, before I read Dante in Love. Oh, sure, I knew that Dante loved Beatrice, and had transformed her in his head into a guiding spirit to lead him to write the Divine Comedy. But angels, fictional or otherwise, do not have much appeal to me. I had never met one in fiction that moved me, or in the Bible. Harriet Rubin reveals Dante's Beatrice connection to Mary, Mother of God. Beatrice would not have been written as she was written if there had not been amazing discussions about the nature of God going on among the theologians of Dante's time.

And Harriet Rubin makes the theology involved interesting.

She achieves her several purposes. First, walking you through Dante's world, and the world of his intellectual peers, and what was going on in Italy, and who the political players were. She does this beautifully, without being too academic, in short, lively chapters. Then, she walks you through the text of the Comedy, using modern translators, and manages to make Purgatory and Paradise not only readable, but hypnotic.

The text of the Comedy that I lazily shied away from, the author grabs my hand and dances me through, line by line, scene by scene, singing like my own personal Beatrice in my eye's ear all along the way. She makes the complete Comedy sing, and she made me fall in love with it for the first time. I read Dante in Love cover to cover twice in two weeks, just to hear her singing commentary in my eye's ear again.

The author is honestly in love with the The Divine Comedy, and the vision that Dante had. You are not plodding along, like a sleepy reading-the-book-at-gunpoint college student, but alive and aware, at Dante's elbow. And your guide is a feminist, a Jew, and a modern woman, so the frames of reference are our here-and-now.

Made clear to an agnostic like me.

And there is something peculiar about the text of Dante in Love. While erudite and clear it is also hypnotic, hallucinatory and fevered. I discovered later after reading it that the author was suffering a crisis while writing it; her husband, a scholar of Petarch (a near contemporary of Dante), was dying as she worked on it.

There are dozens of handbooks to Shakespeare that are very good. At least ten good handbooks to Chaucer. But this book, Dante in Love, is the only friendly handbook to Dante and his world that I have ever seen. The author's perspective is unique to the material, sadly. Dante, in his life, was a political exile from his city and his family, doomed to wander Italy, writing to support himself. So Harriet Rubin's tragedy illuminated this brilliant, friendly book on a very tough classic for a modern reader to finish, and to understand with any completeness.

When I was done with Dante In Love, I sat down with the Singleton translation, and finally carefully read, line for line Purgatory and Paradise, and heard Virgil and Beatrice clearly as Dante wanted me to, when he penned these books, 700 years ago. It is not all HELL, that is just the first step. There is Purgatory and Paradise, too.

Dante in Love is available on line very cheaply. The first 10 people who do not like it can find me, and ask for their money back, if they send me the copy they read. I never get it in used to my bookstore, and I have at least that many customers who I want to read it, and I would gladly buy a copy for them.

But I bet I won't get any copies.

Send all copies of Dante in Love by Harriet Rubin when you are done reading them and you are foolish enough to give up (first 10 copies only apply: in good condition please to. Oh, and you have to tell me why. Typed, double spaced, and no cussing me out because you thought the book was too hard. Offer expires when I get 10 copies, or September 1, 2010.

Jamie Lutton
Twice Sold Tales
P.O Box 20069
Seattle
WA
98102.

WARNING: this is the only book I guarantee on this blog, till further notice.
You may send money; I will accept checks.

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