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Thursday, 23 May 2013

All of a sudden I'm excited about Dan Brown

News websites are cluttered with material about Dan Brown's new novel, Inferno, and it's impossible to avoid it. At my local bookseller the shelves literally groan with the hardcover books. And unlike earlier novels from this author I'm very tempted. In fact, it's only a matter of time. How could it be otherwise? Dante Alighieri (1265 - 1321) is part of my personal history in a way that, for example, Shakepeare might be for someone who studied English literature at university. This portrait, for example. It's by Sandro Botticelli and was made a couple of hundred years after its subject died. Then think of Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 - 1400) and his Canterbury Tales and, indeed, think of John Milton (1608 - 1674) and his two long poems. And later, in the 19th century, witness the explosion of Dantesque cultural goods including new translations, paintings and bibs and bobs. The shadow of Dante doesn't just enliven the sphere of Italian literature, it falls broadly across the entire cultural landscape of Europe. And what he did, when you get down to it, was merely to write poetry in the vernacular, instead of in Latin.

Without question I have forgotten more about Dante than I can remember. It was 1981 when I first came across him because his Commedia was part of the curriculum. It's really an extended allegory, and it starts in a way familiar to those who have read other works from the Middle Ages: a man is walking and gets lost in the woods and meets someone as if in a dream. In Dante's case it's the Roman poet Virgil, who takes the Florentine into Hell, up through Purgatory and into Paradise. But medieval literature is full of poets falling asleep and dreaming allegories. It was quite the thing to do, apparently.

Stylistically Dante's long poem is interesting because of the way he uses his native Florentine dialect - the form of Italian that would eventually become the standard form of the language for the "country" (more recently, it became a real country) - in a way that had not been done before. It's also interesting because of the level of realism involved; when Dante, in Hell, for example, meets a person he'd known of in the real world it's as though that person is really speaking. And the prosodic links between the scene viewed or the speaker being listened to, and the words used to convey that information, are sophisticated and charming. In other words, Dante is a poet in full command of his tools. Uncounted generations of strong readers have swooned when they have read Dante in the original Italian.

So good on Dan Brown for taking on such a complex and monumental subject for his most recent book. It's one I will be buying and reading. Whether I finish it or not depends on Mr Brown's skill.

1 comment:

Rahul said...

The book is good, of course it will be for it is Dan Brown's. But I must say its definitely not his best work. Regardless, the way he can make us think about certain things, here which is Dante's Inferno, is exceptional. His knowledge is clear and in depth and the way he can present facts from certain angles can take us aback.

Also the thing I absolutely love about him is his awesome portrayal of the female leads of his books. That is something Chetan Bhagat needs to learn bad.