Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

The Dante Club – Matthew Pearl talks to ThreeMonkeys

The bookmixes the skills of the literary writer, the law researcher, and the thriller writer. Was it difficult to do? How well do you think you fared in the balance?

I didn’t look at the book as a particular genre or combination of genres while writing it, so never felt I was facing a difficult challenge of “combining” elements. It was, of course, a difficult project. Writing anything to your own satisfaction is difficult — whether it’s a letter or email or book. In expressing ourselves, we’re performing an unnatural transition from the abstract to the verbal and concrete. A project like this is made more difficult by the need for so much historical and literary research. But that’s always what makes it fun for me. If I were just writing about a life like my own I’d be very bored. I’m pretty boring.

What makes for a good Novel in your view?

I guess there is no formula or definition of a good novel. I like to think it’s one that makes you want to pick up another book when you’re done with it.

You’re an accomplished student of Dante – what drew you to his work?

Sometimes I think forming a true connection with a piece of literature is less a conscious decision and more like falling in love. You’re not sure why, exactly. In fact, with Dante, there are many reasons to think the work would hold very little appeal in our day and age! Certainly the political and theological (even if you’re Catholic, which I’m not) ideas are not only outdated but considered rather bizarre even in Dante’s own time. In contrast with this, I think part of what drew me in right away was the position of vulnerability Dante in which Dante begins his poem. He’s lost in the woods, possibly injured, confused, spiritually damaged. Part of the obstacle to throwing ourselves into literature is the intimidation factor. The fact that Dante is the protagonist, and that he’s in such a jam, makes for a poem and a person we can all relate to.

“In contrast, our anemic artistic sense of America today is troubling. We envy European culture without simultaneously strengthening our own. We are left with a view of America as a shadow of other countries, as most acceptable when part of a cultural conglomerate. At the start of the 21st century we have hollowed out a void not so different from the one Longfellow had to overcome in the mid-19th century, when America was conceived of as an offshoot of other nations. Understanding a cultural power separate from even the most important contemporary politics, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow created an energy of self-definition for which we find ourselves in need now more than ever. Precisely because our politics swirl around us so fiercely, this should be a pressing challenge for our artists. Until they rise to meet it, it’s time to dust off our Longfellow.” – (Matthew Pearl)

is it ironic then that while your book is certainly concerned primarily with America, it has a medieval Italian’s worldview at its centre?

Part of what is important in defining any national literature or culture is a thorough awareness of other cultures. I think that despite today’s American tendency to envy European culture, as I mentioned in my opinion article, we don’t explore other cultures in much depth. We pay lip service to being part of an “international community” without stopping to define it and define the place of international culture within our own. Indeed, very few movies are brought over to America from other countries and even fewer books are translated (in the scheme of how many are published). What Longfellow did that’s worth remembering is to relish distinctly “native” subjects, like the early pilgrim culture and the world of indigenous people, but also bring a deep commitment to introducing to America foreign literature and culture, of which his groundbreaking translation of Dante is prime example. In this light, I hope my novel brings a related energy. It explores 19th century America, but also explores how we process foreign culture, in positive and negative ways, and how we tend to find threads of fear and hope by bringing foreign culture into our own.

There’s a certain W.A.S.P.ish resistance to Dante in the novel – a fear of this foreign influence. Do you think that’s still a trend in America? For example, why do you think it is that so few foreign books/movies get translated and released in America?

Actually, I don’t think there’s much of a fear anymore. Rather, I think it’s driven by the marketplace and geographical realities. America is so large and produces so much media (books, movies, etc.) that there’s a natural saturation from within the country leaving little room
from outside.

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