Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

The Dante Club – Matthew Pearl talks to ThreeMonkeys

What is it about that period (Post Civil War) that draws you – did you decide to write based on your thesis, or….

I’m always interested in transitional moments of history, and the moment after the American Civil War brought new tensions in society and even literature. Indeed, although it might be a coincidence of timing, I think America probably wasn’t ready for Dante until after the experience of the civil war. Of course, much of Dante’s vision of Inferno came from his own outlook on constant civil warfare in Tuscany.

You’ve mentioned the need to develop an artistic sense of America today – how does “The Dante Club” fit into this?

Holding me up to my own commentary, not fair! Well, part of my frustration comes when politics and partisanship is substituted by art by some in the artistic community. One of the important genres in any nation is what I’d call “origin literature.” (not a genre by which a bookstore would organize books, I guess!) In other words, works that explore, often in semi-fictional formats, the points of origin for cultural identity. I think the historical Dante Club represents a unique point of origin in American literature, and I hope the novel’s dramatization of that moment adds something to the equation.

I’m not really sure what you mean. What other works for example would you refer to as “Origin Literature” ?

The classic example (literally) would be The Aenied, a mix of history, myth and “fiction” that ultimately provides the story of the founding of Rome. It is not the history of an origin, but rather a work of origin literature.

You’ve edited and prefaced a new re-print of Longfellow’s translation. How do you think the translation stands up?

Longfellow’s translation remains an important part of the network of English translations of the Divine Comedy. There’s no “perfect” one, otherwise we wouldn’t continue to produce and consume so many. I think some people believe the point of a translation is to definitively capture the original. Often, the reviews of translations boast of a “final” or “best” translation. It’s not how I look at it. Each translation plays a role in a cultural conversation across boundaries of time and style. It’s part of the thrill and purpose of the translations. Longfellow’s is one of the most faithful to the original text. I was most excited about re-releasing it, though, because it lets us take a peek through the eyes of the first American readers of Dante as they would have read it in 1867. Now that’s a history lesson.

Here in Bologna (where I’m based) there’s a fresco in the church of San Petronio that depicts scenes from the Inferno – including a clearly labelled Mahomet in hell. Rumours abound that it is as a result on a list of Al-Qaida targets. Does the presentation of people in the inferno present problems for a modern day edition – particularly in the light of 9/11?

I hadn’t heard about those rumors of a Dante illustration being a possible terrorist target — that’s really remarkable to think about. It’s a fascinating question about how a modern-day translator would approach this problem. Certainly, commentators are very aware of the offensive quality of certain aspects of Dante’s theology, not just anti-Islam but anti-Semitic (though Dante doesn’t spend much energy on his anti-Semitism, but rather accepts it passively). But because the Comedy is seen today more as a literary rather than religious text, such moments are not seen as requiring adjustments, only explanations. Of course, when Dante first wrote his poem, the most offended party was the Catholic Church, as he had the temerity to put a few Popes in Hell!

When you say the comedy today is seen more as a literary rather than a religious text, isn’t that wishful thinking – after Salman Rushdie? Surely there are plenty of people in the world only to happy to drag literary works into the political/religious sphere. More paritcularly how do you react to the anti-Islam, anti-semitic parts of the comedy?

You’re absolutely right, new books have a potential for sparking fights in a way time has removed from older literature. Of course, I cringe at the parts of the Comedy that radiate anti-Islamic or anti-Semitic tendencies. But, again, I think those parts must be read primarily as historical remnants of the 1300s. Those aren’t moments that strike any particularly poetic or artistic chords, either, so to a modern reader it’s easier to put those in a separate compartment, whether that’s legitimate or not to a Dante scholar.

What do you think drew Longfellow to Dante?

I think Longfellow saw in Dante a poet who did not write just from scholarly, literary influence, but actually poetry his life and sought to change the world with it. What could be more appealing to a poet in a position of influence like Longfellow’s? On a more personal level, Longfellow turned to Dante for comfort after Longfellow’s wife died. This is a psychology explored in the novel.

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