I realize, at this point in my life, that I am never going to read Dante.
As much as I think I might enjoy The Divine Comedy, any plan I might make to read it is likely to end abandoned in favor of Swedish detective stories.
But his life as well as his work are very interesting, and of interest to me. So when I saw Prue Shaw’s book, Reading Dante, on the shelves at Book Passage in Corte Madera, I bought it. While reading Dante is sure to be too much work for me at this point in time, reading about him could be fun.
You don’t need to know anything about Dante or The Divine Comedy to enjoy Prue Shaw’s book, though some knowledge will probably be helpful. I have some knowledge, much of it correct, some of it not so correct.
Ms. Shaw gives the reader plenty of biographical information, just about all there is I imagine, and lots of historical context for Dante’s work. The people Dante, his book is a first person narration, meets in Hell were all historical, mythological or biblical figures, some of them nearly contemporary to Dante’s times. Modern readers won’t know who many of them were, so the background Ms. Shaw provides is both interesting and very helpful when it comes to understanding just why various people get the after-lifes they get. Gluttons are punished with everlasting hunger and thirst. The envious have their eyes sewn shut so that they can never see the good fortune of those they pass by. Pope Celestine, the one who abdicated, is forever locked outside the gates, unable to enter into the afterlife as he was not able to commit himself to the papacy on earth.
I was very impressed by Dante’s rhyme scheme which Ms. Shaw explains made it very difficult to alter his work. Each stanza contains a line that introduces the rhyme of the following stanza. This made it nearly impossible to add or subtract stanzas. Subsequently, censors throughout the centuries have never been able to hide their censorship. You can take parts away, but a trace of your editing remains.
In then end, while Ms. Prue’s book has not made me want to rush out and read Dante, I appreciate the knowledge of him and his work that I gained from reading Reading Dante.
And who knows….maybe someday……