There is no more certain kiss of death than the New Year’s Resolution, is there?
You hang that fresh calendar on the wall and envision the New You in the New Year. Yeah, right. Three weeks later you’re back in the recliner with the Doritos and a Toblerone bar the size of a sledge hammer.
So I was smart this year. My only resolution for 2012 was to re-read Dante’s Inferno. What I didn’t realize was that it might take me the entire year to do it. I am a sad and sorry twelve cantos and seven circles into Hell, which is just slightly more than a third of the way through. Kind of helps me channel Dante, who, in Canto I, was “midway through the journey” of his life.
What is wrong here? Is it laziness? Lack of motivation? In my defense, I am slowed down by reading four translations at once. I’ve got a treasure-trove of Dante: the paperback Mandelbaum translation, the Thomas Bergin translation with illustrations by Leonard Baskin, the Charles Eliot Norton translation with Botticelli illustrations and the Hollander translation. Essentially, I’m reading four books at once, which simply quadruples the pleasures of Hell.
Each translation is a revelation unto itself, but the Hollander translation nails it every time. By far the most cogent and, dare I say, humorous, take on this cook’s tour of Hell, the Hollanders make the most sense and manage their subject with the greatest delicacy. Once of my favorite notes of theirs is their explanation of the parentage of the Minotaur in Canto XII:
“half man and half bull, conceived by the sexually venturesome Pasiphae (wife of Minos, king of Crete) with a bull, when she placed herself in a wooden replica of a cow in order to enjoy a bovine embrace” (italics mine)
Haha! And we think reality television is at the limit of human depravity!
The Hollanders seem to be content in obscurity, because, beyond the Dante Project at Princeton, which is apparently run by Dr. Hollander (he has to be a Ph.D., right?) I can’t find much yakkety-yak about them on the web. They are awesome, though. They use five words to everyone else’s ten and they make everything crystal clear, which is not all that easy when you’re traversing Hell. Hands down, the Hollander edition is your best choice for reading Dante. I read the Dorothy Sayres edition last time around and became rather attached to her, but I’m now 100% Team Hollander.
Other than Canto XI, which is a real snoozer, it has been a wild ride and I encourage all of you – yes, I know this is not summer beach reading, but it’s worth it! – to delve into Dante. Although I do recommend that you not approach it bass-ackwards like me: I have not yet read The Aeneid, which really should be a pre-requisite to The Divine Comedy. Go there first, and if you do, get the Fagles translation.
I have a lot of admiration for those poor high-schoolers who are speed-reading (or Spark-reading) their way through the Inferno while I laze around, reading a Canto here and there. I think I’ve just talked myself into picking up the pace. Canto XIII here I come…