Prue Shaw’s aim in writing this book, she says in the introduction, is not “to save you the trouble of reading the Commedia, as handbooks to the poem sometimes seem to do. My aim is to fire you with the desire to pick up a copy and start reading now.” First-time readers of the Divine Comedy are in an enviable position; ahead of them lies one of the masterpieces of world literature, indeed one of the great endeavours of the human mind, and an incredibly rich and satisfying experience of imagination and language. However, this is an adventure fraught with cultural anxieties: the remoteness of the historical and cultural period in which Dante writes; the complexity of his language and the shortcomings of translations; and the enduring suspicion of what is commonly labelled a “theological poem”. As with any magnum opus of literature, the sheer amount of critical and cultural attention devoted to the Comedy in the past 700 years or so is enough to make anyone feel like an incompetent reader, and so, sadly, we often postpone the undertaking, or drop the book after a few cantos.
This was not, however, what Dante had in mind when he wrote it. Throughout the Comedy, he shows uncommon care for his readership, not only through the several “addresses to the reader”, in which he makes sure that we are following him and spurs us on when we are tired, but also in his painstaking attention to explanation and detail: if we are patient enough, the Comedy turns out to be a surprisingly self-explanatory text. Already an exile from Florence when he began writing it around 1308, Dante had in mind not a parochial 14th-century Florentine audience but a universal one, not only in space but also in time, when for instance he claims to write for those “che questo tempo chiameranno antico” (“those who will call this time ancient”): that is, us.
Shaw keeps us so enthralled that the only reason one would want to put down this book is to open the one she is talking about
Shaw’s sharp, brilliantly engaging book delivers masterfully on its promise to fuel love for the Comedy precisely by dispelling readers’ anxieties, and showing how the great underlying concerns of this work are not only those of every work of art but are the stuff of life itself. Moreover, she keeps us so enthralled with her compelling and fast-paced prose that the only reason one would want to put down this book is to open the one she is talking about. In eschewing a chronological or teleological approach, Shaw surprises us instead with seven beautifully quirky chapters on “Friendship”, “Power”, “Life”, “Love”, “Time”, “Numbers” and “Words”. Each engages in a clever and measured way with the entirety of the Dante experience, from cultural and historical background, to the poet’s life, his other works and the entire Comedy, without setting out any rigid distinction between phases and sections. This way, readers feel immediately empowered by the work and enter almost playfully the solemn doors of the medieval afterlife.
Shaw’s choice of “friendship” as her first topic is brilliantly judged and engagingly human. She opts to introduce Dante via his two best friends, Guido Cavalcanti and Forese Donati. The former was deeply important to Dante’s poetic apprenticeship, but also an antagonist to be annihilated within his mature work (and eerily evoked and recanted in an episode involving Cavalcanti’s father in Inferno). The latter, also a poet, was more closely connected to Dante’s personal life, and appears like a sweet and melancholic cipher in the Purgatorio. Both friendships are tightly connected to the politics and stylistics of the Comedy, and the attention Shaw pays to them offers us a gentle, personal introduction to the poem’s main themes.
As we read on, themes, figures and characters are dropped and taken up again in a very calculated manner, which keeps readers both informed and alert. Accordingly, we have the impression that we are reading not a succession of single chapters, but instead a single flowing narrative. Within such a narrative, the necessary bits of information that enable us to better understand the world of Dante and the Middle Ages (for instance, explanations of the structure of the Comedy, Florentine or papal history, the meaning of the term “allegory”, etc) are concisely given, and often intersected within very fast-flowing and captivating parts, so that they never feel tedious or overwhelming, but simply what we needed to know at that point. Refreshing references to contemporary history, literature, art and even football offer witty and productive intervals, as when Shaw compares the papal interdicts to United Nations sanctions, or, when mentioning Dante’s Quaestio de Aqua et Terra (a text fiendishly difficult to turn into anything remotely accessible), she invites us to think of “Seamus Heaney giving a lecture on tectonic plates to the British Academy”.
Every chapter of Reading Dante includes one or two precious gems: the close textual analysis of some of the most beautiful and rightfully famous passages of the Comedy, such as Inferno 5 (Francesca da Rimini) or Inferno 26 (Ulysses), to name the most famous. Shaw’s deft references to the visual arts are also useful. Perhaps my favourite part of the book is where a series of images from medieval manuscripts succeeds in explaining much better than words one of the crucial issues of the Comedy, the fact that Dante features his visit to the otherworld as a physical journey, not as a vision. Shaw frequently focuses on Botticelli’s drawings of the Comedy, not only to draw out certain of Dante’s points but also to show how two artistic geniuses illuminate each other in a direct and immediate way not seen in the efforts of more pedestrian illustrators and commentators. Likewise, frequent references to modern writers (whether they engage directly with Dante, like Byron, T. S. Eliot or Heaney, or indirectly, like Proust), help readers to recognise the familiarity and timelessness of many Dantean issues.
Reading Dante succeeds in reassuring us that no previous knowledge is required to enjoy the poem, nor does one need to agonise over complex concepts to understand it, and it is great at dispelling prejudices one might have against Dante or medieval culture. It goes out of its way to make modern readers comfortable in Dante’s world, for instance when glossing the dark wood at the beginning of the poem as indicative of a “breakdown”, or when recasting the medieval system of sin in the words of modern psychology, where “pride might…be called self-aggrandisement…envy…lack of empathy, anger…lack of impulse control”.
The firm proof that this book has achieved its aim comes at the very end. In the “Words” chapter, Shaw engages with the exciting theme of Dante’s “plurilingualism”, the incessant experimentation with language that may be the most inaccessible aspect of the poem to those who are not native speakers of Italian. She leads readers into a florilegium of verses in Italian, inducing them, gently and successfully, into engaging with Dante’s language first-hand.
In a time, especially in the UK, when there has been a marked decline in interest in medieval and modern languages, a book such as Shaw’s is invaluable in putting literature and language back into the central cultural place they deserve – and, more importantly, into the centre of our hearts as readers.
“I was born and raised in Sydney, Australia. I attribute certain basic personality traits to that fact: in particular, I’ve always been unimpressed by class differences,” says Prue Shaw, emeritus reader in Italian studies, University College London.
“These differences were very apparent in the Britain I came to in 1964,” she recalls. “Especially so at Oxford, where I did a second postgraduate degree after a first one in Florence, and then at Cambridge, where I was offered a job as assistant lecturer two years later. I was incredulous when a mature man working on the front desk in the university library addressed a pimply-faced undergraduate as ‘Sir’. The deference was creepy. Also, Australians have inbuilt bullshit-detectors. Pomposity and pretentiousness cut no ice.”
In primary school, Shaw recalls, she was “not studious at all. We were more or less allowed to run wild. In high school, I became very interested in my school work and keen to do well. Suddenly I took real pleasure in the subjects I was studying, especially English, languages and maths.”
She took her undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney. “I won an overseas scholarship and went to Florence for a second degree; then I took a third degree at Oxford. I spent a lot of time in the library. I was what Italians call a topo di biblioteca: a library mouse. But I had a real appetite for study: I loved what I was doing. In Florence I was fortunate enough to take courses with three great Italian scholars with different areas of expertise in medieval language and literature, and that determined the direction my academic interests took. All three of them were major Dante scholars.”
Asked if those who do not speak Italian will inevitably miss out on some of the beauty of the Divine Comedy, Shaw replies, “Inevitably so, I fear. But they can still get a huge amount from reading the poem in translation. One chapter of Reading Dante tries specifically to give English-speaking readers a sense of what is unique, and uniquely expressive and exhilarating, about Dante’s language.”
Contemporary Italian, she observes, is at least as marked by Dante’s words as English is by Shakespeare’s. “Perhaps more so, as Italian liceo students typically spend a year each studying Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, whereas English A-level students study (I think) just one Shakespeare play. There are hundreds of Dante’s lines incised on the Italian national memory, lines known and loved by all educated people.”
Asked if her view of the Comedy has changed over long years of studying, teaching and writing about it, Shaw replies: “Only in the sense that the more I read and study it, the more miraculous an achievement it seems. T. S. Eliot, in a letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell, reported his feeling that all one can do in the face of such an achievement is fall silent. I tend to agree. That was a feeling I had to struggle with when I started on this book.”
Shaw lives in Cambridge. “I am lucky enough to live in the centre of the city, on the edge of a park, so I have the best of both worlds. When I pop out to buy the groceries I pass the magnificent architecture of the colleges, always a feast for the eyes; and when I sit at my desk working I look out on the lush green grass, which only England has (and which I don’t have to mow). My day is punctuated by the children from the nearby primary school who come out on to the green to let off steam at break or lunchtime. This is the school my daughters attended: a potent reminder of the passing of time.”
She is, she says, “passionate about photography and opera. I like to think that if I hadn’t been an academic I might have made it as a photographer, but this may be a delusion. As for opera, I find it a deeply engaging and sustaining art form, but I fear I wouldn’t be good at any aspect of it.”
“The teaching and administrative burden of an academic used to take a huge amount of time and energy. Now that I no longer have those obligations I can spend a lot more time on new projects. I couldn’t have written this book while I was still teaching, although the book grew out of all those years of thinking about how best to put across certain ideas to students. And of course not being bound by academic term times is a liberation: I’m just back from a wonderful three weeks birdwatching in Bhutan – inconceivable in my university years.”
Asked how long she thinks it takes to become British, Shaw replies, “In my case, 40 years. I applied for a UK passport a few years ago – the legislation had changed and it had become possible to hold dual Australian and British nationality. The application was initially turned down on the grounds that I hadn’t demonstrated that I could speak English,” she adds drily. “Having taught in British universities for four decades, I was slightly startled that I had to get a solicitor to vouch for my command of my native tongue.”
Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity
By Prue Shaw
W. W. Norton, 398pp, £20.00
Published 29 April 2014