C. S. Lewis once wrote that we must read the classics “to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.” Yet the briefest contact with the work of, say, Homer suggests that this breeze is not always so refreshing. Last year, in a book entitled Memorial, the British poet Alice Oswald translated the sections of the Iliad that describe soldierly death — and chucked the rest of the epic. By stringing these passages together into a kind of martial rosary, Oswald encouraged a fresh reckoning with the Iliad’s fundamental and horrifying strangeness.
Dante’s Divine Comedy (Liveright, $29.95) is a harder poem to remix or redefine, if only because we need no reminder of its audacity: not many so-called creative writers have imagined themselves climbing over Satan’s hairy haunches and chatting with St. Peter within the same work. The Divine Comedy is at once an adventure story, a formidable chunk of theodicy, and a fourteenth-century Florentine’s attempt to liberate poetic language from the maximum-security prison of Latin. Dante wrote his three-part epic in a linked triplicate rhyme scheme, which he appears to have invented, called terza rima, English translations of which have, over the centuries, generated many vaguely nursery-rhymish Dantes. As Clive James, Dante’s newest translator, reminds us, rhyming is for an Italian poet, ancient or modern, “too easy . . . to be thought a technical challenge: in fact for an Italian poet it’s not rhyming that’s hard.”
Australian by birth and English by literary temperament, James is probably the only Dante translator in history to have reviewed a book by the romance novelist Judith Krantz. (His is also the only review of Krantz in The Oxford Book of Essays.) He is most famous in the United States for his criticism, but he’s also written excellent volumes of memoir, fiction, and poetry. (My British friends inform me that his BBC television documentaries are equally fine.) Italian was one of James’s early, formative linguistic loves; his wife, Prudence Shaw, is a Dante scholar.
In order to capture Dante’s essence in a language as “rhyme-starved” as English, James chose the rhyming quatrain, which allows him to bring out one of Dante’s strengths — poetry that doesn’t merely land on rhyme but, as James puts it, “rhymes all along the line.” The result, I am quite certain, is a translation that many academics and Dante experts will regard with suspicion. In a 1977 essay on Nabokov’s almost unreadably literal translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, James made a wise observation on the problem of expertise:
[I]t is doubtful whether anybody else inside or outside Russia knows as much about Pushkin; but you don’t have to know a thousandth as much to realize that Nabokov is no more reasonable on this subject than on any other.
James’s Dante is intended for the reasonable, merely intelligent reader looking for a complete, tonally representative, and somewhat free English translation of The Divine Comedy. Let us be thankful, then, that the resulting work is so hugely enjoyable.
One thing has long been clear about The Divine Comedy: the first book, typically known as Inferno but which James more bluntly calls Hell, is, by many spans and cubits, the best part. Guided by Virgil (condemned to Hell’s outermost circle because he “lived before?/?Belief was possible”), Dante wanders through Hell’s shadows, over its worm-ridden ground, and past bogs emanating a pustular stench. In Canto IV, Virgil and Dante pass by the souls of Hippocrates, Seneca, and Avicenna on their way from the first circle to the second:
I can’t speak fully of them all. My theme
Is vast, and drives me on so that the facts
Often exhaust my words. Again a team
Of two, we entered into cataracts
Of trembling air, all quietness left behind —
Where no light shines and all who see are blind.
One of the most famous sections of Hell sees Dante encounter his old Latin teacher Brunetto Latini, who has been cast fearfully deep, into the seventh circle, because of something Latini explains has vexed “clerics” and “great, famed scholars” alike — “all of them defiled?/?When living, by the one same sin.” (The near-universal consensus is that Latini is speaking here of homosexuality.) James renders Latini’s farewell to his bewildered student with a beautiful, angry dignity:
I can’t go further speaking the sad truth.
For see, a new cloud rises from the sand:
People I mustn’t meet will soon arrive.
My book, called Treasure, is at your command:
Read it. I ask no more. There, I’m alive.
After the gorgeously mixed registers of Hell — a gripping meditation on regret followed by a description of being chased by claw-footed Harpies — things become quite a bit more tranquil in Purgatory, a mountainous, surprisingly verdant realm that Dante places underneath Jerusalem. In this least-read section of The Divine Comedy, Dante’s work feels defiantly nonmystical, with many stanzas amounting to a parade of the poet’s naughty contemporaries lamenting both their deferred salvation and their lost homeland (“Slave Italy! Hostel of grief! Lost ship?/?Without a pilot in a storm!”). Nevertheless, the great passages, when they come, remain great indeed, as when Dante encounters the soul of a slain woman:
I am La Pia, murdered on
The orders of my husband; locked away
And dealt with so that he might, with me gone,
Marry again. He’s still up there today.
He knows about it, he who with his jewel
Pledged love, and faith, and wed me, and was cruel.
Just as superb is Virgil’s shattering farewell to Dante in Canto XXVII, the final lines of which out-Latini Latini: “Of your soul?/ I make you captain. Most blessed among men,?/ Move on. You’ll never hear from me again.”
At its best, reading Paradise feels like sticking your head directly into the Transfiguration of Christ. You are not always entirely certain what has happened, but the language is often as powerful as the unknowable white-hot reactor core of Christian theology: “For there the holy pleasure is diffused?/?Unchecked. Far from excluded, it pours through:?/?As we climbed higher, the more pure it grew.” This aspect of Dante’s vision can hardly succeed, as James acknowledges, “in an age without belief,” but even the most dogmatic sections of The Divine Comedy have, in this translation, a surprising tenderness. James allows us a valuable new glimpse into a supremely imaginative mind at work when thought and faith remained indivisible — before God, too, was forced from Paradise.
In The Magical Stranger (HarperCollins, $27.99), the journalist Stephen Rodrick attempts a different sort of descent into the afterlife. He goes looking not for fair Beatrice but for his father, Peter Rodrick, the magical stranger of the title, who, as a U.S. Navy pilot, seemed to his son like “an apparition, gone two hundred days of the year.”
On November 4, 1979, when Rodrick was thirteen, his father’s aircraft carrier was heading home when it was forced to turn around to help deal with the American hostage crisis in Tehran. The elder Rodrick, a squadron commander — one of the youngest in the Navy — took off in his EA-6B Prowler, a four-man radar jammer that is notoriously difficult to control. A few hours later, all that remained of Rodrick’s flight “was black oil and a white helmet floating on a blue sea.” (Clive James’s father also died in a plane crash, en route to Australia from a Japanese prison camp after World War II, a fate James has described as cruel “beyond measure.”)
In a particularly painful passage, Rodrick describes a friend handing him a newspaper article in which “Pilot Error” was cited as the cause of his father’s crash. This meant, of course, that his father had “destroyed four families,” including his own. A fantasy that “lived in my mind for years,” Rodrick writes, involved his father, whose body was never recovered, turning up alive and well and doing a Today show interview with his arm around his delighted son. Rodrick proved a calamitously wayward student, and his relationship with his mother was strained well into his adulthood. “I thank God every day,” she tells him at one point, “that your father is not here to see what you’ve become.”
Later Rodrick discovers more unpleasant facts about his father. He promised his wife he would begin a career drawdown, for instance, just as he was secretly applying for the space-shuttle pilot program. Rodrick also tracks down some of the pilots who knew his father, including the man he had long been told was Pete Rodrick’s best friend, a man who essentially calls Pete an asshole to his son’s face.
Rodrick is a fine magazine journalist (his recent piece for the New York Times Magazine, on the filmmaker Paul Schrader’s attempt to make a movie with Lindsay Lohan, is already legendary), but his voice is occasionally stretched to chatty thinness by the demands of a book-length narrative. Early on, he uses the present tense to re-create his younger self: “Now I’m eight and everybody but me can write cursive. I try but produce chicken scratch.” As the essayist Phillip Lopate has argued, the purported you-are-thereness of present-tense narration tends to foreclose reflection, which is the very thing memoir most needs.
Fortunately, Rodrick expands his focus beyond his family. The star of the book’s B story, as it were, is Commander James Hunter Ware III, who is known to his men by his call sign, Tupper. (Forget Top Gun–style call signs like Goose, Iceman, and Sundown. Real Navy guys get stuck with Turd, Linda, Doogie, and Crapper.) Not only does Ware now command the same squadron Rodrick’s father once did; the Navy’s aging Prowler fleet will be phased out entirely when Ware’s run is over. Rodrick joins him for some of this sunset tour, at which point The Magical Stranger turns into an exemplary piece of modern reportage.
Ware is a fascinating, complicated character. He both loves and neglects his family, finding himself away from them for months at a time, and though he assumes command vowing to be a better leader than the widely loathed man he’s replacing, he winds up alienating much of his crew. Indeed, with its accidents and mishaps, Ware’s life begins to feel like what Rodrick describes as “a deleted chapter from Catch-22.”
Rodrick has thought carefully about the ambiguous example set by daredevils like his father and Ware. Naval aviators, he writes,
live on the line between bravery and stupidity, science and idiocy. One day you’re planning a complicated twenty-eight-jet air strike over Afghanistan, the next your buddies are urging you to take a shit on a Dubai boulevard after your tenth Jack Daniel’s.
Ware’s daily life as a pilot places him deep within the strange gloaming of modern warfare. He spends his time alternately “burning dinosaurs” (as Navy pilots call flying) in his Prowler over Afghanistan and writing poems to his wife on the back of his preflight checklist while a firefight goes on below him.
At one point Rodrick dons a flight suit similar to the one his father wore. “It was odd,” he writes, “how one item of clothing could make me feel like a man and a child at the same time.” Later, Rodrick wears the flight suit out among civilians, some of whom thank him for his service, giving him a hotel-room discount and a rental-car upgrade. He does nothing to correct the mistaken impression. The fleeting social benefits of a flight suit are, I think, well within his rights.
Near the end of The Magical Stranger, Rodrick describes the recovery effort made on behalf of that floating helmet bobbing in the swells of the Indian Ocean — the only salvageable piece of Peter Rodrick and his crew. “A long pole with a net was dropped over the side to fish it out,” he writes. But the helmet “disintegrated as it was picked up. It dissolved into pieces and floated to the bottom of the ocean.” Men-at-arms die in an inferno but ascend to paradise. Those they leave behind? Purgatorio.