Middle of the Journey

Pearl’s fascination with Dante, as noted, gave birth to The Dante Club, which uses real historical figures to tell a macabre tale about obsession, guilt, and expiation. This “Club” included eminent Americans like poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (who translated the Commedia) and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. But, as Pearl notes, “there was another group of Dante-philes in the U.K. — in some ways an even more colorful group than the Dante Club: Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning (who wrote his own very long poem about the obscure troubadour Sordello), and Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.” When he began work on The Dante Chamber, Pearl said, “my brain was always kind of jumping to Robert Browning as the protagonist, and he's a big part of the novel, but I'm glad that I was as open enough to see Christina Rossetti as the more dynamic and interesting and rich and challenging figure to lead the story with. Especially because British Dante enthusiasts in the 19th century were really much more invested in the female side of Dante's story than the Americans were. If you break down what they were painting and being inspired by, a lot of it was drawn from Beatrice and from that side of Dante's vision. Indeed, some scholars refer to a cult of Beatrice, and they're referring to the Rossettis and Browning. Christine Rossetti is really a much more appropriate character to lead us down that path.”

So how does a writer whose personal interests and books occupy rarefied territory square those passions with the increasing contemporary uninterest in difficult art and literature? “Someone told me that there's a dirty little secret about publishing books: how many books go purchased but entirely unread,” Pearl said. “They're purchased as credentials to be laid out on a coffee table or in a book shelf. They're objects that can make their purchasers feel that they're doing the right thing by buying the right thing. Novelty books, celebrity books, political celebrity books, presidential books — 800-page biographies of Woodrow Wilson or whomever. Most people are not reading them. They're buying them as proofs of a certain kind of culture, or that you're a certain kind of person, or that you know a certain kind of person that you're giving that to as a gift. Would something like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose be able to exist today? I don't know the answer to that. It has a lengthy fictional preface by a fictional scholar who is claiming to be the translator going through a very tedious description of how he translated it and the linguistic questions that he approached. I am sure that even in 1980 when the book was published that a lot of people stopped reading during that preface. So I really would find it hard to believe then in our world, in our climate of readers — myself included! — that we would entertain. I think there's been a lot of changes in how we read, that there is a demand for a certain level of clarity and simplicity that has evolved over the last 20 years or so.”

Luckily, there are ways that non-specialists interested in Dante can make a strong start in reading him. Pearl cited first and foremost the importance of finding a good translation — of which there are, happily, a large number. “I am not sure I should specify one,” he added, “because I don't know what are the most available ones in a normal bookstore. They always cycle through different editions. The one I read first was by a translator named Mark Musa. And he just made it really clean and clear. It's kind of surprising once you crack open Dante: if you have the right version of it, it's much less intimidating than you imagine it will be. And in some ways it's less intimidating than a lot of kind of ancient or medieval writers who were writing in English — like, say, Edmund Spenser.”

On the critical side, Pearl also had a few recommendations. “There are a couple of scholars who do a really good job of crossing over and presenting Dante in an approachable way. One that I like a lot — both as a person, because I know him, and as a writer — is Peter Hawkins. He's written a couple books on Dante that are geared to a wide audience. He's at Yale. And he also is a scholar of Dante, so he is able to go into both realms. I think that's useful. There's a lot of academics who are in the nitty-gritty of Dante, and that's important too, but those books can be tough to penetrate if you're not already a scholar.”

The Divine Comedy repays endlessly any effort put into reading it. Its sheer aesthetic pleasures — shot through with cosmic horror though they are — are no less formidable than its profound and less-immediate vision of existence. Readers should follow Pearl’s example and can find their own paths (straight or not) into the dark wood of Dante's work.