John Took, Why Dante Matters: An Intelligent Person’s Guide (2020)

“The year 2021 marks the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri, a poet who, as T. S. Eliot put it, ‘divides the world with Shakespeare, there being no third.’ His, like ours, was a world of moral uncertainty and political violence, all of which made not only for the agony of exile but for an ever deeper meditation on the nature of human happiness.

“In Why Dante Matters, John Took offers by way of three in particular of Dante’s works – the Vita Nova as the great work of his youth, the Convivio as the great work of his middle years and the Commedia as the great work of his maturity – an account, not merely of Dante’s development as a poet and philosopher, but of his continuing presence to us as a guide to man’s wellbeing as man.

“Committed as he was to the welfare not only of his contemporaries but of those ‘who will deem this time ancient,’ Dante’s is in this sense a discourse overarching the centuries, a discourse confirming him in his status, not merely as a cultural icon, but as a fellow traveller.”   —Bloomsbury

See also the Virtual book launch event held at UCL’s Institute for Advanced Study, November 24, 2020.

Jorge Luis Borges, “Paradiso, XXXI, 108” in Dreamtigers

jorge-luis-borges-paradiso-xxxi“Beside a road there is a stone face and an inscription that says, ‘The True Portrait of the Holy Face of the God of Jaen.’ If we truly knew what it was like, the key to the parables would be ours and we would know whether the son of the carpenter was also the Son of God.

“Paul saw it as a light that struck him to the ground; John, as the sun when it shines in all its strength; Teresa de Jesus saw it many times, bathed in tranquil light, yet she was never sure of the color of His eyes.

“We lost those features, as one may lose a magic number made up of the usual ciphers, as one loses an image in a kaleidoscope, forever. We may see them and know them not. The profile of a Jew in the subway is perhaps the profile of Christ; perhaps the hands that give us our change at a ticket window duplicate the ones some soldier nailed one day to the cross.

Perhaps a feature of the crucified face lurks in every mirror; perhaps the face died, was erased, so that God may be all of us.” [. . .]    –Jorge Luis Borges, The Floating Library, September 15, 2008.

Jorge Luis Borges, “Inferno, I, 32” in Dreamtigers

jorge-luis-borges-inferno-i-32-2020“From the twilight of day till the twilight of evening, a leopard, in the last years of the thirteenth century, would see some wooden planks, some vertical iron bars, men and women who changed, a wall and perhaps a stone gutter filled with dry leaves. He did not know, could not know, that he longed for love and cruelty and the hot pleasure of tearing things to pieces and the wind carrying the scent of a deer, but something suffocated and rebelled within him and God spoke to him in a dream: ‘You live and will die in this prison so that a man I know of may see you a certain number of times and not forget you and place your figure and symbol in a poem which has its precise place in the scheme of the universe. You suffer captivity, but you will have given a word to the poem.’ God, in the dream, illumined the animal’s brutishness and the animal understood these reasons and accepted his destiny, but, when he awoke, there was in him only an obscure resignation, a valorous ignorance, for the machinery of the world is much too complex for the simplicity of a beast.

“Years later, Dante was dying in Ravenna, as unjustified and as lonely as any other man. In a dream, God declared to him the secret purpose of his life and work; Dante, in wonderment, knew at last who and what he was and blessed the bitterness of his life. Tradition relates that, upon waking, he felt that he had received and lost an infinite thing, something that he would not be able to recuperate or even glimpse, for the machinery of the world is much too complex for the simplicity of men.” [. . .]    — Jorge Luis Borges, The Floating Library, July 28, 2008.

Paradise: Dante’s Divine Trilogy Part Three, by Alasdair Gray (2020)

“Published posthumously, the third instalment of Alasdair Gray’s ‘Englishing’ of Dante’s Divine Comedy is a welcome reminder of the brilliant strangeness of the original.”

“It is darkly ironic that this is a posthumous work given that its great theme is heaven. Alasdair Gray died in 2019, and one ought to take account of the phrase ‘De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum’: of the dead nothing but good is to be said. It is not an aphorism that wholly applies to Dante himself, given the glee with which he torments his foes in the first third of the poem, the Inferno. But it is applicable to the Paradiso, the triumphant conclusion.”

[. . .]

“Gray did not call this a translation and it is not. The folksy chumminess of his prosaic verses are all well and good as a crib, but the problem with the Paradiso is that it is profoundly serious. This is a poem that wrestles with free will and predestination, with the different moral qualities of action and contemplation, and above all with the inability of the human to utter the divine. I read the book almost stereoscopically, with three other versions by my side and an excellent online resource from Columbia for the Italian. The Paradiso has images both homely and intellectual, but in this part the tension of the form becomes paramount.”  –Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman, 2020

Read Stuart Kelly’s full review here.

Will Brewbaker on Shane McCrae’s “Sometimes I Never Suffered”

sometimes-i-never-suffered-2020

“This act of holding together both heaven and earth pervades Shane McCrae’s Sometimes I Never Suffered, the prolific poet’s latest collection. Racial injustice, economic inequality, simple human cruelty — McCrae addresses all of these subjects, these facts of the world, head-on — while, like Dante, transposing the literal into the otherworldly.  [. . .]

“The final two poems in Sometimes I Never Suffered return explicitly to Dantean territory. Famously, the last word in each section of Dante’s Comedy is the Italian word ‘stelle,’ meaning ‘stars.’ In a sly parallel, McCrae makes this Limber’s last word, too. After describing meeting one of those souls who were ‘babies when they died […] [who] walk around in sailor hats with blank / Looks on their faces’ — another ingenious creation — Limber says:

… when I tried to talk to
Him it was like I wasn’t there
So    I peeked    in his mouth

and in his mouth was the whole sky and stars

“Not only does this final line offer a remarkably coherent cosmic scope, but it also serves as a segue into the book’s last movement — a multipage poem that returns to the hastily assembled angel’s story and finds the angel first building, then climbing the ladder to heaven.” [. . .]    —Will Brewbaker, Los Angeles Review of Books, October 13, 2020.

Read more of Brewbaker’s reviews here.

“The Books That Changed David Bowie’s Life” (2020)

john-oconnell-bowies-books-2020

“David Bowie was a voracious reader and made a list, three years before he died, of the 100 books that had changed his life. These had fuelled his creativity, shaped who he was, and they provide a new way of understanding him. For each book, John O’Connell provides a short, insightful essay and pairs it with a Bowie song. Perhaps surprisingly, only eight books are concerned directly with musical subjects, while 12 relate to various aspects of the visual arts. Some are about mental illness; his half-brother Terry had schizophrenia and died by suicide and Bowie battled depression. There are some interesting poetry choices such as Dante’s Inferno and Homer’s Iliad. Of the eclectic novel collection, some are predictable but many are certainly not, and black people’s and outsiders’ experiences characterise the non-fiction.” [. . .]    —Brian Maye, The Irish Times, March 7, 2020.

Andrew Frisardi, Love’s Scribe: Reading Dante in the Book of Creation (2020)

frisardi-loves-scribe-reading-dante-in-the-book-of-creation-2020“In a few passages of his writings, Dante identifies himself as ‘Love’s scribe’—the scribe, that is, of all love, from natural and human love to the “Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” Another fundamental notion in Dante, and in medieval thought in general, is that the manifold things of the creation are like pages bound together by divine love into a unified book, a series of successive analogies of God—a book written by God, in which can be discerned images and resemblances of divinity. As the current volume shows, this way of reading the creation also opens a vista into Dante’s or any traditional metaphysical-symbolist author’s works as an analogia entis—as a series of signs corresponding to multiple levels of reality, each resonating with others in the hierarchical chain of being.” [. . .]    –Andrew Frisardi, Angelico Press, 2020

Check out the Angelico Press website to read praise for Love’s Scribe.

Upcoming Animal Farm Video Game

“Today is the 75th anniversary of the first publication of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, perhaps the most distressing book for a kid to pick from their parents’ shelves when looking for a nice story about horses. In celebration, an official video game adaptation was of Animal Farm has been announced [sic]. News of a beloved work of literature becoming a video game should inspired a wariness (thanks, Dante’s Inferno) but this one does sound promising.”    –Alice O’Connor, Rock Paper Shotgun, August 17, 2020

“What Happens When a Writer Hates the Heroine of Her New Book?” Excerpt from Nisha Susan’s The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook and Other Stories

“In her second week at the library, she was choked. Somewhere in this building, she had been told, is an actual manuscript of the Divine Comedy. Dante Alighieri had not sat around in the 1300s writing coy shit. Somewhere near here, Arun Kolatkar had written Jejuri and the Kala Ghoda poems. Somewhere near here, Kolatkar had died. Where in her writing was the blood, the grime, the puking on the streets and the deep stuff?”    –Nisha Susan, excerpt from The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook and Other Stories, Huffington Post, August 10, 2020

Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks and Books About Walking

“It’s also a book about walking. Macfarlane is nothing if not boots on ground, following one path or another as he hoofs it from orchard to cottage to inn to pub, talking to the people who know the land best, the ones who live and work on it. Of course, he is not the first person to connect walking with writing. The first writers didn’t have any choice. Before cars and trains and airplanes, they could choose economy travel (by foot) or business class (via mule or horse); only the well-off could travel in first class (coach). Not that walking is a bad thing for a writer: ‘My wit will not budge if my legs are not moving,’ writes Montaigne.

Keats often walked as many as 12 miles a day, even when his consumption was raging. Dickens trod the streets of London all night ‘to still my beating mind,’ as he said. And before the Dante of the Divine Comedy legged it through the Inferno on his way to Purgatory and Paradise, the real-life Dante Alighieri wandered for years after his exile from Florence, crossing swamps where one might sicken and die in hours and following roads that gave way to paths dense with briars and thick with trees hiding thieves.”    –David Kirby, The Smart Set, August 10, 2020

Check out Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane on Amazon here.