The current issue of the New York Review of Books (October 24) includes a review of Dan Brown’s Inferno by Robert Pogue Harrison. Harrison’s review encompasses not just Brown’s Inferno, but two translations of Dante, one by Clive James and one by Mary Jo Bang. In fact, Harrison’s commentary is mainly an essay on Dante, his place in literature and art, and why he continues to inspire so much new discussion and new interpretation. After 700 years, one would presume that most of what could be said has already been said, but Harrison shows how and why Dante’s Divine Comedy is the artistic gift that keeps giving.
Describing the long history of writers, philosophers, and artists using Dante for inspiration, Harrison writes that the Divine Comedy‘s reception over the centuries confirms that it gives itself without prejudice to Presbyterians and Pagans alike, to borrow a phrase from Herman Melville, himself a great Dante enthusiast. Despite a glut of English translations (well over a hundred, by my count), new versions of the entire poem or individual canticles continue to appear in rapid succession — six in the last decade alone. In 2004 the visual artist Sandow Birk illustrated a demotic version that sets the Comedy in contemporary American urban landscapes. In 2005 the Eternal Kool Project released a rap album called The Inferno Rap, based on Henry Francis Cary’s 1806 translation. Gary Panter’s 2006 punk-pop graphic novel Jimbo’s Inferno was followed in 2009 by the popular video game Dante’s Inferno. Roberto Benigni’s long-running comedy routine “Tutto Dante” continues to draw huge audiences, and, oblivious to it all, the industry of Dante studies churns out ever more scholarly articles, monographs, and academic conferences.
The bulk of Harrison’s review is a comparison and critique of James’s translation published earlier this year of the whole Divine Comedy versus Bang’s 2012 translation of Inferno. (Harrison seems to prefer the energy and re-contextualization for our times of Bang’s free and postmodern poetic effort.) When it comes to Dan Brown, Harrison fulfills his assignment to review his Inferno, but he clearly doesn’t much like the book, which he calls an “astonishingly bad novel.” He observes:
Brown’s Inferno shares in common with its namesake the generic imperative of moving the story along, of keeping it projected toward a conclusive outcome, yet this is where the affinities end. An abyss separates the monodimensional crudeness of Brown’s narrative devices from the multidimensional complexity of Dante’s. Brown’s novel has a cast of characters, to be sure, yet it has no interest in tracking the inner motions of their souls or probing the muddled sources of their motivation. His characters are so thoroughly vapid and cartoonish that one suspects that Brown deliberately refrained from giving them any psychological density for fear that this would merely create friction on the high-speed rails on which his thriller races along. The good news, for readers who go along for the ride, is that the novel reaches its destination quickly.