Dan Brown’s books are full of carefully chosen words and phrases that work on more than one level.
When one comes across a phrase or sentence in Dan Brown’s Inferno that seems particularly artless or nonsensical, it is worth thinking about whether it is trying–perhaps too hard–to convey something else.
Dan Brown loves codes, symbols, anagrams, ambigrams, and other verbal, printed page, and web riddles and pyrotechnics. So if you want to be in on the fun of a Dan Brown novel, you should look deeper when you come across a sentence like this one in Inferno:
“As Langdon stared into his own weary eyes, he half wondered if he might at any moment wake up in his reading chair at home clutching an empty martini glass and a copy of Dead Souls, only to remind himself that Bombay Sapphire and Gogol should never be mixed.”
On the surface, this sounds like just a silly sentence; a poorly constructed, cliché of an image. Indeed, Tom Chivers, an editor at The Telegraph in the UK, selected this as one of his “Eight worst sentences in Dan Brown’s Inferno.”
But consider this:
- Dead Souls, by the nineteenth century Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol, was deliberately intended to replicate Dante’s Inferno and apply its imagery to the conditions of Russia. Gogol planned a three volume work that would draw on all three parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dantesque ideas appear in several of Gogol’s books.
- Bombay Sapphire, while it is a well-known brand of gin, has other connotations. Dante opens Purgatorio with a reference to the “sweet hue of Oriental sapphire,” which signals the start of a new day and the beginning of his climb out of the Inferno. Sapphire in Dante’s alchemical time was believed to have many properties. The blue color of sapphire, for example, is associated with bright early morning light. Exposure to this color is supposed to make the individual more pious and devoted to God and faith. In Paradiso, the Virgin Mary is said to be a “sapphire who enjewels Heaven.”
- Bombay (Mumbai) is mentioned most likely because Dan Brown heard this story: “Kept in the basement of the Asiatic Society library, a colonnaded marble building in Mumbai’s colonial heart, is perhaps the Indian financial capital’s least heralded relic: one of the two oldest surviving manuscripts of Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Its some 450 richly illustrated pages, dating from the 1350s, are bound and wrapped in red silk….” (This particular account is from Time, January 2, 2009, when Brown was working on Inferno.)
Tom Chivers’ piece on the “worst sentences in Dan Brown’s Inferno” is bitingly witty and definitely worth reading. But just remember: Beneath the clichés and the hackneyed prose lies another, remarkably more subtle story (sometimes).