Archive for August 17th, 2011

Elif Batuman in Hell and Paradise

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

OK.  I surrender.  Now I’m a hopeless fan.  I’ve just finished Elif Batuman‘s “A Divine Comedy: Among the Danteans of Florence” in the September Harper’s Magazine.

True confessions:  I never really read The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them beginning-to-end; just in bits and snatches, the way I seem to read everything nowadays.  I’ve heard, frankly, that the book was more or less assembled in bits and pieces, so this is not as sacrilegious as it may sound.

But Elif’s Italian journey can be read in one go.  It’s funny and brilliant and intoxicating, and I’m sure I’ll save this copy of Harper’s till the paper is in tatters, rereading it. Of course, the topic is unbeatable:  Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy.

Her journey begins like this:


During the Dante Marathon in Florence, the entire Divine Comedy is declaimed by readers in color-coded jerseys emblazoned with their canto numbers. Readings proceed in concentric circles, with the Inferno beginning on the outskirts of the city, and Paradiso ending on the steps of the Duomo. In the spring of 2009, notwithstanding my poor Italian language skills, I participated in this marathon.

Wearing an Inferno-red 33 jersey, I read the canto in which Dante and Virgil cross the frozen floor of hell, where traitors are punished. …

I first learned about the Dante Marathon from a student in a thesis-writing workshop I was teaching at Stanford. The student, an aspiring operatic soprano, was writing a thesis about vocalization in Dante. In class, she spoke in a throat-preserving, emotionless whisper. It was only much later that I heard her sing – the utterly unfamiliar voice, so pure but so knowing, unfurling like some gorgeous endless fabric out of her tiny Chinese body.

Elif’s saga takes her through Florence, to Pisa, where she meets the forensic paleontologist Francesco Mallegni, who has reconstructed a facial likeness of Dante based on a “bootleg model” of the poet’s skull when the skeleton was exhumed in 1921. Mallegni also found and studied the body of the Inferno‘s imprisoned Count Ugolino, presumed cannibal who devoured the bodies of his own children in hunger.  His conclusion? “The septuagenarian count, not having a tooth in his head, couldn’t possibly have eaten a child, let alone four grown men,” Elif writes.

On to Verona and (inevitably) Juliet’s balcony, and the estate of the most recent generation of Dante’s descendents, on a paradisiacal estate. This leads to her concluding meditation on Paradise:

...not this

Dante’s afterworld, drawing attention to its own eccentricities, paradoxes, and loopholes, is not a universal afterworld – it’s Dante‘s afterworld, based  in his own experiences. Seen from this perspective, the only thing that’s indubitably real, the only thing everyone can see and agree on, is the stuff of this life – all the stuff that Dante himself studied with such interest and love. Is Paradise more real than all that? Is it better? Is Paradise enough to compensate for the loss of the world?

Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t. Believe me, if that’s how the cards fall, I’ll be the first to congratulate Dante on his eternal happiness – even if I have to do it from the sixth circle in a flaming coffin with Epicurus and the rest of the heretics. But if this world is all there is, then it’s in history itself that the riddle finds its solution.

You’ll have to buy the magazine to read the rest; it’s not online.

Bad news for me, though.  According to Mallegni, Giotto painted the real Dante – Botticelli got it all wrong. “But Giotto’s Dante looks like any Renaissance youth, and Botticelli’s looks like someone who has been to hell and back,” wrote Elif.  Botticelli’s profile of Dante rather resembles mine – at least in the nose.  I had liked to think that Dante and I had at least that in common.

Postscript on 8/20 (with a hat tip to Dave Lull):  On her own website, Elif has elucidated this edifying language point:

Forward-thinking readers! You don’t need me to tell you that our language is a living, growing organism. So, in an effort to stay with the times, I recently attempted to use the word “douchebags” in print. The context was an essay on Dante, which is scheduled to run in the September issue of Harper’s, albeit probably with some minor revision to the following sentence: “Dante goes to the afterworld, and everyone is there: Homer, Moses, Judas, Jesus, Brunetto Latini, Beatrice, all the thousand and one douchebags of Florence.”

Read the rest here.