Hell: Dante’s Divine Trilogy Decorated and Englished in Prosaic Verse


by Alasdair Gray


Reviewed by Joseph Farrell The Herald


Who makes the best translator: a dutiful but perhaps dull craftsman earnestly dedicated to the writer he is working on, or a visionary gifted with creative imagination and intellectual energy to accompany his own absorption in another genius? Don’t rush to answer. Vladimir Nabokov, himself author of the exuberant prose of Lolita, was outraged by flamboyant renderings of Pushkin from the Russian and opted for the first as being more likely to do faithful, if subservient, justice to the original. What would he have made of Alasdair Gray? There is no doubt which category the author of Lanark and self-proclaimed ‘verbal and pictorial artist’ belongs to, and this abundant talent of his has produced what it is appropriate to call ‘Gray’s Dante’.


This ‘Englished, prosaic verse’ is a new creation, more a parallel text than a translation, and an altogether welcome addition to the not yet complete works of Gray. No one expects footnotes. Anyone who wants to find out who Farinata degli Uberti was, or why Dante was so brutal to Filippo Argenti will have to look elsewhere. Gray does not struggle as the artisan would do to render faithfully the sense of the individual verses, but has happily re-written as he goes along, abbreviating, omitting sections and feeling no obligation to translate every line Dante wrote. There is no sense that he has been up at the midnight hour puzzling over nuances or sweating over how to render obscure theological points. His is not slavish respect but discriminating love which he is anxious to share.


The impression is that he accompanies Dante alongside Virgil, the poet’s Guide, Lord and Master on the journey down through the circles of hell, nodding appreciatively and admiringly, pausing to contemplate even if not always understanding, but then nobody does. Gray’s version is written in the shadow of Dante, and never does he deviate from a code of belief and morals which Dante would have recognised and even acclaimed. No doubt Gray would retort that his goal was to produce a reader-friendly work, one which will seduce, charm and bind the reader to his seat, and in this he succeeds admirably.

Some arid pedants (not I!) will baulk at some of the transpositions or updatings, and there are some oddities. I cannot see the value of conveying the bitter, medieval rivalry between Ghibellines, approximately the supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor, and the Guelphs, the papal party, by describing them as Whigs and Tories. Dante himself was a Guelph, but it is jarringly anachronistic to read that Gianni de’ Soldanieri, who ended up with the Traitors in the frozen lake ofCocytus, was ‘a Whig like me who joined the Tory crew.’


No matter. Let us consider not the incidental warts, but the achievements and grand sweep of the work. No other translator has made the narratives so clear or strong, and the distinctive power of the work lies in the clarity of the story-telling. The individual canti are given snappy titles as though they were short stories. Lecture on Hell heads the section in canto XI where Dante sets out the moral scheme which underlies the structure of hell, An Old Sodomite Friend could be a daringly modern Mills & Boon, Love Frauds sounds like a headline in The Sun, while Swindling Councillors suggests the opening of a court report on deviant local government officials. They are all beguiling, user-friendly notices, inviting the wary to read on.


Where Dante used an intricate system of tercets, with the middle line ending with a rhyme reproduced in the first and third lines of the following tercet, Gray has developed his own skilful scheme, still tercets sometimes with rhymes but sometimes blank verse. It flows smoothly for the most part, only occasionally jarring and bumping. His vocabulary is colloquial and Scottish. In his homage to Virgil, Dante tells him that ‘the style which makes me famed in Italy / I learned from you who are my dominie.’

Gray has, obviously, learned from other sources, and his earthy vocabulary does match Dante’s often harsh and dialectal Tuscan. The Inferno contains some of the most appallingly savage, brutal and grotesque scenes ever conceived by the human imagination. Hell is not a place of universal fire, but a descending pit structured according to a moral system derived from Aristotle, where in each circle the punishment fits the crime. When needed, especially when reproducing the language of the devils, Dante did not hesitate to employ coarse, scatological terms which brought a blush to Victorian translators. In the malebolge, or ditch, which contains the thieves, whose punishment is to run naked for all eternity, their hands ‘bound tight behind by serpents whose heads and tails thrust between thighs, entwined their genitals,’ Dante encounters Vanni Fucci, the Brute of Pistoia, who explodes in foul-mouthed rage. Gray’s language is even stronger than Dante’s: ‘the Brute flung up his fists / each with two fingers parted in wide Vs / and screamed, “Up your arse, God! Fuck you and yours!”


Dante also soars to the highest heights of lyrical verse, and even here has written tender, poignant verse, for instance, when describing the plight and punishment of the doomed, adulterous lovers, Paolo and Francesca, murdered by Francesca’s husband when he found them together reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. The choice of a literary text as cause of their ruination is significant, and underneath Dante’s lines lies a subtle self-questioning over whether his own love poetry might have led some of his readers astray. The pity expressed for the two lovers is rare.


Gray incorporates explanations in the verse where he deems necessary. The damned submerged in the river of boiling blood, the place of punishment for those, especially tyrants, who used violence towards others, include Dionysius, the brutal tyrant of Syracuse, and Alexander. Dante mentions the latter only by name, but Gray expands: ‘That scalp is Alexander’s, called the great / for grabbing states from Greece to India / dying when thirty-three. He over-ate.’ And he may well have done, but the comment is not found in the text of the Divine Comedy but only in Gray’s rendering of it. Gray himself has occasionally over-eaten, but this Hell is a magnificent feat of reimagining of one of the greatest of all human creations.


Who makes the best translator: a dutiful but perhaps dull craftsman earnestly dedicated to the writer he is working on, or a visionary gifted with creative imagination and intellectual energy to accompany his own absorption in another genius? Don’t rush to answer. Vladimir Nabokov, himself author of the exuberant prose of Lolita, was outraged by flamboyant renderings of Pushkin from the Russian and opted for the first as being more likely to do faithful, if subservient, justice to the original. What would he have made of Alasdair Gray? There is no doubt which category the author of Lanark and self-proclaimed ‘verbal and pictorial artist’ belongs to, and this abundant talent of his has produced what it is appropriate to call ‘Gray’s Dante’.


This ‘Englished, prosaic verse’ is a new creation, more a parallel text than a translation, and an altogether welcome addition to the not yet complete works of Gray. No one expects footnotes. Anyone who wants to find out who Farinata degli Uberti was, or why Dante was so brutal to Filippo Argenti will have to look elsewhere. Gray does not struggle as the artisan would do to render faithfully the sense of the individual verses, but has happily re-written as he goes along, abbreviating, omitting sections and feeling no obligation to translate every line Dante wrote. There is no sense that he has been up at the midnight hour puzzling over nuances or sweating over how to render obscure theological points. His is not slavish respect but discriminating love which he is anxious to share.


The impression is that he accompanies Dante alongside Virgil, the poet’s Guide, Lord and Master on the journey down through the circles of hell, nodding appreciatively and admiringly, pausing to contemplate even if not always understanding, but then nobody does. Gray’s version is written in the shadow of Dante, and never does he deviate from a code of belief and morals which Dante would have recognised and even acclaimed. No doubt Gray would retort that his goal was to produce a reader-friendly work, one which will seduce, charm and bind the reader to his seat, and in this he succeeds admirably.

Some arid pedants (not I!) will baulk at some of the transpositions or updatings, and there are some oddities. I cannot see the value of conveying the bitter, medieval rivalry between Ghibellines, approximately the supporters of the Holy Roman Emperor, and the Guelphs, the papal party, by describing them as Whigs and Tories. Dante himself was a Guelph, but it is jarringly anachronistic to read that Gianni de’ Soldanieri, who ended up with the Traitors in the frozen lake ofCocytus, was ‘a Whig like me who joined the Tory crew.’


No matter. Let us consider not the incidental warts, but the achievements and grand sweep of the work. No other translator has made the narratives so clear or strong, and the distinctive power of the work lies in the clarity of the story-telling. The individual canti are given snappy titles as though they were short stories. Lecture on Hell heads the section in canto XI where Dante sets out the moral scheme which underlies the structure of hell, An Old Sodomite Friend could be a daringly modern Mills & Boon, Love Frauds sounds like a headline in The Sun, while Swindling Councillors suggests the opening of a court report on deviant local government officials. They are all beguiling, user-friendly notices, inviting the wary to read on.


Where Dante used an intricate system of tercets, with the middle line ending with a rhyme reproduced in the first and third lines of the following tercet, Gray has developed his own skilful scheme, still tercets sometimes with rhymes but sometimes blank verse. It flows smoothly for the most part, only occasionally jarring and bumping. His vocabulary is colloquial and Scottish. In his homage to Virgil, Dante tells him that ‘the style which makes me famed in Italy / I learned from you who are my dominie.’


Gray has, obviously, learned from other sources, and his earthy vocabulary does match Dante’s often harsh and dialectal Tuscan. The Inferno contains some of the most appallingly savage, brutal and grotesque scenes ever conceived by the human imagination. Hell is not a place of universal fire, but a descending pit structured according to a moral system derived from Aristotle, where in each circle the punishment fits the crime. When needed, especially when reproducing the language of the devils, Dante did not hesitate to employ coarse, scatological terms which brought a blush to Victorian translators. In the malebolge, or ditch, which contains the thieves, whose punishment is to run naked for all eternity, their hands ‘bound tight behind by serpents whose heads and tails thrust between thighs, entwined their genitals,’ Dante encounters Vanni Fucci, the Brute of Pistoia, who explodes in foul-mouthed rage. Gray’s language is even stronger than Dante’s: ‘the Brute flung up his fists / each with two fingers parted in wide Vs / and screamed, “Up your arse, God! Fuck you and yours!”


Dante also soars to the highest heights of lyrical verse, and even here has written tender, poignant verse, for instance, when describing the plight and punishment of the doomed, adulterous lovers, Paolo and Francesca, murdered by Francesca’s husband when he found them together reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. The choice of a literary text as cause of their ruination is significant, and underneath Dante’s lines lies a subtle self-questioning over whether his own love poetry might have led some of his readers astray. The pity expressed for the two lovers is rare.


Gray incorporates explanations in the verse where he deems necessary. The damned submerged in the river of boiling blood, the place of punishment for those, especially tyrants, who used violence towards others, include Dionysius, the brutal tyrant of Syracuse, and Alexander. Dante mentions the latter only by name, but Gray expands: ‘That scalp is Alexander’s, called the great / for grabbing states from Greece to India / dying when thirty-three. He over-ate.’ And he may well have done, but the comment is not found in the text of the Divine Comedy but only in Gray’s rendering of it. Gray himself has occasionally over-eaten, but this Hell is a magnificent feat of reimagining of one of the greatest of all human creations.

Profiles in Catholicism relies on its readers for financial support. Please help us with

a $10.00 donation

© 2020 Profiles in Catholicism

site  design/development petitetaway