Book review: Paradise - Dante’s Divine Trilogy Part Three, by Alasdair Gray

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, writes Stuart Kelly

Alasdair Gray PIC: John Devlin / JPI Media
Alasdair Gray PIC: John Devlin / JPI Media

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.

So in terms of eulogy, Gray’s version of Dante is brisk, breezy and eminently readable. It might lack the larrikins of the earlier sections, but so does the original. To use however another Latin phrase, “Amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas”: Plato is my friend, but a greater friend is truth. At times it feels as if one is being retold the story of the Commedia by a loquacious autodidact in a local hostelry. Whenever things get difficult – and things get very complicated indeed in this part of the poem – Gray basically does the equivalent of saying “Now, I won’t bore you with…”. For example, Canto II has an extended simile involving mirrors, reflections, densities, why things appear differently from different angles and so forth. This extensive section is over one hundred lines in the poem, but truncated to ten in Gray’s rendition.

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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.

Paradise, by Alasdair Gray

The poem’s form, which few adaptations try to emulate, is terza rima – a rhyme scheme of a, b, a / b, c, b / c, d, c and so on. It is a kind of poetic constraint like a tourniquet. In the Paradiso, as Dante is guided by Beatrice through the heavens, the idea of there being a kind of clockwork perfection to the heavens is stressed more and more. There are numerological reasons for this. If the line, to take but one feature, ends with the word “Christ”, then it only rhymes with “Christ” in the two following parts of the tercets. This happens four times in the Paradiso, and has an effect of growing intensity, especially as the final time it occurs is a preparation for the most rapturous revelation. In Dante, these are not aesthetic flourishes, but integral to the poem’s moral vision. Each of the three sections ends with the words “stars”, and if you know anything of Dante over “Abandon hope…”, you probably know “l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle” – the love which moves the sun and other stars. For reasons now unknowable, Gray has this as “love that revolves sun, sky and every star”. There is no sky in the Italian. Nor is it “every” star, but “other” stars. These things have meanings.

The couthy nature of Gray’s homage to Dante can be seen in specific linguistic choices. I was impressed at first that he had interpolated Whig and Tory for Guelf and Ghibbeline in his version of Inferno. It latterly becomes slightly annoying. Most readers, I fear, know as little about Whigs and Tories as they do about Guelfs and Ghibellines, but will they really want scores of names of Italian families and individuals (Canto XVI), without even the benefit of some footnotes to say who the heck these people were and why we are being told about them? Likewise, the use of the word “Kirk” rather than “Church” has a couthy flavour, since Dante was writing about the Universal Church, not the specific Scottish parish. It is an important distinction. Using phrases like “social ranks” or including lines such as “a family is a society” hints at Gray interpolating his own politics. The use of the word “Dad” and “great-great-great-grandad” have a similarly jarring note: when Dante has the character Dante say "Father”, it means more than just a biological fluke.

Nevertheless, I am not sorry to have read it. If in nothing else it reminded me of how brilliantly strange a poem it is. It, or a conjunction of its, made we wonder again at the oddity of the imagery – all those arrows and boats and pointed pieces of natural description in a supernatural realm. It also made me notice small things, such as when his guide, Beatrice, stops smiling or when the choir eternal conspicuously does not sing. Or that even though Dante gets to speak with St Peter, St Bernard, St Thomas, St Bonaventura and more, when he sees the Virgin Mary and the Godhead, they are silent to him even if they inspire him.

Boccaccio records a story in his life of Dante that the final cantos were lost until miraculously found. I wonder if Gray might have been happier to have his version as an urban myth. This is, as it were, the shallow end of the pool, good to learn to swim in, but the Commedia is like the ocean.

Paradise: Dante’s Divine Trilogy Part Three Englished In Prosaic Verse, by Alasdair Gray, Canongate, £14.99

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