Friday, June 3, 2011

Una selva oscura

This morning I paid the princely sum of $10 for this new book:

I was halfway to the bookshop counter, wallet at the ready, very possibly with Casey's recent lovely post about Dante in the back of my mind and thinking $10 was a really good deal for one of the great classics of literature, even if I did have to read it in unsatisfactory translation (for I've never seen a translation of the opening three lines that seemed to me exactly right, and I don't even speak or read Italian, but I know what I like), when I idly opened it at random to check the print size and found to my great joy that what I was about to pay a pittance for was a parallel text, with Dante's exquisite, lucid, singing Italian opposite the translation.

Five years of excellent teaching and intermittent hard slog at Adelaide Girls' High back in the mists of time has left me with the ability to nut out a little bit of German and quite a lot of French if it is put in front of me, but such Italian as has sunk in, ie almost none (though I still remember the Italian for the first phrase I ever consciously learned: Posso provarlo? 'May I try this on?') has done so by accident and through some sort of process of osmosis.

But it strikes me, not for the first time, that this verse is so beautiful one could teach oneself Italian simply by studying a page of this book a day. A dark wood, in which one has lost one's way: can you think of a better metaphor for middle age?

...Françoise sat down beside me with a volume of Dante and construed
a few lines of the 'Inferno' to begin showing me how the language
worked. 'Per mi si va tra la perduta gente' - 'Through me you go
among the lost people'. A line that crushed the heart, but in the
middle you could say 'tra la'. It was music.
– Clive James, Falling Towards England

The opening lines likewise crush the heart -- 'In the middle of this life we live, I became aware that I was in a dark wood, and the path was lost.' Or words to that effect. Also words to crush the heart, but look at the paper (or whatever it is) that they were written on.

Cross-posted at Still Life With Cat


  1. I have a feeling Beckett learned Italian for the express purpose of reading Dante. that's my memory anyhoo.

  2. The Dorothy L. Sayers translation is also interesting, though that edition is not as easy to find as it once was. I talk about it here: