Book Review, Classical History, Classical Roman, Classics, Dante, Literature, Mythology

Review: Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Inferno by Dante Alighieri

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 52


 Plot/Story:

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

Dante’s Inferno is the first part of a three-part epic poem, followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso. This first part is Dante’s journey through the nine circles of Hell, guided by the poet Virgil.  At the beginning of the story, a woman, Beatrice, calls for an angel to bring Virgil to guide and aid Dante in his journey, so that no harm will befall him.  Interestingly, the inspiration for the poem seems to be the real-life Beatrice, Dante’s love (in life) who died young.  She plays a minor role in Inferno but will likely be more prominent in the later books (since Dante would hardly place Beatrice in Hell).  The nine circles of Hell are (in order of entrance and of severity):  Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, Treachery.


Characterization:

3 – Characters well-developed.

As an epic poem, characterization is not likely to be a strong point.  I debated writing a general review rather than my typical, structured review for this reason.   Having been written in the early 14th Century, though, the characters do seem more rounded and developed than some of those in the earlier Greek and Roman plays (comedy or tragedy – and which is this, by the way?).  Dante’s character is a bit flat, but the way he interacts with the people he meets, and with his guide Virgil, is interesting to watch and is round (his character responds harshly to those he believes have sinned greater, and his character reacts warmly to those he might pity, such as his mentor).  I couldn’t help comparing this to the Robin Williams movie, What Dreams May Come which is an interesting spin on Dante’s story, but which does much more with characterization.  Had Dante perhaps spent a bit more time on the Beatrice sub-story, for instance (which, admittedly, will likely come later) or had the Dante character had to endure more personally, rather than just being inquisitive and asking “Oh, what famous people do we know in this circle, Virgilius?” all the time- it might have enhanced the story elements a bit. 


Prose/Style:

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

I read the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow edition of this book, which was the first American English translation.  I did this for two reasons:  first, to stay as true to the main story as possible, while reading it in English (Longfellow was in fact criticized by some for how literally he interpreted the Italian – which is what I wanted) and second, because I wanted to simultaneously read something by Longfellow (sure, it’s not his story – but it’s his translation and that is definitely something).  In any event, it turned out to be a great decision.  Longfellow kept the story in its original structure (9+1) and managed to make the language and delivery work.  He did seem to overuse certain words at times – it seems he would get a particular word in his head for a while, let it go, then find another word to reuse for a while.  Aside from that, though, and some minor “clunkiness” due to the literal translation, which at times made the story read like a book narrated by Yoda, it was generally beautiful.  I did not expect the pages to turn as they did, nor did I expect some of the more graphic imagery (one man eating another’s brain, for instance, or demons tearing limbs from torsos).  The prose is what kept the story advancing, when characterization just wasn’t doing it for me.  Striking.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.

4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Admittedly, quite a bit of this poem went over my head, as I am not all that familiar with ancient Christian history, ancient Italian political/social history, or even that much Greek and Roman mythology.  I have read Ovid, Plato, Sophocles, Euripides, and others, so I was certainly familiar with many of the main characters (the Greek gods and heroes), but not as familiar as I would like to be, seeing as this poem was so referential to those classics.  A deeper understanding of not just who they were, but of what they did and why Dante might see them in a certain light would have been helpful.  Still, that Dante re-writes these classic characters in a way (placing treasured and beloved gods and heroes, like Paris and Achilles, in Hell) that is so daring was truly interesting to read.  It certainly caused me to pause and reflect on the lessons Homer and the gang may have been trying to tell, versus those of Dante.  Also, the commingling of Christian themes and pantheistic themes was surprising, not just in its presence but in how well it was done and in how natural it seemed.  Medusa and Judas in the same story – why not?!  Dante’s Inferno is absolutely brilliant – in a truly brilliant way, not in a “that ice cream flavor is EPIC” kind of way.  It helps to have a strong background in the histories and mythologies, but the prose and story itself are enjoyable either way.  I look forward to finishing the next two books in The Divine Comedy. 

Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: Adult (High School +)

Interest: Mythology, Ancient Literature, Italian Literature, Christianity, Heaven/Hell    


November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  I will be writing my very first novel (at least 50,000 words) and would truly appreciate your sponsorship.  All donations go to The Office of Letters and Light – a great charity working for a great cause!  If you can spare even $5 (or more) – please Sponsor Me and help me stay energized to write my book and WIN NaNoWriMo!

Standard
Ancient Roman, Book Review, Classical Roman, Classics, Fiction, Gay Lit, GLBT Challenge, Historical Fiction, Mythology, Petronius, Satire

Review: The Satyricon by Petronius

The Satyricon by Petronius
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD:  58

Plot/Story:

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful.

Okay, this is not your grandfather’s classical Roman literature, unless your grandfather was a horny old homosexual (well, perhaps bisexual or pansexual), with a particular penchant for teenage boys and/or eunuchs.  That being said, Petronius’s satirical version of classical Roman life is a breath of hilariously fresh air!  The work was written in the 1st C A.D., and it gives a brilliant and incomparable first-hand look into the life of the lower and middle-classes at this time.  It seems to me to be both a general satire of politics and society at the time, as well as a chastisement of Emperor Nero, for having exiled the great tragedian, Seneca (source inspiration for Shakespeare, Marlowe, and others). The translation, too, brings the old Latin work into clear focus, allowing any contemporary reader relatively easy access.  Petronius gives us much of what we would expect to find in a work inspired by Homer, Cicero, and the gang – two or three rag-tag characters, humbled by the gods, set off on ridiculous quests and challenges, all the while trying to prove themselves, find love (or at least fulfill their desires), and indulge in great food and lots of alcohol.  The major differences, though, are that the story line obviously pokes fun at the brilliant nature of the epic hymns, and the impossible feats those ancient heroes accomplished.  And, rather than our “hero” risking his life to champion and woo a Danae or Venus, he fights tooth and nail for the attention and protection of his 16 year old male lover.  Throw in lots of hilarious poetry, some great mythological tales (“fictional” and historical), and a tongue-in-cheek depiction of the rich and powerful, and we have one entertaining and oddly romantic story on our hands.  

Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

The main characters, Encolpius (narrator), Giton (his young lover), and Eumolpus are all interesting in their own way, though a bit flat.  Encolpius, as the narrator, has more development than the rest, and his interactions with Giton, Ascyltus, Circe, Tryphaena, and Lichas (some of the cast of minor characters – all of whom are love-interests of/for Encolpius) are interesting and fun to witness.  As much of this work has been lost (only portions are extant – and they have been combined here into broken novella form), the characters do not get as much history or development as I think they originally had in the full work, which is assumed to have been approximately 500-1000 pages long.  Still, the glimpses that we get of these characters in action is enough to entertain and to allow the reader to engage with their story without being bored or distracted by all of the missing breaks  – in fact, the situations and interactions are so interesting, that I found myself angry to have been stopped mid-scene by missing segments!

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

The mixture of prose (this is probably the first extant example of the current form of the “novel” in Western literature) with song and poetry creates a wonderful reading experience, particularly as it was done so well.  Reading an ancient tale in novel form makes the story much more accessible for the modern reader, but the style and the many hints at ancient poetry and song/story-telling allow the reader to sink back into the time period too.  Also, there is one lengthy poem called “The Civil War” (about 12 pages long) which reminds the reader of the time period and the tradition of verbal story-telling.  It was just enough, for me, to enjoy the epic narrative without feeling overwhelmed (as with most of the works which inspired this one) by verse.

Additional Elements:

4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
What makes this novel so great is really a combination of elements: 1st) that it is an ancient text written in prose, rather than verse, and in a way which, ultimately would become the “standard” for novelization in Western literature; 2nd) the honest account of social interaction and sexuality in this time period, most of which has been lost to history; 3rd) the genius satire, executed in a way that is both funny and somehow serious.  Petronius obviously has a bone to pick with the political powers that be, and with the moral justices – he seems disturbed by those who are “in charge” and by the way they enact their trials and verdicts. 

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  Adult
Interest: Classical Roman, Classical Greek, Ancient History, Alternative Roman, GLBT, Gay Classics, Satire, Mythology

Notable Quotes:

“Nothing is falser than people’s preconceptions and ready-made opinions; nothing is sillier than their sham morality.” (P. 152)

“I loathe the vulgar crowd, and shun it.” (P. 128)

“What good are the laws where Money is king, / where the poor are always wrong, / and even the mockers who scoff at the times / will sell the truth for a song? / The courts are an auction where justice is sold; / the judge who presides bangs a gavel of gold.” (P. 29) 


Standard