Thursday, April 19, 2018

Mpls. St. Paul Film Fest One

A scene from Bottomless Bag (see below)
While Minneapolis was being blanketed with seventeen inches of snow, Hilary and I made a well-timed escape...to India, Israel, Pakistan, Hungary, and the nation of Georgia. I'm referring, of course, to the opening weekend of the Mpls. St. Paul International Film Festival.

On Friday night we saw The Confession and Village Rock Stars (described below).  I had volunteered to be a greeter, and I stood in the hall in front of the information office all Saturday morning in my office pink volunteer T-shirt, watching people try to find the ticket booth, which has been set up around a corner and entirely out of sight of passing film-goers. I recommended to several members of the theater staff who passed by that a sign with an arrow saying

TICKETS →→→

would be very useful, posted on the pillar, and even volunteered to bring one from home, but two days later, nothing had been done to solve this problem.

My job, meanwhile, was to scrutinize the faces of the people who came around the corner from the front door. If they looked puzzled, I would say, "Are you looking for the ticket booth?" Usually, the answer was yes. "Right around this pillar," I would reply, gesturing nonchalantly with my thumb. 

Strange but true, there is a huge sign that says RUSH LINE in plain sight, but during the blizzard the audiences have been meager and it has served no useful purpose.

My four hours of volunteer work were occasionally enlivened by conversation with a film fan. One tall, red-haired woman with a passing resemblance to Julianne Moore had been to 45 films last year. "But that was down from 60 the year before," she told me.

So we discussed last year's films—the ones we could remember. And also The Confession. "Not as good as the director's previous film, Tangerines," she said, "but still pretty good." I agreed.

An hour later Hilary and I were watching Wajib, a slow-burn of a film set in Nazareth.

Here are some brief descriptions.


Confession (Georgia) A priest is assigned to a remote village in the Caucasus Mountains, along with his hair-brained assistant. They try to win over the local inhabitants to Sunday services by showing American films in an abandoned barn on Saturday night, and that's how they learn about the local piano teacher, who keeps mostly to herself but bears a striking resemblance to Marilyn Monroe. The priest makes the woman's acquaintance, she eventually agrees to come to confession, and problems ensue, though they're not the ones you might imagine. A solid tale, expansive scenery, rich choral singing, and beautiful  church interiors.


Wajib (Israel)Father and son, Abu Shadi and Shadi, spend the day delivering wedding invitations up and down the hilly streets of modern Nazareth. Shadi has returned home from Italy only because of his sister's wedding; he fled years ago to escape the incessant government persecution of Palestinians. 

The two men carry on a gently antagonistic conversation throughout the day: Abu Shadi, a respected local teacher, is doing Wajib, the honorable thing, in delivering invitations by hand, even to Jewish officials whom he takes to be friends or colleagues, though his son considers them spies and enemies. Beneath the generational discord common to many families lie two different visions of the Palestinian future. The acrimony is compounded by the fact that the father's wife ran off years ago with another man, who is now dying. Perhaps she'll make it back for the wedding, perhaps not.


Much of the film is devoted to the pleasantries, evasions, and half-truths exchanged between old friends and relatives as each invitation is delivered.  In the course of a single day a stirring portrait of a neighborhood, a fractured nation, and a single family springs to life before our eyes. This is art.


Village Rock Stars (India) Young  Dhunu wants a guitar. Her family has no money. They live in a mud compound and work a rice field that floods every year, obliterating the crop. Dhunu spends a good deal of time playing games in the fields and climbing trees with the neighborhood boys. The story is thin, but the landscapes and the incidental details of daily life in Assam are rich. Scenes seem to begin and end at random...yet the film won Best Picture at India's National Film Awards, and its quiet beauties have considerable appeal, with or without the Styrofoam guitars.


Armed with Faith (Pakistan) This straightforward documentary follows the activities of an underfunded bomb squad who defuses IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in the mountainous regions of northern Pakistan at the risk of life and limb. We get to know their motivations, fears, rewards, and frustrations while following them on their daily routine...which is never routine. Simple but moving.


Aurora Borealis (Hungary) In old age, Mom has moved from Austria back across the border to Hungary, though her high-powered daughter wonders why. When the old woman falls into a coma, her daughter pays her an extended visit, and begins to unearth a post-war family history that's a lot more complicated than she thought. Fitted with several extended flashbacks, the film is dramatic, complex, and convincing.  


Bottomless Bag (Russia) The director, Rustam Kamdamov, is also a jewelry designer, which may explain why this slightly surreal film has elaborate costumes and jewelry but very little coherent  action. It tells the same story that Akira Kurasawa drew upon for his classic Rashamon, and the black-and-white cinematography is, if anything, more compelling. But the narrative is largely submerged under the weight of medieval Russian robes and necklaces and the Wagnerian sensibilities. Where is Toshiro Mifune when you need him?

So Help Me God (Belgium) This documentary gives us a peek into the life of a Belgian examining magistrate named Anne Gruwez, who passes judgment on criminals and suspects daily in her cluttered office in Brussels. Unfortunately for the viewer, most of the cases are grisly, and involve prostitutes and small-time grifters. Gruwez seems to relish the sleeze, and she obviously takes pride in the fact that she's "seen it all." There are touches of humanity and even humor in the proceedings, but it's a slice of life most of us don't care to know that much about.  



On the Beach at Night Alone (South Korea) A fading actress named Young-hee retreats to Hamburg following an affair with the director of her last film. She and a friend discuss relationships and take long walks in the parks while she waits for the director to join her. He doesn't show, and soon enough she's back in Korea, meeting up with old friends, all of whom have heard of her affair. Various discussions take place in bars and coffee shops, and everyone's views about relationships and love get thoroughly exposed, and often trashed: Young-hee tends to get belligerent and insult her friends after a few drinks. 

Actress Kim Min-hee has been widely praised for her portrayal of Young-hee, though I found it difficult determining when she was being serious and when not. A New York Times critic wrote of the film:  " For all its intimacy, the drama has a vast scope, a fierce intensity, and an element of metaphysical whimsy (including one of the great recent dream sequences), which all come to life in the indelibly expressive spontaneity of Kim’s performance."


That seems like an exaggeration to me, though I like the phrase "metaphysical whimsy." I found the music of the language and the unhurried pace of conversations sort of mesmerizing. 

A young Korean-American woman was ushering. She'd already seen it. "I love this film, "she told me. "I hope you like it." I heard another woman say as she came out of the theater: "I slept through that one. I'd give it a 1."

You never know about these things going in. I guess that's half the fun.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Give It Five Stars



In the realm of customer satisfaction surveys, there are no wrong answers, which is nice. But have you noticed that the questions are invariably phrased in such a way that they are almost impossible to answer at all? "On a scale of one to ten, how likely would you be to recommend this [concert-motel-restaurant] to your friends?" Well, recommendations tend to be a yes-or-no thing. In any case, it depends on which friends.

Even giving out stars isn't as easy as it might seem.

Not long ago we rented a cabin in Park Rapids, Minnesota, with some friends, and I was later asked to evaluate our stay. There was a problem with the rental: the septic tank froze right after we got there, putting the bathrooms and the sink out of commission. Hard to give that place five stars. On the other hand, we can hardly fault the owner for a problem that arrives unexpectedly and is widespread in Minnesota at this time of year. He graciously allowed us the use of the bathroom in his place, a hundred yards away through the woods at the top of the hill. Most of us made use of a convenient snow bank nearby, but  by all accounts his house was—dare I use the word?—untidy.)

There were a few other problems. The cabin was listed as having accommodations for eight but was equipped with only five forks. It had only one wine glass—a serious deficiency—and there was a desiccated fox-fur coat hanging in the closet, which reminded me of Psycho for some reason; a Jim Dine bathroom poster sitting on a chair in the living room; and a wedding picture in the kitchen—man, woman, child—none of whom resembled the owner in the slightest.

On the other hand, the cabin had large windows looking out across a frozen lake and was costing each of us only $25 per night. I might have given it three stars, but I want the owner, a potato farmer by trade, to do well. He's obviously a beginner on the vacation rental scene. He was close to despondent over the plumbing freeze-up, but also a bit shocked at how much it was going to cost to fix it. Three-and-a-half stars? 

I sometimes receive satisfaction surveys from the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra following a concert, and the issues are always the same. The music is interesting but varied in quality, the introductory patter often a little too long, and the program-rustling in the audience invariably annoying. These outings, considered as a whole, remain enriching. Four stars?

Not long ago Hilary and I attended a performance of Haydn's Seven Last Words of Christ at the Ordway Concert Hall. The timing couldn't have been better. It was two days before Easter, and it also happened to be Haydn's birthday. We arrived early and caught an informative Fanfare lecture given by a professor from Macalester College. 

The performers, members of the SPCO, had chosen to do a stripped down version of the piece for string quartet, and they had also decided to play it on the gut strings in widespread use during Haydn's time. During his opening remarks violinist Kyu Young Kim told us that he and his colleagues almost had the impression, due to the slow-moving and often somber character of the piece, that they were merely playing for themselves, and cellist Jonathan Cohen remarked that he considered the performance as an act of personal meditation. However, the choice of gut strings worked against such an effect. They tend to groan where metal strings sing, and due to the fact that they go out of tune easily, there were long pauses between several of the movements while the musicians retuned.

I was a little bored.

But that's not the end of the story. After the concert, on the advice of a friend, we drove up the hill for lunch at Tori Ramen, a hole-in-the-wall place that was bubbling with activity. Tasty food, too.
And that night, as we were sitting down to a pre-Easter dinner (lamb shoulder chops with asparagus risotto) I put a recording of Haydn's Seven Last Words on the stereo. It fit the moment perfectly.
Perhaps this reaction reinforces the remarks of the musicians that the piece is more of the personal meditation than a concert crowd-pleaser. And maybe it's easier to appreciate a fine but quiet piece of music when you're eating a nice meal in your own home than within the stuffy confines of a concert hall.

I think another factor might also have been in play. Haydn wrote The Seven Last Words for orchestra, and later produced a stripped down version for string quartet. I believe that's the version the  SPCO musicians were using. But the one we were now listening to had been created from the score of the oratorio version, which Haydn wrote years later after having visited London and been impressed by Handel's work in that vein.   

Attacca Quartet cellist Andrew Yee, who did the new arrangement, remarks in the liner notes to this version that "in examining the arrangement for string quartet, one is struck that this version bears little of the careful crafting typical of the father of the string quartet. The string parts from the orchestral version remain mostly intact, [but] the crucial wind parts are left out almost entirely."

Yee goes on to suggest that the oratorio version, crafted ten years after the original, conveys "Haydn's reflections, and perhaps reconsiderations, during this hiatus of one of his most personal and intimate pieces." That's the version Yee used to create the quartet we were listening to that night. The changes include adding double stops here and there, adjusting unison passages to octaves, and adding melodies and counter­melodies extracted from the oratorio score that are not present in Haydn's earlier versions.

Whatever the reason, this new rendering, which I bought years ago on a whim in a little shop in Stanton, Virginia, during a road trip through the Shenandoah Mountains, and  listened to only once, was now approaching the sublime.

So, how are we to rate the event? The SPCO performance wasn't outstanding, but the programming was, if only because it brought renewed attention and appreciation to a forgotten musical masterpiece.
 
Four-and-a-half stars?   

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Before the Fest

The last few days have been cold and amazing. The sun is fairly high—more than halfway to its zenith—and the ground will never give off more reflected light than it's doing now. In the summer the sun beats down more fiercely but the vegetation-covered landscape gives nothing back and there's far more humidity in the air. Last week's brightness will be hard to beat.

I was out for a few hours recently, in the midst of that splendor, delivering programs in Robbinsdale for the upcoming international film festival. My first stop was Video Universe, one of the few remaining high quality video stories in the Twin Cities. The young man behind the counter is the same one who was working there ten years ago, and even today he doesn't look to be over seventeen.

"Sure, you can put those fliers in the rack. The Camden Times doesn't own it."

We discussed last year's films as I scrutinized the new video releases displayed on the front shelf: Dunkirk; I, Tonya; Lady Bird.

"Three Billboards just arrived," he said.

"I don't know. I'm not keen on revenge movies," I said. " I hear it's sort of crass."

"Well, nearly everyone I've talked to has liked it."

From there I drove a few blocks over to West Broadway, parked, and walked into the darkened, cavernous hall of the Wicked Wort Brewery, where a young couple was sitting in a booth with a laptop, apparently going over the books.

"Sure, I'll take a few fliers," the man said.

At the sunny café across the street, I said, "What's that smell?"

"Food," the woman behind the counter replied with a smile. She let me put a stack of tabloid-sized programs on the broad sunny sill under the front windows.

At nearby Woellet's Bakery the young woman behind the counter let me put some flyers in the rack. "How can you work here amid such wonderful aromas?" I said.

"You get sick of it real quick," she replied.

At Beyerly's Big Bowl café in the Spring Brook shopping center I worked my way up to the assistant manager, a friendly fellow who was happy to take a few of the tabloid-size schedules. Then I was off to "downtown" Golden Valley, a glorified strip mall with a circular pedestrian arcade leading nowhere and a few benches overlooking a well-landscaped drainage ditch along Highway 55. But they also have a Starbucks and a D'Amico and Sons. Then off to Triple Espresso (right across the street), Mort's Deli (why is the chicken liver $17.99 a pound?) and finally the Golden Valley Public Library, where the librarian seemed eager but hesitant.

"Are there fees involved?" she asked.

"Well, you do have to pay to get into the movies."

"But I suppose it's cultural..."

"It's the greatest cultural event of the year!" I tried to keep my voice down.


Yes, the greatest cultural event of the year hereabouts. But on my way home I got to thinking of the big-time Hollywood film year just past, and how good and varied it was. Everyone is sick of hearing about the Oscar contenders, no doubt, but it's interesting to reflect on how solid, but also how different, are such films as Lady Bird, The Phantom Thread, and The Shape of Water.  

I can now add Three Billboards to the list. I saw it just the other day—a Nexflix DVD that was diverted to us from Hilary's parents on its way back to the post office. I was prepared to dislike it, based on reviews. As I mentioned, I tend to avoid revenge movies and "angry" movies, and I think Frances McDormand is at her best in supporting roles—for example, the mother in Almost Famous or the professor's wife in Wonder Boys.


The gratuitous swearing in Three Billboards took some getting used to; it isn't funny and nobody really talks like that. But as the story developed I found myself being drawn into this odd mixture of soap opera, psychodrama, and morality play, where no one is absolutely right or wrong and we begin to see beyond the logic (or not) of the plot into the crippled dynamic of individual lives. It's a film about grief and loss and guilt and bigotry and bad luck, and forgiveness, and it could have collapsed into absurdity at several turns of the path. Somehow, it kept getting better.

By way of contrast, The Phantom Thread is an exquisite film in which every scene is like a well-constructed and beautiful movement from a string quartet, leading—nowhere.

I was playing racquetball with a friend the other day and The Phantom Thread came up. "What did you think of it?" he asked, with a pained and anxious look on his face. I shrugged indifferently.

"I know," he said. "Why did he make that film?"


Yet The Phantom Thread lingers; it stays with you a little. I wouldn't mind seeing it again. It's less of a romance than a film about mothers (dead) and sons and craft and "the legacy of the past." It shows us a certain kind of life and attentiveness that has always been rare, but was nevertheless further undermined by the arrival of "chic." The New York Times called it the best "food movie" in ages.


Having mentioned how much I dislike angry movies, it strikes me as very odd that the most powerful film I saw last year was The Clash, an Egyptian work that's full of shouting from beginning to end. The entire film takes place inside the confines of a police paddy wagon in Cairo during the unraveling of the Arab Spring.   

We might compare The Phantom Thread to another recent but less well known film, Things to Come.

Both films are dominated by an actor of unimpeachable credentials playing a character of unorthodox interests. Daniel Day Lewis is a dressmaker; Isabelle Hubert is a high school philosophy teacher. Lewis lets nothing encroach on his craft; Hubert, having spent a good part of her career reading Spinoza and Pascal, seems to have developed such a dispassionate approach to life that her husband, early on in the film, announces that he's leaving her for a young Spanish woman. She's not too happy about this, though it seems she's mostly disappointed that she'll no longer be able to tend the lovely garden she created on her husband's estate in Brittany. 


Hubert has been described as "prickly" and "aloof," but she's adept at projecting a variety of emotions at once: distain, confusion, determination, disappointment. Frances McDormand (switching comparisons here) is numbed and jaded by grief and rage; Hubert seems to be adjusting to a new situation with the inscrutable aplomb of a Buddha, though she also has her weepy moments, and most of the time it's hard to tell how she's getting on. 


In the midst of this unsettling situation, her batty mother's health is deteriorating, and  further disappointments await at a meeting with her publisher where she's informed that her anthology of philosophical extracts is going to be redesigned in garish colors for a new generation of students, and her monograph on Theodor Adorno is in danger of being dropped.

Yet the most moving scene in Things to Come takes place near the end of the film in a hospital where Hubert's daughter has just given birth. Both parents are present. When Hubert's ex finally quits cooing at the infant and departs, Hubert says, "I thought he'd never leave," and her daughter bursts into tears.

In all the hoopla surrounding Huppert's performance in another film of 2016, Elle, for which she was nominated for an Oscar, Things to Come got swallowed up. Or maybe it was just that, like The Phantom Thread, it leaves the viewer feeling ... what?   

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Easter and the Pelicans



My dad never said much, preferring to listen gnomically from the sidelines in the time-honored curmudgeony Swedish tradition, but when he did say something, it was invariably brief and to the point.  I recall discussing religion around the dining-room table one evening back in my high school days; I was saying, "Religion is sort of tiresome and repetitive," to which he replied, "Well, nature is repetitive."

On the face of things, that's true. We see the same succession of the same things, year in and year out: the buds on the maple tree swell, the red-winged blackbirds return. Yet I would argue that if nature repeats itself once a year, religion repeats itself once a week, which is a little too often. Meanwhile, the progress of the seasons is so complex and diverse that it's far from predictable. 

And that explains, I guess, why I still find it worthwhile to head downriver, year after year, to see which birds are coming toward us in the opposite direction on their way to breeding grounds up north. We never know quite what we're going to meet up with.

In case there are any birders in the audience, let me report that we encountered 50 species by the time we were through. Some were residents that we'd been seeing all winter—downies, hairies, chickadees, mallards, cardinals, crows. Some were déclassé specimens that few observers are going to get excited about, beyond the simple fact that they've returned: grackles, starlings, turkey vultures, red-winged black-birds.

Others may disagree, of course, but I would rather see a bluebird than a crow. And we did see a single bluebird on our two-day journey—the spring  avant garde, as it were.


The thrilling species—and I mean thrilling—are the waterfowl.  This is because they tend to be beautiful, they tend to travel in groups, and they tend to pair up on their way from the tropics to the north country, thus giving us a sense of a complex and mysterious life about which we know very little. It's common to see ducks of three or four species milling around together in the open water, ignoring each other. Yet we never know precisely which ducks we're going to see.


On our two-day road trip down the Mississippi Hilary and I saw plenty of common mergansers, though the word "common" is entirely out of place when describing those immaculate and handsome white bodies. We also saw some golden eyes, very alert and compact, and seven or eight shovelers, whose oversized bills hardly detract from their lovely green and rufus flanks. The ring-necked ducks look like aristocratic cousins of the scaup—greater or lesser? Who can tell?

I have a fondness for gadwalls, large and subtle to the point of being nondescript. We saw exactly one. We also saw one green-winged teal, too far away to appreciate fully, even with the scope. Canvasbacks, ruddy ducks, redheads, pintails? Dream on.

Seventy pelicans
For non-birders, the star of any trip down the Mississippi is the bald eagle. We probably saw close to sixty such birds, either soaring or resting in the trees. Swans are also present in numbers, though they look less impressive sitting on a big slab of ice than floating dreamily in a narrow stream two hundred miles to the north.

More impressive than either of these birds, to my mind, is the pelican. These birds are often overlooked because they migrate in large, concentrated flocks, often far above the ground. My most thrilling sight of the trip was of a large flock of pelicans moving toward us in a long undulating line.


We were on foot, well out on Kiep's Island Dike Road in Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, a few miles north of La Crosse, Wisconsin. We watched them approach against the distant dark gray bluff-side, wings beating in rhythm. It looked like a military display, or better yet, a Chinese ink scroll painting. At one point their formation seemed to break apart in confusion; I think they were examining the fifteen swans resting out on the ice a few hundred yards beneath them. They had soon regrouped, and as the string of white creatures with black wing-tips, larger than eagles, passed overhead, I counted seventy birds.

This trip was a birthday present of sorts for Hilary, and I had scoped out all the best restaurants in La Crosse, prepared for any birthday taste or whim. But we had made the mistake of stopping at JJ's Barbeque in Nelson for lunch.

"Are you here for the brunch?" the woman behind the counter asked. "It's $11.95,all you can eat, and it includes coffee and juice."


The food was pretty good. They smoke the meat out back. But of course, there was too  much of it. So once we'd checked into our hotel in La Crosse, and driven up to Grandma's Bluff to watch the sun go down, and spotted our first red-winged blackbird in the park near the university campus, we were happy to crash back in our hotel room with some cheese and a bottle of wine.

Plenty of old buildings remain standing in downtown La Crosse, which is a mixed blessing. Most of them are occupied and open for business, but the wide range of signs and colors painted on the bricks gives the neighborhood a rundown look. Perhaps the major eyesore is the Bodega Brew Pub, situated at a prime location where the street makes a slight bend. It advertises the availability of 420 beers, and thirty or forty empty bottles are gathering dust in the window display. On a gray Monday morning in March, the place doesn't look inviting.


The coffee-shop next door was open but dark and almost empty when we walked by. A passage connects it to the Pearl Street used book store— an asset to any urban scene—and the shop across the street might contain the largest collection of rubber stamps in the world. (I have a few in the basement myself ... but do people still use these things?)

Other nearby shops include Kate's Pizza Amorè, Fayze's pine-paneled café and bakery, and a branch of the Duluth Trading Company.

Down at the riverfront things are different: everything has been spiffed up or torn down. An upscale wine shop and Piggy's smoked meats restaurant occupies a handsomely retrofitted nineteenth-century warehouse. The Radisson Hotel and convention center, along with its huge parking lot, dominates a block or two, and Viterbo University seems to have invested heavily in trim new brick buildings. A robust fine arts center stands on one corner, and though the trees are bare and the grass is still brown or gray, the string of riverside parks looked very nice from our seventh-story eyrie at the hotel.


The next morning, on a whim, we drove out to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is tucked into the hills a few miles southeast of town. It turned out to be a big complex, complete with a restaurant, bakery, and gift shop adjacent to the parking lot.


Following a path that wound up the hill into the trees, we came upon a stone building housing an enormous pyramid of blue glasses, each of which contained a  votive-candle.


A hundred yards further on, a large brick church, classically simple in design, stood in a clearing. From the plaza the path returned to the woods, continuing upward past the stations of the cross and then a rosary walk.  


We were the only people there except for a groundskeeper on a golf cart who opened the chapel for us, and a tall young man named brother Joe, whom we saw in his coarse gray hooded habit, scurrying around the church with a vacuum cleaner. 

We had plenty of time to soak up the spirit of sanctity that pervaded the place. The artwork—the paintings, the sculpture, the ceramic tiles—was all far better and less kitschy than I'd anticipated. In fact, the setting reminded me of monasteries Hilary and I visited years ago in Tuscany and Umbria, also in early spring. How much of the mood was due to the art, and how much to the solitude, the silence, the hills, the woods, the company? Who can say?

And to top it all off, a tufted titmouse--a bird we never see as far north as Minneapolis--started singing away in the woods nearby. Less a song than a rich but piercing and insistent single-note call, repeated again and again, it seemed like a sonic crystallization of the deep, chilly morning.  

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Dante and Me: A Divine Comedy



The first thing to do, I kept telling myself, is just sit down and read it. No one has read The Divine Comedy in one sitting, of course. To tell you the truth, I've never met anyone who's read it at all. My advisor in grad school, a professor of Italian history, once said to me, "No one reads The Divine Comedy anymore." At the time, I wasn't in a position to dispute the point.

Yet I've always wanted to read the Comedy. This has not been a persistent, nagging dream but a vague and fleeting aspiration, resurfacing only at times when I'd come across a translation—I've purchased a few over the years—sitting high up or low down on a shelf here at home. Spotting it, I would ponder whether to get rid of it and decide not to. I hadn't given up hope.

Sure, I got my feet wet a few times. I accompanied Dante and Virgil to Limbo and beyond more than once, but on each occasion I was soon brought up short by the incessant references—classical and parochial, political and theological—and the awkward rhyming. Another thing bothered me, too. Dante seemed so cock-sure about everything, parsing out subtle degrees of torment to his political opponents based of the gravity of their transgressions.

But last fall a book in a remainder catalog caught my eye: Dante in Love by A. N. Wilson. The catalog description is so good I'm going to reproduce it here:
[The author] here offers a glittering study of an artist and his world, with an eye toward readers who take it on faith that Dante's Divine Comedy is one of the great works of literature without having actually gotten through it. Wilson provides an understanding of medieval Florence, without which it is impossible to comprehend the meaning of this complex work, he argues. Wilson also explores Dante's preoccupations with classical mythology, numerology, and the great Christian philosophers, which inform every line of the Comedy, and explains the enigma of the man who never wrote about the mother of his children, yet immortalized the mysterious Beatrice.
The phrase "without having actually gotten through it" struck a chord. I ordered the book, but by the time it arrived I'd lost interest again, and it soon vanished into the shelves.

And then, one gray and vacant day in early January when I had nothing much to do, I spotted Wilson's book again and started reading.

The book might better have been titled: Dante—Love, Poetry, Art, Politics, and Religion. Wilson seems to have a handle on every aspect of Dante's world, and he tells a good story. I retained only a small portion of the material, no doubt, but it gave me a rough idea of the pertinent landscape, and knowing that the book existed, to be referred to if I ever needed clarification of Dante's text, made it much easier to finally forge ahead.

The French theologian Etienne Gilson remarks in the introduction of one of his book's about Dante that the Comedy is a "joy to read." I didn't find that to be the case. But Gilson read it in the Italian, whereas I had to make use of translations differing widely from one another. Always in the back of my mind was the thought: This doesn't have much flow. I'll bet some other translation is better.

The earliest of the translations I had within reach was a blank verse version by Lawrence Grant White (1948). This version never grabbed me in the slightest, and I made use of it mostly for the Dore illustrations, which are so literally rendered they're almost comical.


I read the Inferno in the Robert Pinsky translation (1994). I got to the eleventh canto before I noticed that it rhymes. I'm not sure whether that's good or bad, but once I'd noticed the rhyming, it slowed me up for a while.

I read the Purgatorio in the Ciardi translation (1957). Ciardi keeps Dante's terza rima scheme but skips the middle rhyme, which loosens up the language. The three-line stanzas made it easier to pause and consider what was being described, and I also liked the book's organization. Each canto starts with a brief editorial summary of the action and concludes with a few pages of detailed notes, so the reader, in effect, hears the same story three times. In the process, perhaps a little more of it sinks in.

I read the Paradiso in the Clive James translation, which is in rhymed quatrains. It has no explanatory apparatus of any kind, but it was the only one I could get at the library. Though James's wife is a Dante scholar,  I believe James wanted to write a "page-turner" and was reluctant to interrupt the momentum of the narrative with scholarly encumbrances.

Here is the opening of Canto 23 of the Inferno, in each version. Canto 22 ended with a piece of wild combat between some flying demons and some lost souls who in life were grafters. The "we" is Dante and his guide, the Roman poet Virgil.

Clive James:

Wordless, alone, without an escort, we
Went on. One walked behind the one ahead
As minor friars do. Insistently
My thoughts were driven by these scenes of dread
To Aesop’s fable of the frog that tricked
The mouse  into the stream and dived to drown
The mouse but when the mouse splashed the kite picked
The frog for its next meal and hurried down,
And both tales, for what happened at the start
And end, were just the same, the one aligned
With the other, and fear doubled in my heart
 just as the stories echoed in my mind.
 
Lawrence Grant White:

 Silent, alone and unaccompanied
We went our way, he first and I behind,
As Friars Minor go upon the road.
The brawl that I had seen reminded me
Of Aesop’s fable, where he tells the tale
 About the frog and the unlucky mouse.
At once and now are no more nearly like
Than one is to the other, for they match
From first to last —as a keen mind can see.
 As one idea will blossom from another,
So, out of that, another thought arose,
Which served but to intensify my fear.

John Ciardi:

Silent, apart, and unattended we went
as Minor Friars go when they walk abroad,
one following the other. The incident

recalled the fable of the Mouse and the Frog
that Aesop tells. For compared attentively
point by point, "pig" is no closer to "hog"

than the one case to the other. And as one thought
springs from another, so the comparison
gave birth to a new concern, at which I caught

my breath in fear...

Pinsky:

Silent, alone, sans escort, with one behind
And one before, as Friars Minor use,
We journeyed. The present fracas turned my mind

To Aesop’s fable of the frog and mouse:
Now and this moment are not more similar
Than did the tale resemble the newer case,

If one is conscientious to compare
Their ends and their beginnings. Then, as one thought
Springs from the one before it, this now bore

Another which redoubled my terror...

None of them, perhaps, makes for an easy read. It becomes necessary, time and again, to pause and envision what's really going on.

The gist of the Comedy, as you probably know, is this: Dante finds himself in a dark wood, lost and uncertain where to go. He'd like to climb the hill in front of him (the hill of joy, evidently) but his way is blocked by three fierce beasts—symbols, perhaps, for various faults such as avarice, greed, and sloth, though we don't need to worry ourselves about that.

Suddenly a man appears, offering to lead him by another path. This shady fellow turns out to be Dante's literary hero, the roman poet Virgil. Virgil has been dead for some 1300 years, so his appearance comes as something of a shock to Dante.

Virgil offers to lead Dante out of his treacherous and depressing situation by another route. But as the two descend, Dante begins to lose heart and regret his decision. When he expresses his fears to Virgil, the poet tries to encourage him by revealing why he showed up:

"To ease your burden of fear. I will disclose
Why I came here, and what I heard that compelled
Me first to feel compassion for you: it was

A lady’s voice that called me where I dwelled In
Limbo—a lady so blessed and fairly featured
I prayed her to command me. Her eyes out-jeweled

The stars in splendor...

This woman is Dante's old flame, Beatrice, with whom readers in Dante's time would already have been familiar through his earlier works. She's worried about him:

                                                         ... my friend—
No friend of Fortune—has found his way impeded
On the barren slope, and fear has turned him round.

I fear he may be already lost, unaided:
So far astray, I’ve come from Heaven too late.
Go now, with your fair speech and what is needed

To save him: offer the help you have to give
Before he is lost, and I will be consoled.
I am Beatrice, come from where I crave

To be again, who ask this. As love has willed.
So have I spoken. And when I return
Before my Lord. He will hear your praises told.

Thus most of the elements that will drive the narrative of the Comedy are in place. Dante will journey with Virgil through Hell and Purgatory, meeting a variety of characters from myth and history along the way, pagan and Christian, ancient and contemporary. And as the two poets approach Paradise, Virgil will step aside (not being a Christian) to let Beatrice herself takes over the tour.


A few of the episodes in the Comedy, mostly from the Inferno, are distinctive enough to have risen above the hurly-burly of the text to become, like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, elements of our broader cultural heritage—fodder for pub quiz questions, if you will. The adulterous lovers Paola and Francesca; the desperately hungry Ugolino, locked in a tower and his children; Ulysses abandoning his wife and child in Ithaca to sail out through the Pillars of Hercules in a tireless quest for adventure and learning: these are perhaps the most famous.    

Though the landscapes are imaginary and the tale is pure fiction, Dante does his best to describe the terrain he and Virgil are traversing, level by level. In hell, the footing can be dangerous, the stench all but unbearable. Climbing the mountain of Purgatory through various canyons and crevasses  is a considerable challenge, and here Virgil doesn't seem to know the way forward very well. Paradise is a strange place with blinding orbs, and Dante seems to be as interested in its construction as in its moral tenor. Like Hell and Purgatory, Heaven, in Dante's view, is made up of many levels containing souls with varying degrees of merit, arranged hierarchically. Evidently, some souls are more "saved" than others.

While he's journeying through the cosmos, the ever-curious Dante is naturally interested to know more about the strange things he's seeing, and most of one canto is devoted to Beatrice's explanation of what causes the Man in the Moon to appear on the surface of a perfect orb.


Dante is also deeply interested in the history not only of Florence and Italy but of the world. Most of one canto is devote to the Emperor Constantine, now in heaven, rehearsing the history of Rome, and in another he gets an earful from the law-giving Emperor Justinian. Naturally he runs into St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis. Modern readers will have a more difficult time getting a grip on the various popes and emperors whom Dante feels it necessary to meet up with and pass judgment on.

And what about Beatrice, whose name has become synonymous with the elusive feminine divine? 
Her aura lingers over the entire enterprise, and scholars have debated the question exhaustively whether the woman Dante refers to and longs for in the Comedy is actually Beatrice Portinari, with whom Dante was smitten at the age of nine, or simply a symbol for theology, divine love, or some other concept.

This seems rather silly to me. Beatrice's signal quality throughout the Comedy is her gaze, sometimes enchanting, sometimes blinding. Virgil himself fell immediately under its spell, as the passage quoted above indicates. Her eyes out-jeweled the stars in splendor. Beatrice's voice is also compelling. These are not qualities we commonly associate with a concept or a symbol.

On the other hand, there is nothing especially "romantic" about the interest Beatrice takes in Dante. It was Saint Lucia, not Beatrice, who noticed Dante's quandary and urged Beatrice to lend him a hand, for old time's sake.

                                      ... Lucy, the foe
Of every cruelty, found me where I sat
With Rachel of old, and urged me: “Beatrice, true

Glory of God, can you not come to the aid
Of one who had such love for you he rose
Above the common crowd? Do you not heed

The pity of his cries? And do your eyes
Not see death near him, in a flood the ocean
Itself can boast no power to surpass?”

When Beatrice is escorting Dante through Paradise, explaining things, she often treats him dismissively. There are times, in fact, when she comes across as more than a little stuck on herself, as in this passage.

“If, in the warmth of love, I manifest
more of my radiance than the world can see,
 rendering your eyes unequal to the test,

do not be amazed. These are the radiancies
 of the perfected vision that sees the good
and step by step moves nearer what it sees.

Not wanting to seem vain, perhaps, Beatrice then tosses a backhanded compliment Dante's way:

Well do I see how the Eternal Ray,
which, once seen, kindles love forevermore,
already shines on you. If on your way

some other thing seduce your love, my brother,
it can only be a trace, misunderstood,
of this, which you see shining through the other.

Dante can be a little vain himself, as in this passage, where he addresses the reader:

O you who in your wish to hear these things
have followed thus far in your little skiffs
the wake of my great ship that sails and sings,

turn back and make your way to your own coast.
Do not commit yourself to the main deep,
for, losing me, all may perhaps be lost.

My course is set for an uncharted sea.
Minerva fills my sail. Apollo steers.
And nine new Muses point the Pole for me.

It's fair to say that while Beatrice isn't a symbol for anything, the Eternal Ray beams through her more than most. And eventually Dante catches on to the enormous love energy coursing, not only through Beatrice but through the universe itself.
  
Contemplating His Son with that Third Essence
of Love breathed forth forever by Them both,
the omnipotent and ineffable First Presence
               
created all that moves in mind and space
with such perfection that to look upon it
is to be seized by love of the Maker’s grace.
               
Therefore, reader, raise your eyes across the starry sphere.
Turn with me to that point at which one motion and another cross,        
and there begin to savor your delight in the Creator’s art,

which he so loves that it is fixed forever in His sight.

Passages along these lines, which combine Christian and astronomically references freely, are littered throughout the Paradiso, and Dante also does his best to reconcile astrological forces with divinely granted free will.  The result is a book-length poem that's simultaneously elusive and dense with meaning.

And what about the poetry itself? When you're grappling simply to comprehend what's being said, it's hard to appreciate the lyricism line by line. Then again, I more than occasionally found myself abandoning efforts to catch Dante's intended meaning, giving myself over to the music.

Cosi la neve al sol si disigilla
Cosi al vento nelle foglie lievi
Si perdea la sentenza di Sibilla.

The Italian scholar Nicola Chiaromonte begins an essay with this passage, remarking: "Many will recognize these lines, 64-66 of Canto XXXIII of the Paradiso."

Many in Italy, perhaps, though somehow I doubt it.  

So does the snow unseal itself in the sun,
So in the wind on the light leaves
The Sibyl’s utterance was lost.

They sound good, even in English. But when Chiaromonte sets himself the task of uncovering the grounds for their "emotional and magical power" he finds a merely sensual or aesthetic explanation inadequate.

Why? Returning to specifics of the tercet, he writes:

"Let us note its combination of natural facts—the snow, the sun, the melting of snow—with an image borrowed from the Aeneid, the Sibyl and her leaves lost in the wind. Such a combination is both typically Dantesque and characteristically medieval; but the precise placement of this pair in the poem is an essential cause of the emotion it stirs. Outside that context and apart from the struggle to express the inexpressible ... the impact of the image would be feeble. It is as impossible to abstract it from its place in the final canto as from its cultural context.

But the combined force of Dante's literary technique and his remarkable grasp of politics, science and history as they were then understood is still not enough.

Poetry, in order to be recogniz­able, must, after all, have reference to something beyond its natural and historic roots—something the poet shares with other men, contemporary or future. It must refer to a common reality, an enduring one, and one communicable in language even though lan­guage can do no more than point to it.

And what is the common reality that Dante so admirably captures?

The poet in his most inspired moments testifies to the ineradicable freedom of rapport between man and his world; and in so doing he refers us to a free, firm, and inexpressible reality that, though independ­ent of his beliefs or premises, is yet the very thing that levels him to the common condition and allows his “frenzy” to become communication. And thus Dante, when most intent on expressing the absolute­ness of the "eternal light,” gives us one of the most beautiful of all images of a totally different absolute: the absolute of transience and of mortality.

I couldn't have said it better myself; what it all means, exactly, I'm not sure. But my feeble and intermittent assault on the Comedy has convinced me that there's a good deal more to absorb within its pages than I've managed to do in my initial pass through that bizarre landscape.



The other day I ordered the Mandelbaum translation of the Comedy. Some people consider it the best modern version. We'll see. But having once accompanied Dante and his various guides from one end of the scheme to the other, I'll feel more comfortable lingering with this or that canto, trying to figure out what's really going on. 


T