CULTURE DESK — Book reviews: Inferno, by Dan Brown & The Inferno of Dante (translated by Robert Pinsky)

by Bernie Langs

When I heard that best-selling author Dan Brown had written a book centering around a mystery involving Dante’s Inferno, I came up with a scheme to read the original Inferno section of Dante Alighieri’s famous poem, Commedia (which later became known as “The Divine Comedy”), and compare the two works for Natural Selections. This is perhaps the only reason, I knew, that I’d ever read a book by Brown or the hellish work by Dante. I’ve read other poetry by Dante, as well as his work La Vita Nuova (“The New Life”), but avoided the Inferno for completely superstitious reasons. As for Brown, when his tens-of-millions bestselling book, The Da Vinci Code, hit stores with its tale of Professor Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist, I wasn’t just angry that he’d changed the playing field of the publishing business forever–making the publishing houses crave only huge blockbusters akin to film industry’s obsession with the big opening weekend. No, Brown became the only writer I’ve ever felt bitter towards, because I’d been writing books about messages in paintings and global intrigue for years; the difference being that my books had print-runs of about ten copies. Thus, I’d never stand a chance to be published and someone had beaten me to the punch.

Briefly put, my avoidance of reading about Dante’s trip to hell, which he wrote in the early 14th century, was based on an idea that my music teacher in college once said: “Once you play an original song for the class, it’s in their heads forever, so be careful what you play for us.” To put it simply, I didn’t want a stark vision of hell in my mind for the rest of my life. In addition, in a state of great inebriation in 1979, I began to read a vintage 1948 copy of The Divine Comedy with horrifying illustrations by Gustav Doré, and after about twenty pages, the book began again! The publisher had misprinted the book. I stopped reading, and in my agitated state, I remember to this day wondering if that is what hell is, a horrifying repetition from which there is no escape. Circles of hell indeed.

That said, I made it through Brown’s book, Inferno, and Robert Pinsky’s fabulous translation of the Inferno unscathed (so far).  Of course, there were moments of disturbing coincidence between Brown’s and Dante’s works: Brown referenced Doré’s illustrations at least twice and the footnotes of the Inferno saying that the poet leaves hell, from what is discerned from historical accounts, on April 9, 1300 (I was born on April 9). That said, I have to say that I enjoyed Brown’s book, which follows Robert Langdon’s frantic attempt, while facing a bout of clichéd amnesia, to stop a global contagion from being released. I was deeply disappointed in the writing, however, which feels a need to keep the action going at any cost, without breaking for any style or nuance. I was turning the Kindle pages quickly, but found the heavy-handed messages about a drastic need to curtail global overpopulation simplistic. I was happy and excited that the book took the reader through the much-loved cities of Florence and Venice, veering eventually to an exotic Istanbul. But in the end, it’s really an exercise in catchiness, coming up miles short of anything resembling literature. Which is what Mr. Brown most definitely intends.

It’s almost unfair to compare Brown’s book to Dante’s masterpiece, since one can argue that the very pillars of all Western writing are the two Bibles, Homer, Shakespeare, and the Commedia. I approached the poem with the thought of taking all I’ve gleaned from reading about Medieval life and all the paintings, sculpture, mosaics, and illuminated manuscripts I’ve viewed over the years and plopping Dante’s work in the middle of it, putting it in historical context, but this strategy didn’t work. Because, as much as one reads of the violence of war in the Middle Ages or the beginning of the Renaissance period, no matter how many paintings of tortured Saviors and Saints one views, nothing prepares one for the cold-hearted descriptions of violence from a witness to the times such as Alighieri. I’m sure he makes up for much of the terror in the later two sections of the poem, Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Paradise (Paradiso), but the cruelty depicted in the Inferno is really over the top. Much of hell is inhabited by political, and often, barbaric, real figures from the days during which Dante lived. In essence, we journey through the poet’s mind, where the terrors of hell are all too real, and on arrival, he populates it with many of his enemies. I much prefer the work of the later poet, Francesco Petrarch, who like Dante, reverently references tales and figures from the ancient world. Petrarch’s verses are ethereal and beautiful, and he is bent on love and tenderness in much of his work.

Fifteen years ago, I wrote a free-form poem that took the protagonist through a netherworld between life and death and I based it on what I imagined Dante’s Inferno was like. My hero’s guide in my book was the late guitarist, Brian Jones, as opposed to Dante’s guide from antiquity, the poet Virgil. It was interesting to see where I’d guessed right about the Inferno and wrong. With Brown, I wrote a book about five years ago featuring an obnoxious know-it-all writer as one of the characters who has a bestseller called “The Michelangelo Conspiracy.” What I’ve learned is that Brown is a lover of Italy and its treasures, much like myself. And, of course, symbols. I heard the print-run of Inferno is huge, but much less than The Da Vinci Code. The print run of my own books is down as well – I handed out four copies of my last novella!

July/August 2013