Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Divine Comedy

Hamlet’s birthday

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Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

Last year, on my birthday, I wrote a post reflecting on how it felt to turn thirty-five, drawing liberally on The Divine Comedy, which opens when Dante is the same age—or, as he puts it, “When I had journeyed half of our life’s way.” When I look back, the comparison seems even more forced now than it did then, but it came out of a place of real feeling. I was going through a rough period as a writer, after a number of projects had failed to gain traction, and I was thinking more intensely than usual about what might come next. “A human life,” I wrote at the time, “makes a pattern that none of us can predict. And even as we reach the halfway point, its true shape may only be beginning.” When I typed those words, there was an element of wishful thinking involved, but they turned out to be more true than I could have guessed. Today, I’m working on a book that I couldn’t possibly have anticipated a year ago, and I’m already feeling the impact. In startup jargon, it was a career pivot, or a course correction, and although it emerged naturally from my background and interests, it still took me by surprise. In all likelihood, Astounding will turn out to be the most interesting book I’ve ever written, or ever will, which means that when I wrote that birthday post, I was on the verge of providing an inadvertent case study of how even the most considered plan can continue to generate surprises long after you think its outlines have been fixed. Which, I suppose, is what Dante was saying all along.

It might seem strange to use the age of a literary character as a benchmark for evaluating your own life, but it’s no weirder than measuring yourself against peers your own age or, ugh, even younger, which all writers inevitably do. (My favorite observation on the subject comes courtesy of Tom Lehrer: “It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years.”) And it isn’t just Dante who inspires this kind of reflection. You can hear an echo of it in the trendy notion of “the Jesus year,” which, if anything, is even more pretentious. Most intriguing of all is the case of Hamlet, whose age is as vague as Dante’s is precise. In the first four acts of the play that bears his name, Hamlet strikes us, as Harold Bloom puts it, as “a young man of about twenty or less,” which squares neatly with the fact that he’s a student at Wittenberg University. Yet in Act V, the gravedigger explicitly says that the prince is thirty. This has been explained away as a mistake in the text or an artifact of Shakespeare’s repeated revisions, which overlooks how psychologically and dramatically sound it is: the Hamlet of the last act seems far wiser and more mature than the one we’ve met before, and I actually prefer the joke theory that he somehow ages a decade or more in his brief trip overseas. Hamlet has undergone a dramatic change in his absence, and his illogical increase in age is a subliminal clue as to how we’re supposed to perceive his transformation.

Illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante's Inferno

And that curious fusion of the twenty- and thirty-year-old versions of the prince hints at one of the most unforgettable qualities of his character, even as it also explains why the actors with the ability to play him tend to be closer to forty. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom notes that “no one else in all Shakespeare seems potentially so free as the crown prince of Denmark,” and he goes on to list a few of the possibilities:

There is a bewildering range of freedoms available to Hamlet: he could marry Ophelia, ascend to the throne after Claudius if waiting was bearable, cut Claudius down at almost any time, leave for Wittenberg without permission, organize a coup (being the favorite of the people), or even devote himself to botching plays for the theater. Like his father, he could center upon being a soldier, akin to the younger Fortinbras, or conversely he could turn his superb mind to more organized speculation, philosophical or hermetic, than has been his custom. Ophelia describes him, in her lament for his madness, as having been courtier, soldier, and scholar, the exemplar of form and fashion for all Denmark. If The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is “poem unlimited,” beyond genre and rules, then its protagonist is character unlimited, beyond even such precursors as the biblical David or the classical Brutus. But how much freedom can be afforded Hamlet by a tragic play? What project can be large enough for him?

But that’s how everyone feels at twenty. Or at least it’s how I did. You think you’re capable of anything, and there were times in my twenties when I felt as potentially free as Hamlet at the beginning of the play. But age closes off the number of paths available, one by one, until you’re more like Hamlet at the end: resigned, with equanimity or otherwise, to the role that fate has assigned to you. That’s why Hamlet continues to fascinate us. He’s our greatest image of youthful potential, until he isn’t, which is why he somehow manages to seem both twenty and thirty within the span of a few weeks. Yet that juxtaposition, for all its absurdity, gets at something fundamental in how we all see ourselves: as a superimposition of all the people we were in the past, coexisting together in the more limited person we necessarily embody today. (Or as Frank Sinatra says more eloquently in Sinatra at the Sands: “Now I guess you folks have heard, or read, or been told somewhere that recently I became fifty years old, and I’m here to tell you right now, it’s a dirty Communist lie. Direct from Hanoi—it came right outta there! My body may be fifty, but I’m twenty-eight!” Sinatra goes on to add: “And I would further like to say that I’d be twenty-two if I hadn’t spent all those years drinking with Joe E. Lewis, who nearly wrecked me.”) Shakespeare, as it happens, was thirty-seven when he wrote Hamlet, or just a year older than I am now. That’s enough to make a mockery of anyone’s ambitions, but it also gives me hope. We’re all walking the same path through the forest—and our greatest consolation is that Dante and Shakespeare have been there before us.

Half of our life’s way

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Illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante's Inferno

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.

—Dante Alighieri, Inferno, translated by Allen Mandelbaum

Seven hundred and fifty years ago, Dante Alighieri was born. We know this because in The Divine Comedy—which explicitly takes place in the year 1300—Dante states that he had traveled “half of our life’s way” at the time of his journey. Based on the Biblical allotment of threescore and seven years, this would make him thirty-five as the poem begins, implying that he was born in 1265. His exact birthday is unknown, although Dante, as usual, leaves a few tantalizing clues for interpreters. He once told a friend that he was born in May, and based on a reference in Paradiso to the constellation of Gemini, which he notes was in the sky “when I first felt the air of Tuscany,” we can narrow it down even further. Commentators have tried ever since to pin down a specific date, most recently on the Paris Review blog, in which Damion Searls makes a convincing case for May 26, based on internal evidence from the rest of the poem. Still, we don’t know for sure. And while I’m aware that this is just wishful thinking, I’d like to believe that it might be May 31. Why? Because that’s my birthday, too.

In fact, I turned thirty-five yesterday, so the fact that this year also marks Dante’s sesquiquincentenary strikes me as personally significant. I’m well aware that there’s nothing more boring than reading someone else’s thoughts on a particular birthday: if you haven’t reached that age yet, you can hardly sympathize, and if you’re older, the last thing you want to hear is someone younger brooding over the meaning of it all. Yet I’ve been more conscious of this particular birthday than usual. Dante has been important to me ever since I read The Divine Comedy in a course taught by Lino Pertile in my freshman year of college, and at the time, his journey felt like the most vivid allegory that I’d ever encountered for my own progress through life. We all feel charged with significance in our late teens and early twenties, and looking back, I can smile a little at how readily I identified myself with one of the two greatest poets the western tradition has produced. But I never quite shook the sense that, like Dante, I was waiting for a Virgil to appear, and that my life would be spent preparing to answer that call when it came. So even if this birthday doesn’t represent the halfway point in my life, on some level, it feels like it does.

Illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante's Inferno

Dante wasn’t thirty-five when he wrote The Divine Comedy, of course: he seems to have begun drafting the poem around 1308, or eight years after the end of its internal narrative, and continued to labor on it for the next twelve years. Placing the journey earlier in his own life was a conscious poetic strategy. As with other works of encyclopedic fiction, setting it in the recent past allows Dante to prophesy accurately about events that have yet to occur within the poem’s timeline, notably his own exile, which lends credibility to the other predictions he makes. As it happened, one big prediction turned out to be wrong: he died at fifty-six, not seventy, which means that he was well past the midpoint of his own lifespan at the time the poem begins. Obviously, there’s no way that he could have known this—although he speaks with such prophetic authority elsewhere that it seems slightly surprising. But it’s also hard for us to imagine him outliving the poem’s completion. More than any other writer I know, Dante is his major work: it’s all but impossible to separate Dante the Pilgrim from the poet who constructs the seven circles of Hell. And when the poem was done, so was he.

Which feels like a lesson for all of us. It can be easy to forget that Dante’s poem was, in part, a reaction to the fact that his life had not gone as he had planned. As Erich Auerbach puts it so unforgettably:

Beyond a doubt [Dante] was the wisest, most resolute man of his time; according to the Platonic principle which is still valid whenever a man is manifestly endowed with the gift of leadership, he was born to rule; however, he did not rule, but led a life of solitary poverty.

The Divine Comedy was an effort to create, in poetry, the kind of order that he sought but failed to find in his own life. All authors do this to some extent; what sets Dante apart was how brilliantly he succeeded. His poem endures as the events of his time have not, and to the extent that we still care at all about the Gulephs, the Ghibellines, and the Florentine politics of that era, it’s because Dante put them in a poem. (Countless figures of that period, both friends and enemies, endure only because he consigned them to a few lines of torment or redemption.) Dante never ruled, at least not in the way he wanted, but he lives for us in a way that no ruler ever will. Whether or not this provided him with any consolation is unclear—but it consoles me. A human life makes a pattern that none of us can predict. And even as we reach the halfway point, its true shape may only be beginning.

Written by nevalalee

June 1, 2015 at 10:09 am

Hell is other movies

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Robert Altman

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your personal pop culture hell?”

Dante has always been one of the shrewdest and most surprising of writers, and the most striking aspect of his vision of hell is how its residents create it for themselves. Unlike Shakespeare, whose greatest gift lies in the depiction of personality in transition, Dante gives us a series of figures captured in a single characteristic moment for all eternity. The effect is both heightened, like a series of frescoes, and strangely realistic. We like to think of ourselves as creatures who are constantly evolving, but from a godlike or four-dimensional perspective, as Rust notes in True Detective, our lives would appear as a single emblematic shape. (Borges says much the same thing in one of his essays, in which he defines a divine intelligence as one that could grasp the inconceivable figure traced by all of an individual’s movements throughout a lifetime as easily as we see a triangle.) And because Dante is visiting the souls of the damned, their shapes take the form of their worst moments, whether it’s the act of suicide that transforms Pietro della Vigna into a dead tree or leaves Paulo and Francesca whipped by the winds of illicit passion.

Much the same can be said of artists, who, after they’re gone, leave behind a visible legacy in the form of a shelf of books, a monograph of paintings, or a stack of movies or episodes. When we think back on the careers of the artists we know best, it often seems oddly sculptural, as if each successive film or novel were a component in a larger edifice being built over time. One of the hardest parts about working in any creative field is sensing what that larger shape will be when you’re considering projects from moment to moment. You see this in stark terms, for instance, in the résumés of actors and actresses, who need to engage in a complicated calculation that weighs the immediate merits of any given role against its place in the overall picture. I’ve written before about what I call the starlet’s dilemma, in which the pressure to extend one’s prime earning years can lead to decisions that compromise any prospect of a lasting career. And if there’s one recurring theme in Will Harris’s wonderful Random Roles interviews on The A.V. Club, it’s that when you’re focusing on the parts that happen to be available at the time, you end up with a filmography that can take you by surprise, and not always in a good way.

Harrison Ford and Shia LaBeouf in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Every lasting career has its ups and downs, of course, and you could argue that too much consistency is the mark of a mediocre artist: any creative decision is a risk, and what feels like a step forward can turn out to be going in the wrong direction. If we’re lucky, over the long run, the hits will outweigh the misses, and our failures will be blessedly forgotten. Robert Altman, for one, was the kind of director who almost obstinately refused to be kept to any one path, leading to a famous piece of admiring snark from Pauline Kael:

Robert Altman is almost frighteningly nonrepetitive. He goes out in a new direction every time, and scores an astonishing fifty percent—one on, one off. M*A*S*H was followed by Brewster McCloud, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller has now been followed by Images. I can hardly wait for his next movie.

Which, it turns out, was The Long Goodbye, his best movie, at least to my eyes, and lasting proof that this kind of approach can pay dividends over the long run. But it also means that you could compile a festival of Altman’s misfires and come away with the impression that he was the worst director in the world.

If I were curating a film festival for my own personal hell, then, I’d approach the problem in Dantesque terms, and feature all of my favorite directors at their worst moments. I’m not talking about movies that are merely disappointing, like Shutter Island, or ambitious failures, like The Fountain or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. We’re looking at the likes of Attack of the Clones or U-Turn or The Ladykillers: movies so dire they make you wonder what you saw in these directors in the first place. They’re films in which virtues are twisted into vices, and the decisions and idiosyncrasies that drew you to a filmmaker’s work become monstrously distorted. In this life, we’re lucky enough to be able to ignore the duds from the artists we admire, and we can judge them only by their best. Hell, however, operates by different rules. In the seventh circle, Dante is confronted by the shade of Brunetto Latini, a man he loved, racing on foot forever through the circle of the sodomites, and although he’s compelled by poetic logic to put him there, it breaks his heart. It’s a special kind of torture to see your heroes’ mistakes without their corresponding successes, and that’s the hell I envision for myself. It even has a name: The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Turning pages both ways

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Infinite Jest

A physical book is a wonderful object, but one of its less appreciated features is the fact that you can easily turn pages in both directions. Most works of narrative art unfold in a fixed fashion—unless you pause and rewind, you can’t go back to an earlier scene of a television show or movie to clarify a point you missed, and you’re even more stuck if you’re watching a play—but printed books, while superficially linear, give you easy access to every page at once. In theory, so do electronic editions, but in practice, they’re less accessible than they seem, especially if, like me, you tend to remember where you read something earlier based on its physical location, and spend a minute or two scanning the bottom of every page on the left until you find the part you remember. Kindle books are great for a lot of things, but they aren’t especially good for skimming, and there’s something particularly satisfying about going back in a book to reread an earlier section while holding your current place with a finger.

Books weren’t always like this: the earliest extended works on parchment or papyrus were scrolls, which made it a little more difficult to skip back to the beginning. And the tangible properties of a conveniently bound volume are what make certain kinds of storytelling possible. When reading Infinite Jest, the first thing that strikes most readers, aside from its sheer size, is its back matter, which takes up close to a hundred pages of closely printed notes at the end of the book. Most of us probably wish that the notes were a little more accessible, as did Dave Eggers, who observes of his first experience reading it: “It was frustrating that the footnotes were at the end of the book, rather than at the bottom of the page.” Yet this wasn’t an accident. According to a New Yorker profile of the late author, Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, suggested that readers might find footnotes less cumbersome, but Wallace was adamant, saying that endnotes would “allow/make the reader go literally physically ‘back and forth’ in a way that perhaps cutely mimics some of the story’s thematic concerns.”

A page from Dictionary of the Khazars

Well, it is cute, but it also works: the notes exist as a kind of parallel but separate entity, discursive and digressive, in a way that wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if Wallace has put them at the bottom of the page, as Nicholson Baker did in The Mezzanine. They also make the notion of the novel’s “end” deliberately unclear. And I don’t think it would have the same impact in electronic form, with each note provided with a convenient link: much of the meaning of Wallace’s notes comes from the act of departure, in which we temporarily escape from the main continent of the text to visit a nearby peninsula. Similarly, books like Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, or Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which essentially demand constant nonlinear navigation through the text, would lose much of their power on Kindle. We’re so used to moving from one link to another online that any structural novelty the books possess would disappear, or be rendered invisible, if they were read on a tablet or screen.

In fact, it’s these weird, nonlinear antibooks that paradoxically make the strongest case for books as a physical medium. These stories push deliberately against the constraints of their form, but that doesn’t mean they want to be liberated: they gain their significance from the act of turning pages back and forth. And there’s a related point here that needs to be stressed. There’s been a lot of discussion about the future of the book, and of how novels and stories can fully utilize the act of reading online. But all of our great novels are hypertexts already. As far back as Dante, you had an author who was hoping to be read both vertically and horizontally—each canto in The Divine Comedy has thematic parallels with the canto of the same number in the two other sections—and any reader of Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow ends up confronting every part of the text in relation to any other. Which implies, at least to me, that the true future of the electronic novel is one that pushes the other way: toward an unnatural linearity that removes the possibility of going back. Of course, I have no idea how this would look. But it’s exciting to think about.

The problem of narrative complexity

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David Foster Wallace

Earlier this month, faced with a break between projects, I began reading Infinite Jest for the first time. If you’re anything like me, this is a book you’ve been regarding with apprehension for a while now—I bought my copy five or six years ago, and it’s followed me through at least three moves without being opened beyond the first page. At the moment, I’m a couple of hundred pages in, and although I’m enjoying it, I’m also glad I waited: Wallace is tremendously original, but he also pushes against his predecessors, particularly Pynchon, in fascinating ways, and I’m better equipped to engage him now than I would have been earlier on. The fact that I’ve published two novels in the meantime also helps. As a writer, I’m endlessly fascinated by the problem of managing complexity—of giving a reader enough intermediate rewards to justify the demands the author makes—and Wallace handles this beautifully. Dave Eggers, in the introduction to the edition I’m reading now, does a nice job of summing it up:

A Wallace reader gets the impression of being in a room with a very talkative and brilliant uncle or cousin who, just when he’s about to push it too far, to try our patience with too much detail, has the good sense to throw in a good lowbrow joke.

And the ability to balance payoff with frustration is a quality shared by many of our greatest novels. It’s relatively easy to write a impenetrable book that tries the reader’s patience, just as it’s easy to create a difficult video game that drives players up the wall, but parceling out small satisfactions to balance out the hard parts takes craft and experience. Mike Meginnis of Uncanny Valley makes a similar point in an excellent blog post about the narrative lessons of video games. While discussing the problem of rules and game mechanics, he writes:

In short, while it might seem that richness suggests excess and maximal inclusion, we actually need to be selective about the elements we include, or the novel will not be rich so much as an incomprehensible blur, a smear of language. Think about the very real limitations of Pynchon as a novelist: many complain about his flat characters and slapstick humor, but without those elements to manage the text and simplify it, his already dangerously complex fiction would become unreadable.

Pynchon, of course, casts a huge shadow over Wallace—sometimes literally, as when two characters in Infinite Jest contemplate their vast silhouettes while standing on a mountain range, as another pair does in Gravity’s Rainbow. And I’m curious to see how Wallace, who seems much more interested than Pynchon in creating plausible human beings, deals with this particular problem.


The problem of managing complexity is one that has come up on this blog several times, notably in my discussion of the work of Christopher Nolan: Inception‘s characters, however appealing, are basically flat, and the action is surprisingly straightforward once we’ve accepted the premise. Otherwise, the movie would fall apart from trying to push complexity in more than one direction at once. Even works that we don’t normally consider accessible to a casual reader often incorporate elements of selection or order into their design. The Homeric parallels in Joyce’s Ulysses are sometimes dismissed as an irrelevant trick—Borges, in particular, didn’t find them interesting—but they’re very helpful for a reader trying to cut a path through the novel for the first time. When Joyce dispensed with that device, the result was Finnegans Wake, a novel greatly admired and rarely read. That’s why encyclopedic fictions, from The Divine Comedy to Moby-Dick, tend to be structured around a journey or other familiar structure, which gives the reader a compass and map to navigate the authorial wilderness.

On a more modest level, I’ve frequently found myself doing this in my own work. I’ve mentioned before that I wanted one of the three narrative strands in The Icon Thief to be a police procedural, which, with its familiar beats and elements, would serve as a kind of thread to pull the reader past some of the book’s complexities. More generally, this is the real purpose of plot. Kurt Vonnegut, who was right about almost everything, says as much in one of those writing aphorisms that I never tire of quoting:

I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.

The emphasis is mine. Plot is really a way of easing the reader into that greatest of imaginative leaps, which all stories, whatever their ambitions, have in common: the illusion that these events are really taking place, and that characters who never existed are worthy of our attention and sympathy. Plot, structure, and other incidental pleasures are what keep the reader nourished while the real work of the story is taking place. If we take it for granted, it’s because it’s a trick that most storytellers learned a long time ago. But the closer we look at its apparent simplicity, the sooner we realize that, well, it’s complicated.

All I want for Christmas

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Beatrix Evelyn Nevala-Lee, my daughter, was born in Chicago in the early morning of December 19. Both mom and baby are doing fine. Beatrix, as astute readers may have already guessed, is named for both one of my favorite figures in world literature and one of my favorite characters from any recent movie, both of them strong female role models. “Evelyn” was chosen largely because it goes nicely with my last name—nobody seems to know what it means, with derivations ranging from a variant of “Ava” to the French for “hazelnut”—and it also allows me to pretend that she was named after Evelyn Beatrice Hall, the English biographer best known for a famous fake quotation from Voltaire.

She’s less than a week old, but I’m learning something new from Beatrix every day, and it was clear from the moment I first looked into her eyes that my life would never be the same. I expect that the changes will be visible both on this blog and in my other work, and I’m looking forward to sharing some of my discoveries here. As an author, the greatest lesson I’ve taken away so far is that even after a lifetime of writing, there are still fundamental things about human existence that I have yet to experience firsthand, and I have a feeling that even my best work will start to feel, in retrospect, like only a fraction of the story. But if nothing else, to quote another great fictional character, Beatrix is already the best thing my name has ever been attached to.

Written by nevalalee

December 24, 2012 at 9:50 am

Dante, builder of worlds

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During my first semester in college, along with classes on Latin, expository writing, and, for some reason, the literature of science in the English Renaissance, I took a class on Dante. At that point, my knowledge of Dante was very limited: I’d read the Inferno, in the comically inadequate prose translation included in my set of the Great Books of the Western World, but it was easy to see that this was one work where I’d benefit from a more guided approach. The class I took, taught by Professor Lino Pertile, was that and more: it was a transformative experience that set the tone for the next four years of my life. People go to college for all kinds of reasons, but what I wanted, in the most earnest way possible, was to enter a world of ideas. And while it’s always good to be taken by the hand and led through a major work by a talented teacher, at that moment, Dante, in the excellent translation of Allen Mandelbaum, came to represent both the life of the mind that I wanted and an adventure that I alone had survived.

The result, weirdly enough, is that I’ve come to regard the poem that Borges has called “the most justifiable and the most solid book of all literature” as something like my own personal property, and an intimate part of my own life. Some of this is due to the fact that Dante, as far as I can tell, is rarely taught in American public schools, and if he is, students invariably stop at the Inferno, which is only part of the story. But even more important is the conviction, which is hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t read the Comedy, that I somehow lived this story with Dante. You can approach this poem from any number of angles, but the really strange thing is how convincing it all is. I know that Dante is essentially writing fantasy, albeit with a theologically unimpeachable grounding in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, but I still sometimes find it hard to believe that the historical Dante Alighieri didn’t actually experience the journey he describes here. Because if you want to talk about world-building, this is by far the greatest example in all of literature.

How does he do it? Dante is a reminder, perhaps the ultimate one, that the greatest philosophical conceptions can be less persuasive than a single well-chosen detail. In some ways, the elaborate architecture of Dante’s afterlife is the least impressive part of the poem: many theologians of Dante’s time, or fantasy writers today, would be capable of constructing the nine circles of hell, but few, if any, would be able to imagine Chiron, the centaur, dividing his shaggy beard with the arrow in his hands before he can talk. (Ruskin called this image “a thing that no mortal would ever have thought of, if he had not seen the centaur do it.”) Dante is full of such astonishing, concrete, mysterious touches, including his poem’s most controversial aspect, the meting out of divine justice after death. Far from simply condemning his enemies and rewarding his friends, Dante uses his choices to convey the incomprehensibility of the divine mind: he punishes men he loved in life, like Brunetto Latini, and elevates Ripheus, a figure who appears in two lines in the Aeneid, to the level of the highest saints, as if to represent how little we can really know about God’s intentions.

Of all the many tributes to Dante, I stumbled across one of the strongest only the other day, in the chapter “Farinata and Cavalcante” in Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis. Auerbach is an unparalleled close reader, with an attention to detail that borders on the absurd (he describes one of Dante’s phrases as “a future clause of adhortative import with an adverbial qualifier”), so it’s all the more powerful when he opens up into unstinting praise:

But if we start from his predecessors, Dante’s language is a well-nigh incomprehensible miracle. There were great poets among them. But, compared with theirs, his style is so immeasurably richer in directness, vigor, and subtlety, he knows and uses such an immeasurably greater stock of forms, he expresses the most varied phenomena and subjects with such immeasurably superior assurance and firmness, that we come to the conclusion that this man used his language to discover the world anew.

This sense of both discovering and building an entire world, like the cycle of dream creation described in Inception, is one that all writers of fantastic fiction have tried to create, but none has done it better than Dante. As a result, even today, when I haven’t read the Comedy in many years, its images still burn in my imagination, as if I’d been to hell and back myself. To an extent that no other work of art has matched, it’s a world made of words. And it’s a journey that every writer needs to take.

Written by nevalalee

February 15, 2012 at 10:46 am

“Previously, on Dante’s Inferno…”

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There’s an amusing tradition, at least as old as Boccaccio, that Dante wrote the first seven cantos of the Inferno before his exile from Florence, and then took up the story again with Canto VIII, after a gap of months or years in the writing process. To mark the resumption of his work, Dante opens the canto with the words Io dico, seguitando: “I say, continuing…” The story is almost certainly apocryphal, but it’s as good an illustration as I know for the fact that long stretches of inactivity may interrupt a writer’s work on a novel, or any long writing project, but that the final result needs to look as continuous as possible. (Unless, of course, you’re aiming for an impression of discontinuity, which may also be an illusion.)

Gaps can occur in the writing process for all sorts of reasons. Usually, it’s because other obligations of life or work have gotten in the way. Sometimes it’s because you feel inspiration flagging and decide to work on another project for a while instead. Or, most frighteningly, it’s because you’ve hit a wall, don’t know where to go with the story, and feel compelled to set it aside for a long time, possibly forever. (John Gardner was unable to work on one of his novels for months because he couldn’t decide if a certain character would accept a drink offered to her at a cocktail party.) And whatever the reason, when you do go back to work, you’ll often find that it’s hard to pick up again precisely where you left off.

This last problem is one that I’ve often encountered, simply because of the way I approach long writing projects. As I’ve said before, I tend to outline in great detail, but I also like being surprised by the story, and it’s hard to reconcile these two impulses. The only solution I’ve found, which has worked well enough for me so far, has been to outline the novel in installments: I’ll put together a detailed outline for Part I, then write that section of the novel, with only a vague sense of what happens in Part II. Then, once I’ve finished the first section, I’ll repeat the process for the next part. This way, I have the structure I need for each day’s work, but I’ve also retained the possibility of surprise, even if it means going back and heavily revising what I’ve written before.

But how do you pick up the thread of a story after taking such a long time off? In my experience, it helps to do what Dante did, or is alleged to have done: write a page or two tacitly acknowledging that you’re returning to the story after a long absence—a transitional scene, a long description, even a recapitulation of what has happened so far—as long as you revise it into invisibility in a subsequent draft. After all, this is only an extreme version of what happens every day when you’re writing a first draft, much of which consists of transitional material that you need to ease yourself into and out of the fictional dream. Nearly all of this stuff, especially at the beginning and end of each scene, will need to be cut. Which is fine. Nobody will ever see it but you. And once its purpose is served, like a military bridge, it can be blown to smithereens. The important thing, the only thing, is to get to the other side.

Written by nevalalee

April 11, 2011 at 9:52 am

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