The Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds) #EU27project

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds, in a three volume Penguin paperback edition

I was somewhere in Purgatory when I realised that I could count The Divine Comedy towards the EU27 Project.

A tradition of mine (it’s been two years now: I can call it a tradition) is to attempt a daunting Christian book over the Easter weekend. Last year it was Julian of Norwich. Easter was a little later last year, and spring was a little earlier, and there were no services in church, and there was all the time in the world to take a folding chair out into the back garden and read. Result: I would no longer call Julian of Norwich ‘daunting’.

This year I thought I’d try Dante. I stayed on the sofa, though. I finished Paradise on Sunday morning. In the afternoon it was just about warm enough to read outside.

This is the third book I’ve read for the EU27 Project, and all of them were written outside the European Union. (The next one up breaks the pattern and actually mentions euros.) The Divine Comedy is, of course, the oldest. When Dante was writing the unification of Italy was centuries away, and the idea of a unified Europe was – well, I don’t want to say utterly foreign, because of course there was the Holy Roman Empire and the memory of the Roman Empire to work with. And he does. But he’s writing as an exile from a bitterly divided Florence.

My medieval history is extremely shaky, particularly outside England, and I had no idea who about 70% of the personages we encounter. The notes were useful here; so, too, was giving up worrying about which corrupt Pope was which and just going with it.

Dorothy L. Sayers isn’t afraid either to be a vigorous Dante apologist or to relate the people and politics of his context to her own. This helped a lot. He’s writing at the beginning of the fourteenth century, having experienced first hand the bitterness of civic feuds. She’s writing in the middle of the twentieth century, in a world that has just been brought face to face with the fact of how utterly depraved humanity can be.

And this was something that I, reading in the early twenty-first century, found very comforting. We do, in fact, live in precedented times. The world has been a mess since we left Eden; it’s a mess in a different way this time round, and I don’t always agree with either Dante or Sayers about the appropriate response to that – but it resonates. The anger resonates, the despair resonates, the hope resonates. And then that leap into a bigger picture which none of us is actually qualified to see, whose portrayal is wonderful in its own inadequacy… I loved it. Dante’s worldview is very different from my own, but that really didn’t seem to matter.

Reading The Divine Comedy over the Easter weekend allowed me to follow it in real time, sort of. I didn’t start until the morning of Good Friday (Dante gets lost in the wood on Maundy Thursday), managed to keep up through Hell, and then had to sprint a bit in various parts of Purgatory owing to the demands of Easter socialising and the fact that I had work to do on Tuesday and Wednesday. Once he gets into Paradise we lose the time markers, and so I slowed right down again until Sunday morning, when I finished it all off at once. The momentum helps. The notes are intimidating, particularly in the thickness they add to the books, but helpful. I might read up on some medieval popes and Holy Roman Emperors and go back to it in a bit. As for next Easter, I’m thinking of St Augustine.

Hyperlocal travel writing: the sofa

I have been in Verona.

Not literally.

Well, technically, yes, I’ve stood in a very long queue for the ladies’ at the railway station between getting off a train from Venice and getting on one to Brenner(o). Technically, I have been in Verona. But that wasn’t my point.

Figuratively, I have been in Verona.

Dark screen showing DVD covers for three different versions of Romeo and Juliet, plus other Shakespeare plays

I started off in January in kitschy, fictional, Verona Beach, because I needed to remind myself of Romeo and Juliet in a hurry, and the version that was at that moment the most accessible was the Baz Luhrmann one.

Now, I am just the age to have hit compulsory school Shakespeare when Romeo+Juliet had been out long enough to become the version that English teachers turned to (and Titanic was just out, and Leonardo DiCaprio was a very big thing indeed). My teens are a bit of blur at this point (not for any sex/drugs/rock’n’roll reasons; it’s just that we spent an entire year moving house) but I’m reasonably sure that I studied Romeo and Juliet three times running at three different schools. I only really remember one of those with any clarity (it was, interestingly enough, the school I struggled with the most, but I did enjoy English): we watched the Luhrmann version; we watched the Zeffirelli version, too, but it was the tat-tastic, somewhere-on-the-American-West-Coast, Verona Beach that’s stuck in my memory.

Anyway, that was January. I finished off the thing I’d watched it for in the first place, and I thought no more about it. Then I fell down the rabbit hole. It was the discovery that Alan Rickman had played Tybalt (BBC, 1978) that had me leaving scorched rubber in the search bar and resulted in the delivery of a parcel of DVDs (it comes in a set with the major tragedies, and I thought I might as well add in the Zeffirelli version, not to mention the Branagh Much Ado About Nothing, and make the most of the postage charge).

BBC Verona is much like other BBC sets of the seventies: very much a stage set, earnestly reproducing balconies and battlements in painted plywood. Alan Rickman as Tybalt is pretty much exactly how you’d expect Alan Rickman to be as Tybalt. Perfect casting, to my mind.

Reminding myself of Zeffirelli’s Verona, I suddenly saw what the BBC had been going for, how much it owed to the earlier production. It wasn’t filmed in the real Verona but I had to look it up to check. (It’s not like I would know from the railway station lavatories, after all.) This Verona is made of stone: it’s all walls and pavements and battlements, and feels at once very authentic and very claustrophobic.

Then I remembered the existence of the musical. Musicals, plural, if you count West Side Story, which to my mind is one of the best musicals in existence, but is very much not set in any sort of Verona. The Presgurvic musical, though, very much is. Welcome to Verona, my beautiful Verona, the city where the families make the law, the city where everyone hates everyone else. (Translation mine, from the earworm: the original actually rhymes and scans and is probably in a different order.)

I’d watched the Hungarian version years ago and had vague memories of a grungy, punky set and a heart-breakingly optimistic Romeo. It’s still up on Youtube, so I watched it again. My memories were correct; also, there’s a lot of fire. There’s also a real sense of a city that runs on hatred. This isn’t the Sharks and the Jets floating on top of a city that doesn’t know much about them and doesn’t care at all; this is somewhere that wouldn’t even know what it was if it didn’t have the feud. I found the Italian version, too. That’s less fiery, more gothic. This Verona is somewhere between the Middle Ages and the apocalypse.

One cannot watch videos all the time, but one of the great things about working from home is that one can have whatever music one likes in the background (and so can one’s partner, at the other end of the landing). So I’ve been listening to the French version a lot. I have yet to fork out for Spotify Premium, so I get the government popping up and telling me what to do if I’m an EU citizen (alas!) in between Mercutio yelling ‘Je maudit vos familles! Je maudit vos maisons!’ and Romeo losing it. But then I also get people popping up to ask me to sort out their login problems, so somebody’s death scene is always going to get interrupted sooner or later.

Then I found my CD of the Bellini opera. Actually, I found the libretto booklet, which had somehow got separated from the CDs. Flicking through it, I discovered something that made me go, ‘Ohhhhhhhhh!’

… A grave reason spurs Capulet to this urgency. Maybe a sudden storm hangs over the heads of the Guelphs: maybe the Montagues are rising again in enmity! May they perish, ah! perish, those savage, insolent Ghibellines!

Now, all I know about the Guelphs and the Ghibellines comes from reading Dorothy L. Sayers’ introduction to her translation of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy several years ago, and about all I had remembered was that they were opposing parties. It hadn’t occurred to me that the feud in Shakespeare might have had anything to do with real world partisanship, but it seemed really insultingly obvious now. I looked it up on Wikipedia, and there it was staring me in the face: Ghibelline swallow-tailed merlons on the ‘Casa di Romeo’, of the Montecchi family of Verona.

Small collection of clutter including a battered paperback copy of 'The Divine Comedy: Hell' by Dante, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers, and the insert from a CD of I Capuleti e i Montecchi by Vincenzo Bellini.

I picked up Dante again – I’d been thinking of reading it over Easter anyway – and reread the introduction. I hadn’t remembered entirely accurately: there were plenty of family feuds going on alongside the Guelph-Ghibelline stuff:

… the Italian nobility was violently divided by internecine clan feuds like those of the Campbells and MacGregors, so that each great family was a law unto itself and its followers, overriding the native constitution, bearing rule according to its own tribal custom, and indulging in perpetual raids and vendettas against its rivals…

After setting out the broader political context, Sayers focuses on Dante’s life, following him from Florence into exile in (wouldn’t you know) Verona and, ultimately, Ravenna. Then I spent three quarters of an hour listening to Dr Eleanor Janega tell me about Boccaccio’s Florence, and now I’m trying to remember why it is that Ravenna’s stuck in my memory. Maybe the Diarmaid McCullough History of Christianity…?

Meanwhile, cycling season has been getting underway. I like watching the cycling: often it’s two hours of scenery followed by ten minutes of excitement, but the scenery’s worth it. Strade Bianche: the white roads around Siena. Tirreno-Adriatico: west to east, sea to sea, cypress trees and red roofs, hilltop villages, Roman ruins… This weekend, it’s Milan-Sanremo. Par for the course for a spring in which I’ve been seeing a rather lot of Italy, not to mention a whole lot of Veronas, from my sofa.

Map showing main rail lines in northern Italy

The Reader’s Gazetteer: P

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We were in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Orsinia for the last post in this series, and we’re going to stay there for a little while, in Portacheyka:

… whose peaked slate roofs and climbing streets lay under the windows of the monastery school… The town was set in a deep gap between Sinivya and San Givan Mountains; framed by the towering slopes, Portacheyka’s northward view had a quality of vision. It seemed as if the shadowed pass could not lead out to those remote and sunlit, azure hills, but only look down on them as if on fabled kingdoms across the barrier of possibility. When clouds gathered full of thunder on the peaks and hung low over the town sometimes the view of the lower hills shone out in a clear, golden light, an enchanted realm, free of the storm and the darkness of the heights.

Those lovely mountains! I’m living in a very flat land at the moment, and have to find my gradients where I can. Fiction is as good a way to get there as any.

Idling by the Golden Lion Inn, Itale saw the coaches of the Southwestern Post set off for distant cities or come in, high, swaying, dusty, from their journeys; and Portacheyka, the gateway of his province, had for him the glamor of voyage and the unknown that a seaport has for one whose country’s border is the sea.

Indeed, there’s nothing to stop characters from a fictional location to find their way into less fictional ones. In John Buchan’s Castle Gay some mysterious foreigners turn up in Scotland, which is real enough, and the town of Portaway, which isn’t,  and find it a lively place.

The town of Portaway lies on both banks of the Callowa, which there leaves its mountain vale and begins its seven miles of winding through salty pastures to the Solway. The old town is mostly on the left shore; on the right has grown up a suburb of villas and gardens, with one flaring Hydropathic, and a large new Station Hotel, which is the resort of golfers and anglers. The capital of the Canonry is half country market town, half industrial centre, for in the hills to the south-east lie the famous quarries, which employ a large and transient population. Hence the political activities of the constituency centre in the place. The countryside is Tory or Liberal; among the quarrymen is a big Socialist majority, which its mislikers call Communist.

To tell the truth, it didn’t occur to me until I started this blog series that Portaway and the Canonry were made up by Buchan. Having had the Dickson McCunn books read to me as a child, it didn’t occur to me to doubt any of the Scottish bits. I understood of course that there wasn’t any such place as Evallonia, because you can’t very well have your characters meddle in the affairs of real monarchs, but what’s a by-election here or there? When I was eleven, Portaway was as real as London, and both were a very long way from where I was, just on the English side of the Welsh border.

Actually, this is a really good example of how to introduce a fictional location in half a paragraph. We have the physical geography, contextualised with a real-world feature, and then, more importantly, we learn about the people: the residents, the visitors, the workers, the politics (and those take us back to the physical geography: no quarries, no workers). The casual ‘famous’ is doing a lot of work, here; if we haven’t heard of this place before, it implies, then that’s an accident, because it’s been there all along. The politics will turn out to be useful a few chapters later, but here it’s doing the equally important job of telling us what this town is like some time in the 1930s.

In the same decade, we can travel through a little cluster of English villages along with Lord Peter Wimsey and his new bride, previously Harriet Vane, on the way to their Busman’s Honeymoon. After a day that’s taken them from Oxford (apologies: that map was the best I could find) to London, in an epistolary prologue composed of the first person narratives of various friends and relations, we follow Peter and Harriet (and, of course, Bunter) into Hertfordshire:

A town with a wide stone bridge, and lights reflected in the river…

‘Are we getting anywhere near?’

‘Yes – this is Great Pagford, where we used to live. Look! that’s our old house with the three steps up to the door – there’s a doctor there still, you can see the surgery lamp… After two miles you take the right-hand turn for Pagford Parva, and then it’s another three miles to Paggleham, and sharp left by a big barn and straight on up the lane.’

It’s an expansive, disjointed, chapter, with the time of the journey filled with memories: earlier in the day; earlier in the week; earlier in Harriet’s life. Paggleham is perhaps too much a stereotype of an English village, or perhaps the problem is more with its residents. I rather think that’s meant to be a feature, not a bug, at least in Harriet’s eyes:

In London, anybody, at any moment, might do or become anything. But in a village – no matter what village – they were all immutably themselves; parson, organist, sweep, duke’s son, and doctor’s daughter, moving like chessmen upon their allotted squares.

And of course it undercuts itself: usually dukes’ sons don’t marry doctors’ daughters. But that happened in London. I’m still very fond of this book, though, and ended up rereading the whole thing the day I looked up that passage.

Finally, further west, J. K. Rowling has another Pagford. I’m not sure that I would want to reread The Casual Vacancy – partly for the appalling fatphobia, partly because the whole thing is intentionally pretty bleak – but it definitely deserves its place in this series. It’s a fairly typical English village, in both appearance and culture:

They drove down Church Row, the steeply sloping street where the most expensive houses stood in all their Victorian extravagance and solidity, around the corner by the mock-Gothic church, where he had once watched his twin girls perform Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and across the Square, where they had a clear view of the dark skeleton of the ruined abbey that dominated the town’s skyline, set high on a hill, melding with the violet sky.

But what makes it particularly credible is the politics, of which there is plenty. I’m not sure that I can find a particular passage to quote, because the whole novel is saturated with the pettiness, the power games, the paranoia, of local politics; it informs everyone’s actions and character, usually not for the better. Some of Rowling’s characters are as much caricatures as Sayers’ are, and as susceptible to Funetik Aksents, but the overall impression is depressingly convincing. It’s the people that make Pagford what it is: a small-minded, suspicious, affluent, Nimbytown. You might want to live there, but you wouldn’t want to think about it too hard.

Books mentioned in this post

Castle Gay, John Buchan

Malafrena, Ursula K. Le Guin

The Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling

Busman’s Honeymoon, Dorothy L. Sayers

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The Reader’s Gazetteer: F

Back to England, and back to Barsetshire and Framley. Framley Parsonage provides some more detail of the geography of Barsetshire in general.

… that letter went into Barchester by the Courcy night mail-cart, which, on its road, passes through the villages of Uffley and Chaldicotes, reaching Barchester in time for the up mail-train to London. By that train, the letter was sent towards the metropolis as far as the junction of the Barset branch line, but there it was turned in its course, and came down again by the main line as far as Silverbridge; at which place, between six and seven in the morning, it was shouldered by the Framley footpost messenger, and in due course delivered at the Framley Parsonage exactly as Mrs. Robarts had finished reading prayers to the four servants.

The further I get through this abecedarium, the more I’m coming to appreciate the importance of plausible fictional systems as a component of plausible fictional locations.

Because novels are about humans, and humans create systems, and are part of systems, and are influenced by the systems that contain them and are around them. A village is a system; a town is a system; a country is a system.

One doesn’t necessarily need pages of infodumping explaining how it all works. The odd snippet of details can be enough to convey the idea of a coherent universe. In the Framley Parsonage extract above, it’s the postal system (which of course Trollope knew a lot about), which intersects with the rail system, and, here, meets the class system and the religious system. Framley Parsonage is not about the post or the trains. The systems that it’s really looking at are politics and money and friendship and marriage. But that little excursion along the Barset branch line situates it in a geographical system.

It’s where systems meet landscape – are imposed upon a landscape, shape landscape, are shaped by a landscape – that we get the kind of place that I’m looking at in this series. Different landscapes mean different systems. Which brings us to The Nine Tailors, and Fenchurch St Paul. The landscape here is fen – reclaimed from the sea, flat and prone to flooding, dotted with churches built with wealth from the wool trade – and the system is drainage.

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“… Ah! look – over to the right – that must be Van Leyden’s Sluice that turns the tide up the Thirty-foot Drain – Denver Sluice again on a smaller scale. Let’s look at the map. See, here’s where the Drain joins the Wale, but it meets it at a higher level; if it wasn’t for the Sluice, all the Drain water would turn back up the Wale and flood the whole place. Bad engineering – but the seventeenth-century engineers had to work piecemeal and take things as they found ’em. That’s the Wale, coming down through Potter’s Lode from Fenchurch St Peter. I shouldn’t care for the sluice-keeper’s job – dashed lonely, I should think.”

This is a system that’s been put in place by humans, and is therefore vulnerable to the shortcomings of those humans.

“Nobody knows whose job this here sluice is, seemin’ly. The Fen Drainage Board, now – they say as it did oughter be done by the Wale Conservancy Board. And they say the Fen Drainage Board did oughter see to it. And now they’ve agreed to refer it, like, to the East Level Waterways Commission. But they ain’t made their report yet.”

It could be argued that we hear more than we strictly need to about the drainage around the Fenchurches. But I think it contributes to the book as a whole. Certainly I would find it difficult to describe what drains into what and where floods or doesn’t flood as a result, but I come away with a sense of a vast landscape imperfectly controlled, and when, at the climax of the book, it plays its part, I believe in it unreservedly. (I feel much the same about the bell-ringing; I let my eyes pass over the page without feeling any particular need to understand what’s going on.)

Fenchurch St Paul itself has two pubs and a Big House and, set a little way off, on a hill (this is important later), a church, and it’s a very plausible fenland village. I’m quoting the description of the church, because it’s lovely:

At the first glance he felt himself sobered and awe-stricken by the noble proportions of the church, in whose vast spaces the congregation – though a good one for so small a parish in the dead of a winter’s night – seemed almost lost. The wide nave and shadowy aisles, the lofty span of the chancel arch – crossed, though not obscured, by the delicate fan-tracery and crenellated moulding of the screen – the intimate and cloistered loveliness of the chancel, with its pointed arcading, graceful ribbed vault and five narrow east lancets, led his attention on and focused it first upon the remote glow of the sanctuary. Then his gaze, returning to the nave, followed the strong yet slender shafting that sprang fountain-like from floor to foliated column-head, spraying into the light, wide arches that carried the clerestory. And there, mounting to the steep pitch of the roof, his eyes were held entranced with wonder and delight. Incredibly aloof, flinging back the light in a dusky shimmer of bright hair and gilded out-spread wings, soared the ranked angels, cherubim and seraphim, choir over choir, from corbel and hammer-beam floating face to face uplifted.

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Later we learn that the angels have in the current vicar’s tenure been restored with new gilt, which made me raise my eyebrows a little. I would be surprised to hear of a church doing that these days; but then fashions in church upkeep change – which is itself an important point.

Detective stories often oblige the reader with a plan of important locations. My copy of The Nine Tailors has three: the two showing roads and drains, and the church:

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They’re particularly useful in detective fiction because they allow readers to follow the action and authors to make sure that all the characters are in the right place at the right time. Some people use them to make a fictional location seem more real. But Fenchurch St Paul feels quite real enough already.

Books referred to in this post

Framley Parsonage, Anthony Trollope

The Nine Tailors, Dorothy L. Sayers

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