From popes and purgatory to horror films and rap

Comedians performing The Divine Comedy at the Palais des Papes in Avignon (Getty)

Dante’s Divine Comedy
by Ian Thomson, Head of Zeus, 280pp, £18.99

The notion of a literary canon is an unfashionable one. On English courses throughout the country long-forgotten books are being reconsidered alongside previously unassailable classics. Broadly speaking, I’m in favour of this, and can see the value in challenging how and why certain books are thought of as classics while other equally interesting works are ignored. The only downside of this process of reading-list expansion and re-evaluation is that we have lost a sense of shared intellectual heritage: those books that we can all agree are worth reading over all others.

For a book to survive into the 21st century, it is no longer enough to point out that educated people considered it of worth in the past. It has to be the sort of robust creation that can survive transition into other media, undergoing all forms of adaptation, including the sort of violent creative disrespect that resulted in Jane Austen’s novels being transformed into Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters.

Recently, academics have noted that Milton seems to have fallen out of favour with the young. This is sad. But one of Milton’s biggest influences, Dante, will be read as long as literature exists.

As Ian Thomson observes in his lively new book, subtitled “A Journey Without End”, Dante’s 14th-century masterpiece is the most widely translated book after the Bible, still available in a multitude of forms.

Alongside straightforward translations, it also crops up in TV shows (Mad Men’s antihero Don Draper is seen reading Inferno on a Hawaiian beach), has been turned into a comic book (by Hunt Emerson and Kevin Jackson), and has inspired countless great authors, including TS Eliot, Samuel Beckett and William Burroughs.

One area that Thomson doesn’t mention – aside from a passing reference to Dan Brown and a joke about Jeffrey Archer’s prison diaries, a trilogy named after the three parts of Dante’s work – is its impact on crime films and fiction, perhaps most obviously the David Fincher movie Se7en. Also relevant, and missing from a section on “Dante Goes to the Movies”, is Lars von Trier, arguably the modern director most influenced by Dante.

But Thomson more than makes up for this with the breadth of his Dante-inspired musicians section, a huge list which includes Manchester groups The Fall and Joy Division, post-punk band Wire, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Tangerine Dream and even a rap album (Inferno Rap by Eternal Kool Project). Strangely, he doesn’t mention the Irish band The Divine Comedy. Maybe the omission is deliberate.

The Divine Comedy is, essentially, a Catholic book. As Thomson notes, “in medieval Catholic orthodoxy, Purgatory was an in-between state where imperfect souls were cleansed by fire in preparation for their entry into heaven.”

But because Dante included among his sinners Pope Boniface VIII, consigned to the eighth circle of hell for the sin of simony, this meant that during the Reformation the poet was applauded as “an Italian writer against the pope”. Thomson points out that this anti-Catholic interpretation was misguided, and that Dante was careful to distinguish between sinning popes and the Catholic Church itself. But the misunderstanding, ironically, helped Dante’s work survive down the ages.

Over 12 very diverse chapters, Thomson examines The Divine Comedy in the round. He is particularly good on biographical detail. In a book like this, one would expect to find the author looking at Dante’s relationship with Beatrice, his muse, who died aged 24. But Thomson also looks at how Dante’s wife, Gemma Donati, might have felt about his obsession, something that has become more important to recent biographers such as Marco Santagata.

As Thomson notes, “The Divine Comedy was the first literary work to elevate a woman as a guide to an other-worldly realm.” This was yet another way in which the book was both ahead of its time and an inspiration to authors who followed. A long section on the locations that might have inspired Dante’s imaginings also bears fruit, collapsing distance and time and drawing connections between medieval and modern Italy.

Thomson first encountered Dante in his early 20s, when he was in a hospital in Rome recovering from an unexplained fall with only The Divine Comedy to sustain him. Although it came to him a little early, Thomson’s experience echoes that of many others who have drawn sustenance from the book, especially from the idea of being lost in a forest in the middle of one’s life with no sense of how to return, and needing a Virgil (or Beatrice) to lead one out.

It has become a cliché to refer to critics as Virgil, but it would be hard to think of any more appropriate way to describe what Ian Thomson offers here.