Category Archives: Reviews

Dan Brown’s “Inferno”

Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, unleashed his new novel Inferno upon readers today and, as you have probably guessed from its title (if not from the massive publicity campaign that has accompanied the run-up to its release), the story is based on the first canticle of Dante’s Commedia. As the fourth book in Brown’s hugely popular Robert Langdon series, Inferno has a lot to live up to, not least because of its resonances with one of the most famous texts of all time. Dante-scholar, A.N. Wilson, reviewing the book for the Daily Mail, claims Brown’s new novel is ‘twaddle, but at least it’s entertaining twaddle’. However Professor Stephen Milner (Manchester University) took to the airwaves today to discuss the latest Dante-inspired work of fiction, and spoke rather less disparagingly of the American author’s latest offering.

Whatever your thoughts on Dan Brown’s Inferno, it has certainly sparked a renewed interest in Dante. Hopefully we’ll have a massive influx of new medievalists in the not-so-distant future, inspired by Professor Robert Langdon’s investigations.

Listen again to the Radio 5 Live interview with Professor Milner here (scroll to 1:46:00)


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Review: The Dante Club

On paper, Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club is exactly my cup of tea. It has it all: murder, detectives, geek-heroes, and intertextuality. Set in 1865, the story revolves around a series of murders based upon Dante’s circles of Hell in Inferno, which only a group of super-brainy American Dante-academics can solve. It’s all there, on paper, and it should be perfect. But – and I’m going to be brutally honest here – it REALLY missed the mark. Here’s why:

This book was bought for me as a gift a few years ago. As someone who is easily disturbed and suffers from night terrors, I wisely chose to wait until an emotionally stable moment in my life to read it. I had great expectations for this book, not least because of the dramatic preface, ‘A Caution to the Reader’, by Professor C. Lewis Watkins (Cambridge, Mass.), which ends with the warning: ‘Please, if you continue, remember that words can bleed’. When I first read this line, sitting, as I was, in Peterborough train station, I immediately laughed out loud. However, once I had regained my composure and reattached my serious-and-very-important-academic head, I got a bit of a quiver down my arms from excitement, thinking that this book would change my life. WRONG.

I am a very lazy reader. I will read if it’s something I want to read. I will become distracted and reluctant to invest any attention if the prose is bad. And this prose is awful. I know I’ve never written a novel or even had anything published (yet), but I know good writing when I read it, and this was anything but good writing. And the reason WHY the prose was so bad: it was just TOO GOOD. I know this seems like a HUGE contradiction, but it’s true. Pearl seems to have gone all-out to prove that he knows his Dante facts; he throws them in left, right and centre. The narrative is simply one good line after another and it’s relentless and tiresome.

I wanted to quit after about three pages, because I’d actually had to read those three pages about twelve times to understand the prose (so bad is the grammar and sentence structure). However, I’m currently trying not to quit things when they start getting hard, so I persevered. This was one of the worst decisions of my literary life (and I read ALL of the Harry Potter books in the vain hope that the quality of writing would EVENTUALLY improve), and I am now following my gut-reaction regarding such decisions (i.e. NOT jumping on the Fifty Shades…bandwagon).

As a story, The Dante Club is a brilliant concept, and there’s no denying that Matthew Pearl has an incredible imagination. But to be quite truthful, if I were you, I’d wait until they turn it into a film.



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Review: In Search of a Homeland

If any of you were in Matthew’s lecture this afternoon (I was there – I’m the pale girl with dark hair, purple glasses, and Kate Bush-esque cape; come and say hello!) you might have had a mini-breakdown when he recommended reading Virgil’s Aeneid on top of reading Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise, and whatever other set texts you might have. I admit that I, myself, had a little moment where I was thinking ‘OH GOD, NOT A CLASSIC, DON’T MAKE ME READ A CLASSIC’, but then I had a little word with myself and was reassured in the knowledge that I’m only really coming along to the lectures for kicks and I don’t have to do any essays or exams. However, I just want to pass on this reassurance to everyone else who was there and was freaking out, because it’s OK. I have a solution…

There’s a fantastic new series of picture books which takes the scarily clever works of the Classics, rewrites them in language that is appropriate for children, and give you nice pictures to illustrate the beauty of these texts. I got one of them for Christmas – Shapeshifters: Tales from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, by Adrian Mitchell – so can attest to their greatness. I’ve only had a quick flick through the Virgil one but from what I saw it was pretty much of a similar ilk, so I can pretty much guarantee ease of reading.

In Search of a Homeland has been rewritten by Dame Penelope Lively, who has a huge bibliography under her belt of both children’s and adult fiction (did anyone read Judy and the Martian as a nipper? That was Dame Penny’s work too, so you can tell you’re onto a winner with this book!)

Obviously if it’s the actual original text (or translation thereof) you’re searching for, then I’d probably recommend going for something a bit more along the lines of the Penguin Classic version. However if you just want to get the general gist of the tale, grasp the themes, get to know the characters, etc. then this is the perfect solution. It won’t feel like you’re doing school work either, since the book is so pretty. Winner.

S x

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Dante: “a heavily armored crusader, giant scythe gripped in one hand, six-pack abs rippling”

Nope, I didn’t just lift that quotation from a review of a kinky Inferno-based porn film (although one probably does exist). It is, in fact, from a review of Dante’s Inferno, the video game from Electronic Arts.

I don’t play video games, due to my reputation as a very sore loser, so I have no first-hand experience of this Gladiator-esque poet, but apparently the concept of the game is that the player assumes the role of Dante and battles through all the different levels of the afterlife – killing monsters and stuff – with the intention of saving Beatrice. Hmmm…

Well, I have a few thoughts on this:

1) I completely agree with EA’s executive producer, Jonathan Knight, that the Comedy *does* make a really good video game. It is dark, exciting, jam-packed full of monsters (not zombies, per se, but the Greeks were definitely onto something with all of their mythological beasts), and it kind of makes you want to make the journey with Dante and/or Virgil.

2) I think it’s really positive to generate interest in literature (Dante or otherwise) through whatever means grabs the crowds. I hated the Harry Potter films but they prompted people to read the books, so fair’s fair. It’s the same with this game. I don’t suppose I’d particularly enjoy slashing all three of Cerberus’s heads off and back-flipping over his blood-soaked corpse into the next level, but if that’s the kind of thing that makes people reach for a copy of the original poem to see how it was really done, then who am I to judge?

3) My feminist voice is screaming at me to mention something. I’m trying to shut it up, but it needs to be said: I am no Dante expert. I’ve already admitted to that, so it’s no secret. But I’m pretty sure that in the actual poem, Beatrice was sent to save Dante, not vice-versa… I suppose things have to be modified a bit to make them video-game-relevant, but I can’t help feeling slightly miffed by the comment that “a damsel is a quintessential gamer’s goal”. Does this imply that all gamers are male? Or that all video-game women, in order to be appealing, need to assume a pathetic role of helpless maiden? And they very nearly had me on side as well…

I’d like to hear from anyone who has actually played this game, just for nosy reasons really: how does it compare to, say, Spyro the Dragon (the last video game I owned), or that Call of Duty game that my brother raves about? How does it fare in comparison to the poem? Is it anything like it at all? Does anyone have a copy of it that I could try out (I’d probably need someone there with me to talk me through what to do)?

Get in touch!

Sarah x


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Seymour Chwast: Dante’s Divine Comedy – REVIEW

I have a confession to make: I’m not really a dantista. What’s even worse than this is that I’m doing my PhD on medieval Italian literature and haven’t ever actually read the whole of the Commedia. I imagine, upon reading these two revelations, Dr. Matthew Treherne and Prof. Brian Richardson will probably call security to escort me off the premises. But the truth is that I have tried and tried time and time again to finish it but, even in translation, I can’t really get my head around what’s going on. Which is why, whilst working in Waterstones last year, I almost wept with joy when I discovered Seymour Chwast’s graphic novel version of the text.

Normally I’m totally against graphic novels, since I like to form my own images in my mind of what characters look like, but then I remembered that beggars can’t be choosers, suppressed my inner book-snob, and parted with the £16.99 (this was before I got my discount card). I buy A LOT of books, so this next statement might seem like a bit of an exaggeration, but stick with me: that was the most sensible £16.99 I have ever spent on a book in my entire life.

As soon as I opened it, I fell in love with the story. I think this might have quite a lot to do with the fact that I am a huge Agatha Christie fan and Chwast’s illustrations of Virgil and Dante bear a striking resemblance to her Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, and his side-kick, Captain Hastings. Never a bad thing in my mind.

The edition begins with a nice introduction to Dante, which gives info about the life of the poet and some basic context for the Commedia, such as its original form ‘It is composed of one hundred cantos and told in triplets to represent the trinity’ (p. 9), and then gives helpful maps of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso before each of the three canticles. A lot of Dante’s original work is missing in this edition – the story isn’t told in verse, and it’s obviously gone through quite a rigorous modernisation process (unless I’m mistaken and Virgil did, in fact, sport a bowler hat and bow tie?) – so it’s not ideal to rely solely on Chwast’s version if you’re, say, writing an essay on the Commedia, but it’s definitely worth tracking down a copy and having it by your side whilst trying to get your head around Dante’s poem.  I found that it just helps to make things that little bit clearer.

Also, I know it’s not related to Dante, and will actually probably distract you from what you’re meant to be doing, but the great thing about this book is that it is literally BEGGING to be coloured in. I find colouring-in extremely soothing, so if you’re feeling a little anxious about finals, I’d definitely recommend it. You can pretend it’s revision too.

Sarah x


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