Although reading often engulfed us
The eyes and face became discolored
Per più fiate li tatting ci sospinse
quella lettura, e scolorocci il viso
(Inferno V, 130-131, translated by Wilhelm Hertz)
Traveling to Florence via Dublin is not necessarily a detour. In any case, it happened in my case that the love of Irish literature happily led to occupation with the golden age of Italian poetry – after all, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett were among the greatest admirers of Dante Alighieri and the most knowledgeable readers and commentators of his Divina Commedia. For Joyce, Italian literature began and ended with Dante; Dante, according to Joyce, is his spiritual nourishment, the rest is nothing but ballast. Indeed, Joyce’s passion for the Florentine with the distinctive profile was so evident from a young age that friends called him the “Dante of Dublin”.
For Beckett, on the other hand, the decisive literary impulses came from Joyce – and, certainly through his influence, also from Dante. Even as a world-famous author, Beckett always carried a copy of the Commedia with him (when he was on vacation in Tangier in the 1970s, he read in the Inferno when he was not swimming in the sea), and he even named an early character in his narrative work after one Figure from the purgatorio. The man’s name is Belacqua, and the story “Dante and the Lobster” revolves around him, in which Belacqua takes Italian lessons from a certain Signorina Adriana Ottolenghi and immediately begins to chat about Dante. According to the Signorina in the end, it could not harm her pupil “to put together Dante’s rare sympathy emotions in Hell”.
One of the most famous of those scenes that Signorina Ottolenghi thinks of is attended by the reader of the fifth song of the Inferno, led by Dante like this one by Virgil, whose Aeneas is overwhelmed by compassion, even if not in a Christian afterlife but in a Roman one Underworld; Who would be surprised in view of the fates described here and there, divine justice or not. In the second circle of hell, Dante not only meets the hell judge Minos, but above all the sinful or even nefarious lovers during their lifetime, who (as always with Dante, the punishment is a reflection of worldly wrongdoing) from a whirlwind to and fro for all eternity be torn. “Poet”, Dante turns to his guide, “I would like to speak / The two shadows there that never separate / And they seem easily from afar to the wind”.
The couple, who are allowed to pause for the brief duration of the conversation that now follows, are Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta – she a young noblewoman from Ravenna, he the brother of that coarse Gianciotto, whom Francesca is forced to marry and who kills her and his brother when love turns them into adulterers (Gianciotto is consequently a few circles of hell below those who murdered their relatives).
The very idea of unhappy souls is touching; it is Francesca who says: “No greater suffering / Than remembering in the unlucky days / The good times; your teacher knows ”(Nessun maggior dolore / che ricordarsi del tempo felice / ne la miseria; e ciò sa ‘l tuo dottore). But the couple becomes unforgettable through the beginning of their love, which Francesca describes at Dante’s request: “Although reading often engulfs us / The eyes” (Per più fiate li occhi ci sospinse / quella lettura), it is a single passage in a chivalric novel About Lancelot, which changes everything, a passage dedicated to love, no doubt about which, according to Francesca, “he, whom I never renounce, // kissed my mouth trembling with the mouth”.
The tragic story of Francesca and Paolo is thus one about the power of love and at the same time one about the power of literature, for the seduction of Francesca by Paolo is preceded by the seduction of both by reading; the fingers must first touch the paper before they can find the other’s skin, then leafing through is followed by defoliation. That is extraordinary, just like the line with which Francesca closes her report, in which everything that follows but is not said is contained: “We did not read any more at that hour.”
Dante, who at least undertakes the journey to the hereafter because of his Beatrice, must feel addressed as a lover and as a poet. And perhaps it falls, doubly shaken, as it is said (and as Belacqua will have noted for Signorina Ottolenghi’s course), “like bodies fall when they are dead” (caddi come corpo morto cade), while Francesca and Paolo float away to be blown on, as if they were still alive. And yes they do, thanks to Dante.
Jan Wagner is a writer. In 2017 he received the Büchner Prize.
All previous episodes our series can be found at www.faz.net/dante.