Alasdair Grey, the good Scottish novelist and artist, died a year ago, in December 2019. In his biography of Grey, A Secretary’s Biography (2008) – the closest factor now we have to a up to date Boswell’s life of Johnson – Rodge Glass concluded: “Alasdair will solely be appreciated when he’s useless, and even then it gained’t be what he deserves.” None of us will get what we deserve, however Grey made a last bid for critical appreciation together with his late translations of Dante: Hell (2018); Purgatory (2019); and now – appropriately posthumously – Paradise.
As worthy, daring and sensible an enterprise because it undoubtedly is, it needs to be stated that Grey’s resolution to translate Dante was hardly modern or authentic. Everybody who’s anybody has had a go at Dante at a while of their life, and infrequently in the direction of the very finish – Clive James being the obvious current instance. It has develop into a last ceremony of passage.
The artist Tom Phillips as soon as described La Divina Commedia as a “home of reminiscence, a lot of whose doorways have rusted on their hinges”, however quite the opposite, these massive previous Dante doorways stay now and perpetually open to us dwelling and almost useless, inviting us to ponder the mysteries of the opposite world. The twentieth century noticed dozens of translations into English, with Dorothy L Sayers, the crime novelist, translating all three books. Extra not too long ago, the late nice Irish poet Ciaran Carson did the Inferno. Certainly, a number of individuals have completed the Inferno. It’s everybody’s favorite – from video video games to the film Seven. In “Little Gidding” in his 4 Quartets, Eliot remembers Dante’s assembly with the Florentine scholar Brunetto Latini in canto 15 of the Inferno: “Are you right here, Grasp Brunetto?” Are you right here, Grasp Dante, we would ask of any new translation.
Sure and no. Grey actually made essentially the most of Dante’s Inferno in his Hell: souls immersed in blood; bleeding thorn bushes; deceivers ablaze; crooked businessmen perpetually drowning in boiling pitch and tar. And which of us has not felt ourselves in the course of our lives to be misplaced in a darkish wooden, getting ready to the valley of the unhappy abyss? Grey’s Hell was Dante in all his turmoil and glory.
Purgatorio proved trickier, because it at all times does, due to the theology. Most of us lately have a fairly shaky information of medieval theology and Purgatorio was most likely a little bit of a slog even in your common medieval Catholic with a median medieval Catholic’s concepts about advantage, vice and church politics. Grey’s Purgatory could have failed, however solely the place Dante arguably failed earlier than him.
And now with Paradise we come to the top. As within the different translations, Grey provides quick abstract titles to the separate cantos (“Solar Knowledge”, “Previous Households”, “Prayer and Reply”), condenses and skips and cuts rather a lot out. The guide is extra like a Dante primer than a full translation – what Grey calls “prosaic verse”, in a lot of senses. He continues to make use of his personal tough model of Dante’s terza rima, holding the tercets however utilizing as a substitute unrhymed iambic pentameter, with often rhyming couplets.
There’s nothing right here fairly as magnificent because the modern idiolect Grey deploys in Hell – “the Brute flung up his fists / every with two fingers parted in extensive Vs / and screamed, ‘Up your arse, God! Fuck you and yours!’” – however there are many phrases and episodes to admire. God turns into “He Who Can” and Beatrice stays superb and beguiling: “The love-light within the face of Beatrice/ transhumaned me in methods I can not say.” The ascent via the celestial spheres is maybe a little bit complicated, however the actual lack right here – the tragedy, actually – is that there are not any illustrations. Hell included a couple of Grey black-and-white drawings, however there have been none in Purgatory and there are none right here – and there shall be no extra.
Grey was presumably drawn to Dante as a result of, in contrast to many different translators, he was fairly like Dante: astonishingly ingenious; an insider-outsider in his personal land, who profoundly understood the connection between language, dialect and energy; a fearless iconoclast unafraid to mix historic and modern topics in his work; a real geographer of the creativeness. It appears solely becoming that the hero of Grey’s 1981 first novel Lanark, Duncan Thaw, an artist fairly resembling the writer, aspired to “write a contemporary Divine Comedy with illustrations within the model of William Blake” – and in Lanark, Grey did. This late Divine Trilogy is a lesser factor, however a marvel nonetheless.
Eliot remarked that the final cantos of Paradiso have been as nice as poetry can ever get. The ultimate strains of Grey’s Paradise learn: “In a flash / I noticed want and can: each are a pair / of finely balanced wheels stored turning by // love that revolves solar, sky and each star.” Amen.
• Paradise: Dante’s Divine Trilogy Half Three, Englished in Prosaic Verse By Alasdair Grey is printed by Canongate (£14.99). To order a duplicate go to guardianbookshop.com. Supply expenses could apply.