Wednesday, July 25, 2012

184. The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

The Dante Club (Random House, 2003; 372) by Matthew Pearl is a literary fiction about real literary folks; consequently, it is a novel about a book or more specifically the translation of a book. The book was set in Boston, in the year 1865 - the period where most of the American literary scholars we hold in high esteem today were alive (and contemporaries).

Matthew achieves something with this novel that few writers are able to do with the same level of success. He turns a literary fiction with actual literary folks into a cliffhanger whodunit, balancing perfectly the requisite attributes of both genres. In the story, literary giants Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, J. T. Fields (the publisher of Ticknor and Fields) and George Washington Greene have formed the Dante Club to help their friend and writer, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to translate Dante's Divine Comedy from Italian into English. However, not everyone is in favour of Longfellow's obsession with Dante, especially the Harvard corporation, which was against it for two reasons. First, the board was against the a new language, Italian, supervening upon the classics, mainly Greek and Latin. The second objection was the mere idea of bringing Dante, who was exiled from his home country, and his ideas of punishment to America and American homes for the fear of corrupting Americans. Dr Augustus Manning as a member of the Harvard Corporation would do anything possible, including hiring a secret detective, to see to it that the translation came to no fruition. And there were many of Harvard's Brahmins who were against this project.

However, the Dante Club was not perturbed by these hinderances; they continued to meet every Wednesday evening to discuss the best line, the best word and how they all fit together. But even as they progressed relentlessly towards their set target, translating the Inferno, there was also another who was translating their work into reality, bestowing upon people he thinks deserves them those punishments described by Dante; so that after the translation of the neutrals, a judge was killed; after the simoniacs, a reverend was killed; and after the schimatics, a man who wanted a position on the Harvard board was killed. When members of the Dante Club, realised what was happening - that these killings were the exact descriptions in the Inferno - they knew they had to work together to stop it. Again, because Longfellow's translation of Dante must be completed and sent to an organisation in Italy working to celebrate the author's 600th birthday, he and his clique must, as a matter of necessity, work to solve these Dante murders before it becomes public knowledge, which will likely smother any interest the translation might ignite at its nascent stage. The problem now is, armed with only their knowledge of Dante's poem and its meaning, this gathering of senile literati, each with his own ambition and family problem, must work with Nicholas Rey, an outcast mulatto police officer. And there is an Italian, Pietro Bachi, a former lecturer at Harvard, whom they must deal with.

First one must know that several of the events in the novel are facts and even where the author took literary freedom to fictionalise, he did so based on facts present at the time. For instance, there was an actual Dante Club made up of the members mentioned and more. The amount of research that went into the writing of this book is mind-boggling. Take Dan Brown's canvass and Arturo Perez-Reverte Gutierrez paints and add great amount of ingenuity and you will get The Dante Club. The story explored the 1860s version Boston and Cambridge. It shows how educational institute could be backward and inimical to the very idea they tend to propagate. For there were book burning by Brahmins of the institute. And here one will note that we have not come that far, for though there are few book burning, there are rampant book banning. The serendipity which governs the life of authors and books could also be clearly seen in this novel. What would have happened had Longfellow not immersed himself, therapeutically, into the translating of Dante? Will Dante be this famous? Will the Divine Comedy still be read today? 

This book is recommended.


  1. what a review!

  2. I love Pearl, and have read only one of his books, but I feel the need to read more of them! This one sounds like it would be a great one to pick up soon. If you haven't already read it, I would suggest The Last Dickens to you.

    1. I picked this one for a trial reading and I wasn't disappointed. He knows his subject. I will look out for that one. Thanks

  3. A very good review. I enjoyed this story very much myself, though it scared me away from reading Dante.
    I wonder at your use of the term "senile" literati. The five gentlemen in question were all between 46 and 58 in 1865, and all lived many years afterward. Personal ambition and self-interest was certainly present but I saw nothing that suggested senility. Or did I miss something?

  4. @Sandra... you're not wrong. I imagined them to be weak and senile. Perhaps it's my mind that's at fault. And I saw them in comparison with Officer Rey(?).


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