cover image Inferno


Dante Alighieri, trans. from the Italian by Mary Jo Bang. Graywolf, $35 (352p) ISBN 978-1-55597-619-4

Bang has done for Dante’s most famous poem something akin to what Baz Luhrmann did for Shakespeare in his 1996 film of Romeo and Juliet: updated the presentation of a classic for a contemporary sensibility without sacrificing its timelessness. Bang (The Bride of E) has preserved the feel and tempo of the original—and the many English translations that readers will be familiar with: ”Stopped mid-motion in the middle/ Of what we call our life, I looked up and saw no sky—/ Only a dense cage of leaf, tree, and twig. I was lost,” she begins. She has, however, modernized the metaphors; where Dante looked to the politics and culture of his contemporary Italy for allusions to illustrate his sense of faith and morality, Bang mines American pop and high culture. Yes, traditionalists and scholars may shriek upon seeing Eric Cartman (of South Park fame), sculptures by Rodin, John Wayne Gacy, and many others make anachronistic cameos in Bang’s version of Hell, but this is still very much Dante’s underworld, updated so it pops on today’s page. The result is an epic both fresh and historical, scholarly and irreverent: “ ‘Pope Satan, Pope Satan, Alley Oop!’ ” begins Canto VII with a line in which Bang mines various previous translations of Dante and the roots of the phrase “Alley Oop” in French gymnastics and a newspaper comic about “a Stone Age traveling salesman from the kingdom of Moo who rode a dinosaur named Dinny,” according to Bang’s comprehensive notes. This will be the Dante for the next generation. Includes illustrations by artist Henrik Drescher. (Aug.)