Monday, July 23, 2007

Twain, Vergil, Homer, Dante, etc.

Recently in the Muskogee Phoenix by a Food columnist. As the introduction to an Italian recipe, the author, who evidently utilizes an optimistic reading of Vergil, we find the following:

Mark Twain leads us to the topmost topaz of an ancient tower in his short story “A Cure for the Blues.”

This little gem is a witty literary criticism of a leading author of his day, fictionalized as the so-called McClintock, putting forth Twain’s belief that good writing comes from the writer’s own experience and the avid reading of books. He knew that a passionate writer must first be a voracious reader.

I mention Twain’s short story because it is through the reading of books that ideas are transmitted from one writer to another, from the ancient tower to the modern one. Four works can illustrate this point. Starting with Vergil’s “Aeneid,” the epic poem of the Romans, we can easily move between centuries.

Vergil wrote the “Aeneid” to glorify Rome for Emperor Augustus. Aeneas, the Trojan hero who escaped the fall of Troy to the Greeks, is given the profound mission of establishing a new Troy in a land to the West which will become Rome.

There, the oracle has told him, he will find a troia, a white pig with baby piglets, but not before visiting the Underworld, escaping perils, and jilting Carthaginian queen Dido to fulfill his glorious mission.

If we follow this thread backwards eight centuries we arrive at Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” the prototype for Vergil’s “Aeneid.” But, if we follow it forward to the late Middle Ages, we come to Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” In the first part of the work Vergil serves as Dante’s guide through the Inferno.

There they encounter nine circles increasing in severity where sinners receive a punishment befitting their transgressions. Dante’ influence continues to affect literature, his dialect setting the standard for the Italian language.

Move ahead several centuries into our time and we arrive at Daniel Pearle’s “The Dante Club.” In this well researched historical thriller three friends, Longfellow, Lowell and Holmes are furtively translating Dante’s Inferno into English when murders imitating the punishments in the nine circles begin cropping up in Cambridge just as the translators reach that point in the translating.

The men scramble to find the killer and help a widowed Longfellow finish the poetic translation.

And we can move beyond the ninth circle to Jodi Picoult’s “The Tenth Circle.” Comic book artist Daniel Stone and his wife Laura, a Dante scholar, struggle to save their 14-year-old daughter, Trixie, who has accused her boyfriend of rape. When Trixie runs away to Alaska, Daniel stops at nothing to save his daughter.

The novel raises the issue of not only how well we can ever know another person, but how well we are able to know even ourselves. Picoult has a devoted following; her latest novel is “Nineteen Minutes.”

These books offer a diversion from this deluge of rain. With the Romans as a foundation, they also give us an excuse to try an Italian-based menu this week, always a good cure for weather-induced blues.

No comments: