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Date Posted: 18:01:05 08/14/04 Sat
Subject: The Dante Club
This one was sent in by ktzn. Well done, Kathy! Looks intriguing!
TITLE: The Dante Club
AUTHOR: Matthew Pearl
When I settled down and cracked the spine of this novel, I was more than a little surprised to find the preface to be a “Caution to the Reader,” written not by the author, but by C. Lewis Watkins, the Baker-Valerio Professor of the Civilization and Literature of Italy and Rhetorical Oration at Harvard. Professor Watkins, hired to write the preface for what he claims was a paltry sum, after a fair bit of research decided to give up any remuneration and has turned part of the subject matter of this novel into a research project. He claims that this novel presents the only possible source of information regarding an epidemic of primary screwworm blowflies, or hominivorax in the northeastern part of the United States---a place where, because of the harsh winters, they are not supposed to exist.
With this in mind, wondering if it was true or if C. Lewis Watkins was a figment of the author’s imagination meant to boost sales by creating a faux controversy, I started to read the book. I was particularly curious to see what it had to say about the hominivorax , which are blowflies/maggots that thrive on living tissue---not dead tissue, which as we all know from reading DG is something that is not supposed to happen.
Set in immediate-post Civil War Boston, 1865, the book revolves around Dante’s Divine Comedy. A murderer is roaming the city, using the horrible punishments Dante invented for his nine circles of hell as the method for dispatching his victims. Across town in Cambridge, the Dante Club, made up of all those fireside poets who put you to sleep in high school---Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes (not the legal scholar/ Supreme Court Justice---that’s “Junior”) --- meet every Wednesday night at Longfellow’s mansion, along with their publisher, J.W. Fields, and another scholar to translate The Divine Comedy into English. They are preparing the first American translation of Dante’s brilliant and brutal epic poem, which they need to finish by the end of the year to be able to submit to the Florentine Dante Committee in time to celebrate the 600th celebration of the poet’s birth.
The Boston Police are clueless about one seemingly unsolvable murder. But one policeman, Nicholas Rey, the city’s first black police officer thinks there is more to it when a man he’s questioning about the murder---a judge who had been eaten alive by the hominivorax , above whose body a white flag had been planted---starts speaking a foreign language to the patrolman and then, with a terrified expression on his face, leaps to his death. Ultimately, this man’s words lead Rey to the Dante Club and, after many missteps on both sides, a partnership is formed to find the killer, where the poets guide Rey through Dante’s world, and he gives them what limited help he can, given his race and lowly position in the Boston Police Department.
Add in that Augustus Manning of the Harvard Corporation is dead set against the publication of the translation---Dante’s work being suspiciously too Popish and immoral---and is doing everything in his power to prevent publication, and the poets ineptitude in dealing with anything outside of academia, and you have a rather good mystery that includes a good deal of literary analysis and the science of the time, the personal aftermath of the Civil War, not to mention heartfelt portraits of the Fireside Poets---Holmes, Lowell and Longfellow.
This book is a first time outing by a VERY young, yet brilliant, author. Mr. Pearl has graduated from Harvard and Yale Law School, and by my math, is only twenty-nine years old. He is also a Dante scholar. He’s got plenty of brains, but while this book is better than many mysteries that are published today, given the high standards his pricey education seems to demand, I sort of expected better.
Mr. Pearl, while presenting an interesting description of post-war Boston, was lacking on details. He seemed to assume that everyone should be familiar with Boston and its environs. I would find myself rereading certain portions of the novel, searching for the descriptions I thought I’d missed, but weren’t to be found in the first place. His prose is very nice, but also lacking in certain respects. And while I can understand the temptation to get inside Longfellow’s head, Longfellow was not the most interesting character in this book---Nicholas Rey was. The book is ripe with opportunities to flesh out Rey’s character and Pearl never took them. For all the passages that dealt with the death of Longfellow’s wife, how heartbroken he was, how his hearbreak had led him to translate The Divine Comedy, ultimately very little of it is relevant in the end, as Longfellow doesn’t really do much within the book, other than act as a guiding influence to the others---Holmes and Lowell, whose characters were fleshed out and the descriptions of which were fascinating. You knew what made those two men tick and why it was relevant to know this---but Longfellow? I’m still scratching my head over this. He’s a promising young author, and this work is definitely worth your time, but it’s not as good as it could have been.
It’s not necessary to have read The Divine Comedy, or to know anything about Dante to understand this book. You will be treated to an in-depth literary analysis of Dante’s poem, but if you haven’t read the Comedy you should understand two things. First, it’s a brutal and violent piece of literature. Dante takes no prisoners in his work and some of the punishments he invents for his rings of hell are quite creative, if not thuggish and positively vicious. Be prepared for violence, and graphic violence, at that---particularly when Dante’s punishments come to life. Second, Dante was an exiled Florentine, who wrote his masterwork during his exile and died shortly thereafter. We only know the bare essentials about Dante and his life. The rest we learn from what his poetry tells us. Mr. Pearl doesn’t seem to have any trouble with this niggling detail, though, and Longfellow and the other translator seem to have no problems extrapolating wildly from this small amount of actual fact. The literary analysis of the Dante’s work in this book, while I believe much of it to be correct, does tend to stretch the accepted truth of Dante.
As far as the “Caution to the Reader?” Well, I’ll leave that up to you. The book does present an acceptable hypothesis for these creatures to be living in a place where they shouldn’t, but… well, you’ll just have to read it for yourself.
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I nearly cracked up reading "screwworm blowflies" - hahahahaha. Very nicely done, ktzn! It sounds like more cerebral than this brain could handle, but maybe not. :D If knowing nothing about Dante's Divine Comedy won't be a problem at least I'd have (hopefully) a fighting chance. I'll keep this one in mind - and thanks for a great review! :D -- Judie, 02:06:02 08/15/04 Sun
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"The poets ineptitude in dealing with anything outside of academia...." After spending my whole life with academics this gave me a hearty har har har. From your description of the deficiencies of the book, sounds like your author needs a dose of the real world, but will shape up nicely. What a wonderful, well thought out review. Thanks! -- beccabee, 07:25:00 08/15/04 Sun
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Oh, what a great review, ktzn! I've got pretty eclectic tastes in books - this sounds interesting! -- GinC, 17:12:07 08/21/04 Sat
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