Thursday, April 9, 2009

Book Review: The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

I've been spending a lot of time on the road lately, and consequently holed up in motels with little to do but read (which I hardly mind). This past week it's been The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl. Published in 2003, this was Pearl's debut novel, a fictional tale filled with historical characters and revolving around an actual event, just the sort of book I tend to like.

That event, the first translation of Dante's Divine Comedy into English for an American audience, begun in 1865 and published two years later in 1867, provides the impetus for a fictional series of gruesome murders based on the eternal punishments meted out to sinners in the nine circles of hell in the Inferno.

Foremost among the historical characters are the Fireside Poets: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell (as well as several others), of whom Longfellow is our chief translator. The translation itself is historical, while the murders most certainly are not. But it is intriguing and inventive to see how this seemingly innocent event might well have caused such an uproar from Harvard intellectuals intent on protecting the purity of the "true classics" from the "vulgar" work of Dante (a work he wrote in exile) to grimy thugs and cutthroats who could hardly make out English, let alone Dante's medieval Italian.

Now, I've never read Longfellow's translation, but I know my Dante well enough, and although not critical, a reasonable familiarity with The Inferno would prove useful to readers of Pearl's mystery, not so much to understand the particulars of the various crimes - which are detailed quite clearly enough for vivid comprehension - but rather to appreciate more fully the complexities of the rationale behind these murders. As with most historical novels, knowing to some degree the period and subject matter goes a long way towards enjoyment of the work at hand.

The Dante Club is quite fascinating in this regard, although it tends to drag at some points where the author seems to feel it necessary to detail elements which in themselves are not terribly riveting, such as the haughty socio-political posturing of Harvard's elite. But bearing with the story yields its fruits, beginning roughly halfway though when the Fireside Poets take it on themselves - quite out of necessity - to solve the murders. The story takes on shades of Sherlock Holmes as the search winds through the seedy underside of Cambridge and Boston, while our poets try to puzzle out the clues before their "Lucifer" strikes again.

The culmination of this bizarre literary mystery felt slightly anticlimactic, if only because half of the final chapter is spent explaining and providing information necessary to have figured out the villain's purpose earlier. But all in all it was an entertaining read, both socially and psychologically insightful, and I recommend it to aficionados of historical mysteries and early medieval classics, of which The Divine Comedy is among the very finest of human creations.

Rating: 4 out of 5