12.04.20, Hollander and Marchesi, La 'Commedia' di Dante Alighieri

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Steven Botterill

The Medieval Review 12.04.20

Hollander, Robert, ed.; Marchesi, Simone, trans.. La 'Commedia' di Dante Alighieri. Florence: Casa Editrice Leo S. Olschki, 2011. Pp. 3 vols. pp.lxx, 290, vi, 316, vi, 396.
Reviewed by:
Steven Botterill
University of California, Berkeley

Between 2000 and 2007, Robert Hollander crowned a career as long and distinguished as any in the history of American literary scholarship-- he began his five decades of teaching at Princeton in 1961 and published the first of his two dozen books (so far) in 1969--with the appearance of a parallel-text edition of Dante's Divine Comedy (New York: Doubleday), in which he supplied an exhaustively detailed factual and interpretative commentary to accompany English translations of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso prepared by his wife, the poet Jean Hollander. The edition was widely reviewed, as each successive volume came out, both in publications aimed at a general audience and by scholarly journals (though not, apparently, by The Medieval Review); and a clear consensus emerged from that variegated critical response. Jean Hollander's translation was generally (and in my view quite rightly) admired; but many non-specialist reviewers, while seldom referring less than respectfully to Robert Hollander's contribution, seemed to find it hard (if they even tried) to conceal their sometimes shamefaced but finally undeniable response: boredom at worst, bafflement quite often, or, at best, a sense that quite so many footnotes (however erudite), and quite so vast a bibliography (however up-to-date)--and Robert Hollander's work never fails to be both erudite and up-to-date--might perhaps, in the end, be seen as just a little bit too much of a no doubt perfectly wonderful thing. Conversely, academic reviewers (among whom Dante scholars and medievalists of other stripes inevitably predominated), finding themselves better placed, as a natural and benign consequence of their déformation professionelle, to recognize Robert Hollander's work for the truly extraordinary achievement that it is, did their best to argue that its presence alongside Jean Hollander's translation not only helped the translation's many admirable qualities to emerge in still sharper relief, but also afforded the edition's readers (none of whom, after all, would actually be forced to desert the one Hollander's pages for the other's) a valuable opportunity to, if they so chose, deepen the intensity of their engagement with Dante's poem in ways that would likely, and regrettably, have remained beyond their ken had Robert Hollander not been there to play Virgil as they took their first faltering steps along the cammin marked out by Dante personaggio.

Taken as a whole, then, the American reviews of Robert and Jean Hollander's Divine Comedy provide a fascinating illustration of the anxieties and conflicts of value that continue to shadow even the most well-meaning effort to make textual artifacts from the distant past more widely available to a contemporary audience unfamiliar with the language of those artifacts' original formulation--although optimists like myself will find comfort in the fact that, for instance, the customer reviews of the Hollanders' Paradise currently available on Amazon.com, none of which claims any academic expertise for the reviewer, all see Robert Hollander's commentary as adding value to Jean Hollander's translation rather than detracting from it. The publication under review, however, adds another layer of complexity to any attempt to think cogently about the relationship of commentary and textual artifact in general, or about the merit of Robert Hollander's commentary on Dante's Commedia in particular, because it presents Hollander's work in a cultural and linguistic context that are alike profoundly different from those in which it made its début, and thereby completely redefines the terms of the debate surrounding it.

The three handsome and satisfyingly hefty volumes of this edition are notable first for their austerely elegant design, including a mise-en- page that reproduces, with striking and strangely beautiful results, the typical layout of a Trecento Commedia MS, as a small rectangular block of poetic text in larger type is surrounded on three sides by commentary text in smaller type. The effect is reinforced by the use of unostentatiously luxurious materials (high-quality paper, sturdy binding, a robust slipcase decorated in the art nouveau-ish style that Italians call stile Liberty). Such seemingly trivial details of book-making are, in fact, revelatory: they convey, to even a casual glance (and touch), how much care has been lavished on what the prestigious Florentine casa editrice Leo S. Olschki announces as its contribution to last year's celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Italy's national unification, and how much significance the publishers clearly hope this contribution will carry in areas outside the strictly academic.

The volumes present the text of the Commedia, as established by Giorgio Petrocchi in the 1960s for the edizione nazionale of Dante's works sponsored by the Societ Dantesca Italiana, along with Robert Hollander's commentary as first published in English by Doubleday, but now translated into Italian by Simone Marchesi, once Hollander's graduate student, now his eminently worthy successor in the cattedra dantesca at Princeton, and in some ways, perhaps, the unsung hero of this whole heroic undertaking. Immediately, therefore, the whole question of translation and its relationship to commentary goes away, or, rather, is turned on its head; for where Jean Hollander's version of Dante's poem presented it to an audience that (presumably) did not know it well, or at all, in its original form, and Robert Hollander's commentary was there to help such readers over an obstacle-course of unfamiliarity, here Dante's text is offered, in its original form, to an audience that (presumably) knows it at least somewhat (if only from having gone through the Italian education system!), and Hollander's commentary, now itself turned from original into translation, seems less likely to be called upon to dispel unfamiliarity than to be forced to confront the kind of unfamiliarity's opposite that, proverbially, breeds contempt. As a result, it seems, at the very least, worth suggesting that any attempt to assess the situation of Hollander's commentary in its English- language version and its American cultural context may not turn out to be exactly the same critical enterprise as making a similar attempt when both language and cultural context have become Italian.

In the long run, no doubt, such quibbles as these need only concern theorists of translation and historians of the reception of Dante's Commedia. Whether it appears in English or Italian (or in any other language, for that matter), Hollander's monumental work is designed to appeal, and to be useful, to an immeasurably larger constituency--such readers of Dante's poem, present and future, into whose hands it may come (or on whose screens it may glimmer)--and its success in so doing, amply attested in my own experience and that of my students, and reported from many other sources, seems likely to be repeated, if doubtless con variazioni, in its fresh Italian guise. And its publication is both fitting and historic in ways that deserve underlining: fitting, as tribute to Robert Hollander's standing as unquestionably one of the most important Dante scholars to have been active in any language or country during the last fifty years, and certainly the only American dantista since Charles Singleton whose work--as it should be--is taken as seriously by his Italian confrres as so many of them otherwise take only their own; and historic, as the first time that any of the many meritorious commentaries on the Commedia produced by English-speaking scholars since the mid nineteenth century has been translated in extenso into Italian, and published by an Italian, nay more, a Florentine, publisher.

As one who has, during my own almost thirty years as teacher and scholar of Dante, occasionally crossed swords with Robert Hollander, and more than occasionally appreciated the unfailing courtesy (not unmixed with vigor!) that he brings to argument, as well as the searing intellectual honesty that is the unshakeable foundation of every line he writes, I take real pleasure both in saluting the quality of his Commedia commentary and in congratulating him on the acclaim that greeted its publication in Italy. (Press cuttings reproduced on the Olschki website, at http://www.olschki.it/Plus/htm/2009/59660/59660.htm, give some insight into what seems to have been a hugely enjoyable media circus involving everyone from Roberto Benigni to President Giorgio Napolitano-one tries, ruefully and in vain, to imagine anything comparable taking place in this country.) Whether il commento di Hollander will ever have as much impact in English-speaking countries as it already has in Italy may perhaps be doubted: apart from a rather endearing, but very short, foreword by Hollander himself, there is virtually nothing in these three volumes that is not already available in "Hollander and Hollander" as published by Doubleday, and readers (let alone cash-strapped libraries) that already have the earlier publication will almost certainly not feel the need to invest over $200 in acquiring this one. But the mere fact of its existence, given the major contribution to scholarship and the international recognition of its author's stature that it represents, is a matter for celebration by all who care about Dante, Dante's Commedia, or the countless readers whose understanding, and let us hope whose love, of Dante and his Commedia alike Robert Hollander will still be helping to enrich long after the rest of us are forgotten.

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Author Biography

Steven Botterill

University of California, Berkeley