Dante in Translation

9780199535644      9780199540655

I’m still getting on slowly with Proust, but in the meantime, I’ve ventured into new territory with Dante. And MOOCs – free online courses from institutions like Yale, Stanford and Harvard Universities! The main lectures/resources I’m using to read Dante are from an open course at Yale: ITAL310. But there’s also a fine compilation of readings at Saylor.com’s ENGL409 (though I find it odd that they classify this Italian classic as part of the English literary pantheon. Western, fine. European, fine. But English?). Haven’t started reading yet, as I’m still deciding between reading the eBook version at Gutenberg, or getting the Oxford Classics translation (pictured above) by Mark Musa… Decisions, decisions.

The Yale ITAL310 course is taught by Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta, and a side-by-side English/Italian edition is used. No need for knowledge of Italian language to get by though. All the lectures and readings are in English, hence the name of the course: ‘Dante in Translation‘. Mazzotta goes briefly through Vita Nuova as a preamble to the Divine Comedy before diving into the latter work. Here’s a Youtube playlist of the whole set of lectures; I’ve listened to the first two and they’re great. I can’t wait to start reading! If you’re anything like me, and you’ve put off reading Dante for years, take it in easy doses with Professor Mazzotta. He explains everything in a very straightforward and accessible way, I promise.

EDIT: I’ve gone from blogging every two/three months to once a month – hooray! If I keep this up, I’ll be updating every fortnight again, like I used to back in the day…

In a Grove (藪の中), Ryūnosuke Akutagawa


Akutagawa’s 1922 modernist tale, Yabu no Naka or In a Grovetells the story of seven varying accounts of the murder of a samurai, Kanazawa no Takehiro, whose corpse has been found in a bamboo forest near Kyoto. Each section “simultaneously clarifies and obfuscates what the reader knows about the murder, eventually creating a complex and contradictory vision of events that brings into question humanity’s ability or willingness to perceive and transmit objective truth.” Okay, that was pulled straight from Wikipedia. But sometimes Wikipedia really does describe things best.

In a Grove is a playful, elegaic look into the human psyche. I read it as part of a Penguin collection, Rashōmon (羅生門) and Seventeen Other Stories, of which In a Grove was certainly the most memorable contribution. Jay Rubin’s English translation was wonderful: delicate, striking and gruesome at times. I’ll strive to improve my Japanese until I can re-read this in the original, but until then I’ll have to assume that Rubin’s done an accurate job for us Anglophones.

As for the story itself, I was impressed most by the sheer freshness of it. Though it’s just a decade short of being a century old, the twists and turns and hair-raising humanity of each character’s account leaves the reader wanting more. Who dares call literary fiction dry, and all about characters sitting in rooms and gardens thinking about the past for pages and pages (to roughly paraphrase something Junot Diaz once said)?

The seven accounts include those of a woodcutter, a travelling Buddhist priest, a constable or magistrate type, an old woman, a notorious criminal, the murdered man’s ghost (as conveyed through a medium), and the murdered man’s wife. It’s crime fiction, but it’s not crime fiction. Akutagawa merely presents seven subjective truths; in the end, it’s not made clear which is the absolute truth. Nor do I think it should be expected that any single one of the narratives is absolute truth. Each probably contains elements of fact and truth, which have been distorted not only through deliberate deception, but also through the haze that obscures our recollections – whether it be through fear, time, trauma, or simply poor short-term memory.

Though, again, I can’t comment much on the prosaic, stylistic elements of it (having not read the original Japanese), I think it works well on the brilliance of the premise alone. On such a level, it succeeds simply by probing into our understandings of truth and objectivity. As a piece of fiction, it challenges conventional methods of storytelling and narrative construction.

> In a Grove was read as part of Bellezza’s Japanese Literature (7) challenge. It can be downloaded here (in PDF or ePUB/Kindle format), or read online here.

A Year of Proust: Some Musings

When it’s all said and done, I’ve failed my year of Proust. I’m now only halfway through Within a Budding Grove, the second volume. It’s taken me half the year to get through less than two volumes. Though it’s only the end of July, and there are still five good months left in the year, I have no intention of racing through the remainder of Remembrance of Things Past – nor do I think it’s humanly possible to truly appreciate this masterpiece while ‘racing through it’.

To be fair, I’ve been through a lot of tough personal circumstances this year regarding health, relationships, and career decisions. Reading has been slow as a result. I’ve noticed, sadly, that literature takes a back-seat when the going gets tough. It was one of those years where I felt as though I was watching sequence after sequence of a horror movie, helpless to do anything but watch as my own life fell apart. But I’m slowly picking up the pieces, and with that, my love of literature is slowly recovering itself as well.

At this rate, it’ll probably be more a decade of Proust than a year, but I don’t mind. Why? Because I enjoy delving into that idyllic, dreamy world of his to keep myself in check. Proust allows me to dream, and to hope, and to indulge in a little beauty when life seems grim. It has a pleasant hum that I like to get lost in every once in a while when things wear me down. And so I’ll keep plodding on, without time restrictions and silly deadlines that I try to set for myself.

But I don’t feel all that silly about it, seeing as it’s what got me started in the first place. If I hadn’t set that project earlier this year, I would have continually pushed it back to make way for other books, and I would never have discovered the wonder of  À la recherche du temps perdu.