Alasdair Gray, the great Scottish novelist and artist, died a year ago, in December 2019. In his biography of Gray, A Secretary’s Biography (2008) – the closest thing we have to a contemporary Boswell’s life of Johnson – Rodge Glass concluded: “Alasdair will only be appreciated when he’s dead, and even then it won’t be what he deserves.” None of us gets what we deserve, but Gray made a final bid for serious appreciation with his late translations of Dante: Hell (2018); Purgatory (2019); and now – appropriately posthumously – Paradise.
As worthy, bold and brilliant an enterprise as it undoubtedly is, it should be said that Gray’s decision to translate Dante was hardly innovative or original. Everyone who’s anyone has had a go at Dante at some time in their life, and often towards the very end – Clive James being the most obvious recent example. It has become a final rite of passage.
The artist Tom Phillips once described La Divina Commedia as a “house of memory, many of whose doors have rusted on their hinges”, but on the contrary, those big old Dante doors remain now and forever open to us living and nearly dead, inviting us to ponder the mysteries of the other world. The 20th century saw dozens of translations into English, with Dorothy L Sayers, the crime novelist, translating all three books. More recently, the late great Irish poet Ciaran Carson did the Inferno. Indeed, lots of people have done the Inferno. It’s everyone’s favourite – from video games to the movie Seven. In “Little Gidding” in his Four Quartets, Eliot recalls Dante’s meeting with the Florentine scholar Brunetto Latini in canto 15 of the Inferno: “Are you here, Master Brunetto?” Are you here, Master Dante, we might ask of any new translation.