Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (La Divina Commedia) was written over eight years and completed in 1320, a year before the author’s death, and is considered to be a classic of world literature. It describes the author’s imagined journey through Hell in the first part, followed by Purgatory in the second part, and the third concluding with his eventual arrival in Heaven. It is well known for its vividly imaginative portrayal of the afterlife, and has seen many translations and interpretations throughout the years. The latest one is courtesy of Alasdair Gray, famously described by Will Self as “a creative polymath with an integrated politico-philosophic vision”.
Originally from Riddrie in the east end of Glasgow, Gray graduated in design and mural painting from the Glasgow School of Art in 1957, and he still lives in the west end of the city. Throughout the years he has been responsible for some notable artwork around the city. Recent examples include the celestial design painted on the ceiling of the Oran Mor at the top of Byres Road and the lively mural on the wall of Hillhead subway station. Of course, he’s also well known as a novelist, and his 1981 debut Lanark is widely considered to be his masterpiece. Other works include 1982, Janine, the award-winning Poor Things, and The Fall of Kelvin Walker, along with numerous short stories and plays.
His various talents make him the perfect translator for the divine trilogy, because it features illustrations as well as prosaic verse which really help to bring his version to life and make it stand out. The descriptions used to depict Hell could have become tired and clichéd in the hands of anyone else, but Gray makes them seem as vivid and detailed as any of his murals. The language Gray uses in this version also makes it accessible to those readers who are new to Dante and medieval literature in general. With this in mind, it is an essential addition to the collection of any fan of Gray’s work, and an accessible but still engaging translation of an iconic work.
Hell: Dante’s Divine Trilogy Part One is out now published by Canongate Books.