I’ve never really got the idea of ‘comfort reading’. On the analogy of ‘comfort food’ it’s a book you can turn to again and again because its very familiarity makes it safe and reassuring. But for me familiarity has always been a reason not to read a book.
That is not to say that I don’t re-read books (though because I am a slow reader I do so sparingly). I have lost count of the number of times I’ve revisited Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation, for example. But I go back to that book not because it is familiar, but because it is unfamiliar, because every time I read it, it reveals fresh dimensions which unsettle my previous readings and make me question every assumption I’ve made about the book. If a book is not eternally different, I don’t see any point in re-reading it. Why would I want to be told the same story over and over again?
I suppose the closest I come to comfort reading is a pleasure I take from a certain manner of storytelling, a certain type of tale. Although I am not a great lover of crime fiction, I find that most of the books which fit within this category tell crime stories, usually with an overlaying of historical romance (in the literary rather than the amatory sense). The latest novel I’ve found to fit smoothly into this pleasing if undemanding category is The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl.
This has the minor intellectual pretension of something like Donna Tartt’s A Secret History, mixed with the precise evocation of a particular historical milieu of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. In other words, it pushes all the right buttons, though of course there have been many works which tried to copy that sort of format without noticeable success, so finding such a book remains something of a hit and miss affair. And of course, unlike the more common understanding of ‘comfort reading’, I’m unlikely to revisit this book because now I know how the machinery works.
As is so often the case in such books, the set-up (the conceit) of the story is delightful; the structure of the plot is intricate and intriguing; and the resolution is far-fetched and nonsensical. I’m sure that what happens in these cases is that the author is swept away by the great idea that triggers the book and only half way through realises that there is no way of resolving the plot that isn’t going to stretch our patience or our reason. How well this fatal flaw is disguised is a measure of the success of the book; Pearl manages to put off the fatal moment longer than I would have thought possible, but at the end can’t quite make the whole thing seem to hold together. As a scale: Carr managed this better in The Alienist, but worse in its sequel (whose title momentarily escapes me, Angel of Darkness?)
The starting point for Pearl’s story is the first American translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which was done by Longfellow in 1865. It is just months after the end of the Civil War, and Longfellow has gathered a group of the great and good of Boston intellectual society to advise on the translation. This group, poet and academic James Russell Lowell, doctor and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr, publisher J.T. Fields (and George Greene, an aged historian whose part in this story, though significant, need not intrude too much upon this brief summary). They are known as the Dante Club. The group is nicely drawn, and from my limited knowledge of the period pretty accurate. Longfellow is grave, calm, and since the death of his wife unable to write original poetry of his own. Lowell is exciteable, mercurial and vain. Holmes is even more vain, craven, more concerned for his own reputation than all else. Fields is diplomatic, opportunistic, and dedicated to meeting the needs of his authors come what may. A string of other Boston luminaries from the period flit through the novel as well – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louis Agassiz – there’s a bit of spot the celeb about it all.
Introducing the Divine Comedy to America is not the straightforward intellectual episode we might imagine. Harvard, heeding though possibly misinterpreting Emerson’s call for an American literature, is determined to keep out anything foreign. Especially anything foreign and Catholic, which might pollute their Puritan heritage. Hence a programme of persuasion that turns into double-dealing and coercion to stop the translation. This sort of opposition to new ideas, particularly non-English ideas, was a fact in America’s mid-century academic establishment (you’ll find it catalogued in Louis Menand’s wonderful The Metaphysical Club, which shares much the same cast of characters), but it is one of the weaker aspects of Pearl’s novel. He doesn’t go far enough to convince us that this type of thing really happened, which leaves aspects of the novel feeling contrived and thin.
Against this background, prominent Boston Brahmins start to get murdered, in grotesque and unlikely ways. The members of the Dante Club realise that the murders echo the punishments of the damned in Inferno; and because they are virtually the only people in America familiar with Dante, they realise that if the police ever make the connection they must be prime suspects. So they are forced, against their better judgement, and against their nature, to take on the role of detective. So far so good. I think the solution of the crime is a fatal flaw in the novel, but the rest of it is so entertainingly done that we can just about forgive Pearl. So long as we don’t intend to go back and revisit the book.
First published at Livejournal, 13 December 2004.