La Vita Nuova

Flowers

The latest classic from my classic club reading list was La Vita Nuova by Dante Alighieri.

I really got myself into deep water with this book. It felt a bit like watching a game where you know none of the rules. One reason for my struggles was the disadvantage of reading it in translation which is always difficult with poetry. However, I believe the greatest barrier was the cultural one. I’m so used to texts were the plot and/or character development are central that I’m apparently lost without them. I eventually found some rhythm in the narration and enjoyed the ending much more than the beginning but it was a challenging read.

La Vita Nuova was first published in 1295, which probably explains my cultural chock. It is centred around the narrator’s impossible love for Beatrice and consists of a series of poems prizing her and describing her influence on the narrator and others. These poems are divided by texts describing the context of the poems and explanations of their structure. Little happens and Beatrice never really takes shape, she remains an idea, a living angel. Instead I felt that Love, both as a concept and its influence on those it touches, was the real focus.

In many ways it reminded me of The Sorrows of Young Werther which I read last year.  In it the story is also centred around an impossible love and I got the impression that the main goal of the text was that it should be beautiful. As in La Vita Nuova the love described in The Sorrows of Young Werther was an idealized romantic love which appeared more like an idea than an actual human emotion.

So did I enjoy it? Not really but I’m glad I have read it. It was different from almost anything else I have read and I could see glimpses of the beauty in it. It was also a rather short read, although it still took me surprisingly long to finish, and it may help me to better understand references to Dante in later works. However, to really appreciate it I would have needed a much better understanding of the context and preferably to be able to read it in its original Italian.

I read it in a translation by Mark Musa but an earlier translation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti is available for free from Project Gutenberg.

La Vita Nuova is on my reading list for the Classics club and I also count it as my “Classic by an author that’s new to you” for the Back to the classics reading challenge. It also means that I can add another country, Italy, to my 30-20-20-10 reading challenge, only eight more to go.

 

 

 

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23 thoughts on “La Vita Nuova

  1. I was thinking about that recently – how I rely on plot/character development. Without them, I find myself fumbling about looking for something concrete to hang on to, rather than just enjoying the language! That’s why we have to just keep reading, and why these challenges are good for us!!

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  2. I always read the Mark Musa translation! I really like Mark Musa’s translations and the fact that he uses iambic pentameter. I think it works really well since that’s a meter English readers will be more accustomed to. It seems natural and poetic, which is how I imagine reading Dante is Italian is.

    However, I do find La Vita Nuova a bit of a struggle sometimes. I know it was new for an author to offer an interpretation of his works, but it’s just bizarre to me that Dante often ends up telling us what we’re about to read. Like he thinks we won’t figure it out unless he tells us. 😀

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    1. I never did a conscious decision on which translation to read so I’m happy to hear that you like this one! The prose sections were certainly bizarre but I kind of liked them. I found it a bit endearing that he wanted to explain everything for us and I probably would have missed some things without it. However, the detailed subdivision of each poem into different parts got rather repetitive after awhile. I think this is a text that I would like to come back to in ten years or so, to so what another ten-years of reading would do to my appreciation of it.

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  3. I remember reading this a few years ago. I was prepping a course on the theology of “Love” and “Evil” and I was looking for selections from different works to have the kids read. I didn’t end up using anything from this but I was happy I’d finally read it. Was it this work where we learn how Dante idealized Beatrice forever but only had one, awkward interaction with her? I think it was…but I could be mistaken. I always found that so heartbreaking! He loved her (or his idea/ideal of her) but never had any sort of a real relationship with her. He didn’t even get the chance to get Friend Zoned! I think we all have our “What if…?” person. I’ve always thought Dante’s experience of Beatrice was a fascinating reflection on how our head and heart can explore and create along that vein.

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    1. That’s the one. I guess it is heartbreaking in a way but I just wasn’t convinced that he would have been as happy in a relationship with the actual Beatrice as he was idealizing the romantic tragedy of his situation. I suspect that he rather liked being the tragic hero.

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      1. Oooo, I hadn’t really thought of that! I saw him as this guy longing over this idealized vision of this woman he couldn’t even muster the courage to talk to more than once. But what if you’re right?!? What if he liked that image of himself as the tragic hero, the man forever suffering in the quest for love? That could’ve made him pretty annoying to be around :). I wonder what Dante’s friends would’ve said about his writing (and talking) again and again and again about Beatrice? Or his wife for that matter! I wonder what she thought of it all.

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      2. The wife’s perspective is certainly interesting, I’m not sure how much love was expected in an arranged marriage at the time but surely it must at least have been rude of him to so openly proclaim his love for someone else? Or perhaps attitudes in 13th century Italy was that different?

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      3. Hmm…that’s a good point. I don’t know. It would be interesting to read a cultural study of the time period. Because while I’m sure it was different, as you said, I still can’t imagine it’d be easy to hear your significant other going on and on and on and on (and on) about his love for this other woman. In my head, it plays out like this:

        Gemma – “Hey honey, how was work today?”

        Dante – “Good! I’m writing about my soul’s journey through heaven now!”

        Gemma – “That sounds great! It’s the end of your trilogy, right? What’s Virgil’s take on heaven like so far?”

        Dante – “Oh no, Virgil can’t get into heaven. He was a pagan. Beatrice is leading my soul through paradise.”

        Gemma – “……………of f***ing course she is. I can’t wait for my family and friends to read this one.”

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