Biographies

Barbara Reynolds: Dante, a költő, a politikai gondolkodó, az ember, 2008, könyvborítóFresh and crispy, right from the book factory. This is the very first copy. I hurry to boast of it while it is the only one. Tomorrow the rest will come too, soon they will be out in the bookshops. And I encourage everyone to read it. As Vergilius to Dante, so this book rallies to the support of the reader who lost his way in the archaic language of the Comedy and in the thick of Medieval Tuscan internal politics. It accompanies you from chapter to chapter, from canto to canto through the dark forest of the Comedy, and if you read the two works in parallel with each other, you will certainly reach out to the stars that close each of the three canticas.

The literary review Litera asked for two pages of our Hungarian translation to advertise its publication. In the publishing house we discussed for a while which pages should that be. The description of medieval Florence is beautiful, the deciphering of the identity of the donna gentile or of the mysterious expression tra feltro e feltro is a good detective job, while the investigation about the eventual drugs used by Dante is a complete rubbish, but the publishing house expects to increase with it the number of copies sold. It will be a surprise even to me which pages will finally be published in Litera. I, in any case, proposed those two pages of the epilogue where Barbara Reynolds describes how the last thirteen (!) cantos of the Paradiso were lost and found.

After the funeral ceremonies, his sons Pietro and Jacopo turned their minds to setting his papers in order. To their dismay, they were unable to lay hands on the last 13 cantos of Paradiso. They were certain that their father had finished the work, but the manuscript did not go beyond Canto XX. Where was the rest of it? They knew that it was his practice to send batches of cantos to Can Grande della Scala but enquiries made in that quarter were fruitless. In a state of desperation they were persuaded by friends to try to finish Paradiso themselves. They knew their father’s work well and would later write commentaries on it. They had also tried their hand at verse. Nevertheless, the task was far beyond their abilities.

After about eight months, Jacopo had a dream one night in which his father appeared to him. On being asked by Jacopo if he had finished his poem, Dante replied, ‘Yes, I finished it.’ He then took his son by the hand and showed him a room in a house and touched part of the wall, saying:
Dante halotti maszkja‘Here is what you have been looking for.’ On waking, Jacopo went with a friend to the house and there they found, in a recess in a wall, concealed by a flap of material, a pile of manuscript covered with mildew. They lifted it out and brushed it clean: it was the missing 13 cantos.

This story is beautiful in itself. However, it is even more beautiful what Reynolds leaves here unsaid: that the same story repeated seven centuries later – with her.

She writes about this in her introduction to that recent English translation of the Comedy that she considers as the best and she quotes from it all along her Dante biography. This translation was made by the eminent British writer, classical philologist, Christian humanist and author of detective stories Dorothy L. Sayers, who also happened to be godmother and first master of Barbara Reynolds. She intended it to be the last and greatest opus of her life. However, when she died on December 17, 1957, she left the translation unfinished. She arrived only as far as the twentieth canto of the Paradiso. Thirteen cantos were missing, those thirteen cantos.

Reynolds, who at that time was working on her own main work, the Cambridge Italian Dictionary, regarded it as her duty to complete the translations, and what is more, to complete it exactly like Sayers would have done it. Through the detailed analysis of the cantos hitherto finished she “learned” the style of Sayers, she read through all her works, her correspondence, manuscripts and readings, and then she translated the missing cantos and published the English Comedy. And with this, a “second thread” started in her scholarly work. While she kept working for twenty more years on the Italian Dictionary and on her original topic, the history of 19th-century Italian literature, on the other hand she also translated, after the Comedy, Dante’s first work, the Vita Nuova, she composed from the collected background material the biography of Sayers, she edited her correspondence in five volumes, and finally, with the work of a life, at the age of ninety-two she wrote this biography of Dante.