A few months ago I had the pleasure of visiting Amsterdam for a weekend, primarily to see an old friend and also to look around the Colours of Night exhibition in the Van Gough museum. Unafraid as I was of looking quite obviously like a tourist by wandering around the city centre with a large map, I saw a strange cluster of looping streets like concentric horseshoes peeling away from one of the main canals, a swirling fingerprint in the heart of the city. “That‘s the Nine Streets district,” my friend informed me, “where all the independent shops and artists are.“ Nine Streets? It all sounded rather… hellish to me, not out of any particular aversion to boutiques selling overpriced vintage clothing or conceptual artists, but because I‘d recently been delving into Dante‘s Divine Comedy.
The ideas started flowing as I dodged my way through the less salubrious parts of Amsterdam. Streets as circles of hell… an afterlife of the damned that is not a pit in the earth but a city on its surface… an opportunity to marry Dante‘s commentary on the worst aspects of human nature with a satire on the misery and hypocrisy of modern society‘s social structure. Ambitious? I wouldn‘t have been excited if it wasn‘t. I planned a 30,000 word novella that would take my protagonist on the journey of his un-life, from the fields of the farmers to the towers of the princes. And that‘s when I hit upon the biggest problem – when you‘re taking on something as epic, as important, and as well-loved as The Divine Comedy, how do you walk the fine line between slavishly following the old and twisting it too much into the new?
Over the years I‘ve read and seen many stories that use Dante, and particularly The Inferno, as a jumping-off point. From parodies in which modern pilgrims meet 20th century figures on their own journeys through hell, to gory crime thrillers that pin their serial killer‘s motivation on a grim obsession with the poem, to computer games that seem to exorcise all sense and reason behind the story in the name of fragging a few malebranche. It‘s certainly not too sacred to be taken on – and it shouldn‘t be. After all, the reason why something becomes a classic that lasts across the centuries is because it says something so fundamental about the human condition that every generation can take it and make something of it. Dante himself used classical mythology and the poetry of Virgil and Homer, among others, to create his Inferno.
But at the point when I was looking at my structure of street/circle four (that‘s hoarders and wasters pushing rocks at each other to Dante, a merchant street full of sweatshops and ruthless businessmen to me) and found myself unable to reconcile my use of the street within the context of my story with Dante‘s original intention, I lost faith. Was it wrong to deviate from the classical story too much? Or was it wrong to feel I should follow it too closely? In the Venn diagram of parody/reimagining/homage/recreation I‘m aiming for a sweet spot the size of a pin‘s head, or that‘s how it feels.
My unhappy protagonist
is now in street/circle six and starting to suspect something is very
wrong. Occasionally I share his misgivings. When standing on the shoulders of giants, how do you avoid falling off?