Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Beata Beatrix, ca 1864-70.Here is the look of a great lady on the verge of death. Here is also the look of something else:

What it feels like to read a bad book review.

I love the grim, gray pages of the Times Literary Supplement — make that grim, grey pages — even though the reading can get pretty tough at times, especially when you stumble on a bad review. They’re not exactly hatchet jobs, but they seem just as pointless.

I was disappointed — and a bit dismayed — by a recent TLS piece on two translations of Dante’s Vita Nova by a fellow who hasn’t finished his doctorate yet.

It didn’t bother me that he didn’t care for the version by a guy I’ve worked with before — Andrew Frisardi — but it’s all the high-minded nonsense in his criticism that’s hard to take. It’s the I-know-Dante-better-than-Dante-himself tone that all graduate Lit students suffer from (speaking from experience here).

“One wonders,” the review says about a modern euphemism Frisardi uses, “whether the quest for modernity extends to political correctness. How else to explain the female subject of ‘acts cool’ when the Italian has a genderless (etymologically masculine) ‘colui’?”

This graf is so full of posturing that I’m not going to waste space on an explanation.

A few lines later, there’s a nice backhanded compliment: “Where Frisardi’s edition excels is in its use of current scholarship. With over 200 pages of notes… it is surely intended for students, though echoing their speech in the lyric is a questionable strategy.”

“it is surely intended…” Good grief.  That sounds like the assessment of someone who never steps outside or takes a break from the books. Or hasn’t read David R. Slavitt. Or Lowell’s imitations.

I’m adding this to my folder of bad examples of book reviews — right alongside a ridiculously negative review (also in the TLS) of Arthur Phillips‘ novel The Tragedy of Arthur by an Elizabethan scholar who didn’t think Phillips’ Shakespearean verse was Shakespearean enough.

If you’re ever the subject of such a review, my friends, please take heart. Even though the printed page gives validity to these pieces, try to work through your feelings and just remember that your most important critic should be you (etymologically neutral).


  1. Yes, the tone of these excerpts reeks of desperation and isolation. In other words, smells like grad student. I agree with you. 😮 It’s a fitting example of the attitude that gives academia a bad reputation.

    I was one of those people who enjoyed The Tragedy of Arthur. Good thing I didn’t read the review first.

  2. Hello Nick,
    thanks for posting this. Sounds absolutely horrid. I stumbled at the quote: ‘How else to explain the female subject of ‘acts cool’ when the Italian has a genderless (etymologically masculine) ‘colui’?”’ and re-read it again.
    You can take it from me; in the Italian language there is a female version of colui. It’s colei, but Dante is not a contemporary writer. In fact, he’s regarded, as you will know, as the father of the Italian language.
    What I still don’t get is the connection between the ‘colui’ and the female ‘acting cool’. All ‘well to do’ ladies in those days had to act cool. And what would have Dante sang about if she had readily reciprocated his feelings?
    Yes, Nick, please do relegate this review to your black list.

  3. Thanks, Nick. And greetings — it’s been a long time!

    I’m happy you disliked the review as much as I did — and that I found your post. I did write to TLS Letters to the Editor about the review, but they didn’t print it. I’ll take the liberty of pasting that letter in here — along with a letter to the TLS that *did* get printed a few weeks after the review. My comment riffs on that earlier letter.

    [Published in TLS on 1 Feb. 2013]

    As an admirer of Andrew Frisardi’s La vita nova and, in a very small way, a contributor to its development, I must challenge Paul Howard’s dismissive review (4 January). His preferred version, by Anthony Mortimer, is expertly agreeable, and fine if what you want is a literary equivalent of Classic FM, but no less “a Dante that does not exist” than Rossetti’s. Howard’s preference for this approach typifies an Anglophone misapprehension about La vita nova, and about the Italian hendecasyllable in general: that it is invariably mellifluous, charming, easy on the ear, culturally neutral. Dante’s notion of a “dolce stil” is more complex: innovative, vernacular, sometimes strange, often disconcerting, and – contra Howard – perfectly capable of juxtaposing the archaic and the novel. Frisardi’s translation is not “for students” but for anyone who wants this text to feel surprising and revolutionary, as it did before seven centuries of reverence settled over it.
    Yours faithfully,
    Adam Elgar
    Bristol, England

    [And my letter, never to appear in print — till now.]

    I agree with Adam Elgar’s disagreement with Paul Howard’s review of Anthony Mortimer’s and my editions of Dante’s ‘Vita Nova’. The review was off the mark in a number of ways, not least of which was his characterization of contractions such as ‘don’t’ as ‘modern’. Has Mr Howard read Shakespeare or Donne (who don’t hesitate to use ’em)? Are the Elizabethans ‘modern’? Has he read Dante? Is he familiar with the very frequent speech-register Florentine diction—including contractions—even in the early poems? As for ‘cool’, the 1828 edition of ‘Webster’s’ says it means ‘manifesting coldness or dislike; chilling; apathetic; as, a cool manner’—a meaning still current, certainly an apt one for the context in the poem he cites, and hardly ‘modern’ or ‘politically correct’. Mr Howard criticizes the choice of adjectives in my translation of ‘Tanto gentile’, too, as being intrusively or self-consciously modern. I have the poem describing Beatrice as ‘open’ and ‘self-possessed’, which actually (as I explain fully in the notes section of the book) are truthful interpretations of the untranslatable words ‘gentile’ and ‘onesta’. Anthony Mortimer gives ‘gentle’ and ‘noble’ for the same words, thus ignoring altogether ‘onesta’, the thirteenth-century meaning of which can be given as ‘dignified’–or ‘self-possessed’. Instead he translates ‘gentile’ twice (and ‘gentle’ is questionable at best as a translation for that word). Neither Mr Mortimer nor Mr Howard ask themselves, apparently, why Dante says in the next lines of ‘Tanto gentile’ that people’s tongues tremble and their eyes don’t dare to look at her as Beatrice approaches. Would that be a normal reaction to someone who is merely ‘gentle and noble’, or was everyone in Florence prone to seizures? Rather, self-possession and openness certainly can be disconcerting, precisely because they are qualities of someone who is totally, vibrantly alive. This fits Dante’s view of Beatrice very well, despite the ‘seven centuries of reverence’ that Mr Elgar rightly points out throws a wet blanket over contemporary readings of the ‘Vita Nova’.

    Andrew Frisardi
    Castiglione in Teverina, Italy

  4. It’s been a long time, Andrew — good to hear from you. Thank you for sending the Elgar letter, and also for yours — you have given the Call of the Siren its first exclusive! I’m going to repost your letter later today as a separate item — it deserves the attention.

  5. Hi Frankie (did I get the name right?) — thank you for posting and for adding your historical context, which makes the review’s criticism even more ridiculous. And as you can see, from the comments, Andrew Frisardi himself (the recipient of that half-baked assessment) has just posted. He also points out, as you do, that use of the term “cool” isn’t a word that just came into use with the arrival of the Fonz.

  6. Thanks Jilanne — yes, far too much desperation and isolation. Normally I let this stuff go, but it seemed so unfair…. Also: I honestly couldn’t believe the Arthur Phillips review either — why get an Elizabethan scholar to review that novel? Phillips’ invention of the Shakespearean play is truly stunning, brilliant, but you don’t sink a book because you don’t like his imitation of Willie the Shakes! I’m glad you missed that review.

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