If I had to describe The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine in one word, it would be “unflinching”. The cover depicts a close up of a male face, in hyper-real, high definition close up, and this is a sign of things to come. The Divine Comedy is a challenging novel from an author best known as a poet. Its structure is unusual – there is a plot, though this unfolds only periodically and probably occupies less than half of the text. The remainder is a series of digressions, reflections and anecdotes which expand on the events in the novel, providing interpretation and commentary on them. It is almost as if the plot is incidental, and the core of the book is the observations of the author on the events he has created and is narrating.
In the acknowledgements, Craig Raine thanks Milan Kundera for inventing this kind of novel. Perhaps in homage, most of the plot is set in Eastern Europe. We follow a cast of characters as they deal with their relationships and illnesses. The main preoccupations of the book are sex and disease, and a bright, focused narrative light is shone on both. There is no sentimentality on display – we are animals and events are depicted in unflinching close up detail. This is not a novel for the fainthearted or weak stomached, either in terms of intellectual content or descriptive detail.
In particular, there is a great deal of reflection on the penis in all of its states. The male characters are greatly concerned with the size of their appendages, and there are many digressions about the penis’s of various literary figures and minor celebrities (ex-formula one racing drive Eddie Irvine sticks in my memory). Characters, both male and female, are continually afflicted by diseases effecting the sexual organs or sexual performance. While sex is at the centre of most people’s lives, it is rather ridiculous when looked at close up. Someone must be playing a joke on us (and hence, presumably, the title). The continual discussion of the penis is initially amusing, and throughout this book there are many moments which will cause a chuckle, but ultimately it becomes a little wearisome. However, I suspect that this is part of the point.
In addition to its challenging content and style, the vocabulary and language of The Divine Comedy are likely to stretch many readers. There are some fantastic descriptive moments, as you might expect from a poet – “her black eyelashes were wet calligraphy” – but Craig Raine also delights in using a wide range of uncommon words. Aporia, tantulus and synecdoche all cropped up in one paragraph, for instance. So if you are the sort of reader who likes to understand everything you are reading, you may wish to keep a dictionary at hand unless you have an extensive vocabulary.
Did I enjoy this book? Yes, I did, and I would recommend it to others. It is a book I will remember, both for its amusing moments and its overall structure. It contains some very funny anecdotes. However, I think it will appeal mainly to habitual readers of literary fiction who are not easily offended or shocked, or those looking to challenge themselves.
The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine
Published by Atlantic Books, February 2012
With thanks to Atlantic Books for providing a review copy.
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