Orlando Furioso: A New Verse Translation

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9780674035355: Orlando Furioso: A New Verse Translation

The appearance of David R. Slavitt’s translation of Orlando Furioso (“Mad Orlando”), one of the great literary achievements of the Italian Renaissance, is a publishing event. With this lively new verse translation, Slavitt introduces readers to Ariosto’s now neglected masterpiece―a poem whose impact on Western literature can scarcely be exaggerated. It was a major influence on Spenser’s Faerie Queene. William Shakespeare borrowed one of its plots. Voltaire called it the equal of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Don Quixote combined. More recently, Italo Calvino drew inspiration from it. Borges was a fan. Now, through translations of generous selections from this longest of all major European poems, Slavitt brings the poem to life in ways previous translators have not.
At the heart of Ariosto’s romance are Orlando’s unrequited love for the pagan princess Angelica and his jealous rage when she elopes. The action takes place against a besieged Paris, as Charlemagne and his Christian paladins defend the city against the Saracen king. The poem, however, obeys no geography or rules but its own, as the story moves by whim from Japan to the Hebrides to the moon; it includes such imaginary creatures as the hippogriff and a sea monster called the orc.
Orlando Furioso is Dante’s medieval universe turned upside down and made comic. Characterized by satire, parody, and irony, the poem celebrates a new humanistic Renaissance conception of man in an utterly fantastical world. Slavitt’s translation captures the energy, comedy, and great fun of Ariosto’s Italian.

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About the Author:

David R. Slavitt is a poet and the translator of more than ninety works of fiction, poetry, and drama.

From The Washington Post:

From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com Reviewed by by Michael Dirda The weeks just before and after Christmas have always been an enchanted time of the year, when many people like to read or reread books with a touch of magic or the supernatural in them. Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" leads the lists, of course, closely seconded by that favorite family read-aloud, Clement Moore's "A Visit From St. Nicholas." Still, a little variety can be refreshing, and I've come to enjoy some less familiar works as well: John Masefield's wonder-filled young adult novel "The Box of Delights" ("The wolves are running!"); the sexy and charming medieval poem, set at Yuletide, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"; and the uncanny stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose "Nutcracker and Mouse King" provided the plot for Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" ballet. Normally one wouldn't think of a Renaissance epic, and an Italian Renaissance epic at that, as particularly Christmassy. And yet in David R. Slavitt's exuberant new version, "Orlando Furioso" (1532) makes for quite wonderful seasonal entertainment. Slavitt's easygoing, colloquial approach possesses a lightness and brio, a sweet playfulness (touched with irony) that carries the reader effortlessly, happily along. Yes, it's a poem, but what a poem! It's written in the same verse form, and with the same verve, as Byron's "Don Juan," stanzas of eight lines, rhyming abababcc (ottava rima). Its episodes have provided themes for operas and the subjects for myriad paintings. Though arguably the second greatest work of Italian literature, after Dante, it's not at all holy and uplifting. Half epic, half romance, its tone a mix of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," Ludovico Ariosto's irresistible masterpiece effortlessly blends chivalry, love and magic. Think of it as a knightly soap opera, complete with cliff-hangers, erotic intrigue and one melodramatic improbability after another, all of it conveyed with just the right colloquial bounce: As I was saying, a knight in those olden days was lucky, for everywhere he turned he'd find in valleys, caverns, bears' dens, or passageways in cities some maiden to drive him out of his mind with her all but unbearable beauty. Best of all, "Orlando Furioso" is funny: In the opening scene one of our heroes leans over to sip some water from a stream and his magic helmet falls off and sinks into the water, irretrievably. There are multiple plotlines throughout the poem, but the chief ones involve the war between Charlemagne and the Moorish King Agramant and the combats and love affairs of the knights Orlando (a.k.a. Roland), Rinaldo and Ruggiero. Ariosto, like any teenage gamer, also loves gadgets and special powers: How can any story miss when there's a ring of invisibility, a charmed helmet, a shield that blinds all who see it, a magic horn, a tame giant to carry supplies, a horse that's faster than a speeding arrow and, not least, a flying hippogriff? Above all, here the course of true love not only doesn't run smooth, it zigzags all over the place. Couples are constantly meeting and being separated, sometimes facing death, or a fate worse than, and usually being saved in -- yes -- the very nick of time. This is, in short, a poem with everything. Naked beauties are chained to rocks as supper for sea serpents. The archangel Michael transports an entire army to the gates of Paris. A magician creates a strange castle of illusions, from which there is no escape. The great warrior Orlando even goes mad from love, and to retrieve his friend's lost wits, the chivalric Astolfo must travel to the moon in the company of St. John the Evangelist. Why the moon? Because that's where all lost things end up, including: . . . the tears and sighs of lovers, the hours that gamblers lose and ignorant men waste, the plans we make that are well within our powers but require perseverance if not haste before they fade away. And books of ours that we intended to study rather than taste. Of course, Astolfo knows about the enchantments of love himself. He once succumbed to the cosmetic powers of the witch Alcina and, when she'd tired of him, was turned into a tree. Later, the sorceress enthralls Ruggiero, who naturally awaits her first visit to his bed with impatience: Alcina, at her dressing-table, choosing choice perfumes and unguents, knows to enjoy these moments of anticipation, using all her experience. To be a little coy is not only good for him but also amusing for her as she imagines her new boy, his energies, his appetites, his vigor, which, with art can be made even bigger. Oh, these women! There are erotic episodes here that rival Boccaccio. The poem's ice queen, the blond Angelica, rejects princes and heroes only to fall hard for a common, if pretty, foot soldier. There are evil crones and good witches and Amazons, too, as well as a pair of formidable female warriors: Bradamante and Marfisa. When a group of knights is captured by Amazons, they must all suffer death unless one of their number can defeat 10 men in battle and bed 10 maidens in one night. The warriors all draw lots -- and Marfisa wins! But even if she defeats all the enemy champions, what about all that equally heroic lovemaking? Not a problem, says Marfisa, don't worry about a thing. She says no more, and Ariosto leaves the rest to our imagination. But "Orlando Furioso" isn't all about courtly romance or erotic imbroglios. The battle scenes are as cinematic as those in any Hollywood epic, especially when a Terminator-like Saracen named Rodomonte goes on a rampage. As Slavitt archly writes, "It's carnage on top of carnage, garnished with more / carnage." Orlando is equally formidable, but much more modest: He "walked the walk / and left it to lesser men to talk the talk." God himself makes an appearance in this epic poem, as do such allegorical figures as Discord and Pride and Jealousy -- all of whom find themselves most at home in monasteries. "Orlando Furioso" is long, and Slavitt translates only about half of it, summarizing the cantos he omits. But the gist of it is here, and this version is a lot more fun than the scholarly but complete prose version by Guido Waldman (Oxford World's Classics). Still, purists may object to Slavitt's freewheeling anachronisms and colloquialisms: Borrowing from the much later Robert Burns, Rinaldo berates a retreating Scots army as "Wee sleekit cowran men." At one point Slavitt rhymes "Auvergne" with the made-up words "discergne" and "learngne." Another time he matches "inamorata" with "got a" and "not a." And he likes to pun: "Eventually they reach a fork in the road / with many tines, any of which she could / have taken." That's really pretty clever. Indeed, the whole book is clever and fun, and as scholar Charles Ross rightly notes in his introduction, its narrator often sounds "slightly tipsy." What could be more seasonal? Break out the eggnog and find your favorite reading chair. bookworld@washpost.com
Copyright 2009, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.

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