frances wilson

high-risk venture in which no one from the Swires’ circle emerged unscathed. Jeremy Hunt is ‘oily’ and ‘wet’, Boris is ‘desperately lonely and

Infernal Greetings

The seven-hundredth anniversary of Dante’s death this year has allowed us to make a gleeful return to the Divine Comedy, the greatest work of Schadenfreude in the Western canon. I refer to the part in which Dante is given a guided tour of hell and finds there, variously choking in the River Styx, sunk in sludge, ice, excrement or boiling blood, pursued by hounds or walking with their heads turned backwards, not only a host of biblical, historical and mythical sinners but also a selection of his own contemporaries. We would expect him to punish his enemies, like Filippo Argenti, the Florentine politician who confiscated the poet’s property after he was expelled from Florence in 1302, but the great delight of the ‘Inferno’ is that Dante also condemns his friends.

He discovers, for example, in the second circle of hell, Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo, both murdered by her husband (and his brother) in 1284. Dante was a friend of Francesca’s nephew Guido Novello da Polenta and was, moreover, in his debt: following his exile, the poet was sheltered in the Novello family home in Ravenna. So it was as a guest in the very house in which Francesca was born that Dante worked on the poem in which he imagined her swirling around for eternity in the wind tunnel of her own adulterous passion.

In the seventh circle, Dante finds, condemned to run forever on scorching sands beneath a rain of fire, his former guardian and tutor, Brunetto Latini. A philosopher, scholar and sodomite, Latini greets Dante with great tenderness and Dante in turn, his head bent low in reverence, thanks Latini for his former guidance.

So why, when Dante the Pilgrim expresses such dismay at the sight of Francesca da Rimini and Brunetto Latini in hell, does Dante the Poet put them there in the first place? Historians have offered a variety of suggestions, based mainly on medieval morality, but my feeling is that Dante did it because he was a writer and writing is an incendiary device. Shafting friends and family is what writers do best; the chance to do the same is why children dream of one day becoming writers themselves. Every poem, every play, every novel is someone’s inferno.

I have an entire shelf of infernal literature, by which I mean those books in which authors have avenged themselves on their nearest and dearest by cryogenising their least attractive features. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. It takes only one character to make a book infernal: Dickens, horrified that his idealised first love, Maria Beadnell, had become, by the time she reached her forties, ‘extremely fat’, cast her as the silly and breathless Flora Finching in Little Dorrit. Which means that poor Maria Beadnell will be forever remembered as the lily who became a peony.

Sometimes, usually in the case of women, the writer is considered to have gone so far in her infernal machinations that she herself, rather than those she is writing about, is cast into the fiery pit. This was the case in The Lost Child, in which Julie Myerson wrote with astounding candour about her son Jake’s skunk addiction, inspiring Jake Myerson to reply with equal candour by selling his story to the Daily Mail. Wherever he is now, Jake Myerson will always be known as the skunk addict who cost his mother her reputation. Sasha Swire’s Diary of an MP’s Wife was an equally

unhappy,’ and ‘Old Ma May’ will go down in history as a philistine whose only real interest is her shoe cupboard. Lady Swire, meanwhile, is in social Siberia, otherwise known as Purgatory.

I run life-writing courses where the question of betrayal comes up repeatedly. ‘If I lift the lid on my family/childhood/marriage, my sister/mother/son/ex-husband will never speak to me again. Is it worth it?’ The question can only be answered by seeing into the future: will the book matter in fifty, one hundred or seven hundred years’ time? If so, then yes, it probably is worth it. Otherwise, if you cannot live without telling your truth, you’d better call it fiction. Even better, call it autofiction, the latest weapon of mass destruction.

In My Struggle, his six-volume epic of autofiction, Karl Ove Knausgaard consigned his entire family to the flames and has been regarded with awe ever since. Less writer than Terminator, Knausgaard emerged on the literary landscape in 2012 like an unstoppable agent of vengeance. ‘Verbal rape’ is what his uncle called the first volume in the series, in which Knausgaard described his grandmother leaking pee and covered in food stains. ‘This novel has hurt everyone around me,’ Knausgaard conceded with regret. ‘And in a few years … it will hurt my children too.’ It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

D H Lawrence described the writer in him as ‘a second me, a hard, cruel if need be, me’. This ‘second me’ allowed no good deed to go unpunished. He repaid the patronage of Lady Ottoline Morrell by caricaturing her in Women in Love as the lovesick Hermione Roddice. ‘Lawrence has sent me his awful book,’ Lady Ottoline reported to Bertrand Russell in January 1917. ‘It is so loathsome one cannot get clean after it – and a most insulting chapter with a minute photograph of Garsington and a horrible disgusting portrait of me making me out as if filled with cruel devilish lust.’ It was, Virginia Woolf agreed, ‘the act of a little guttersnipe lad … There you were, sending him Shelley, Beef tea, lending him cottages, taking his photograph on the steps at Garsington – oft stuffing gold into his pocket – off he goes, has out his fountain pen.’ As for Lawrence, he claimed that any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, was purely coincidental. ‘And poor vindictive old Ottoline can be left to her vanity of identifying herself with Hermione.’

On my desk is the new biography of Elizabeth Hardwick, A Splendid Intelligence, by Cathy Curtis. Hardwick is often remembered not as a critic of genius but as the wife who lost her husband, Robert Lowell, to Caroline Blackwood and then found her heartbroken letters to him paraphrased and versified in his sonnet sequence The Dolphin.

Elizabeth Bishop’s response to Lowell’s infernal act of treachery has become famous. ‘It’s hell to write this,’ she wrote to her friend. ‘While The Dolphin is magnificent poetry’ it is also ‘infinite mischief ’ and ‘art just isn’t worth that much’. Booksellers would disagree.

december 2021 / january 2022 | Literary Review 1