The Guido manuscript had caused a great furore when it was discovered a few years earlier, and proved to be one of those rare instances of medieval literary scholarship capturing the public imagination. Naturally this attention was most exaggerated in Italy, where the discovery was made, and where Dante Alighieri has long been revered as the father, not only of Italian literature, but of the language itself. However, the fame of the Divine Comedy, coupled with the sensational nature of the Guido’s contents (in summary, it was one of the earliest known commentaries on Inferno, carbon dated to the 1320s, only a few years after the completion of the original work) meant the story was picked up by CNN, the BBC, Al Jazeera, and several other top of the food chain broadcasters. From these it filtered down into the more parasitical news agendas of countless other outlets around the world, and this in turn spawned a profusion of weekend supplement features, hastily cobbled together by academics who saw, or were forced to see, an opportunity to snare a wider audience for their upcoming books – however tenuously connected.
Grogan’s own publisher had insisted that he write one of these, even pitching it for him to the arts editor of a national newspaper whom she happened to know. Thus he discovered how, in a small media pond, the first ‘expert’ to poke his head above the surface is briefly celebrated like an ornamental carp. His first, and to date only, radio appearance followed, and he began to provoke envy among certain academic colleagues. They need not have worried, for like some sudden rash of algal bloom that clogs a body of water, the story just as quickly vanished with the shifting current. All that remained of it were swathes of articles, sucked down into the unfathomable undertows of the internet.
And there Grogan thought they would remain, until that blue-skied June afternoon, when Louis Dowd telephoned him in his office, on the thirteenth floor of the nineteen sixties monolith we guardians of arts and humanities called home. At first Grogan struggled to apportion any sense to Dowd’s words. The sibilant voice of the art and book collector was telling him he had a mutual acquaintance, Guido, staying with him in London.
“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten. You banged on enough about Guido when he first came out,” Dowd chastised him. Just as Grogan deciphered what he must have meant, he discounted its implication as too staggering to believe. He said something to that effect, at which Dowd gave one of his laughs, like the hiss of air evacuating a slashed tyre.
“Let’s say that I have a piece of Guido,” he went on. “And before we get to the how, I’d like you to come, if you wish, to have a look. To pay homage…”
Of course, Grogan said he would.
The origins of a career studying Dante are hard to pin down. At what point, and why, does an individual turn, not just away from the infinite compendium of postmodern, popular culture, but as far away from it as is possible to turn? In Grogan’s case, and perhaps that of others who began their scholarly journeys in the nineteen eighties or nineties, it was a reaction against the times. All promise of an alternate social vision had evaporated. Pop culture flaunted hedonism as its last hurrah. Literature had become a realm of fabular play. In this climate, for those with a predisposition, a first encounter with a fourteenth century vision of divine justice was like methane spirits dousing a fire. Suddenly, there were flames, not just one more puff of smoke in an already clouded sky. Most astonishing of all, this fire did not require what would seem to be the essential oxygen to ignite it. You did not, it seemed, have to believe in God to feel the very mixture of pity and contempt for the souls of the damned that Dante intended.
In later years this prompted Grogan to ask: ‘If not God, what drew us?’ To his mind there were two answers. The first, disturbing enough, is that we liked the idea of punishment. We were comforted, even as we felt powerless as individuals, by the notion that one day our rulers and enemies would suffer the same hideous castigations as Dante had inflicted on the denizens of Hell. Secondly, and equally disconcerting, we were drawn to the Comedy because, although it takes linguistic skill, patient detective work, and occasional hypothetical leaps, ultimately we could comprehend it. It is a single work, by a single hand, with an order and logic of its own. This is important, when understanding the machinery of technology and commerce that drives the world we inhabit is a project on which we have long since given up hope.
He arrived at Kings Cross the morning after speaking to Louis on the telephone. The tedious need to provide a sick note to explain why he was abandoning his lectures at short notice had been circumvented by happy coincidence. The second annual conference of the European Dante Society was due to take place in Dijon, France over the following three days. Set up two years previously, the EDS had arisen after a bitter falling out with the New York based institution under whose auspices world-wide Dante scholarship had been led since the end of the nineteenth century. Grogan himself had originally been involved with the EDS as part of the editorial board for its triennial journal. However, after a year of witnessing the bitter power struggle which had quickly developed at its heart, he resigned in disgust. The university, or rather one of those obscure, high-salaried individuals paid to represent its best interests, let it be known to him that they were less than pleased by his decision. ‘There is a certain leverage to be gained, in perception if nothing else, by an institution having a member of its staff on the board of a prestigious journal.’ Or some such bullshit: in any case, the news that he had decided to drag himself to the annual meeting after all, ‘to give it a second chance’, was greeted with enthusiasm by the same simulacrum of a human being who had earlier reprimanded him. Not that he had lied, since he always intended to travel on to Dijon by train before flying back from Paris.
A curious thing happened as he wheeled his case across the Kings Cross concourse. He was vaguely looking up at a giant screen across which the tracer fire of breaking news flashed, when suddenly he felt sure that among the mass of bodies shuffling towards the escalators a face was staring at him. It was the most fleeting of impressions, and when he scanned the forest of figures none stood out. Of those directed his way, almost all were gazing up at a departure board behind and above his head. They seemed to be ordinary people, each with their own desires, fears and miseries, each intent on their own private journeys. As the escalator sucked him down into the bowels of the tube (the parallels with entry to Inferno too obvious here to mention) he laid aside the sense of being watched. Perhaps subconsciously he was adopting the mindset of a city rumoured never to be far from another terrorist attack. Holding onto a metal rail, pressed into a stranger’s back as the train howled through the void, he considered the possibility that the studious looking Asian in the seat opposite was a zealot convinced that obliterating a carriageful of strangers would bring him some form of eternal reward. His paranoia suitably aligned with racial profiling, he emerged again blinking into the sunlight at Embankment.
As the crowds thinned out, Dowd materialised, shimmering against the light. He was looking not at Grogan but out over the Thames, arms braced against the guardrail like a cruise ship passenger. Grogan trundled over and joined him, adopting the same position and following his gaze upriver, into the sun, beyond the Jubilee Bridges to the vast revolving Eye.
“The Wheel of Fortune.” Dowd remarked. He still had not acknowledged Grogan with the merest turn of his head. Dowd looked like an aged Picasso: bald, lean and leathery in white and navy striped polo neck, bell-bottomed navy slacks and sandals. Grogan thought for someone who liked to dress according to his mood, it hardly matched the melancholy of the remark, but presumed he was feeding the scholar in him to expound.
“The great question of the middle ages,” he obliged. “Did man control his own fate, or was he hostage to whatever turn the wheel took?”
“It doesn’t apply anymore then, you think?” Dowd suddenly swivelled his head and fixed Grogan with his icy blue stare. Not for the first time Grogan felt compelled to consider his learned views more carefully for Dowd than he ever did for his fellow academics.
“I tend to side with Machiavelli,” he said finally… “Fortune favours those whose temperament matches the times they live in.”
Dowd gave his best impression of a fast puncture.
“So that’s you fucked then,” He grinned wolfishly.
“You’ve done pretty well up to now…”
“For an Irish poof from Hackney you mean?”
“For anyone I’d say.”
“Fuck off Grogan. If I didn’t know better I’d think you were chatting me up. Now come on. We’re going for a walk.”
The conversation exhibited Dowd’s pathological need for control. Any impediments to his plans were reacted to as personal affronts, solving them a Nietzchean test of his will to power. The unwelcome presence of Grogan’s wheeled suitcase proved a case in point. A quick call to his personal chauffeur, and five minutes later a black Bentley pulled up alongside them. A young man with the appearance of a swimwear model leapt out and, heedless of the honking traffic snarled behind him, greeted Grogan with a firm handshake. ‘Marcello’ – as Dowd introduced him – then lifted his case and placed it carefully in the boot of the car before tipping his cap at them and purring away. All this just so the pair could begin their crossing of the Jubilee Bridges unencumbered, fingers locked behind their backs in the classic gallery stroller gait.
Dowd had told Grogan that he saw in him the pure spirit of scholarship. He was surrounded by people who regarded him, whether well or badly, in light of his possessions: his wealth, his connections, and the not small degree of fame he possessed. He wasn’t averse to such treatment – it fed his ego, but, equally he needed someone to whom none of this meant anything. The fact that Grogan had become that someone was a matter of pure fortune. They had both been present at a flat party in Grogan’s city hosted by an opera director, a cerebral man whose gatherings were wholly unused to the sort of behaviour exhibited by Dowd that night. With the fireworks of the festival’s conclusion booming in the sky outside, Dowd cavorted on the table, warbling out Edith Piaf songs one after the other. This carried on until a gin, and a step, too far, followed by a collapse which ended up destroying that most clichéd of destructible items, a valuable vase. As Dowd recuperated on the sofa, Grogan learned that he was in mourning, his partner of thirty years having died in a yachting accident a month previously.
He pretended not to have known this when, a week later, he received a telephone call from Louis Dowd to his office. The collector appeared to want to explain his actions, and as he listened Grogan wondered if every single person who had been there that night was receiving the same expiatory call. He was surprised that Dowd had managed to remember speaking to him at all, never mind track him down. They had only conversed for ten minutes before Dowd’s drinking began to radically alter his behaviour. Dowd, on learning that Grogan was an academic specialising in Dante, had asked him if he thought Inferno would have been written had the poet not seen Giotto’s last judgement fresco in the Scrovegni chapel. Grogan had risen to the provocation and they had argued, good-naturedly, about the primacy of the visual arts over the written word.
Dowd made no reference to this in his follow-up telephone call, but apologised for what he described as his egocentric behaviour born out of despair. Grogan was embarrassed and, perhaps sensing as much, Dowd ended the conversation. A further week on, a parcel was delivered by special courier to Grogan’s office. Inside it, wrapped in several layers of crepe paper, was a first edition of Gustave Dore’s engravings of Purgatorio and Paradiso, with a note saying ‘regards, Louis’. Thus was their connection established, with an act of giving and a corresponding sense of obligation. This was soon exploited, as Grogan effectively became Dowd’s unpaid go-between to the Edinburgh art collecting establishment. For Louis Dowd, as you may by now have realised, was an attention seeking, devious, manipulative devil who would not let moral scruples get in the way of his own megalomaniac ambitions for a second.