The episode of Paolo and Francesca by Dante Alighieri

The seventh choice is too early, too poetic, too perfect ever to count as a short story. But I should love to someone to write it again in a kind of continuing mise en abyme. It is Dante’s episode of Paolo and Francesca in the Inferno (V. 70-138). Francesca was married off to Gianciotto, but fell in love with her husband’s brother Paolo. (The story was so well known that Dante skimps on all the details that might have extenuated the lovers.) When the character Dante asks the lovers what sin has put them there in hell, buffeted by the winds that hardly ever lull, Francesca tells him how irresistible love brought them together. They were reading together one day the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere, adulterous lovers lured and betrayed by Gallehault – Galeotto. Their eyes met once or twice over the book; their colour came and went. But when they reached the line about the smile that called forth the fatal kiss, Paolo kissed Francesca on the mouth. “Galeotto fu ’l libro, e chi lo scrisse.” “The book was a Gallehault, as was its writer.” 
 
Already two stages of betrayal have taken place – the writer (the author of the Arthurian tale) and the book are both seducers. In a further stage, Paolo seduces Francesca by means of the reading, though she is complicit too: “That day we read no further in it”. I should like to read a story about a professor of Italian reading this passage of Dante to a susceptible female student, and their falling into one another’s arms.

First published in 1472.

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