The Dante Code Vs. The Da Vinci Club

I am apparently the only person in my entire circle of human acquaintance who liked “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown.

Many readers I respect, even including a fellow LitKicks staffer, hate this book with a passion. It probably doesn’t help that the author became extremely rich by writing this interesting but aggravating and highly commercial book.

I understand why many people who take either literature or history seriously dislike this book. I know about the many historical flaws, such as the fact that the title itself is an error. The artist was known as Leonardo — “Da” means from, Vinci was his home, and nobody called him “Da Vinci”.

I am also aware that the prose style is dumbed down. There aren’t many words here that haven’t appeared on “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood”. Brown pulls out cliches that most high school students are too good for — I’m not sure if he actually describes somebody as “white as a ghost”, but that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.

Still, I liked this book a lot. It grabbed my attention from page one, and it will grab anybody else’s. The basic idea is that a Merovingian princess, and a distant relative of Jesus Christ, walks among us. A variety of bureaucrats, criminals, academics and mad monks scheme to either conceal or reveal this secret.

It’s a tough premise to sell, but the book mainly works if you suspend your critical thinking and go along for the ride. Personally, I don’t even care if a relative of Jesus walks among us. It wouldn’t really affect my life much either way. As I turned these pages, I only cared who was going to get stabbed next, or what the latest secret code meant, or whether or not the hero was going to finally make out with Sophie Neveu.

Also, the book kept making me remember scenes from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, which is a good thing for a book to do.

Matthew Pearl’s “The Dante Club” is another recent hit book in the “Da Vinci Code” vein, although this novel has a more intellectual flavor. It’s 1865 in Boston and Cambridge, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is presiding over a literary salon that includes James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes. They have all fallen in love with the works of Dante, the classic Italian poet, and are particularly obsessed by his “Inferno”, a dark work that narrates the particulars of Hell in vivid detail.

The only problem is, somebody else in Boston is also apparently obsessed with Dante, because the scenes of torture and punishment described in the “Inferno” are being carried out all over town. On real people. The police are clueless, so “The Dante Club” sets out to catch the real killer.

Matthew Pearl is a better writer than Dan Brown. He knows how to make words dance, whereas Dan Brown’s words seem to be doing the hokey-pokey at best. However, “The Dante Club” is distinctly weaker than “Da Vinci Code” in terms of plot and, yes, believability. As I turned the pages of “The Dante Club”, I kept finding myself simply muttering … “What?” Like, why don’t the aged poets just talk to the police, for God’s sake? And, how can a man be buried underground with his feet on fire and not feel somewhat uncomfortable about the fact that he is buried underground (the poor guy only seems to be upset about his feet being on fire)? Finally, why, why, why does Oliver Wendell Holmes have to leave the others and run upstairs in his underwear?

The book improves by the end. We discover why the author set the novel in 1865, because Boston is teeming with shell-shocked Civil War Veterans, and when the detective-poets realize their murderer is likely to be among these walking wounded, the book begins to recall the gritty realism of “The Alienist” by Caleb Carr or “The Tree of Life” by Hugh Nissenson.

Still, I don’t think it’s fair that “Da Vinci Code” gets criticized while this book gets a free ride. It’s good brain food and it will teach you a few things about Dante. But, in the end, the plot doesn’t pass inspection. Dan Brown obviously worked hard to think through the motivations of each of the characters in his book, so that “The Da Vinci Code” finally fits together like an intricate puzzle. As for Matthew Pearl, however, you just have to wonder what the hell kind of Scooby Doo meets Sherlock Holmes visits Encyclopedia Brown saturday morning cartoon he fell asleep in front of the morning he came up with his whole idea.

To sum it all up: I give “The Dante Code” four Scooby Snacks out of five, and “The Da Vinci Club” gets five. I’d like to know what you think about these books, if you’ve read either of them. If not, I’d like to hear what you think about the entire genre of imagined historical fiction.

22 Responses

  1. I’m Not Sure I KnowI’ve read
    I’m Not Sure I Know

    I’ve read neither.

    I am not sure I know what imagined historical fiction is, but I am guessing that it is literature written as history?

    I’ve read a lot of James Michener, who generally follows historical events, but through the eyes of fictional characters, with the odd historical character thrown in. I enjoy Michener very much, although moreso when I was younger. The danger of this type of historical fiction, of course, is greater when younger, because one is more inclined to take events as being perhaps more historical than they are actually are — one has to guard against this temptation, and always be aware that the the lines between history and fiction in such books exist. Sometimes Michener will provide comments in endnotes, which helps to clarify the blurred lines.

    My other favourite historical writer is Canadian Pierre Berton, recently deceased. He sticks to the historical facts, yet writes about them in a way that tells a story with passion, life, and emotion.

    I suspect imagined historical fiction is closer to the Michener example. As I’ve always said, any good writing is good writing, but the reader has to be aware of what he or she is reading, and temper expectations with realism. But isn’t all literature somehow written as history? I mean it isn’t like the authors take great care to tell us when they’re being fictional and when they’re not, is it?

  2. Hi Knip, yeah, that’s
    Hi Knip, yeah, that’s basically the idea. But I think the latest craze (as in “Da Vinci Code”) is to put well-known people or incidents from history at the center of the fictional story.

    In a way, this is the oldest genre of them all. Homer’s “Iliad” tells the story of the Trojan War, which was already a distant historical memory by the time Homer was alive. Michener is in this category too, I think. And I think you’re right that all fiction, unless it takes place in the future or tells stories that are entirely true, is strictly speaking an offense against history. I think this new trend just pushes the line a bit further.

  3. Two CentsI can’t speak for
    Two Cents

    I can’t speak for anyone else who hates The Da Vinci Code, but I have to say that my own personal reason for hating it is that, well, Dan Brown writes like a third grader. I enjoy letting my brain relax by reading the occasional light, fluffy murder mystery, and some of the books I’ve read in this genre have been (while not necessarily great works of literary fiction), well written and highly entertaining. But The Da Vinci Code didn’t really fit the bill for me in either case. It was recommended to me by someone who really ought to know better, and I borrowed her copy. I will admit that when I first started reading it, I thought it was pretty interesting, but after about a hundred pages of stilted dialogue, overworn cliches and other bits of ridiculous cheesiness, I just wanted the damn thing to be over. And when I finally got to the end, I breathed a sigh of relief. Then I gave the book to my mom, so we could both make fun of it. And let me tell you — we haven’t had as much fun ridiculing a book since The Celestine Prophecy.

    Perhaps I could’ve enjoyed it if it had been written by a capable writer, but Dan Brown is a hack, so I guess I’ll never know. (And come on. Opie is making the film version with Tom Hanks — that can’t be a good sign.) Plus, I think it’s pretty sad that so many people have bought into the questionable facts in this book, thinking that it’s uncovered some great truth about the historical destruction of the sacred feminine. Yet really, I think it’s pretty chauvinist to argue that a woman’s worth as a sacred being (or whatever, blah) is directly proportional to her being fucked by a man. Call me crazy. In any case, I really don’t care one way or another if Jesus and Mary Magdalene got it on, and if they did, well, good for them.


    I haven’t read this other book that you’re discussing, but I just have to say — Oliver Wendell Holmes running in his skivvies? Now that sounds entertaining.

  4. It’s a Mother, AlrightI also
    It’s a Mother, Alright

    I also liked The Da Vinci Code, but let me explain why. When I first heard of the book, I looked it up on the internet. I found one site that partially gave away the premise of the book, but I couldn’t stop reading. It was calling to me, I say. CALLING to me like the SIRENS on the OCEAN! Don’t you SEEE?!
    …Anyway, the site showed a picture of da Vinci’s Last Supper and pointed out five “clues” in the pictures which I thought were rather intriguing. Whether or not they were really intended to be “clues” by daVinci, I don’t know. And even if they were, that doesn’t mean that Leonardo knew what he was talking about. So, I went to the local library and checked out the book.

    The first chapter was pretty good. The more I read, I became a little disappointed by the elementary style of writing – like it was written for young kids. Also, it seemed to be tailor-made for a movie pitch. But each time a new clue came along, it was fun. I thought, “My son might like this.” At least I wouldn’t have to explain that the little “sea shells” in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 were really ear phones.

    Levi, know that you are not alone. Let Mother Earth protect us from the wrath of our detractors.

  5. I don’t think the theory this
    I don’t think the theory this book is based on argues that a woman’s worth as a sacred being, or whatever, is directly proportional to her being fucked by a man. I think it’s saying that women are equally important as men, because a lot of the doctrine developed in the history of the Christian Church seems to have subjugated women. I realize that not all Christians believe the exact same way, and I’m not suggesting that none of the church doctrines have any validity, but let’s look at the convoluted thing.

    Back in the day, women were forbidden from speaking in church. The Apostle Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, recommended that a man not marry unless he just couldn’t stand celibacy, almost like sex was a necessary evil. I believe this is partly where the idea of celibacy for Catholic priests came from. To me, all those priests vowing celibacy is unnatural. Although I consider myself a Christian, my attitude on women would be considered “pagan” in some circles. I don’t mean that how it sounds. What I mean is, I can talk to a man or woman with equal ease about things that used to be considered taboo.

  6. Shades of MichenerReader’s
    Shades of Michener

    Reader’s Digest used to condense his books but everything Michener wrote — imagined historical fiction — sold, hence, so it goes, e.g., something equally banal, MUZAK’s still doing elevator music, right?

    Hamurger with too much fat outsells raw fish but on the bookshelves of used bookstores, this reader never saw a Michener copy.

    To paraphrase Nietzsche: Write what should be.

  7. Da Vinci Code, wrong from the
    Da Vinci Code, wrong from the title

    Can’t see what Levi loves in Da Vinci Code. The plot is pretty thin (no, I don’t buy Langdon, Baigent, or Neveu as characters, and they are clearly not really what the book is about). It’s practically written as a screenplay treatment, with a hero who looks like “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed” and is a “Professor of Religious Symbology at Harvard” — good work if you can find it). To say the history is unimportant is to ignore what gives the plot any sense of urgency whatsoever.

    “The Da Vinci Code” makes for a reasonable airline novel, so much so that it is often a bit clunky in its desire to ensure that no intellectual effort on the reader’s part will be required. Here’s a recurring example in this novel: a bit of unfamiliar terminology, say “crux gemmata” (jeweled cross) will be explained, then one page later a character will finger his jeweled cross and explain, “Oh, yes — this is a crux gemmata.” We’ve read dinner menus that were more demanding on the reader.

    A note — this is not truly historical fiction, since it is set in the present, not the past. Most historians don’t give any credence to the forgeries and frauds promoted in controversial best-sellers like “Holy Blood, Holy Grail.” This author gets the best of both worlds: simultaneously claiming that “it’s just fiction,” while introducing the novel with claims that the historical record contained within is “fact.” That claim is ridiculous. He gets just about everything wrong:

    The history of Grail legends;
    The council of Nicaea;
    Leonardo’s life and work;
    The Templars;
    The gnostic writings discovered at Nag Hammadi;
    The Dead Sea scrolls;
    The Emperor Constantine;
    The mystery cults of the Roman Empire;

    He gets wrong a bunch of stuff that he could have checked by picking up an ordinary encyclopedia.

    He ignores the documented fact, agreed upon even by the cheerleaders of the gnostics that he is sympathetic to, that the earliest gnostic doctrines held that Christ was *purely* God, and not really man — the very reverse of the doctrine that serves as the lynchpin of his novel’s intellectual base (such as it is).

    The novel is briskly written, but all the drama arises because of the premise: if you try to imagine the book without that premise, it’s very pedestrian and uninteresting.

  8. No and NoI’ve not read
    No and No

    I’ve not read either, but I think historical fiction, or fictionalized history, or fiction with history on the side is an enjoyable and interesting type of writing that doesn’t necessarily encompass everything that’s been written. If we’d like to be flip, of course, we could say that about any category. A sort of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon in the library — or would that be Six Degrees of Dewey Decimal? A rousing game, I’m sure.

    I think one of the main points about historical fiction (yes, I still think we can call it that.) is that its very nature means that it’s not entirely factual. Hence, “fiction”. I’m not sure that anyone looking for factual information about Mary Magdalene and Co. would turn to Dan Brown as their primary source. Or maybe they would… It’s a hell of a thing. Maybe it’s all blatant lies or fantasy dreamland. Or a conspiracy concocted by Jesus himself. Actually, the only thing that I’m disappointed about is that apparently there are no flesh-eating robots in The Da Vinci Code — and that’s why I don’t think I’ll be picking it up.

    In any case, I also know a lot of people who liked this book and found it readable and interesting. I don’t think anyone’s touting it as the next Great Expectations — yet, for many it’s an entertaining read that makes them want to actually seek out the answers to the questions that are raised within the story … makes them want to find out more about the time period and the historical figures referenced. Or maybe they were simply entertained by it. I don’t think this makes any of them inbreds, yokels or less intelligent than folks who may prefer to pick up War & Peace instead of The DaVinci Code Glossary Unleashed Vol. 5. Personally, I think it’s probably a “good thing” a lot of people are being entertained … by a book. Especially since Halo 2 came out. I also think it’s really great it pisses a lot of people off, because there’s nothing I love more than pissed off people. (Except for Cadbury eggs, of course.)

    In closing, people love it, people hate it, I changed my cat’s name to Cat-Jesus because of it. But in the end, I think the Isley Brothers said it best when they said: “It’s your thing, do what you wanna do, I can’t tell ya, who to sock it to.”

    I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids. Amen, Dan Brown, a-men.

  9. Fiahcrackah! Do regail us
    Fiahcrackah! Do regail us with tales of Faulknah’s Mississippi!

    It turns out that the “ghost” was just old man Evans trying to keep people from finding the stolen money!

  10. I guess I have a hard time
    I guess I have a hard time buying that, since I couldn’t help but notice that even though the book tries to argue for Magdalene’s inherent coolness, it can’t really do it without making it clear that the real mystery/conspiracy/thing that made Magdalene totally bitchin’ is that she’s the Grail, the chalice, the, um, receptacle. In any case, Brown’s argument/plot/whatever (along with that of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which he stole it from) and its basis in the apocrypha is totally cheap, considering the fact that he uses all these things as “proof” yet conveniently leaves out some of the more troubling aspects of his sources. A prime example of this would be that in the Gospel of Thomas, it’s written that Jesus said that every woman who’ll make herself male will enter Heaven. Prime feminism right there, to be sure. Yeah.

    But then, perhaps it has more to do with bizarre statements such as that one that the Gospel of Thomas (among others) remains an apocryphal work and is not accepted in the Biblical canon, and has less to do with the fact that there’s some vast conspiracy out to keep Mary Magdalene down. Or maybe not. Whatever.

    As for your statement about Paul, yeah, he said some stuff that can sometimes seem pretty wacky to modern readers of his epistles, and I’m of the opinion that Paul’s writing (as well as the rest of the Bible) should be read in a cultural and historical context. And though some of the things he wrote may seem questionable, especially out of context, Paul also wrote that there are no divisions (gender, racial, etc.) and that everyone’s equal in Christ, so there’s that.

  11. okay, but …Okay, but …
    okay, but …

    Okay, but … what about the way, towards the end of “Da Vinci Code”, when you finally piece together who’s working with the good guys and who’s really doing what to who, and when it finally all comes together, you can just sit there running through all the events that led up to the end of the book in your mind … and it all suddenly fits together like a puzzle. Dan Brown is a mediocre writer, but he has a real skill with intricate, multilayered plots. Like any good mystery, you can turn this story upside down, you can look at it sideways, you can step through the point of view of any individual character … and it works from any angle. He put time into this plot, and that’s one reason the book is so satisfying.

    And that’s really more than you can say about “The Dante Club”, which strains to keep its plot from falling apart at several points. But “Dante Club” got better reviews than “Da Vinci Code”. And I guess the difference between these two writers is my whole point. Literary finesse, which Dan Brown has absolutely none of, is only one way to be a good writer. He succeeds in other ways from a strictly literary point of view — yes, literary! “Da Vinci Club” is more than an exciting story — it’s a complex structure that is impressive in itself, like an M. C. Escher image.

  12. You got me on those points. I
    You got me on those points. I haven’t read the Gospel of Thomas, but you’ve shed some surprising light on it for me. Sounds bogus, I agree. Does this mean I’m not allowed to put you on a pedestal?

  13. You are exactly right about
    You are exactly right about this not being historical fiction; I hadn’t thought of that. It’s not based on a historical event in another time, like you say. I also appreciate your comments about Brown ignoring the fact that the earliest gnostic doctrines held that Christ was purely God, and not really man. Excellent point.

  14. Give it up, brooklyn. When
    Give it up, brooklyn. When the mob comes to nail you up, I don’t know you!

  15. Sorry, Levi, but my wife and
    Sorry, Levi, but my wife and I had a very different response to the formal elements of the Da Vinci mystery as well. Both of us guessed many of the surprises, including the identity of the mystery villain — it seemed obvious.

    Maybe we should start talking about Robert Ludlum instead?

  16. Well, I totally did *not*
    Well, I totally did *not* guess the identity of the mystery villian. Billectric, did you?

    In fact, I’m still pissed off at him for turning into the mystery villian. I liked him.

  17. No. I didn’t figure it out.
    No. I didn’t figure it out. And yes, I was kind of disappointed that it was him. I should have expected it because they did a similar thing in one of the Indiana Jones movies.
    It reminded me of something they do in movies a lot which I don’t like. I’ll give an example. It’s not a perfect comparison, but it’s along the same lines.
    In the movie Goldfinger, the bad guys are chasing James Bond in his Astin Martin. He’s using all the gadgets – oil slick, machine guns, smoke screen – big-time action. He even escapes by ejecting his captor from the car! But after all that, they catch him again. It just seems a waste to go thru all that and get away. It also seemed a waste to introducce this character that seemed to be a good sidekick for the main characters, then he also turns out to be the bad guy.
    But I still like the book for its puzzles and interesting concept.

  18. I guessed it too. Because in
    I guessed it too. Because in books like that, there’s always the bad guy, and then there’s always a decoy bad guy, and usually, the bad guy is the one the book tries really hard to get you to believe is a good guy so that when his (or her… being a bad guy is not necessarily limited to, um, guys) total bad guy nature is revealed, you can say “Oh damn, that’s the bad guy?!?” Having been fooled by a fair number of these mystery books in the past, I have to say that I’ve gotten pretty good at not falling for mystery writers’ dirty tricks, which is why I knew when they went to the bad guy’s house for refuge that he was, indeed, the bad guy.

    I’m just saying.

  19. Yeah, no pedestals for me. I
    Yeah, no pedestals for me. I don’t really have very good balance.

  20. I, too, guessed the villian.
    I, too, guessed the villian. It was indeed quite obvious. However, that is not to suggest that I did not enjoy the book for the ride; I’m rather fond of mysteries. I’ve read both Da Vinci Code and Dante Club, and liked them both.

  21. I had fun with the daVinci
    I had fun with the daVinci code. Mostly because it made me do a lot of “this guy is nuts and I’m going to prove it” research.

    I didn’t find the plot challenging but rather hum-drum to the point that I really had to work to remember who the bad guy was when I started reading the string of responses here, then I remembered, “oh yeah, that guy.” So I guess I found the writer’s intrigue less than intriguing.

    Perhaps because this is my favorite fun reading category and I really enjoy an author who can deliver the goods. My favorite writer of this type is Jonathan Kellerman. You should read The Buther’s Theatre. It’ll get you going.

    But in this case, there just wasn’t a Kaiser Soze in this book. I mean when you know the bad guy’s name and he turns out to be a gimpy Kevin Spacey who isn’t gimpy at all… then you got a bad guy reveal that is memorable. Anything else, is just reading to pass time. But it can still be fun.

  22. What I ThinkIs the goal to be
    What I Think

    Is the goal to be a “better writer” or to tell a better story? I always try to keep in mind that at the end of the day when I’m writing, if I haven’t told a story that makes you want to keep reading, then it’s all a wasted effort.

    Writing is, in my life anyway, storytelling for the purpose of escape and entertainment. Yay for the time when I was intently learning the craft and tore apart every little strand for inspection, but that time’s long gone. People who make words dance don’t impress me much anymore. Storytellers however, keep me in a trance. It sounds like “The Da Vinci Code” was a story about characters that you cared about, and that “The Dante Club” was a plot with characters stuffed into it. That never turns out well for reader or writer.

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