Book review: Dante’s Inferno, in translation by Dorothy Sayers

Here’s what I learned from reading The Divine Comedy: Hell, as translated by Dorothy Sayers: Purgatory is Australia! No, really, it is: in Dante’s literal (but not allegorical, as Miss Sayers would quickly point out) scheme of the universe, Hell is entered through a Dark Wood in the Northern Hemisphere, from which one descends deeper and deeper inside the earth to the bottom of the pit – the frozen 9th circle of Hell, where a morose Satan gloomily gnaws on the most perfidious traitors of all.

And then you climb down Satan’s ice-encased body, but at the navel you have to turn upside down, and climb up his legs. And the night of his upper body is day on the lower half of his body, and you are at the foot of Mount Purgatory, the only land in the Antipodes. Really, it isn’t surprising that Dante missed an island or two (although New Zealand surely deserved better), but it is quite clear to me that we Australians are dwelling on Mount Purgatory. Certainly, in this disgustingly hot weather, the air filled with smoke from bushfires, and with an equally appalling sort of weather predicted for tomorrow, I can believe it. Which is certainly increasing my anticipation of Dante’s Purgatory (of which I have now read 30 pages of introduction, and have been put right about Freud and that foolish masculine conceit: romantic love. Actually, I can’t resist quoting the delightful Miss Sayers herself on the subject:

… it is very observable that whereas there has been from time immemorial an Enigma of Woman, there is no corresponding Enigma of Man. When women write or talk (and they have always talked pretty freely), one gets the impression that Man as such is an open book to them: their problem is to do their best with the individual males presented for their attention…. Lovers, husbands, children, households – these are major feminine preoccupations: but not love. It is the male who looks upon the amorous adventure as an end in itself, and dignifies it with a metaphysic…”)

OK, I’ll stop quoting now (and from the Introduction to the Purgatory, at that!). I’m not sure I agree with all of it, but I adore the way she says it (Catherine has a great big crush on Dorothy Sayers, in case this is not evident). And this seems a good time to reiterate that I can absolutely recommend Dorothy Sayers’ translation of the work. She is an excellent wordsmith, of course – she has kept the terza rima scheme, alliteration, etc, of course, but to a dedicated prose-reader like myself, the true charm of her translation is its readability. Dante wrote in the vernacular – so that ‘even women would understand’ – rather than in the Latin of other writers contemporary to him. Sayers has thus also stuck to the vernacular – she uses an English which I would hesitate to call ‘everyday’, since it is far finer than that, but which is conversational, imbued with a dry humour, and above all, clear. Her Introductions are essentially essays and commentaries in their own right, and the end of each Canto has a brief commentary on the literal and allegorical meanings, with further notes on the various characters encountered by Dante in his travels. The result is that you have enough information close to the text that you are not left wondering who is who, but that you are also not constantly interrupted in your reading by a footnote – which would be a shame, because the translation is quite musical.

And what do I think of the Inferno itself? It’s hard to know where to start. Limbo pleased me – I had always assumed it was a far darker, sadder place – but effectively, it is the Elysian Fields (Sayers notes that the Virtuous Pagans who dwell there have sinned only in not being able to imagine God and the afterlife – therefore they get the afterlife that they had imagined, which, frankly, doesn’t sound like a bad one at all). I note with interest that Saladin made it to Limbo – clearly Dante felt that those who had been born after Christ but who were sincerely unable to accept the Gospel were worthy of Limbo, rather than the circle of Heretics or worse. I may be wrong, but I rather think this was an unusually tolerant attitude for his time.

I found in reading the first part of the book that I became increasingly uncomfortable, and I suspect this was Dante’s intention. He holds up a mirror to sin, and the first few circles (the Lustful, the Gluttonous, the Hoarders and Spendthrifts – circles relating to Indulgence of Self and Others) were of course full of things I recognised in myself. I’m not at all sure I believe in the Catholic set of sins and this worldview, and I’m positive I do not believe in eternal punishment, but Dante very obviously did, and his conviction carried mine with it. Allegorically, I am informed, the punishment is not so much a punishment from God, as a continuation of the sin, with all illusions stripped from it. This is surprisingly uncomforting. Though at least once we got down to the sins of Violence and Malice I saw little of myself reflected. My sins are, in general, not those of intent or cruelty.

Another disturbing feature of the Inferno was Dante’s reaction to the various damned… which was fairly sympathetic to the people he knew, but often unsympathetic or even cruel to others, even going so far as to deliberately break a promise to aid one of the damned in the circle of the Betrayers. Sayers is at pains to point out that Dante’s reaction is always a mirror of the sin itself – betrayal calls for betrayal; violence, violence. Allegorically, this works – on a literal level, though, it made me squirm. Virgil, Dante’s guide, points out to him at one point that it is inappropriate to feel compassion and kindness towards the damned, because they have been justly condemned by God – so that compassion to the damned is effectively a denial of God’s justice. Which, while logical, still doesn’t work for me. I simply cannot bring myself to believe in a God who will punish people eternally (and in some fairly revolting ways, I might add) for a sin that is, in general, of non-eternal duration. I cannot see this as justice.

But oddly enough, I think the main thing I took from reading the Inferno was a somewhat appalled realisation that Shakespeare really wasn’t exaggerating when he wrote things like Romeo and Juliet. It seems that all the city-states of Italy spent a huge amount of their time in warfare against each other, and in civil war and vendetta among themselves. Dante peopled his Divine Comedy with his contemporaries and figures from the classics – and the number of his contemporaries who were involved in duels, feuds, betrayal, politicking, poisonings, inciting others to violence, etc, seems enormous. And that he knew them all by name – since the cities were not all that large. Melbourne is a big place, and I doubt I could name more than a handful of famous criminals of ours (if any, now I think of it). It seems as though the pattern of politicking, betrayal, murder, revenge for murder, and escalation into outright civil war was almost a constant background to life in Florence – and the Sayers’ biography of Dante suggests that was quite possibly the case…

Anyway. On to Purgatory (or Australia, depending on how you choose to translate it). I shall report back to you from the top of the mountain…

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