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

So. Purgatory, then. I hope this will be coherent – but I’m worried that if I wait too long to write it, I’ll be distracted by Paradise (what a lovely sentence to take out of context), and won’t be able to do it justice.

I started this book with oddly mixed feelings. My own expectation, from having read the Inferno and Dorothy Sayers’ commentaries, was that I’d really enjoy it – in fact, I’d been impatient to get through the last half dozen or so Cantos (Canti?) of Inferno, so I could find out what the next bit was like – and yet numerous people had told me that Purgatory was less interesting, and even Sayers said that many people didn’t get past Inferno (and, I might add, she had no high opinion of such people!), so I wasn’t sure how I’d like it.

But, in fact, I think I liked it more than its predecessor. Inferno was interesting, certainly, but it lacked the theological fascination of Purgatory, at least for me. Perhaps this was a product of not having been brought up Catholic – Purgatory was not a concept I knew well, so it had an extra interest for me. Also, of course, circumstances combined to make the experience of reading it strangely topical and profound – while I may joke about Australia being Purgatory, I cannot deny that something visceral and indescribable was added to my reading when I noted the smoke in the air as I read about the smoky circle of Wrath, or read about the fire in the circle of Lust near the top of the mountain straight after reading of the bushfires in the Victorian Alps, or walked out of the office into a cool change just as Dante walked through the fire into the cool of the Earthly Paradise. And while Sayers tells me, and I believe her, that Dante could not have known about the Southern Cross when he described the constellations, I couldn’t help seeing them whenever the four stars in the sky were mentioned. I can’t tell you how all this affected my understanding of the book; I can tell you, though, that I believe it is more deeply lodged in my memory as a result – experiential learning, as one might say.


As for the book itself, it surprised me by how joyful and happy it was. All the souls in Purgatory are bound for Paradise, sooner or later, and they all know it. So the characters are a very cheerful and courteous bunch, even while weighed down by pains that are not much different to the pains of hell – except that they are finite, and willingly accepted, which is all the difference in the world. I was going to say that I don’t know what I think of this doctrine, but actually, I do know what I think. I like it. I like it far more than an eternal Hell, which seems absolutely abhorrent to me. But Dante’s view of Purgatory seems to me to be almost Karmic – the time spent in Purgatory is essentially time spent in making reparation for the sins that were not redeemed during life – those who managed to pay their karmic debts as they went, as you might say, go straight to Paradise; most people, of course, don’t manage that, and have work to do.

The difference, of course, is that the reparation in Purgatory is made to God alone. You can only make reparation for sins against your fellow humans to your fellow humans during life. Which makes perfect sense, of course, since your ability to interact with your fellow humans after death is exceedingly limited in the usual way of things. And if one shares my vague and ill-defined belief that we all in some way participate and share in God-ness (the Inner Light, as Quakers would say), then repayment to God is repayment to your fellow humans – only dispersed with equal love over all of them, rather than directed solely towards those you have harmed. Which, actually, I like even more as an idea (you’ll have to excuse me – I’m inventing my theology as I go along here).

While this is lovely stuff, of course, gorgeous theology, even with Discourses on Love and Free Will (which are apparently famous, but I found hard to follow in places), isn’t enough to keep me going through 300 pages and 33 Canti. Because plot-wise, the direction is pretty straightforward, and I believe there are those who say that there is, in fact, no plot. But there are two things that Dante does exceptionally well (aside, of course, from write, which both he and Sayers do beautifully – really, you forget it is a translation, it just feels like poetry flowing naturally in its native language). First, he excels at world-building. You want to know what he will put in the next Cornice, how his structure will work, who you will meet there, what they did, what they will say, and how it will all fit together.

And secondly – and more importantly to me – Dante excels at characterisation – which is, I suspect, unusual in allegorical writing. Dante the poet writes himself, Dante the pilgrim, into the story, and he does it beautifully – he is very human, asks all the questions we want asked, of course, but also has his own natural reactions. You can feel that he is truly interested in all the spirits he meets, and truly determined to learn as much as he can – a character trait that I am bound to find attractive! He has a strong self-knowledge; he remarks at one point that he is not too worried about being stuck for long on the Cornice of Envy, but is already rather apprehensive at the amount of time he will no doubt need to spend on the Cornice of Pride… which has the double effect of humanising him, and reminding the reader that, according to Dante, we are all going to have to ascend Mt. Purgatory if we are lucky, and will no doubt be stuck for a long time on some of its Cornices (Pride, Gluttony, and the spendthrifty side of Covetousness would be my chief destinations, I would think). And he has his weaknesses, too – he is terrified of the fire at the gateway to the Earthly Paradise, and has to be coaxed through; then when he finally sees Beatrice, he is so distracted that he forgets things he has already been told.

And then there is Virgil, who embodies reason. He can guide Dante up the mountain, but must leave him in the earthly Paradise. I didn’t believe Dorothy Sayers when she wrote in her introduction that, like Dante, we actually do fail to notice Virgil’s disappearance, and quickly forget that he is gone in the face of Beatrice’s appearance on the stage – yet I did fail to notice, and I did forget. Even though I really liked Virgil, who had guided us through two books and deserved better than Limbo, in my opinion. But Beatrice takes the stage with such energy, reaming him out most thoroughly for allowing himself to be led astray after her death distracted by “Some girl, or other brief and passing thing”, that I became completely absorbed in her words, and forgot about Virgil entirely until I put down the book.

I must say, I’m getting quite hooked on allegory, to the point that I’m seriously considering tackling “Le Roman de la Rose” next, even though I only have it in French and in Old French and it is over 1,000 pages long. I’ll have to see how ambitious I feel this time next week.

But first, on to Paradise. I have to admit, I am very daunted by this next volume. First, Dante himself (in Beatrice’s voice) warns us that it is going to get more philosophical and difficult: “But from now on I promise thee to use / a naked style of speech – that is, so far / as truth unveiled befits thy sight obtuse.” . And I’m feeling pretty obtuse in my sight just now. Then, this third volume is only partially translated by Sayers; she died with only the first 20 cantos complete, not having embarked on the introduction or notes (curiously, after Dante’s death, only the first 20 cantos of Paradise could be found – his sons eventually tracked down the last 13 cantos in a window niche in a house he had been staying in). Her friend, Barbara Reynolds, completed it (at her request), but I am less inclined to trust her voice. But, having managed to beguile two weeks of Advent with Inferno and Purgatorio, respectively, it seems right to read Paradiso in the week before Christmas.

Like Dante before me, I shall report back to you once my journeying is complete.

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