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.

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