I am not going to lie, I had a lot of trouble with this book. When I was studying T.S. Eliot for my AS Level English Literature I decided that I would read Dante’s Inferno since it helped a lot with The Waste Land and after reading A Clockwork Orange I thought that I would want to continue on with reading something a bit darker. I really enjoyed reading this and some of the guides around it and when I was making this bucket list I thought it would be an opportunity to finish this seminal work off.
Now, flash forward to 9 years later. I felt the same way about reading Inferno and I also enjoyed Purgatorio but the third section? Could not get on with it to such an extent that I ended up falling asleep on the train and dropping my Kindle whilst reading it. So… why such a different reaction?
For the uninitiated, The Divine Comedy is an epic poem depicting a man being guided through hell, via purgatory, towards the highest heights of heaven. Inferno is by far the most well known of the three since it depicts Dante’s vision of hell. When compared with the other two sections of The Divine Comedy it is by far the best part because of the complete sense of irony that permeates the punishments for the deadly sins e.g. gluttons are forced to lay face down in a disgusting slurry and false prophets have had their heads twisted so that they are forced to forever walk backwards. There’s also a punishment involving people being sealed in their own tombs and being on fire… but I can’t remember what that was the punishment for.
Having descended into the depths of hell and down the fur of Satan himself we enter the second book; Purgatorio. This does not have have the same depth of irony as Inferno but is still an enjoyable read… and then it ends with a proper ending. This is one of the reasons why Paradiso fell so flat for me, we had a decent ending and then the book picks up again having lost Virgil (the book’s most interesting character) since he was not allowed to see heaven due to not being a Christian. Instead we get the strict Beatrice as a companion which does not work as well. To put it into a context many would understand, it’s like when the David Tennant’s Doctor transformed into Matt Smith; loss of charisma and overall interest ensued.
Reading this taught me a couple of things. Firstly, when a book is this old and makes so many reference to contemporary figures, it would pay to either do this as part of a book group, in a classroom setting or with a really good guide book. Then there is just how much a book can depend on a good translation, a book like this is hard enough to get through without the translation being sub-par. Finally, it taught me that in many ways books are like movies, just because it is seen as important critically doesn’t mean I am going to be able to finish it.