It’s satisfying, isn’t it, when a book you read leads the way to others — where one opens your eyes to another topic, another author or another passion and off you go. I’m happy to report that the joy of discovery is still alive and well in the mind of this 50-plus reader.
A few months back, I read a book in which Dante’s Inferno figured prominently, and I’ve recently been reading this nightmarish work of imagination and power. The author, Dante Alighieri, wanders through the nine circles of Hell with his guide, the ancient Roman poet, Virgil. It is an allegorical journey that examines the nature of human sin and the punishments endured by the sinners. It is heavily rooted in late 13th century Florence and it includes appearances by popes, politicians and tyrants of the time (not to mention another Roman poet, Ovid, and Thomas Aquinas). But it is also full of horrific imagery of suffering and agony, both physical and psychological. The landscape of Hell is uniformly grey and forlorn and yet endlessly varied as Dante and his guide make their way through the circles.
Here sighs and lamentations and loud cries
were echoing across the starless air,
so that, as soon as I set out, I wept.
Strange utterances, horrible pronouncements,
accents of anger, words of suffering,
and voices shrill and faint, and beating hands –
all went to make a tumult that will whirl
forever through that turbid, timeless air,
like sand that eddies when a whirlwind swirls.
Dante’s Hell is so breathtaking in scope that it achieves a sublime beauty. The reader is glad to finally leave at the end, but is touched by the suffering of its inhabitants and by the austere landscape.
Dante the narrator is repelled and fascinated with Hell, but mostly fearful for his life. Dante is a living visitor to the underworld and the inhabitants he encounters recognize his “living weight” immediately. He is constantly reassured by his guide, Virgil, that he will be safe under his stewardship.
But even Virgil, who is himself dead and a peripheral citizen of Hell, experiences his challenges. At the entrance to the city of Dis, he attempts to negotiate with the gatekeepers, but is unsuccessful. “You come alone,” they say to Virgil. “Let him be gone, for he was reckless, entering this realm.” Dante is terrified at being abandoned and begs Virgil to lead him back to the entrance of Hell.
But Virgil is knowing. “Forget your fear,” he says to Dante. “No one can hinder our passage; one so great has granted it.”
But you wait here for me, and feed and comfort
your tired spirit with good hope, for I
will not abandon you in this low world.
Virgil is more than capable. He leads Dante across a desert of red-hot sand where it perpetually rains fire, confronts powerful beings and negotiates their way out of some close encounters with various demons and monsters.
The Inferno is actually one of three cantos that form a larger work by Dante, called The Divine Comedy. The other two are Purgatorio and Paradiso, neither of which I have read. How did it take so long for me to discover this remarkable work?
It’s plausible that I really had no call to read the Inferno as I had focused on English literature in my university days and had only been a reluctant reader of translations. In 1980, however, I got lost in a labyrinth of narrow streets in Florence and stumbled by accident on the Casa di Dante, his family home and where he resided until he was forced to flee his beloved city. It was a discovery that became my main association with Dante for years … until recently, when I finally read the Inferno.
I came back to Dante by way of Andrew Davidson’s novel, The Gargoyle, which I liked for its connection of the medieval with the present day. The two main characters are lovers who have known each other since medieval times and have been meeting through the ages to heal each other from their tragic pasts. The woman, Marianne, is at first a nun at the abbey of Engelthal, near Nuremberg, Germany; the man, the book’s narrator, whose name we never learn, is a mercenary who is brought to the abbey — near death from being burned in a battle.
They meet in contemporary times; this time in a modern burn ward, where he is a patient recovering from a gruesome car accident in which he is a burned beyond all recognition. Marianne, too, is a patient in the hospital, though as a resident of the psych ward. She is eventually released from the hospital, but keeps returning to nurse her ancient lover back to health, so that he too can leave and live with her. She is a sculptor who carves large gargoyles (hence the book’s title) and has received international acclaim and wealth.
As she cares for him, she tells him stories of his previous lives, in most of which he dies by fire. She also reads him the entire Inferno, which, it is suggested, she translated from medieval Italian into German when she was a nun in Engelthal Abbey.
Soon after finishing The Gargoyle I went off in search and found an inexpensive Everyman’s edition of the entire Divine Comedy translated by Allen Mandelbaum.
But by the Inferno alone, Dante attains, for me, a stature in the medieval literary canon that equals or surpasses Geoffrey Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales. It is hard to imagine the other two parts of The Divine Comedy being quite as compelling as Inferno, but I look forward to testing my hypothesis.
Brother Richard says he has not heard of such a book, but suspects that it may not be viewed favourably by the Church. (He really needs to lighten up, don’t you think?)