Sunday, June 10, 2012

Review: Purgatory by Dante Alighieri

Reading The Divine Comedy has been a humbling experience.  The novel has so many layers and references within it, I feel as though there are many passing me by.  My initial feeling on the best way to get the most out of Dante is to first read all the Greek works and then read the Bible and if possible, a bit about the history of Italy around the time period of publication.  The references and allusions would become deeper in meaning and the text would be more enjoyable.

After reading Melville Best Anderson's translation in my Easton Press edition (100 Greatest Books Ever Written), I felt like the translation was weighing me down.  I could not read more than a few canto's at a time - they seemed to be thick... kind of like walking in Atreus's Swamp of Sorrows in The Neverending Story.  In addition, the illustrations by William Blake were of a muddled quality, due to the printing of the edition.  It all seemed to add to the overwhelming feeling that I needed to try a new edition.

Dante is carried away to Purgatory
[Illustration by Gustave Dore]
As luck would have it, I found a copy made by the Franklin Library (part of the 100 Greatest Books of All-Time series).  The Franklin Library books were made by the Franklin Mint before their publishing arm went out of business.  What I really enjoyed about this edition was the translation.  John Ciardi has done an excellent job of making the text more readable and fluid, without losing the important details.  In addition, I now have chapter summaries preceding each Canto which gives you background detail on the allusions/references - which I previously stumbled through (checking wikipedia at every turn for further information).  These analytical chapter summaries have proved invaluable.  And just how the illustrations by Blake seemed to match the muddiness of the Easton Press' translation, Gustave Dore's illustrations seemed to match the fluidity of the Ciardi translation.  The translation and illustrations are so good, that I'm actually dreading moving on to the third edition - it's quite possible that I revert back to Ciardi/Dore at some point.
And now on to the work itself.  Dante has just left Hell and is being carried away to Purgatory.  Purgatory is a place where souls purge themselves of their sins - consequently, there are seven terraces on the mountain in Purgatory - to match the seven deadly sins. We are shown souls atoning for their sins on every terrace, one for lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride.  I wonder if the reader's thoughts affect which stories stick in the mind the most.  For me, I have an overwhelming picture of the emaciated souls repaying their sins of gluttony and the souls whirling around at a high pace and never stopping - repenting for their sins of sloth. 

My favourite part of this work is Dante breaking down before Beatrice and atoning for his own sins.  Beatrice was a woman that had such effect on Dante, he ended up immortalizing her in his work - despite only meeting the woman twice in a nine year span... before her death at the age of 24.  What I enjoyed most about his repentance is that he does not specify what he is repenting for - and I took it as the author respecting his own privacy in his work and showing that each of us has our own personal sins which we atone for in our own private ways.  It was very beautiful to me.
Matilda guides Dante in cleansing in the river Lethe
[Illustration by Gustave Dore]
The imagery in the work was made even stronger by Gustave Dore's illustrations - I felt incredibly moved when reading the scene where Dante is dipped in the pure river Lethe in Purgatory by Matilda to wash away his memory of meeting Jesus and Beatrice and cleanse himself of his sins.  The illustration coupled with the work had a profound impact on me.  I cannot separate the illustrations from the beautiful translation and summaries - all flow into one and provided me with a beautiful experience in reading Purgatory.

I'm excited to begin Paradise (Paradiso) - we will see how the translation by Thomas G. Bergen and illustrations by Leonard Baskin compare, and if I revert back to Ciardi/Dore.

1 comment:

vsudia said...

I'm nominating you for the Readers Appreciation Award. You can check it out here; http://vsudia.wordpress.com/2012/06/18/reader-appreciation-award/