27 October 2010

Book Review: Inferno

Title: The Divine Comedy: Inferno
Author: Dante Alighieri
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Release Date: about 1314
Date Finished: 27 October 2010

Buy | Borrow | Accept | Avoid

Challenges: 100+ Reading, Hogwarts Reading Challenge, Reading Resolutions, World ReligionsReally Old Classics Challenge, R.I.P. V

The Short and Sweet of It
A Pilgram takes a heaven-ordained journey through hell with the poet Virgil as his guide. On his way, he travels through the Nine Circles of Hell, each of which is partitioned into separate sections where sinners of the same type are tortured in a method appropriate to their sin.

A Bit of a Ramble
What a great freaking book! This is my second time reading Dante's Inferno, and I enjoyed it just as much as I did the first time around. The story is beautifully unique, thematically deep, and artfully written. And we have to remember, of course, we are talking about Hell here, so it is also wonderfully interesting in a macabre sort of way.

The story is divided into 34 cantos (sections in an epic poem), each canto detailing a discrete portion of the journey. This sort of specific and self-contained organizational structure makes the text very easy to read. As long as you read an entire canto, you have read a complete short story. This sort of continuous collection of tales also aids in comprehension as you have tiny bits to digest instead of large, unwieldy chunks. The structure of the version I read complements this well in that each canto begins with a prose summation of the canto and ends with the translator/editor's notes. This sort of bookending forces (in the kindest possible way) readers to contemplate the section both as a distinct entity and as part of the larger whole.

But enough of the dry, formalist details. Let's get to the nitty-gritty, guilty pleasure portion of the review. For those of you out there who, like me, find the unusual, the disturbing, and the mildly grotesque to be entertaining, this is the book for you. Specific sins are laid out individually in the text and the horrific punishments are explained in a rather detailed fashion. There is dismemberment, disembowelment, burning, drowning, metamorphoses, confusion, despair, torture, torture, torture. Again...this is Hell we are talking about here, and very much in the Old Testament, non-forgiving tradition.

So you don't think I'm some sort of sadistic or just disgusting person, these abuses are revealed through quite artful language, and of course, the punishments are perfectly fitting for the crime. In the third Canto, Virgil and Dante the Pilgrim are about to enter Hell, but before coming to the entrance, they see a group of souls caught in a no man's land. These are people who, while alive, refused to take a stance. Their inability to make a choice means they are neither rewarded with Heaven nor fully punished in Hell. Instead they are doomed to ceaselessly run after a banner forever and ever. How perfect is that?

Flatterers are submerged in excrement - they were after all "full of shit" in life (can you believe how far back that sayings' origins are?). Usurers (more commonly called loan sharks) squat on burning sand while fire rains down upon them; their faces are indistinguishable and only the money bags that hang around their necks offer any sort of differentiation. Those who promoted rifts between peoples and nations while alive walk in a circle, being hacked in half, healing as they walk only to be hacked again.

I could go on and on as many sins are covered. For those who may be wondering, the answer is no. You do not have to be religious at all to enjoy the experience; nor do you have to agree that the sins listed are in fact sins. All you need is an appreciation of karma, good writing, and entertaining twists.

If there is one problem with the book, it is this: the text is chock-full of name-dropping. While this probably meant a lot back in 1314, the use of famous and infamous names isn't quite so relevant for today's reader. Most will recognize quite a few of the references - Virgil, Ulysses/Odysseus, Homer, Medusa, Hippocrates, etc. - but there is a whole host of names that will mean nothing to a modern reader. At times, it's a bit cumbersome, but luckily it is not necessary to know the history in order to understand the text. Plus, if you want to know who these people are, as I did, the Notes section has you covered (in this translation anyway).

If you have not yet picked this up because it was written almost seven hundred years ago, don't let that worry you. The ideas, the metaphors, it's still relevant and understandable and interesting.

Dante's Inferno:

Here we have someone's rendering of the geography of Hell. Personally, I like to look at the images to get an idea of the landscape, to fully understand the path the two travelers are taking through what is a seemingly complex, but actually quite simple, terrain. My translation continually throws in images to aid in visualizing the topography and geography of Hell.

This Book Around the Web
If I've missed your review, let me know!

kiss a cloud; The Friande;

Question: Should I read the rest of the Divine Comedy, Purgatorio and Paradiso?


  1. I need to get over my fear of reading this -- sometimes the classics intimidate me so! Your review makes me feel like I'm being a bit of a wimp and need to buck up and go for it!

    Yes, I think you should read the rest of the Divine Comedy, et al -- dare I call it a series? :)

    Must have been fun to put the publication date on the post -- 1314!! How cool is that!!

  2. Glad to see someone else taking this on. I read the entire Comedy for The Really Old Classics Challenge. Couldn't tell which translation you used. I read the one by Dorothy L Sayers. Here's my review of The Inferno: http://myreadersblock.blogspot.com/2010/09/divine-comedy-1-hell.html

    Not quite as detailed as yours...but I was a bit overwhelmed. Really Old Classics aren't my usual fare. :-)

  3. I've only read excerpts of this book in college but did finally purchase my own copy. Can't wait to delve into it.

  4. Oh my gosh. I read this as an undergraduate, way back when Reagan was president, and not the name of an airport. I found it very interesting, but I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as your synopsis. Hilarious!

  5. I'm sorry I didn't get to read along with you! On the plus side, I'm happy my book club chose to read this next year, yay!! I've not read the rest of the Divine Comedy. Since I read The Inferno with an intensive college course, I learned so much about it. I'm not sure I would get as much out of the other two books. I worry they'd be over my head.

  6. This is my bag, I tell you. And I can't help but be reminded of the movie Seven. I know that was about the deadly sins, but still the punishments were matched up with the sin. I always thought this book would be beyond me, but the way you reviewed it, it sounds totally achievable!

  7. I have to admit, I've been scared off of this. But you do make it sound easy and fun. Maybe I'll give it a try :)

  8. I also have been intimidated by the thought of reading this book, but you make it sound so accessible and intriguing that I think I will no longer resist it! It sounds very thought provoking, and like you, I find the more dark and macabre aspects interesting. Off now to see where I can get a copy of this one. And thanks for the excellent review!

  9. I read this earlier this year and the Flatters hell was my favorite! What a brilliant way to punish them. I haven't read the next two and I'm undecided if I will. I love The Inferno, but it is hard to get through.

  10. Okay, so now I want to read this. What are you doing to me, Trisha? :P

  11. Oh I read this book a few months ago! http://thefriande.wordpress.com/2010/05/23/the-inferno-the-comedy-about-sinners-punishments-in-hell-coming-to-a-cinema-near-you/

    It was a bit of a guilty pleasure, as I went through the book I kept getting excited to see what the next circle's punishments would be. I quite liked Dante's namedropping - kind of gave hell a more personable feel, wouldn't you agree?

  12. OK ... that's it. I've got to read this. I love his creative punishments to fit the various sins.

  13. To Those Who Have Read This: I'm so glad to see that all of you enjoyed it. It's such a great read!

    To Those Who Haven't Read This: I really hope I did inspire you to pick it up!

  14. Yes, I'm definitely inspired to read this now!

  15. Oooh, such a fun read. I read both this and Paradiso for a great lit class I had as an undergrad (Heaven and Hell). Paradiso is not nearly as entertaining as The Inferno; I actually can't remember a single thing from it! Guess Hell is just more interesting :)

    Loved your review!

  16. I really need to read this one! I'm adding it to the Really Old Classics October Recap, which will post shortly.

  17. Tea Drinker - Excellent!

    Emily - I still haven't read the other two books in the series, but I haven't really heard many good things about them, so... Thanks!

    Heather - You definitely should read it! It's a fascinating book.


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