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Matthew Pearl on the Purgatorio and Dante’s afterlife

Those who know no other poetry know at least its opening words: In the middle of the journey of my life . . . The Divine Comedy, a dense allegorical epic poem composed by the Florentine exile Dante Alighieri in the first decades of the 14th century, changed the course of culture as few other single works have. Its evocations of despair and hope, punishment and redemption, time and eternity have resonated through subsequent eras; its vivid and unflinchingly physical treatment of abstract infernal and celestial themes proved formative to modern Christianity; its endlessly intricate structure and fathomless wealth of images and philosophy have captivated audiences for centuries. The Comedy is now seen as a supreme artistic achievement not only in Italy but throughout the world, far outshining in reputation its author’s voluminous other writings.

Matthew Pearl, the best-selling author of — among many other books — The Dante Club, a metaphysical murder mystery set in 19th-century Boston, has long been fascinated not only by Dante but by the culture of Dante, especially the Anglophone culture of Dante. We spoke with Pearl about his newest novel The Dante Chamber, the poet, his work, and its mysteries. Pearl acknowledged, immediately, that while Dante’s fame is vast, his actual readership outside Italy is small in comparison. “Most people don’t read Dante directly, but they know Dante as a common cultural property,” he told us. He pointed out, as well, that even this broad but shallow fame is focused on the first part of the poem, the Inferno, which treats of Hell and its depths.

But for Pearl, the second part, the Purgatorio, has always been the most fascinating. “I always liked the Purgatorio the best of all three canticles,” he told us. “The structure of it and the themes of it are most like how we tell stories today. It has more of a modern sensibility about the characters and the arc of the story, though it still is violent and gruesome. It is, after all, about punishments, but they’re now being used to purge sins. So it has a little bit more inherent drama as well as that darkness readers like. In the Inferno, we have this iconic beginning: we’re lost in the woods, midway through Dante’s life, and out of the darkness comes his poetic idol, Virgil, who basically says, ‘Come with me if you want to live.’”

The Inferno sees Dante journey with his guide down to the depths of Hell’s vast and multifarious pit and then begin a long ascent that will (eventually) end in Paradise. The middle section of that journey comprises, of course, the Purgatorio — the region of the afterlife where those not damned beyond salvation have their sins purged away, a concept that does not fit easily into a binary morality. Indeed, the Purgatorio as a written work seems comfortable with the idea of ambivalence: Virgil himself, Dante’s idol and guide, soon leaves his protégé. “Virgil is a resident of Hell,” Pearl noted. “He is from antiquity, so he can only go so far in guiding Dante through a Judeo-Christian landscape. Immediately in Purgatory, we start to get a sense of sadness from Virgil about his imminent departure and to see, as well, surrogate guides as they travel up the mountain of Purgatory. And we have this very dramatic moment when Virgil actually disappears. There’s really nothing comparable in the Inferno with that character dynamic. On top of that, Virgil is ultimately replaced by Beatrice, who is of course the figure, or the presence, or the power that started the whole story. She’s the one who sent Virgil to find Dante. And now at the top of the mountain, we actually get to Beatrice — who is not at all what we and Dante expected. She is described in very militaristic terms, and is yelling at Dante and admonishing him for his mistakes.”

There are significant differences in the Purgatorio’s narrative structure as well, Pearl pointed out. “It’s not as built around heroic or larger-than-life ‘medallion’ characters, as one scholar put it,” he told us. “The Inferno has Ulysses, which is kind of amazing. Purgatory is a little more localized, more centered on Florentine figures. There are glimpses of poignant moments. There’s a young women named La Pia who has a memorable moment in Purgatory where she asks to be remembered — the characters in Purgatory want to be remembered by people who are alive. Kind of the opposite of Inferno, where the shades or sinners in hell are very embarrassed and want to hide from Dante. In Purgatory, if people pray for them, they move through Purgatory faster. There’s a lot of poignancy that he draws out from people begging him to tell their story and to be remembered. There are mythological and historical figures that are interesting to find there. The gatekeeper or guardian of Purgatory is Cato. It’s strange to find him there, because he committed suicide, and we already saw the suicides in Inferno. There’s a special place for them. So, right away when you get to the shore of Purgatory, our expectations are kind of played around with. And Cato is very formidable. Virgil has to talk his way past him. And then there’s some of these other, as I said, surrogate guides who are also poets. Most of whom aren’t really household names anymore. The Mantuan troubadour Sordello is one, and Statius, the Roman epic poet, is another. Most people wouldn’t know their names today. But they would’ve been celebrity cameos for people reading it then.”

All this goes some distance to explaining at once why Pearl finds the Purgatorio so compelling and why it languishes in obscurity relative to the poem’s first section. That may be, however, why it is such an amazing literary subject. The modernity of its structure and the historical background of its composition make it, in Pearl’s telling, irresistible to writers. “Dante was in exile for almost the entire period when he was writing the Divine Comedy. There’s a feeling that he uses up his life in writing it. It’s almost as though he’s finishing it up and collapsing into death simultaneously. That’s what he gives himself over to in those final decades. He’s unmoored from his whole life, from his family. He’s jumping around from friend to friend, patron to patron. There’s a romantic side to it. There’s a darker side to it — there were points at which Dante could have came back from his exile with fairly minimal or no punishment by professing certain loyalties. He could have come back to his family.” The difficulties Dante faced are, as Pearl aptly described them, “an exaggerated version of what we all worry about with writing. Do you have to chose between writing and your life? Between writing and other people? Should you be this monastic wanderer like Dante, who’s going from castle to castle? Or in our case, maybe from writers’ colony to writers’ colony? Dante, clearly, to the extent he processed that dilemma, chose writing.”

Pearl’s fascination with Dante, as noted, gave birth to The Dante Club, which uses real historical figures to tell a macabre tale about obsession, guilt, and expiation. This “Club” included eminent Americans like poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (who translated the Commedia) and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. But, as Pearl notes, “there was another group of Dante-philes in the U.K. — in some ways an even more colorful group than the Dante Club: Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning (who wrote his own very long poem about the obscure troubadour Sordello), and Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.” When he began work on The Dante Chamber, Pearl said, “my brain was always kind of jumping to Robert Browning as the protagonist, and he’s a big part of the novel, but I’m glad that I was as open enough to see Christina Rossetti as the more dynamic and interesting and rich and challenging figure to lead the story with. Especially because British Dante enthusiasts in the 19th century were really much more invested in the female side of Dante’s story than the Americans were. If you break down what they were painting and being inspired by, a lot of it was drawn from Beatrice and from that side of Dante’s vision. Indeed, some scholars refer to a cult of Beatrice, and they’re referring to the Rossettis and Browning. Christine Rossetti is really a much more appropriate character to lead us down that path.”

So how does a writer whose personal interests and books occupy rarefied territory square those passions with the increasing contemporary uninterest in difficult art and literature? “Someone told me that there’s a dirty little secret about publishing books: how many books go purchased but entirely unread,” Pearl said. “They’re purchased as credentials to be laid out on a coffee table or in a book shelf. They’re objects that can make their purchasers feel that they’re doing the right thing by buying the right thing. Novelty books, celebrity books, political celebrity books, presidential books — 800-page biographies of Woodrow Wilson or whomever. Most people are not reading them. They’re buying them as proofs of a certain kind of culture, or that you’re a certain kind of person, or that you know a certain kind of person that you’re giving that to as a gift. Would something like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose be able to exist today? I don’t know the answer to that. It has a lengthy fictional preface by a fictional scholar who is claiming to be the translator going through a very tedious description of how he translated it and the linguistic questions that he approached. I am sure that even in 1980 when the book was published that a lot of people stopped reading during that preface. So I really would find it hard to believe then in our world, in our climate of readers — myself included! — that we would entertain. I think there’s been a lot of changes in how we read, that there is a demand for a certain level of clarity and simplicity that has evolved over the last 20 years or so.”

Luckily, there are ways that non-specialists interested in Dante can make a strong start in reading him. Pearl cited first and foremost the importance of finding a good translation — of which there are, happily, a large number. “I am not sure I should specify one,” he added, “because I don’t know what are the most available ones in a normal bookstore. They always cycle through different editions. The one I read first was by a translator named Mark Musa. And he just made it really clean and clear. It’s kind of surprising once you crack open Dante: if you have the right version of it, it’s much less intimidating than you imagine it will be. And in some ways it’s less intimidating than a lot of kind of ancient or medieval writers who were writing in English — like, say, Edmund Spenser.”

On the critical side, Pearl also had a few recommendations. “There are a couple of scholars who do a really good job of crossing over and presenting Dante in an approachable way. One that I like a lot — both as a person, because I know him, and as a writer — is Peter Hawkins. He’s written a couple books on Dante that are geared to a wide audience. He’s at Yale. And he also is a scholar of Dante, so he is able to go into both realms. I think that’s useful. There’s a lot of academics who are in the nitty-gritty of Dante, and that’s important too, but those books can be tough to penetrate if you’re not already a scholar.”

The Divine Comedy repays endlessly any effort put into reading it. Its sheer aesthetic pleasures — shot through with cosmic horror though they are — are no less formidable than its profound and less-immediate vision of existence. Readers should follow Pearl’s example and can find their own paths (straight or not) into the dark wood of Dante’s work.