The Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds) #EU27project

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds, in a three volume Penguin paperback edition

I was somewhere in Purgatory when I realised that I could count The Divine Comedy towards the EU27 Project.

A tradition of mine (it’s been two years now: I can call it a tradition) is to attempt a daunting Christian book over the Easter weekend. Last year it was Julian of Norwich. Easter was a little later last year, and spring was a little earlier, and there were no services in church, and there was all the time in the world to take a folding chair out into the back garden and read. Result: I would no longer call Julian of Norwich ‘daunting’.

This year I thought I’d try Dante. I stayed on the sofa, though. I finished Paradise on Sunday morning. In the afternoon it was just about warm enough to read outside.

This is the third book I’ve read for the EU27 Project, and all of them were written outside the European Union. (The next one up breaks the pattern and actually mentions euros.) The Divine Comedy is, of course, the oldest. When Dante was writing the unification of Italy was centuries away, and the idea of a unified Europe was – well, I don’t want to say utterly foreign, because of course there was the Holy Roman Empire and the memory of the Roman Empire to work with. And he does. But he’s writing as an exile from a bitterly divided Florence.

My medieval history is extremely shaky, particularly outside England, and I had no idea who about 70% of the personages we encounter. The notes were useful here; so, too, was giving up worrying about which corrupt Pope was which and just going with it.

Dorothy L. Sayers isn’t afraid either to be a vigorous Dante apologist or to relate the people and politics of his context to her own. This helped a lot. He’s writing at the beginning of the fourteenth century, having experienced first hand the bitterness of civic feuds. She’s writing in the middle of the twentieth century, in a world that has just been brought face to face with the fact of how utterly depraved humanity can be.

And this was something that I, reading in the early twenty-first century, found very comforting. We do, in fact, live in precedented times. The world has been a mess since we left Eden; it’s a mess in a different way this time round, and I don’t always agree with either Dante or Sayers about the appropriate response to that – but it resonates. The anger resonates, the despair resonates, the hope resonates. And then that leap into a bigger picture which none of us is actually qualified to see, whose portrayal is wonderful in its own inadequacy… I loved it. Dante’s worldview is very different from my own, but that really didn’t seem to matter.

Reading The Divine Comedy over the Easter weekend allowed me to follow it in real time, sort of. I didn’t start until the morning of Good Friday (Dante gets lost in the wood on Maundy Thursday), managed to keep up through Hell, and then had to sprint a bit in various parts of Purgatory owing to the demands of Easter socialising and the fact that I had work to do on Tuesday and Wednesday. Once he gets into Paradise we lose the time markers, and so I slowed right down again until Sunday morning, when I finished it all off at once. The momentum helps. The notes are intimidating, particularly in the thickness they add to the books, but helpful. I might read up on some medieval popes and Holy Roman Emperors and go back to it in a bit. As for next Easter, I’m thinking of St Augustine.

The Reader’s Gazetteer: T

West front of a cathedral with two west towers and one central one in yellow-grey stone, seen across a broad grass green
Wells, standing in for Torminster. We’ll get there shortly…

Tarta is purely a place to spend the night, so I return to The House of the Four Winds and Evallonia for the sake of the inn, which is another of those wonderful Buchan establishments:

Part of it was as old as the oldest part of the Schloss, and indeed at one time it may have formed an outlying appendage of the castle. In the eighteenth century, in the heyday of the Odalchinis, it was a cheerful place, where great men came with their retinues, and where in the vast kitchen the Prince’s servitors and foresters drank with the town folk of Tarta. It still remained the principal inn of the little borough, but Tarta had decayed, and it stood on no main road, so while its tap-room was commonly full, its guest-rooms were commonly empty. But the landlord had been valet in his youth to the Prince’s father, and he had a memory of past glories and an honest pride in his profession; besides, he was a wealthy man, the owner of the best vineyard in the neighbourhood. So the inn had never been allowed to get into disrepair; its rambling galleries, though they echoed to the tread of few guests, were kept clean and fresh; the empty stalls in the big stables were ready at a moment’s notice for the horses that never came; there was good wine in the cellars against the advent of a connoisseur. It stood in an alley before you reached the market-place, and its courtyard and back parts lay directly under the shadow of the castle walls.

You could come by horse, as implied here, but it’s the 1930s and this party is travelling by car. Start in the Tirol (more on that next time), drive all day, cross the Rave, pass through the village of Zutpha, and follow the boundary of the Odalchini estate. Dinner will be worth it.

Alyssa Cole’s Thesolo takes us to Africa for the first time in this series. (In fact, reading her Reluctant Royals series earlier would have solved my problem finding a place for the letter N, since we also visit a country called Njaza.)

I have to say that I think the way that Cole introduces the country is absolute genius: our heroine Naledi receives an email headed Salutations from the Royal Family of Thesolo. No wonder she thinks it’s a scam. The reader, more familiar with the conventions of the genre, knows better, and into that gap between the character’s suspicions and the reader’s knowledge Cole slips an entire country.

Much of the action takes place in the USA, and we learn about Thesolo little by little. It’s in the south of Africa. (In fact, a little anagram work makes it seem plausible that it’s modelled on Lesotho.) There is ‘an above ground light rail system in the main city’. (This is the sort of detail I like. I am always here for fictional public transport infrastructure.)

It’s at about the two thirds mark that we arrive in Thesolo, and it is perhaps not what we expect:

Your current location is fifteen hundred feet above sea level, nestled in the mountains, and it is winter. It’s ski season here.

You can get there by private jet, getting a good view of the mountains and waterfalls, if you are a reluctant royal. There seems to be a reasonable commercial service, too. And of course the longer we spend there the more we learn about the culture, the scenery – and the politics. Of which there are plenty. Delicious.

And T has a cathedral city, too, in Torminster. Elizabeth Goudge says in the foreword to my edition:

Torminster is not an entirely accurate picture of Wells in Somerset, where I was born and spent the first eleven years of my life, but I think it is an accurate picture of a small west-country cathedral city in those safe, motorless days.

I have a soft spot for Wells; I was there for a week with a visiting choir in the summer of 2013, and spent most of the time when I wasn’t rehearsing finally getting Speak Its Name into a coherent shape. Here is Torminster in the narrative:

The train swung round a bend, the blue hills parted like a curtain and the city of Torminster was visible. Seen from a little distance it had a curiously insubstantial air, as though it were something real yet intangible, a thing you could see but not touch. It lay in a hollow of the hills like a child in its mother’s lap, and it seemed that as it lay there it slept. It looked so quiet that it was hard to believe the ordinary life of men and women went on in its streets. Rather it seemed a buried city sunk at the bottom of the sea, where no life stirred and no sound was heard but the ringing of the bells as the tide surged through forgotten towers and steeples. Jocelyn could see a confused mass of roofs and chimneys and church spires, some high and some low, weather-stained and twisted by age into fantastic shapes. The smoke from the chimneys went straight up into the windless air and then seemed to dissolve into a mist that lay over the city like the waves of the sea that had drowned it, and out of this sea rose a grey rock with three towers… The cathedral… It stood there gloriously, its majesty softened by the warm day but not diminished, its towers a little withdrawn in the sky but no less watchful.

Gorgeous.

Books mentioned in this post

The House of the Four Winds, John Buchan

A Princess in Theory, Alyssa Cole

A Prince on Paper, Alyssa Cole

City of Bells, Elizabeth Goudge

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