the meaning of Purgatory

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I read Adam Roberts’s Purgatory Mount in draft, and struggled to know what to make of it. I have now read its final version, and find it an exceptionally resonant and moving story – though I acknowledge that people who aren’t comfortable with Adam’s peculiarly associative intelligence (imagine his mind comprised of chess pieces, all of them knights) may find some of the narrative linkages he forges here difficult to parse. And Adam shares with certain other writers, most notably Auden and Pynchon, a tendency to cast his most serious inquiries in comic form.

As I set the book aside, I found myself thinking several thoughts:

  • That culture is what we humans make together;
  • That culture is memory;
  • That memory is imperfect;
  • That among the things we remember will always be sins and wrongs, those done to us, and those we do to others;
  • That the Book of Common Prayer teaches us something utterly inevitable about “these our misdoings,” namely that “the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable”;
  • That, therefore, much of the essential work of culture – always – is the addressing of such remembrances and such burdens; and, finally,
  • That this work must often be done in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, not least because of the imperfections of memory and the imperfections of the people who remember.

Some years ago Adam and I joined with Rowan Williams and Francis Spufford for a theological conversation about Adam’s novel The Thing Itself; Purgatory Mount is also a novel that cries out for theological reflection. I hope it gets it.

The two epigraphs that Adam prepends to his story are wisely and wittily chosen, but I would like to suggest one more, from “East Coker”:

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.