Axel is very taken, as a young man, by a large book in his family’s library of Dante’s Inferno, Illustrated by Gustave Doré. The engravings in it not only horrify him, but excite his rather baroque mind in a way he never previously conceived. The writhing, naked bodies of the tormented speak to him as though he were one of them, suffering along with them as a group.
He learns that Dante’s vision of the Inferno was a series of circles through which one wended to get to the center, where Beelzebub sits, frozen in ice.
The first circle is Limbo, where pagans and the unbaptized remain for eternity, but it is in the second ring of hell that he discovers the Lustful spend their endless hours.
Among them is Paolo and Francesca, who are flung through the air, endlessly whipped with wind. He makes the connection between the Inferno and the inferno of the war, and the care, even pity he feels for the men of whom he is in charge, seems to him as though he is helping the lost souls in the second ring of Dante’s hell. What is more important, and what seems to slip Axel’s imagination, is that over the gates of Dante’s vision of hell is the famous sign – “Lasciate ogni speranza, tutto ch’entrate” — ABANDON EVERY HOPE, YE WHO ENTER. Grim words that speak directly to Axel’s inability to find any happiness in the chaos of war.