“WE OUGHT TO READ,” stated Franz Kafka in a letter penned to a friend in 1904, only “those books which bite and sting.”
If the book that we read doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the skull, why, then, do we read the book? So that it makes us happy, as you write? My God, we would be happy just so, if we had no books, and those books which make us happy we could, in a pinch, write ourselves. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster that hurts us badly, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods. […] A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
Are happy-making books always lesser than those which affect us as if we’d been hit by a disaster? Kafka would retort that a book capable of hacking its way into that frozen sea of ours — into pain and resistance, despair and defensiveness, anguish and aridity, all present within us whether or not we wish to acknowledge them — is a book objectively worthier than one that affirms our feel-good moods without first whacking us in the head and waking us up. Still we wonder: can’t a book be ax-like and affirmative at the same time?
Most readers would like to answer yes. And one author, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321), would say yes, too, one imagines — but with caveats and qualifications.
In his three-part poem The Divine Comedy, Dante presents a totalized and profoundly Christian view of the world he inhabited. The poem’s first part, “The Inferno,” which people know best, introduces the protagonist, a middle-aged man named Dante, who enters the Underworld accompanied by the poet Virgil, whom he reveres despite the fact that Virgil is a (pre-Christian) pagan. Dante then makes his way to Purgatory, learning a great deal about himself as he proceeds, and finally ascends to Paradise.
Is this a crude synopsis of a magnificent poetic work? Alas, it is. Countless volumes, ranging from the sternly exegetical to the playful and fanciful, have been written about The Divine Comedy; adding my own words to the pile, I tremble a little. In any case, my aim isn’t to vivisect Dante’s masterwork but to look at the way in which it functions as an ax for Joseph Luzzi, author of In a Dark Wood, a recently published memoir whose subtitle is “What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love.”
Luzzi is a Dante scholar who teaches at Bard College in New York. An Italo-American — his family originated in Calabria — he has been deeply immersed in the literature and culture of Italy for several decades. As we learn from his memoir, when Luzzi was younger (he’s pushing 50 now) he attempted to write a novel. His In a Dark Wood is among other things a foray into a realm of writing different in tone and substance from the academic prose he’s been producing throughout his career; different, too, from his My Two Italies (2014), a work of personal history that investigates his relationship with his parents’ native land. By the book’s end, he feels freed up by the act of writing it — and liberated, too, by a shift that has occurred in his relationship with Dante. The Divine Comedy remains what it’s always been for him, an intellectual and personal touchstone; but now it’s become Kafka’s ax as well.
The incipit of Luzzi’s memoir is an event of riveting horror. “[O]n a morning just like any other,” he writes, his wife Katherine, eight and a half months pregnant, pulls out into oncoming traffic and is hit by a van. She’s taken to a nearby hospital; a C-section is performed as doctors struggle frantically to keep her alive. And then, writes Luzzi, “[f]orty-five minutes after [their child] Isabel was born, Katherine died. I had left the house at eight-thirty; by noon, I was a widower and a father.
“Midway in the journey of our life,” begins “The Inferno,” “I came to myself in a dark wood” (trans. Robert and Jean Hollander). Thus does Dante introduce himself as the main character in his poem: he’s someone for whom “the right way has been lost,” and he will have to go all the way through hell in order to find his via diritta, his right way. Virgil will help him understand what he’s seeing and feeling as the two of them descend into the Underworld, finally touching bottom, as it were; yet it will still take a hundred cantos for Dante (the character, not the author) to really get it — to know how and why he’s been through what he’s been through, and to ascend to a place of genuine liberation.
Luzzi quickly owns up to his deliberate appropriation of Dante’s poem as a tool he’ll use for understanding, surviving, and explaining (to himself and to us) his anguishing experience. “The Divine Comedy didn’t rescue me after Katherine’s death,” he writes.
That fell to the support of family and friends, to my passion for teaching and writing, and above all to the gift of my daughter. Our daughter. But I would barely have made my way without Dante. In a time of soul-crunching loneliness — I was surrounded everywhere by love, but such is grief — his words helped me withstand the pain of loss.
Luzzi’s clarity here is impressive, as is his candor. He acknowledges grief’s perverse power to alienate him even from the people who love him and are doing all they can to offer solace and aid. And he realizes something important about himself: his “passion for teaching and writing” will serve him, as he staggers around in his dark wood, by leading him to a text that has always captured his imagination and intellect, and is now able to galvanize him emotionally as well.
After revealing the tragedy that prompts his journey through grief, Luzzi commences a three-part exploration of its terrain. Part one he calls “The Underworld”; part two, “Mount Purgatory”; and part three, “One Thousand and One,” which is the “Paradise” section of his book. He’s thus explicitly deploying Dante’s structure and implicitly comparing himself to the Dante of the poem — exiled from his beloved Florence and forced to wander, miserable and adrift, in search of inner peace.
The Divine Comedy’s “Paradise” section, writes Luzzi, “has a particularly medieval happy ending”: Dante ascends from Purgatory to that place where the God who moves all things is found. He is met with a flood of light. Many readers find this portion of the poem less accessible, convincing, and compelling than the earlier two, especially “The Inferno.” It isn’t as drama-studded, and it urges a complex theological vision upon the reader, whose understanding and patience may be strained. Yet, argues Luzzi, “Paradise” is a fundamentally happy finale, though not in the manner that Kafka disparaged in his comments about happy-making books. “Dante’s poem doesn’t become boring when it becomes happy,” Luzzi insists. “It’s just hard to get rid of the things that stand in the way of happiness. But once you do — as Dante was able to, thanks to Beatrice’s firm but loving guidance — the light can be spectacular.”
That phrase — “get rid of the things that stand in the way of happiness” — is connected both to the power of Luzzi’s memoir and to a nagging sense I have that it ties up its strongest emotions with a bit too neat a set of literary ribbons. His use of Dante’s framing device — a journey into and through darkness toward an eventually claimable light — is understandable on one level. Luzzi wants the beautiful book-length poem he’s always valued to serve as his ax; and he wants, too, to show the reader how that ax functioned during a time when he wasn’t sure he’d survive his terrible loss. Yet this appropriation is also necessarily reductive: the happy ending must come, and does, and it has to be connected with a Beatrice figure.
That figure, we learn, is Helena, the woman who ultimately becomes the widower’s new wife. Luzzi’s mother Yolanda, too, plays a salvational role, akin to that of Mary in the Christian narrative. After Katherine’s death, Yolanda assumes — fully and without complaint — the daunting role of primary caregiver for Isabel, with whom Luzzi has difficulty forming the bond he’d like to have with his child. Some of the most moving and honest parts of his book have to do with his self-indictment as an alienated father. “I felt a rational love for the hand I held and stroked,” he says of his infant daughter as she lay on “her mother’s side of the bed” in his home, “but nothing instinctual and visceral. I was a ghost haunting what had been my own life.”
A few weeks after his wife’s death, Luzzi decides to move himself and Isabel out of their home near Bard College. They go to Rhode Island, his home state: to his mother’s house, where he hasn’t lived for several decades. Describing this move, he quotes a famous phrase of Dante’s ancestor Cacciaguida in The Divine Comedy’s third section: “You will leave behind everything you love most dearly.” The actual Dante, exiled from Florence in 1302, was by that time “a fine lyric poet and an impressive scholar,” says Luzzi, but he had yet to “find his voice.” “Only in exile did he gain the heaven’s-eye view of human life, detached from all earthly allegiances, that enabled him to speak of the soul.” Here Luzzi begins mounting an argument he extends throughout his memoir: only after being “exiled” from everything that had hitherto lent him a sense of security and purpose can he himself find a way forward.
It’s important to note, however that what drove Dante from Florence (“whose splendor would haunt him,” says Luzzi, “as he wandered thorough Italy looking for a home”) wasn’t the death of a wife. The lost man we meet in the poem doesn’t agonize because he’s been exiled from his wife and children, but rather because he’s been booted out of his city. While on a diplomatic mission, Dante was refused reentry and banished permanently for political reasons. His exile and Luzzi’s are thus utterly different; and as Luzzi continues comparing them, the reader wonders what Dante might have had to say, in his long poem, about intimate loss of the kind sustained by the author.
Nothing, as it happens; or nothing directly. Dante got married at age 20 and had four children, but none of that shows up in his poem.
As Luzzi’s memoir proceeds, his narrative toggles gracefully between memories of his life with Katherine, his dark days in the selva oscura, and Dante’s masterwork and its effects on him. In particular, Luzzi focuses our attention on Dante’s notions (developed, he reminds us repeatedly, while the poet is in exile) of love. Dante Alighieri had a real-life love-object (not his wife) named Beatrice Portinari, who died in 1290 at the age of 24. Though he saw her only once as a young adult, she evolved into a blessed figure in his imagination: the sole human being, no longer flesh but pure spirit, who could spring him from the limiting bounds of his mind and lead him to the divine. Not right away, though; this evolution would take time, and could occur only because Virgil was Dante’s indispensable guide during the hellacious first part of the process.
Luzzi’s blend of reminiscence, self-examination, and literary interpretation make his book consistently engaging. Yet by the end, I wondered if this author — “determined to control what little of [his] life he could” after his wife’s death — was willing or able to divulge the messier, uglier, less easily admitted-to emotions that can accompany loss: rage toward the person who leaves, or relief at no longer having to experience the inevitable limits of even the closest relationship. Of these kinds of feelings we hear very little.
The critic George Steiner has called Dante “a virtuoso of pain” who “lingers over torment, and adds.” Such lingering is, of course, excruciating for the survivor of a great loss; feeling already flayed, he or she wants no more adding. Yet are there ever any shortcuts out of the selva oscura? “If I had verses harsh enough and rasping / as would befit this dismal hole,” wrote Dante, “more fully would I press out the juice” of a dreadful yet necessary trial by fire. Dante knew how difficult it is to articulate truthfully the dismalness of human suffering. As for Luzzi, in his urge to “get rid of the things that stand in the way of happiness” — to write a book that will affirm its possibility and, what’s more, source that possibility in a 13th-century poet’s notions of divine love — he moves perhaps too quickly and smoothly from the selva oscura to salvation. Nonetheless, his thoughtful reading of Dante’s masterwork lends support to those of us who’d say (pace Kafka) that a book can indeed be both ax and affirmation.