Today we're sharing a guest post by Joseph Luzzi, author of In A Dark Wood. In the aftermath of a heartbreaking tragedy, a scholar and writer uses Dante’s Divine Comedy to shepherd him through the dark wood of grief and mourning—a rich and emotionally resonant memoir of suffering, hope, love, and the power of literature to inspire and heal the most devastating loss.
In a Dark Wood tells the story of how Dante helps the author rebuild his life. He follows the structure of The Divine Comedy, recounting the Inferno of his grief, the Purgatory of healing and raising Isabel on his own, and then Paradise of the rediscovery of love. Pre-order your copy today!
Dante’s Book Club
by Joseph Luzzi
So begins Dante’s extraordinary—and extraordinarily challenging—fourteen-thousand-line poem on the soul’s journey through the afterlife, The Divine Comedy. These words open my book In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love, which HarperCollins will publish this June on the 750th anniversary of Dante’s birth. I chose the lines because their tension between the pronouns says it all: although the “I” belongs to Dante, who died in 1321, his journey is also part of “our life.” We will all find ourselves in a dark wood one day, the lines suggest.
My enchantment with Dante’s unforgettable opening reminds me of something that I imagine all book clubs are after: those magic moments as readers when we find ourselves inhabiting a book, living with its characters and themes. That happened to me with Dante because of a personal tragedy that made my life a question of survival and endurance: the loss of my pregnant wife, Katherine, in a car accident on November 29, 2007. She was eight and a half months pregnant and, just before she died, she gave birth to our daughter, Isabel—a miracle of health rescued by emergency cesarean. I left the house at eight thirty that morning to teach a class; by noon I was a widower and a father.
Dante’s poetry—with its invented words, arcane references, Christian doctrine—is notoriously difficult, and I had long hoped to write a book about him for general readers. Similarly, I yearned to tell the story of how I lived through my grief for Katherine to discover love again. But In a Dark Wood only came to life when I realized how deeply intertwined these two stories were—how my passion for Dante’s writing helped me fathom my feelings for Katherine, and more broadly the mysteries of love itself.
Grief was many things, but above all, it was intensely lonely—I was surrounded everywhere by love, yet I felt imprisoned within my own unrelenting sorrow. I thought I needed un’altra donna, a new woman, to rescue me, and for years I pursued this elusive dream. I didn’t understand that there were other kinds of love I needed to rediscover before the one between a man and a woman. First, I had to immerse myself in a father’s love for his daughter, for my Isabel who had entered this world under such violent conditions. And then there was Dante. As I write, The Divine Comedy was not a “self-help” manual, a means to a practical set of ends that I was able to negotiate based on Dante’s advice. Instead, his words enchanted, distracted me. They opened me up to beauty at a time when all I saw was death and loss. They helped me, as Dante writes on leaving hell, riveder le stelle.
See the stars again.