Book Review: In a Dark Wood
What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love
by Joseph Luzzi
Last year the great Elaine Showalter wrote a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the increasingly popular sub-genre of the “shelfie,” books that are “part literary criticism, part memoir,” and since then, the list of such books has only grown longer, from Rod Dreher’s How Dante Can Save Your Life to Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch and half a dozen more. To “part literary criticism, part memoir,” Showalter might have added “all solipsism,” and such a criticism wouldn’t have been much of an exaggeration. No passionate reader will deny the intensely personal ways literature can work itself into actual daily life, but the subtext of far too many of these “shelfies” is What Some Boring Old Book Taught Me About How Great I Am.
In one sense, this kind of literarily-repurposed narcissism is actually convenient: it helps readers to recognize things like How Proust Changed My Feng-Shui or My Summer with Leo: How Tolstoy Saved My Marriage for what they are: pretentious autobiographies of essentially ordinary people – the life stories of people whose life stories wouldn’t be worth a $25 cover price unless they managed a plant-graft from the Bronte sisters.
But in another and arguably more important sense, the “shelfie” fad is both a symptom and a worsening of a modern rise in the trend of full-grown adults approaching literature in essentially childish ways (separate but no doubt related to the phenomenon of full-grown adults actually buying and openly reading children’s books). When Claire Messud was asked about the friendliness of the main character in her novel The Woman Upstairs, she responded in part, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’ ” And the tragedy wasn’t that one of our best novelists actually had to point out such a basic element of reading but that her interviewer – and a great mass of emoji-popping Buzzfeed readers as well – regarded her answer as just so mean. She was entirely right, but she wasn’t addressing what the kids on YouTube refer to as “all the feels,” so she might as well have been speaking in Martian.
Joseph Luzzi, in his new book In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love takes this element of narcissistic reductionism to an extreme that’s utterly unfair to any reader who wants to assess his book critically. Luzzi, a professor of Italian at Bard College, is teaching a class one morning in 2007 when he learns that his eight-months-pregnant wife Catherine has been in a serious car crash. He quickly learns that his wife is dead but his infant daughter survived, and he enters a metaphorical dark wood of grief. He’s been a life-long reader and lover of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and although he admits that Dante’s masterpiece didn’t “rescue” him from his wife’s death (“that fell to family and friends, to my passion for teaching and writing, and above all to the gift of my daughter, our daughter”), he claims Dante’s words “helped me to withstand the pain of loss.”
But there’s more equivalence than that being evoked throughout this book, and if the context weren’t so harrowingly tragic and personal, it would feel much easier to call the author on it. There is only one inference that can be drawn from a passage like this one, for example:
And yet it was only because of his exile that Dante was able to write The Divine Comedy, when he accepted once and for all that he would never return to Florence. Before 1302, the year he was expelled, he had been a fine lyric poet and an impressive scholar. 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.
… and that inference is entirely self-complimentary to Luzzi: Dante needed his exile from Florence to allow him to write one of the greatest works of Western literature, and my grief felt like an exile from the normal world … and I’ve written a book … so that book might just be …
Luzzi tells us that during Catherine’s funeral in Detroit, hundreds of his father-in-law’s friends told him they were going to pray for him; “I would instinctively answer: pray for Isabel. But my own praying felt too staged to be genuine.” But he doesn’t seem aware of how staged everything else he’s presenting here feels as well. Some of his observations about the peculiar, unpredictable nature of intense grief are disarmingly accurate, but they’re thinly scattered around longer passages like this:
A week later I found myself standing in the cold rain in a cemetery outside of Detroit, watching as my wife’s body was returned to the earth close to where she was born. The words for the emotions I had known until then – pain, sadness, suffering – no longer made sense, as a feeling of cosmic paralyzing sorrow washed over me. My personal loss felt almost beside the point: a young woman who had been vibrant with life was now no more. I could feel part of me going down with Catherine’s coffin. It was the last communion I would ever have with her, and I never felt so unbearably connected to the rhythms of the universe. But I was on forbidden ground. Like all other mortals, I would have to return to the planet earth of grief. An hour with the angels is about all we can take.
It’s unclear whether or not Luzzi even realizes what incredibly unseemly grandstanding this is, swanning for killer one-liners and Hollywood close-ups while narrating the burial of his wife – or perhaps he’s simply channeling Dante himself, whose iron-clad self-absorption never lets up for even one instant in the entire course of The Divine Comedy, not even when he’s face-to-blob of light with God Himself. But neither reading alleviates the polite sham at the heart of In a Dark Wood, the persistent implication of it and all other “shelfies” that great literature is only great to the extent that it pats us on the back, puts a gentle arm around us, reminds us that we are, in fact, The Point of It All.
In reality, The Divine Comedy would be every bit as soul-stirringly fantastic if you read it on your iPhone during your commute to and from a job you mostly like. But try getting a book contract for that.