In 2007, Bard professor of Italian Joseph Luzzi had a devastating experience. One day when his wife, Katherine, was 8½ months pregnant, she was severely injured in a car accident. His daughter Isabel was born by caesarean section, but his wife died. Luzzi was suddenly both a widower and a father. His wife, who had originally planned to be an actress, was attending college. She had intended to combine being a stay-at-home mother with being a Pilates instructor. He was plunged into deep grief and felt very alone.
His close-knit Calabrian-American family and the author he had studied for years, Dante, came to his rescue. In his new book, “In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me About Grief, Healing, and the Mysteries of Love” (HarperCollins), Luzzi describes how both saw him through his time of trial.
Dante was exiled from his native city, Florence, while out of the country on a diplomatic mission, and he spent a great deal of time mourning the loss of the place that was so important to him. Although his muse, Beatrice, died in her 20s, it was being separated from the city that really unmoored him. It was not until he was able to accept his exile and stop trying to imaginatively reverse it that he was able to write his masterpiece, “The Divine Comedy,” between about 1308 and 1320.
As for Luzzi, who eventually remarried, he says, “I feel like I have been given a second chance at life. I take nothing for granted.” He describes grief as being “like an illness, but you really can’t see it.” Another response: “It’s complicated — on the one hand, feelings of joy, but so profoundly mitigated. At first you’re in shock.” For a full year, he says, he was in “a kind of fog.”
His mother, Yolanda Luzzi, knew what to do. She had spent years taking care of her husband and children in both Italy and the U.S. “My mom sort of sprung into action,” Luzzi says. “She knew that she was going to have to jump in and be a mom to Isabel [his daughter]. It was very brave and generous. She was in her late 70s, and she already had six children and 13 grandchildren. Now she had to come live in a college town in a rural area. And she doesn’t drive. It couldn’t have been easy for her to do a lot of the heavy lifting for a newborn. And my daughter, surrounded by love, flourished.“
His mother, he says, “is a very selfless person. She isn’t consumed with her own hobbies and interests. She lives for other people.”
As for his new book, he points out that Dante wasn’t always the revered author whom everyone knows today. “Voltaire said, ‘Nobody reads Dante,’” he says. “It was the Romantics who rediscovered him. And Dante had a great influence on Shelley, Byron and his circle.” He believes that “people outside the academy have a hunger for great literature. And you don’t need to know anything about Dante to read this book. Hopefully it will inspire a person to pick it up.”
The title of the book refers to Dante’s most famous quotation, which begins “The Divine Comedy”: “In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” One thing that Luzzi finds fascinating is that Dante chose Virgil, a pagan, to be his guide to the underworld. The book is divided into sections parallel to those of “The Divine Comedy,” with the Inferno of grief, Purgatory of healing and raising Isabel and Paradise, the rediscovery of romantic love.
The cover of the book is a particularly well-realized design which features an arrow crossed by a cutout in an abbreviated wrap around the book, which in turn is detailed with a blue ball revealed by the cutout and Dante’s verses written out. “The arrow represents the arrow of exile,” he says.
One of Luzzi’s previous books is “My Two Italies,” which is about the Italy of his parents, who were poor Calabrians who spoke only their regional dialect and who immigrated to the U.S. with four children, and the Italy of the Renaissance, which he had studied extensively and taught. “I read Dante at my lowest point,” he says. “It’s the role of great literature to be transformative. Dante in his darkest moments of exile created a work of transcendent beauty. It’s a very rich piece of literature.”