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'In A Dark Wood' takes a professor of Italian from inferno to paradiso

With the help of Dante and his redoubtable Italian-American mother, a widower and brand new father finds his way back to the light.

In a Dark Wood By Joseph Luzzi HarperWave 320 pp.

“In the middle of our life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood.” The opening lines of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” are among the most famous in the canon of Western literature. For Joseph Luzzi, they were also his bread and butter, the text he had studied, parsed, and then shared with students as a professor of Italian at Bard College in Annandale, N.Y. Little did Luzzi know – as a young and enthusiastic teacher – that one day he would be forced to live them.

In his engaging memoir In A Dark Wood, Luzzi explains how that day came in November 2007 when his wife, Katherine, eight months pregnant with their child, was killed in a car accident. Their daughter – a tiny infant he named Isabel – survived, and Luzzi was stunned to realize that, on a day that had started out like any other, “by noon, I was a widower and a father.”

It will come as no surprise to readers to learn that Luzzi was nearly undone by grief. In a desperate state he turned to the two bedrocks of his life – his Italian-American family and Dante. Utterly unable to imagine how he could care for his infant daughter, Luzzi brought her to his childhood home in Westerly, R.I.

“Now I was about to relinquish Katherine’s maternal role to a phalanx of capable Calabrian matrons: my sisters commandeered by generalissima Yolanda Luzzi. She had six children and, with Isabel, thirteen grandchildren. Now, at the age of seventy-seven, she was becoming a mother once again.”

Luzzi’s plan for himself was to continue working (even though his college urged him to take time off) and in fact to work harder than ever, throwing himself into a grinding program of writing and studying, and making a punishing commute from New York to Rhode Island twice a week (a routine his boss characterized as “harebrained”). At his mother’s house Luzzi slept in the bedroom next to Isabel’s but always made excuses to leave her care to the only-too-capable hands of his mother. He spent his non-work hours playing tennis and looking for a new love.

It was a recipe for misery. That’s where Dante came in. Luzzi, in exile from the life he had loved as Katherine’s husband, took a harder look at Dante, living in permanent exile from his beloved city of Florence. 

Dante, he realized, began to flourish again only after he relinquished the dream of returning to Florence. In the first years of exile, Dante “was still wandering around Tuscany on the outskirts of Florence” gazing down on it longingly from far-off hills, suffering the “paralysis of self-pity.”

As he read “The Divine Comedy” again with fresh eyes, Luzzi began to see that “it’s not about how things actually turn out” but rather about “how you own a decision and a situation.” When faced with tragedy, Dante was forced to journey from the “self-pity of hell to the free will of heaven” – a journey Luzzi slowly began to embrace as his own.

Luzzi’s 2014 memoir “My Two Italies” sketches the cultural and personal confusion he felt growing up. His parents were hardworking Italian-American immigrants marked by la miseria of life in Calabria, their brutal and impoverished homeland. 

But when Luzzi spent his junior year of college in Florence, he became intoxicated by the Renaissance splendor of Dante and Michelangelo. Which Italy – the brilliance of the north or the poverty of the south – was his true heritage? Confusion only increased as he went on to graduate from Yale University, a universe away from his parental home with its red shag carpet on the floor and “Everybody Loves Raymond” on the television screen.

Losing Katherine, however, thrust Luzzi firmly back into the rhythms of his former life in Westerly. This time, his grief, leavened by his renewed reading of Dante, led him to a higher vantage point and a more unselfed sense of love. There, he finally found the place where his two Italies meet. If Dante is his guide, so is his mother, and Luzzi is now able to feel awe for “the centuries of Calabrian maternal wisdom Yolanda Luzzi carried in her five-foot two-inch and one-hundred-and-ten-pound frame.” 

In his dark period, Luzzi’s grief can feel repetitive. Starting on the first day of his widowhood, Luzzi agonizes over his failure to embrace his daughter – and yet for years does little more than lament. 

But Luzzi’s relentless self-examination keeps him honest. He knows that he has often been selfish, and he offers few excuses. The journey he makes – from being a good man to becoming a better one – is a quest so universal that we can all find ourselves in his struggle. And that includes Dante, who surely would have been pleased to know that, centuries after his death, his verse would still be illuminating the stairway to heaven. 

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s books editor.

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