A. N. Wilson’s new book on Dante is inspired partly by love — he’s read Dante over the past fifty years or so — and partly by the notion that people are scared away from reading Dante at all. As a novelist, popular historian, ex-theology student, former atheist, current believer, and amateur Dantean, Wilson offers himself as our Virgil as we journey, again — or for the first time — into the poet’s imagination. Despite the many books on Dante he’s looked at over the years (and his bibliography is deep as well as long), Wilson feels he’s never found a satisfactory introduction written for the ordinary non-Italian-speaking reader, “the intelligent general reader of the twenty-first century — that is to say, you.”
Wilson’s title — Dante in Love — raised my expectations, at any rate, toward the biographical, and there is quite a bit about Dante’s feelings for his family and his children, about his first sight of Beatrice when he was eight, and about his failure ever to mention in print his wife, Gemma Donati. But Wilson also writes about love as Dante’s great topic — all kinds of love, whether romantic or courtly, sexual or Christian, the love of friends or place or polity, God’s love for us and ours for Him.
At the same time, Wilson points out, Dante is also “the poet of hate, the poet of vengeance, of implacable resentment and everlasting feuds.” And that takes us to politics. Against the larger European feud between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, pitted against each other all the way from Germany to Sicily, Dante’s home city of Florence was riven by the disputes between the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, further subdivided by the internal enmities between the Black and White factions of the Guelfs.
Not only were their cities surrounded by thick turreted walls to keep at bay their enemies from other cities. Their internal city architecture also took for granted the fact that, at any moment, your fellow-citizens would wish to knife, rob or pillage you and your family.
In medieval Florence, 150 towers had been erected by what amounted to rival gangs.
Wilson’s marshaling of the biographical and political sections strongly support the notion that for Dante geography was destiny: “All the people who are central to Dante’s history, both his personal tragedy as a failed politician, and to his imaginative life as author of the Comedy, grew up a few blocks away from one another, cheek by jowl in the high-towered Via San Martino.” It doesn’t, then, seem so surprising that in the Comedy Dante consciously conveyed people’s fates by their physical locations, whether placing them in the ditches of Hell’s Malebolge or in the dancing rose of Heaven.
So how well does Wilson do in his book for an ordinarily intelligent reader? He thinks highly of our abilities when it comes to theology (a professional interest) and the political infighting of the day. The many chapters on these topics are densely detailed and assume a serious level of attention on the reader’s part. His emphasis on the possible Cathar influence on Dante’s worldview is new to me and interesting, even though I don’t yet find it convincing. About social customs, however, Wilson apparently thinks we need quite elementary information. After he tells us that Dante was betrothed to his future wife when he was eleven, he helpfully adds, “Medieval Florentine marriage customs were not like those of modern Europe or America.” Gee, thanks.
I also occasionally caught a whiff of the professor who aims to be hip. Thus we have tossed-off comparisons of Latino Malabranca to Henry Kissinger, the Aeneid to the Ramayana, and Dante to the Vedic tradition and tantric sex. I have no sense of how seriously Wilson wants us to take these asides or if they’re just gimmicks. But just when I’m getting a bit fed up, I’ll find a gem, like an apt reference to P. G. Wodehouse’s immortal Madeline Bassett or a quotation from an article by Auberon Waugh entitled “Is A. N. Wilson Going to Hell?” Such winks are a saving grace.
Many of the sections that I found most revelatory were on the specifics of the medieval world that are closest to Wilson’s strengths: on literary figures, literary styles, and literary responses. The interlocking structure of terza rima, for instance, he winningly describes as “like a conversation in which the dominant voice is wanting to add, ‘Oh, and another thing.’ “
Wilson’s final chapter on Dante’s reception, particularly in England, is terrific: smart, pointed, and often very funny. He is both sympathetic to and unsparing of the cultural and historical limitations of earlier readings. Thus the exiled Garibaldista Gabriele Rossetti (father of the Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel) saw a Dante who was “a freethinking early nineteenth-century Freemason astonishingly like Rossetti himself.” And thus the Victorian prime minister Gladstone saw a Dante who was a “Church of England Victorian Liberal who had studied at Oxford.”
Even though he never says so, Wilson’s Dante is just as bound by Wilson’s concerns. Hence, in Wilson’s vision, the Comedy is often “a subversive work,” and Dante, he suspects, might be “deliberately undermining the Catholicism which the poem seemingly supports.” I don’t have Wilson’s gift for the quick skewer, but this is the sort of Dante that’s easy for twenty-first-century Oxbridge/Ivy League graduates to swallow. A particularly difficult area for Wilson is Dante’s treatment of homosexuals, which Wilson connects to current debates within the Catholic and Anglican communions between “liberals” and “diehards.” I feel here a poignant struggle within Wilson, and probably not him alone. Wilson would like to believe that “the mature Dante had put behind him the false distinctions of sacred and profane love.” And yet Wilson broods over the uncomfortable literary fact that Dante describes his beloved teacher Brunetto in a scene of “ultimate sophistication and brilliance” and still sticks him in Hell, apparently for being gay, while putting the Provençal love poet Arnaut Daniel, also gay, in Purgatory. Why?
God’s answer might differ from Dante’s. But it is surely a human trait, strong in Dante and Wilson too, to admire and love people for some qualities while simultaneously finding them despicable for others. As Wilson concludes, “The dark wood into which [the Comedy] takes us in the opening lines is not safe. No more is the scorching light at the poem’s end. Nor is — however we define it, and whatever form it takes — Love.” Wilson’s book reminds us of the ultimate rewards of such perilous journeys.