31 October, 2011Issue 17.2LiteraturePoetry

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Dante in Love

Tim Smith-Laing

Dante in LoveA.N. Wilson
Dante in Love
Atlantic Books, 2011
400 Pages
ISBN 978-1848879485


Packed with information, broad in reference, and accompanied by a lengthy bibliography, Dante in Love is quite obviously the product of a genuine and enduring fascination with its subject. When A.N. Wilson tells us that he is “no Dante scholar”, he claims the status of an amateur in the fullest sense of the word: a lover of Dante, with a lover’s autodidacticism and desire to share. As the autobiographical introduction tells us, Wilson found himself “hooked on the Infernoas a teenager, and Dante soon took up central position in his literary consciousness, forcing him to return time and time again to the Commedia, trawling second-hand bookshops for anything and everything that could tell him more about the great Florentine.

While we might be wary of such professions of faith and faithfulness from an author with 37 books (and counting) to his name, there is no reason to be sceptical about the reality of Wilson’s love for Dante. On meeting Wilson for an interview about Dante in Love at this year’s Henley Literary Festival, I found him to be a veritable storehouse of Dante lore, and desperate to expound upon it. Which is not to mention the fact that his daughter is, tellingly, named Beatrice.

So much for Wilson himself. Unfortunately, reading Dante in Love is an altogether different proposition from talking to its author. It is a curiously infuriating book that seems less the expression of Wilson’s knowledge and enthusiasm than the victim of it. Structured above all by tangents, Dante in Love is not quite a biography (though it is heavily biographical), nor a contextualising history (though it is heavy on historical detail), nor an exercise in literary exegesis (though it is heavy on quotation). Instead, it is, Wilson tells us, a sort of Dante road-map, designed to give the “intelligent general reader” access to this most important of literary monuments.

Initially the scheme serves both author and reader well; the opening chapter sees Wilson very much at his strongest. Plunging us into Rome in 1300, Wilson starts at one of the key moments of Dante’s life: Boniface VIII’s great Jubilee Year of 1300. The historical scene is as striking as it could possibly be, and Wilson evokes it vividly. Treading the fine line between popular engagement and accuracy, he presents us with the machinating and devious Boniface (who most likely ordered the assassination of his abdicated predecessor Celestine V) at the height of his powers. Boniface had decided to cash in on the semi-millenarian rumours that pilgrims who came to Rome in the first year of the new century would receive plenary indulgence—complete absolution for their sins—by issuing a papal bull declaring exactly that. An exacting obstacle course of church visits, observances, and donations was drawn up to maximise the Holy See’s profits. As Wilson puts it, the church was “literally raking in the money”, with two clerics stationed at the altar of St Paul, day and night, gathering the donations with long-handled rakes. Not put off by the cost of indulgence, pilgrims from across Europe crammed the streets, with as many as 30,000 entering the city every day. Numbers were such that at the Ponte Sant’Angelo a two-way traffic system was instituted to allow the multitudes to pass, a sight which, Wilson reminds us, struck one pilgrim as positively hellish.

It is here, however, that the central problem of Dante in Love raises its head for the first time. The pilgrim is, of course, Dante; but even as he enters, he is squeezed to the very edge of the frame by the wealth of secondary detail that Wilson chooses to focus on. When Wilson points out that Dante would later recall the crowds on the Ponte Sant’Angelo when describing the denizens of Dis, he chooses not to quote or reference the relevant passage of the Commedia. The reader familiar with Inferno will recall the damned, whipped by devils as they run through the ditches of middle-hell, and will most probably scuttle off, as I did, to read the lines afresh (Inferno, XVIII, 24-33). The reader unfamiliar with the text will be left ignorant of the extraordinary contextual wrenchings of metaphor and simile that Dante uses to concretise his vision of the netherworld.

The frustration generated by such moments—of which there are many—is, obviously, the lot of a reader already familiar with the Commedia. The reader who has come to Wilson to find out what exactly is so great about the Commedia will not be frustrated, but he may well still be left with his original question. Wilson is so eager to touch on every one of the Commedia’s multitude of contexts (historical, theological, philosophical, biographical, literary, etc.) that Dante in Love begins to read like a series of ever more hurried digressions. After the opening chapters on Rome and Florence, our itinerary becomes increasingly vague and indirect—and that the first steps should have been so engaging only makes the eventual dissipation of our energies in side-road after side-road the more infuriating. Occasionally we glimpse the biographical skeleton that is, I think, Wilson’s central structural guide, but more often than not, a welter of information on matters as diverse as the troubadours, Giotto, and medieval numerology serves to obscure the book’s professed subject.

Symptomatic of this is Wilson’s failure to really address his own title. Though the traditional biographical questions surrounding Dante’s love for Beatrice are dealt with deftly, Wilson never quite broaches the deeper question of what Dante considers love to be. Time and again he returns to it, only to circle the topic and disappear down another contextual diversion. The novice, and indeed the initiate, will learn much of interest about courtly love and a great deal about Dante’s reconfiguration of dolce stil nuovo tropes and themes in his early poetry, but Wilson never fully turns his attention to the place of love in the Commedia. It is no accident that Dante devotes Purgatorio XVII—the 50th canto of the Commedia, its literal centre—to an extended exegesis of love’s centrality in human life and its expression in good and evil. If we are to look for an answer to the question of love’s centrality in Dante, this is the place to go, and it is curious that Wilson does not do so. Nothing that Wilson states, sad to say, can quite equal the theological clarity of Dante’s own words: “esser convene / amore sementa in voi d’ogne virtute / e d’ogne operazio che merta pene”, “love must be the seed in you of every virtue, and of every action that merits punishment” (Purgatorio, XVII, 103-5). Love is the motive of all things, for good and ill. To omit this passage is to omit the kernel of Dante’s philosophy of love, a kernel that simply cannot be reclaimed from context and biography alone.

This is not to say that the information Wilson gives the readers is misleading or, strictly speaking, irrelevant. Wilson covers the subjects that interested Dante the most, and for the most part, he covers them accurately. While it would be natural for an academic to niggle over Wilson’s misconception of the meaning of the term ermafrodito in Purgatorio XXVI, or his interpretation of Dante’s early lyric “Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore” as stating that “Women are simply brighter, more intelligent when it comes to matters of love” (the relative clause being a partitive rather than comprehensive description), these are relatively petty concerns. Similarly, Wilson’s desire to sweep aside debates over the authenticity of texts such as the “Epistle to Can Grande” or Il Fiore is a gnat to swat at for travellers familiar with the terrain, not a horse-fly to harry us home. There is much of interest in Dante in Love, and very little to object to; it is what Wilson omits that is really problematic.

Dante in Love is a work of entirely genuine love and considerable learning, but for all his enthusiasm and knowledge, Wilson cannot make a book capable of containing and structuring Dante’s world of loves and hatreds, ambitions and disappointments, his intellectual background and poetic apprenticeship. The overriding sensation evoked by Dante in Love is that the place to turn for understanding Dante is Dante. This may seem the kind of trite truism that could be said of any author and any great work of literature, but it is not quite so. Dante’s life and world are a puzzle to us, but they were also a puzzle to him. The Commedia is his attempt not only to solve that puzzle, but to communicate its solution; to structure his life and comprehend his universe, and to hand them over to his readers. Like any pilgrimage, it is not given for free: a well-annotated edition—such as the three-volume parallel text produced by Robert Durling and Ronald Martinez—is indispensable, of course. But even with the commentators holding our hands, the Commedia remains, in itself, the roadmap that Wilson was looking for.

Tim Smith-Laing is studying late-medieval and early-modern mythography in England, Italy, and France at Merton College, Oxford.