Phyllis Rose took a year to read Proust and wrote her “memoir in real time”. More recently, Rebecca Mead revisited Middlemarch and she, too, wrote a memoir which examined her own life in that context. In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, Nina Sankovitch plunged into the classic Russian’s work as part of coping with her sister’s death.

Joseph Luzzi In a Dark Wood

Harper Collins, 2015

We readers turn to books in many moods but perhaps most significantly in times of struggle. Our reading can offer joy and entertainment, but it can also offer a way out of the darkness.

There is no question that Joseph Luzzi is a bookish sort. His car idles in a bookstore parking lot; he listens to an audiobook which features Ian McKellen as Odysseus; he compares an April day to a day in Wuthering Heights.

But his relationship with Dante’s work, and his reliance upon it while grieving, is remarkable: “For the first time in my life, I was inhabiting a book.”

Following his wife’s death in an accident, which precipitated the birth of their daughter, the author is forced to inhabit an intense intimacy and, simultaneously, an overwhelming sense of distance.

“I felt a rational love for the [infant] hand I held and stroked it, but nothing instinctual and visceral. I was a ghost haunting what had been my own life.”

In this state, he turns to literature.

“Long study and great love – the same words that would bring Dante to Virgil in the dark wood, and what would bring me to Dante in my time of greatest woe.”

There, on the page, Joseph Luzzi begins to reflect upon his loss, to reassemble his life and begin the long process of building a relationship with his new daughter.

Joseph Luzzi author photo TLC

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“In writing so movingly about Beatrice’s death in the Vita Nuova, Dante used poetry to reflect on all-too-common experience. He was filling the exquisite eliteness of Guido’s poetry with pressing human needs. That was Dante’s gift – to merge the beauty of poetry with the visceral experiences of life, love, and death.”

Readers need not have the same intense relationship with Dante’s work to appreciate the healing which is an integral part of Joseph Luzzi’s reading and writing. These are universal themes, immediately accessible to readers.

Nonetheless, throughout much of the work, readers will feel somewhat removed from the author’s experience, reflecting the sense of distance he felt, himself, as a ghost haunting his own life. The clarity of the prose is a wise choice, however, for the story’s content is overwhelmingly emotional and a more effusive tone would risk over-burdening the narrative.

For “there are things that cannot be shared, and grief is one thing that you must endure ultimately alone, whether you’re in the wood of the suicides or in a fancy country restaurant.”

Ultimately, the process of grieving requires an honest acknowledgement of the depth of the loss. The bulk of In a Dark Wood is preoccupied with this state.

“You can’t be reborn, Beatrice, Beatrice will teach Dante, unless you’re willing to let a part of yourself die.”

This process is not shared only from an interior perspective; some key relationships (particularly the author’s relationship with his mother who, with the assistance of other family members, accepts responsibility for the care of the baby girl who was born out of this tragedy) offer another slant on the author’s experience and alleviate some of the story’s weight for readers (just as this help would have offered respite to the author).

“If ever there were an index of how long it took to rebuild my life, it would be my mom’s unwavering presence at my side.I had made it out of the electric air of grief and was working my way through the uphill slog of mourning, and at each stage my mother was there to help me – a maternal version of Virgil, offering her profound wisdom on children and family life at a time when I desperately needed a guide to both.”

While the book is necessarily a meditation upon loss, ultimately part of the story is that of the rebirth which follows.

“Katherine’s death would bring with it endless chaos and flux, but there was one constant throughout the entire aftermath. My reading of Dante had always been deep, but when I found myself in the dark wood his words became a matter of life and death. He had taught me that you can love somebody without a body in a certain way, but that you must reserve your truest love for somebody whose breath you can hear and feel – your child’s, your wife’s – and that you may visit the Underworld but you cannot live there.”

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Certainly, the process of writing In a Dark Wood would have been an essential part of Joseph Luzzi’s journey through the Underworld, but its publication is a testament to his emergence from the darkness.

Other readers’ opinions appear in the following places: A Bookish Way of LifeBookNAroundSharon’s Garden of Book ReviewsMs. Nose in a BookTina Says …Imaginary ReadsRaven Haired GirlA Book GeekWorth Getting in Bed ForCreate With JoyFrom L.A. to LAJancee ReadsA Dream Within a DreamBelle’s Beautiful BooksEmerald City Book Review.

Thanks to TLC for the invitation to participate in the reading and discussion of this memoir.