Dante In Love
By A.N. Wilson
Atlantic Books – £14.99
In this place, perhaps, Dante knelt, between these green walls that look as though an ocean has left behind trails of seaweed. In this place the visionary spoke to the Unseen Presence and later recalled a small street in Paris where he rested awhile in meditation on his journey to the utmost depths of the inner world.
By Julien Green
Apart from the fact that the title of this book, Dante In Love, would make for a terrific song title, the book itself makes for inspired reading – lest one be surprised that the lingering trajectory of Dante’s work(s) were to actually touch upon the utmost depths of the inner world. Or indeed, the inner sanctum of what many might proclaim to be definitive or sacred.
So is it any wonder that in the very first chapter (‘Why This Book Has Been Written’), novelist A.N. Wilson – whose most recent novel is The Potter’s Hand – immediately writes that one can only avoid Dante at one’s own elongated peril: ”And in so doing, they leave unsavoured one of the supreme aesthetic, imaginative, emotional and intellectual experiences on offer. They are like people who have never attended a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, or of King Lear, never heard a Beethoven symphony, never visited Paris. Quite definitely, they are missing out.
If you belong to this category of Dante-reader, or non-reader, then this book is specifically designed for you. And before we go any further, it had better be admitted that, as your travel guide in unfamiliar terrain, I know that my work will be difficult. The greatest of all European poems cannot be understood unless you familiarize yourself with the Europe out of which it came. So we must set off on a journey together to the Middle Ages, which were a strange land.”
Thus, the journey herein is as equally illuminating as it is factual, but more importantly, it’s very readable. I found myself wanting to investigate further, wanting to cross-reference, wanting to succumb to the Florence of Dante’s lifetime: ”Florence was to produce, as well as much gold and bloodshed, some of the greatest poetry, painting and architecture which the world has ever seen. These artefacts – beginning in the Trecento,1300s, with the poems of Dante and the paintings of his friend and contemporary Giotto, grew in the fructiferous soil of hatred, blood and cash. Dante is the self-proclaimed poet of love, but he is also the poet of hate, the poet of vengeance, of implacable resentment and everlasting feuds” (‘Dante’s Florence -1260-74’).
Open, honest, charming and simply littered with a menagerie of cracking one-liners (”Even Logical Positivists think Love is important!, ”The effect, when approached in mist, or evening light, is not unlike a sort of medieval Manhattan.,” ”To be born in medieval Florence was to be born with a ready-made set of enemies”), Dante In Love really is as The Sunday Telegraph’s Jonathan Bate states: ”This is biography done by a novelist at the height of his powers. Wilson moves seamlessly between Dante’s life, his poems and the historical context… He has written a loving book that is worthy of the divine poet of love.”
Indeed he has. A.N. Wilson’s writing is clearly a work that resonates with (simultaneous) regal research that just happens to be interspersed with love.
As such, this book longs to be embraced and believed – even if only to most humbly partake in the following: ”Dante believed that love encompassed all things, that it was the force which moved the sun and other stars, so my title must be allowed to cover a wide range. At the outset, I should like to repeat that I am in no sense a Dantean scholar or expert. This book would be so much better if such a scholar had written it, but only provided that he or she had kept in mind the enthusiastic intelligent audience whom I know to be out there – persuadable, if not easily – to do that difficult but infinitely rewarding thing, beginning to read Dante. In the absence of such a book, I have done my best.”