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Dante in Love by AN Wilson – review

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Get relationship help, parenting advice, healthy recipes, and tips for living a happy life from our author experts. Get access to the best in romance: See More New Releases. In the vein of Brunelleschi's Dome, Galileo's Daughter, and Wittgenstein's Poker, Dante in Love is a geographic and spiritual re-creation of the poet's travels and the burst of creativity that produced the greatest poem ever written. Clearly the path is steep, and the hinder foot is the firmer as Dante says early on.

What is so forbidding, and so enticing, is the wealth of notes and diagrams, the grasp you seem to need not only of the feuds between those who supported the pope's claims to power and those who held out for an emperor, but of the schisms within those factions, and how they divided Florence.

Dante In Love | Washington Independent Review of Books

Wilson manages all this. As he does so, he slips into the role of biographer. Yes, it seems straightforward to place Dante in a battle here, an assembly there, and to see how his friendships and loathings manifest themselves in his accounts of the people he meets in the worlds to come.

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But these are beguiling. One problem is that so much of this material can be read allegorically a shock for which Wilson prepares us gracefully ; another is what Dante leaves out — for example, we know whom he married, but Dante never mentions his wife. Wilson takes advantage of these challenges: If Dante gives us a universe, then Wilson provides a splendid survey of the world in which it was conceived. His digressions are almost all illuminating; his criticism is generous, open-ended and patient.

I'm glad to think that I will be somewhere else, or even better nowhere at all.

By Neal Stephenson

Meanwhile, in the Dantesque dark wood that we call our mortal lives, Wilson has prescriptions for rectifying society, extrapolated from his conservative reading of The Divine Comedy. It does him credit that he castigates Dante for being tough on sodomites, and he laments "restrictive laws for women which would seem familiar in modern Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iran". But the moral that Wilson finds in Dante's poem is hardly humanitarian: Hell, in Wilson's view, is where we choose to go, and his disquisition on dogma becomes a predictable rant about freedom and personal responsibility, railing against the contemporary assumption that "we are no more than the sum of our DNA" or "the product of our social environment".

Thus when Ugolino in the Inferno eats his own children, Wilson imagines "social workers and psychiatrists" pleading "extenuating circumstances". Wilson makes repeated claims for Dante's relevance. These are meaningless assertions, exposing the relativity of the adjective on which they depend. What they cover up is Wilson's own rejection of a modernity that has replaced Dante's "common culture" with a jarring, jabbering diversity of tribal cults and personal belief systems.

In the Thatcher era, fogeys preached "Victorian values".

Now Utopia has receded to the 14th century, with its plots and plagues and feudal iniquities.