Joseph Luzzi, who holds a doctorate from Yale University, has been teaching and writing about Dante Alighieri for more than 20 years. He is even a former council member of the Dante Society of America, founded in 1881 by Dante’s first American translator, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. But when Luzzi experienced a personal tragedy, the Divine Comedy became more than an object of mere academic interest. How the poem helped him heal is the subject of Luzzi’s new memoir, In a Dark Wood: What Dante Taught Me about Grief, Healing and the Mysteries of Love.
Luzzi’s first memoir, My Two Italies, represented a departure from the scholarly writing in which he had hitherto specialized, and it showcased Luzzi’s wonderful talents as a writer and storyteller. Indeed, from the opening chapter, in which he recounts the death of a pet related to the peasant mentality of his parents – immigrants from Calabria who raised their family in Rhode Island – the book is a page-turner. Now a professor of Italian at Bard, Luzzi lived in Florence as a college student, beginning his lifelong immersion in the “other Italy” – the world of Dante and the Renaissance, the high culture of Brunelleschi, Piero della Francesca and Michelangelo – that was in part intended as a permanent upgrade from his poor southern-Italian roots. Luzzi follows up that marvelously written meditation on his fascination with the high-culture Italy of the north and the lowbrow Italy of the south – a tradition that brought The Godfather and The Sopranos and the gold chains of working-class Italian Americans – with an up-close-and-personal immersion in the Divine Comedy itself.
The impetus was the death of Luzzi’s pregnant wife, Katherine Mester Luzzi, in a car accident in Rhinebeck. Shortly before she died, she was delivered of a child, and while grieving for his wife and caring for Isabel, his infant daughter, Luzzi found solace in the poem that he had studied all of his adult life. In a Dark Wood has received rave reviews for its blend of personal and scholarly insights: “Luzzi honestly grapples with profound questions about being a man and father in a very literary and very personal work,” writes Publishers’ Weekly. Rebecca Mead, author of My Life in Middlemarch, called it “a powerful consolation – even salvation – that an engagement with great literature can supply.”
Luzzi will launch In a Dark Wood at Oblong Books & Music, located at 6422 Montgomery Street in Rhinebeck, on May 30 at 7 p.m. with a discussion about the book. He’ll also answer questions from the audience and sign copies.
In a Dark Wood signing with Joseph Luzzi, Saturday, May 30, 7 p.m., free, Oblong Books & Music, 6422 Montgomery Street, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-0500, www.oblongbooks.com. Please RSVP at firstname.lastname@example.org.