Thursday 26 April 2018

Review: Dante in Love by AN Wilson

Atlantic Books, €25

Christina Reihill

AN Wilson's book, Dante In Love reads like a love letter to the finest European love poet that has ever lived.

Its handsome, reassuring volume, dedicated to his beloved (Dante Alighieri) defines what lays ahead in an elegant, erudite eulogy to the 14t-Century Tuscan poet and his work. It's beautiful.

But Wilson's heavy hardback (386 pages with colour templates) should come with a heavy hardback warning for those hesitant around the theme of erotic love and the nature of obsession.

Because this is an obsessive book about an erotically obsessed poet and however engaging or eloquently delivered -- its rich text reads like a study in erotic transference. The author, like his subject, takes forever to get to the point and the title of his book.

But if you enjoy obscure historical detail, actions and reactions about a series of remote, medieval feudings and the story behind the author's secret passion for Dante since he was a student in Cambridge, all of which have no bearing on the theme and premise of his book, then this is a book for you.

But as a passionate reader of The Divine Comedy and its theme of love (not the vast allegorical narrative describing the political and historical background of The Divine Comedy) I found Wilson's book overloaded with detail and hard to follow, however adept and skilled the delivery.

As I ploughed through the first 100 pages waiting for Wilson's understanding of the poet's stunning Everyman story and premise to the book, I found myself disappointed and getting irritated.

Dante's stunning artistry and understanding of the nature of love in the context of an exquisite architectural drawing of the human soul, and how our nature and ego desires lose our way to "the love that moves the sun and other stars", takes Wilson forever to address.

He understands Dante's profound insight of a heart's suffering and longing to know truth, beauty, joy and justice but Dante's secret to the universe barely gets a mention in Wilson's series of mini essays, digressions and self- aggrandising insights.

While Dante sweeps his reader into a discourse on the nature of love and how its sufferings are rooted in wilfulness and a choice to live without faith, his long song provides a drama and tension to wrap the sweet kiss of his odyssey, Wilson's long song sounds more like a warbler's.

That said, like many lost in the maze of a lover's spell, losing the plot along the way, there's no doubting Wilson's sincerity and curiosity to know and understand his beloved.

In the end, for this reader (who only wants to know about Dante in Love) Wilson provides all the psychological insight into the nature of erotic love and how the love object can, if wisely guided, provide a vehicle to know the most that we can be and it's opposite. And though his love letter lacks the erotic, fiery passion and expression of the poem and poet he's describing and his vast knowledge seems to diminish Dante's work in its over-analysis, there's a lot here for those interested in the period and the thinkers and artists of the time.

Dante's masterpiece has been described as una bella menzona, a beautiful lie -- not a literal fact -- bearing deep truths and Wilson understands this as a heavyweight intellect himself but even on this wonderful rich theme -- Wilson's prose has buttoned up reserve.

Wilson lacks the passion to write about the most passionate poem ever written.

His book is a beautiful landscape drawing of a vibrant sensual oil painting -- I'd prefer to struggle with Dante's text about love and how its search, whatever about the outcome, brings meaning and a deep sense of feeling known.

Dante's poem is a breathtaking drama of the soul's choice in terms of the passions that lead, control and invite us to know love -- it is a unique work as an agent of experience, where the poet speaks about the existential voids and struggles of the human experience in the here and now and all the mess that displays is what attracted me to its near 1,500 verses told in three books.

My obsession with Dante started some 10 years ago after I fell into a pit of hell with drugs and alcohol and wrote an odyssey in verse as the rope to pull me through.

Having studied as a psychotherapist and specialised in the field of addiction, I went in search of a template to frame my map of fine and subtle feeling. A mentor, who'd read my odyssey lead me to Dante and told me to follow his theme of love. Six years later I produced my own narrative in verse -- Soul Burgers.

Dante wrote: "The path to paradise begins in hell" -- Wilson's book for all its fineness fails to convince me that he knows love at all because he's never been to hell or in all his limbo discourse, let himself know that he's there.

'Soul Burgers', Christina's recovery story in verse inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy can be bought in Dubray Books Blackrock and Dun Laoghaire, Ruiseal's in Cork or visit

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