A pleasant, informative journey toward perfect love with Dante (and Virgil and Beatrice) through Italy, France, hell, purgatory, and heaven.
Rubin, who has ventured previously into Italian history (The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women, 1997, etc.), this time moves into the Middle Ages and offers an almost ecstatic exegesis of The Divine Comedy, with breezy commentary on all three of its canticles. The author has a lot on her plate: she follows Dante around Italy (and into France and back again) as he is composing the poem; she sketches the cultural and religious history of the age; she explains both the structure and the significance of the Comedy; she shows how it has influenced other writers and how it resonates in contemporary life. And so throughout the text we find allusions to great Dante scholars and teachers (e.g., John Freccero at NYU), samples of translations from Ciardi, Mandelbaum, Pinsky, Merwin, Wicksteed, and even a quick taste of the Binyon-Pound collaboration. Rubin sprinkles her text as well with references to Harry Potter and Pudd’n’head Wilson, Freud and Fellini, People magazine and Matthew Pearl (and Longfellow!), Keats and Eliot, Joyce and Titian, Nijinsky and Jung. She includes details we won’t forget (Tuscan paper comprised old underwear, animal parts, hemp), a few hackneyed images (a butterfly emerging from a cocoon), and some anecdotes that aren’t quite accurate (the story of Shelley’s drowning and cremation and of Trelawny’s snatching from the fire the poet’s unconsumed heart). Still, there are some eye-openers here for general readers and those unfamiliar with the poem. Rubin’s summary of the theory that Dante’s views of Gothic cathedrals in France inspired the architecture of the Comedy, her emphasis on the importance of memory in medieval societies, her unfettered enthusiasm for the poem—these are real attractions. As, for the most part, is her felicitous prose.
In the poem, Dante finds Love; in Rubin, a grateful lover.