In the Hand of Dante – Nick Tosches

This book is both literally and figuratively unreadable. First, the literal problems: many (presumably) important lines are in Italian, Hebrew or Latin. Further, Tosches bogs his narrative down to dwell, at mind-numbing length, on numerology and etymology. Second, the figurative problem: the book’s style. When Tosches does abandon his pedantic impulses, and deign to tell his reader a story—and, make no mistake, it’s an extremely interesting story—he does so in language so florid it quickly becomes, and remains, laughable. It’s hard to enjoy a book when the reader’s desire for the author to shut up and tell the story is as overpowering as it becomes here.

In The Hand Of Dante’s plot revolves around The Divine Comedy. Tosches makes himself the protagonist, a writer and sometime gangster hanger-on who is conscripted to retrieve the original manuscript of Dante’s poem. Savage crimes are mentioned in casual tones throughout the book. Some of these are obviously fictive, but others may well be true. Tosches goes out of his way to mingle fiction and reality here, and the way he describes his own actions, there’s no way to check his story. This is interesting. What’s less interesting is Tosches’ use of Dante as a character. He describes the poet’s life, in a narrative that runs parallel to (and sometimes parallels) the main story.

Tosches is obviously obsessed with Dante, and that’s fine. But his book carries an irreparable flaw, which makes it the lurching failure it is. Its author is an autodidact, with all the lack of discipline and unfettered enthusiasm that implies. He began his writing career as a rock critic, but by the late 1970s had effectively retired from the work in disgust, an understandable reaction. The crassness of the music industry has broken many a seemingly hardy spirit.

Tosches’ response to the depredations of the music biz was a withdrawal into obscurantism. His primary tactic as a writer became the acquisition of arcane knowledge which allowed him the freedom to make extravagant claims because the facts were uncheckable. Nobody else knew about the subjects he tackled, so he became the default authority. He’s not trustworthy, though. He’s a crank. During the course of this book, he goes off on tangents about the worthlessness of the contemporary literary scene and contemporary society, that are so dyspeptic, they’re almost worthy of the French writer Michel Houellebecq, a depressive alcoholic whose novels advocate human extinction as a solution to their author’s pain.

Tosches is forever chasing some idealized past, whether it’s the rural south of the 1950s (in his rock ‘n’ roll writing, he seemed to believe the music was already spoiled by the time Elvis walked into Sun Studios) or the medieval Italy of Dante. In the book’s most useless, and (one hopes) unintentionally laughable section, Tosches-the-character takes a trip to Cuba. This happens seemingly for no other reason than to allow Tosches-the-author to indulge his worst Hemingwayesque impulses. A sample passage:

It was in the music of the sea to the south, in the almighty roar of creation and destruction, the endless vagitus, lullaby, and threnody of the waves, whose tides bore away every dying soul, that I had found the true sway and rhythms of the true thing. Lying there alone in that hammock in the black of night, it was to me as if the stars, like glintings of infinity, and the clouds, like gatherings of shades, drifted and wove to the music of that roar, that vagitus, that lullaby, that threnody of those soul-delivering and soul-taking waves of that vast and deadly and godly song that was without beginning and that was without end. Lying there alone in that hammock in the black of night, the strange thirst in my veins had been quenched by the warm water of the fresh-cut coconut that had been brought to me by the kind young stranger. Lying there alone in the black of night, I felt the sea to be the great old stranger: the great old stranger that was beyond any epithets of kindness or of evil, just as its entrance into me was beyond both my will and my understanding.

In The Hand Of Dante is stuffed with passages that florid. Eventually, the mind rebels; the eyes refuse to take in one more pseudo-incantatory sentence, one more word chosen not for its aptness but for its archaism, one more paragraph that fails to advance the story a jot but serves only to make Nick Tosches swell up at the keyboard. At last, the brain begins to plead for one simple declarative, one page that limits itself to English, one chapter free of references to poets no professor is so pretentious as to even assign anymore.

If part of Tosches’ point is to demonstrate the inadequacy of contemporary education, then he’s to be congratulated. His jeremiads against the current state of the publishing industry are, if hardly the first word on the subject, at least entertaining and momentarily convincing. But it’s hard to take any of it seriously coming from a man who writes for Vanity Fair.

Phil Freeman

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