Review

In the Hand of Dante

by Nick Tosches



IN THE HAND OF DANTE bears the label "A Novel" on the cover. This
is inaccurate; to label a book as "A Novel" is to imply that it is
a work of fiction. What Nick Tosches has done here is to take the
ordered and deliberate gathering of printed word somewhere beyond
that, into a realm where fact and fiction intertwine to the extent
that what results is neither fable nor reality. It is simply what
it is. This is a work of a type, like NAKED LUNCH, like THE SOUND
AND THE FURY, a work that will cause discussion and argument and
fisticuffs to take place. Tosches at one point during IN THE HAND
OF DANTE puts forth the proposition that artists don't create for
themselves, but for their descendants, since artists are never
appreciated during their lifetimes. IN THE HAND OF DANTE at once
presents this argument and is, perhaps, the main exhibit of its
case-in-chief.

IN THE HAND OF DANTE is a difficult work, undoubtedly by design. It
is almost impossible to read at one sitting --- there are passages
where the language is so beautiful, and the ideas so deep, that one
must simply look away for a time --- yet it is compelling to the
point of obsession. When one is away from it, one wonders what is
occurring within the universe contained within the binders. That
universe proceeds on two tracks. One track follows Dante, as he is
composing THE DIVINE COMEDY, and the influences upon him during
that period. His main influence is an elderly Jewish rabbi --- and
I use the term "rabbi" not in the clerical but in its true context.
There are extended passages during which the elder explores the
magic of language and the influence of cabbala upon the
Christian religion and the fallacies upon which it is built. Look,
he says, look, see what is to be plainly seen and what has been
ignored. Are you ready, he asks Dante, and the reader, to see the
truth? It is almost painful to read these passages; doing so may
occasionally require two or three perusals, with time for
reflection afterwards. There is much to consider here, and to
reconsider. Tosches has a passion for knowledge of what we call The
Middle Ages; one gets the feeling that what he gives us IN THE HAND
OF DANTE skims only the surface.

The other track of THE HAND OF DANTE involves the quiet discovery
in the Vatican of what appears to be the original manuscript of THE
DIVINE COMEDY. The document is spirited away and nefariously
becomes the property of a group of gentlemen that includes one Nick
Tosches, an author, thief and expert on matters Dante. Another of
this group is a gentleman known only as Louie, as frightening a
character as one might encounter in modern fiction. He is
frightening simply because there is no question that he exists and
that you might encounter him, to your detriment, in the course of
an innocent, unexcused brushing of shoulders some night in the
Village along Sixth Avenue. This reservoir dog is one of Tosches'
uneasy partners in the acquisition and verification the manuscript;
as the witnesses to the acquisition are methodically dispensed
with, Tosches comes to realize that he is next in line.

Tosches occasionally departs from this narrative and converts into
a vehicle for presentation of autobiographical material, including
an angry rant against publishers and editors, including his own,
which goes on for pages. A portion of this consists of a memo by
Tosches to his editor in response to a request for a subtitle to a
previous work of his, WHEN DEAD VOICES GATHER. It is feared by the
editor that, without the subtitle, readers will mistake this
nonfiction work for a work of fiction. What is interesting and
compelling here is that Tosches' extended dissertation of a
response reveals that he is capable by turns of the most eloquent
and the most coarse of language, depending on the subject matter.
There are also layers of meaning within --- some immediately
obvious, some not.

When Tosches recounts a dialogue between Dante and his
patron, wherein the possibility is explored that Dante has
interposed certain personalities in his work to please the
patron, is this not a reminder that an artist must be
mindful of commercial realities? Perhaps. With Tosches, one is
never quite sure. And one is never sure how IN THE HAND OF DANTE
will end. Just when you think Tosches might be out of running room,
he introduces, within the last fifth of the book, one of the most
interesting characters you'll encounter in fiction this year. And
what does the last sentence of IN THE HAND OF DANTE infer?

IN THE HAND OF DANTE is a challenging work, a seductive work. It is
compelling enough to love, and frustrating enough, at times, to
hate --- but it is ultimately a brilliant work that demands
attention, respect, and slow savoring, a work that, while not for
everyone, should be read by everyone.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011

In the Hand of Dante
by Nick Tosches

  • Publication Date: September 1, 2003
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316735647
  • ISBN-13: 9780316735643