The singular wound

“Beauty has no other origin than the singular wound,” late French writer Jean Genet once theorized, “different in every case, hidden or visible, which each man bears within himself.” Perhaps no other artist had a greater sense of this shared wound than the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321).

The scion of a wealthy Florentine family, Dante had mastered politics, medicine and lyrical poetry by the time he was in his early 20s. As one of Florence’s leading public officials, Dante sentenced a colleague to prison. The man became sick and died, and Dante suffered a crisis of conscience.

Depressed and unable to write, he withdrew into the wound Genet writes about, searching for a reason to act and finding it in the memory of Beatrice, a young woman whom he had known since childhood and who embodied everything that he thought good and beautiful in the world. She had died in 1290, leaving Dante’s love unrequited, but she became his muse, the salve that healed his wound and allowed him to write one of history’s greatest poems, the story of his journey through hell, purgatory and paradise, The Divine Comedy.

Flash forward 700 years or so, and along comes Nick Tosches, a gritty New Yorker of Italian extraction who made his first artistic mark in the late 1960s by scribbling hard-boiled yet erudite criticism of rock ’n’ roll music. Such criticism since has proved quite fruitful for Tosches, who has penned acclaimed biographies on musicians such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Dean Martin.

But, deep down in his own wound, Tosches always has yearned to write fiction—important fiction, the kind that stands the test of time, like The Divine Comedy. Tosches, not a college graduate, has studied The Divine Comedy for most of his adult life. He taught himself Latin and medieval Italian and discovered somewhere during his research that the original manuscript for what is perhaps the world’s most famous poem has never been discovered. But what if someone did find it? It would make a great topic for a book, right?

That, then, is the plot device that drives In the Hand of Dante, the discovery of The Divine Comedy’s original manuscript in a dusty Italian vault. Tosches uses two narrative arcs to tell his story. The first employs a third-person narrator and eloquent, gothic language to bring Dante and his struggles to life. The second narrative is a first-person account of the violent machinations involved in obtaining the found manuscript. This second arc, written in Tosches’ trademark ribald, self-deprecating style, features a narrator with the same name as the book’s author: Nick Tosches.

This bit of hubris throws the reader off at first, simply because the character Tosches creates for himself is so angry, so holier-than-thou, so over-the-top that he’s virtually unlikable and defies all credibility. Did Tosches really kill another kid during his childhood? Did he really almost lose his leg to gangrene? Is he really dying from diabetes?

The answer is yes, yes, yes, that’s why they call it fiction, but we don’t really realize that until Tosches starts killing off his cohorts in order to reduce ownership of the manuscript to a single person: Tosches. Once that happens, the story pivots, and Tosches ironically becomes the likeable character, while Dante, depressed because he can’t finish The Divine Comedy, weighs us down.

In the Hand of Dante is a study in contrasts—Dante and Nick Tosches, medieval Italy and modern-day New York, works of great beauty and the pain it takes to create them—that turn out not to be so different after all. Dante’s wound, Tosches’ wound, each of our wounds are one and the same.