Luca Grossi. Bob Dylan in Hell: Songs in Dialogue with Dante – part I. Arcana, 2018. 128 pps.

REVIEW BY Michele Ulisse Lipparini

Lately there has been a new flow of Bob Dylan books. Maybe this stream is a little bit of a Nobel aftermath, or maybe it’s simply Time that going by helps us to put things in the correct perspective. Either way, Bob seems to be settling in among the Classics, or at least knockin’ on their door, and this short essay surely points us in that direction, from Hell to Heaven, following an Italian poet from the thirteenth century’s tracks. The book is the result of a university dissertation and it had to be edited for publishing purposes. Indeed, the original project was supposed to examine the three cantiche and, allow me to say, we long for the complete project to be released.

This book’s original nature is one of its weak points. While the author’s voice is clear and intriguing, what we can perceive, from time to time, is that he addresses an audience of people who are familiar with the subject of Dante, while a more divulgative approach would have been the proper choice to draw more readers and to draw them to both poets. Unluckily, as relevant as Dante is in modern culture and history, he’s not everybody’s bread and butter. His language is, alas, archaic, and it needs more paraphrase and context than what is found in this book. Don’t get me wrong, the author dwells upon the notions he means to propose long enough to make his point clear, but sometimes the reader can feel a lack of details that would be useful for comprehension. Surely, though, the person that would buy this kind of book is interested in investing time to read it, so why spare ink when it would only make the reader happier, more fulfilled? The flip side is that the author proposes an interesting but daring idea, so he needs to lavish us with strong points to support it. We know how (anal)ytical Bob’s fans can be. Sometimes they devote themselves to a new input like missionaries, or sometimes they get feisty and dismiss it completely. Of course, the fans can’t be an author’s compass, but in this dialogue they are his counterpart. 

At the end of each chapter (each analyzed song corresponds to a chapter), the author discusses the metric scheme of the song and then poses a kind of moral question (we all know where those answers are blowin’). The scheme as it is doesn’t give us new inputs, and I feel it should either be improved or removed. It should provide us with more food for thought; otherwise, it remains a sterile element. The question, however, while it would probably be better placed at the end of the song’s analysis, is delicate and suggestive of the book’s key point: not simply that the American Bard probably crossed paths with the Sommo Poeta, and that he drew some inspiration from his main work, the Divina Commedia, but that certain moral/ethical questions tend to come back to those sensitive enough to realize that the world is going wrong. What I appreciate about this perspective is that Grossi is suggesting, or even better, conjuring (in a less playful way than Scorsese) the idea for us. He’s not arrogant nor presumptuous when planting this seed in our mind, even in our conscience.

Many personal accounts of the Song and Dance Man describe him like a sponge, and that’s the visual I want to call to mind here. It would be easy to question the author’s perspective, possibly claiming that Bob couldn’t have been so well read in Dante’s matter at such a young age, when rambling around New York City’s streets, and that is probably true. Some of the details that Grossi works on are minute, and at times the analysis sounds a bit stretched (“All the Tired Horses” and “Union Sundown” chapters for instance), but this happens in minor cases. The author’s ideas come across as revelations, as thunder, when we read the pages devoted to “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “Desolation Row.” We can easily imagine the young Dylan spending time in libraries as he did, or reading essays passed on by Suze Rotolo, or maybe titles found in the house of the intellectuals and bohemians they were spending time with. In Chronicles we get a taste of the environment he was immersed in. We can easily picture him going through a Dante compendium or essay about the Divina Commedia’s themes, its questions, its metaphors, and Dante’s journey from Hell to Heaven. We can imagine the youngster’s swirling brain, the wannabe poet, projecting himself on such a journey. Yeah, that seems to be a safe assumption, and on that journey, well, there are surely a lot of special people and events waiting for a visionary narrator to come and immortalize ‘em. 

One of the most inspiring aspects of a great artist’s body of work is that it is open, it gives us room to project what resonates for us, and it usually works on a subjective level. It can also be a trigger for future artists, inspiration that passes through generations in mysterious and symbolic ways. To solve the mystery, we sometimes need a detective, a critic like Grossi, a Dante scholar who has clearly mastered his subject. I won’t spill the beans about the spellbinding work he performs at the peak of his treatment, but I will say that his readings of “Blind Willie McTell” and “Seven Curses” leave us with some serious digging to do.

We need more of this research, a complete and exhaustive essay, that walks us as Virgil walked Dante through this challenging and fascinating kind of detection. But if anybody happens to visit Italy, they better check the theatrical adaptation of Grossi’s book. A show has been made out of the book: two musicians and the author give a live rendition of the text, perhaps because 2021 is the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. Celebrations will go on all over the country, online and in person (as soon as it is safe and healthy). This circus will be in town.