The Music of the Inferno

By Frank Lentricchia

Subjects: Italian American Studies
Series: SUNY series in Italian/American Culture
Paperback : 9780791443484, 228 pages, October 2000
Hardcover : 9780791443477, 228 pages, September 1999

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An unusual, deft, often piercing meditation on storytelling, ethnicity, and the Italian/American experience.


At eighteen Robert Tagliaferro, an orphan of ambiguous racial and ethnic identity, disappears from his hometown of Utica, New York. At sixty he returns, forgotten by nearly everyone and searching the bin of memory for something to salvage. Having lived for decades inside a bookstore, his search for identity has taken him into the world of great literature and the history of Utica itself, and so his quest must be to create a memory, a history, and an identity from his reading. He becomes a man made of words, a patchwork of styles and rhetoric, an artifice.

In the cellar of a restaurant, Robert tells his stories of the past to six other men: stories of Utica, of New York State, and ultimately of America itself, as well as of the intimate involvement of Italian immigrants with these histories. The other characters respond in a kind of collective storytelling, a play of voices probing the various themes of history, genealogy, fatherhood, race, lost children, the presentness of the past, community, and, finally, storytelling itself as the power guiding all, informing their sense of everything, as they grope imaginatively toward a sense of life and their place in it.

Rich in literary heritage and allusion, The Music of the Inferno is an unusual, deft, often piercing meditation on storytelling, ethnicity, and the Italian American experience.

Raised in Utica, New York, Frank Lentricchia is Katherine Everett Gilbert Professor of Literature at Duke University. He is the author of a number of scholarly works, including After the New Criticism, Criticism and Social Change, and Modernist Quartet, and has written for numerous magazines, including Harper's, Lingua Franca, and the London Review of Books. His previous novels are Johnny Critelli and The Knifemen, and he has also written a memoir, The Edge of Night.


"The novel as a form still lives in our culture because it continues to be the deepest and most rewarding guide to the mystery of people's souls, and this brave and honest novel serves precisely that standard." — Don DeLillo, author of Underworld

"This unmetaphorical tour of the underworld plunges into the deep history and foundational crimes of the little city of Utica, New York. It is Lentricchia's most ambitious narrative to date, a confrontation with class and race which also offers the pleasures of magnificent sentences, loathsome objects and events, and grotesque as well as enigmatic characters. The Music of the Inferno does the historical novel in a new way, and that is no mean feat." — Fredric Jameson

"This beautifully written novel is not just about Italians or others in Utica. Like Faulkner or Joyce, Lentricchia has staked out a small piece of territory from which, implicitly, he can generalize. The part stands for the whole here, in so many ways. Lentricchia's novel frames the American experience in ways that, for me, were revelatory. It is a brilliant piece of fiction, able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the best writing in America today."— Jay Parini, author of Benjamin's Crossing