~by Seymour Chwast
Seymour Chwast's adaptation of Dante's Divine Comedy is his first graphic novel. I'm not actually familiar with Chwast's previous work although I feel like I should be. Chwast is an award-winning graphic designer and illustrator. He has also designed several fonts and typefaces. While Dante's Divine Comedy is his first graphic novel, some of Chwast's work has been previously collected in Seymour: The Obsessive Images of Seymour Chwast and in The Left-Handed Designer. So why was I interested in his adaptation of Dante's Divine Comedy when it was offered through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program? Precisely because it was an adaptation of Dante's Divine Comedy, one of the great classics of Western literature.
My first true exposure to Dante's Divine Comedy beyond what I had subconsciously picked up as a reader from the collective psyche (it's a highly influential work) was in an undergraduate seminar called "Just for the Hell of It: The Seven Deadly Sins in Music and Literature." As part of the class, we read the first two, and arguably most interesting, books of the Divine Comedy—The Inferno and The Purgatorio. Chwast encompasses both of these as well as The Paradiso in his adaptation of the epic poem, although "Inferno" takes up nearly half of the book. He also includes a very brief introduction to Dante and his work, but then jumps right into his own rendition.
I have seen a number of different reactions to Chwast's graphic novel, from those who adore it to those who are absolutely appalled by his "defilement" of the source material. I, for one, found his illustrations to be quite enjoyable and even charming. For the most part his adaptation is fairly straight forward and simple although every so often he provides a visual interpretation that is both delightful and clever. I like the sense of humor that he brought to the Divine Comedy, something that others have taken offense to. Overall, I wasn't blown away by the illustrations, but they frequently made me smile. I get the feeling that I've seen his work before, but I haven't been able to place where yet.
I think that it is important to remember that Chwast's adaptation of Dante's Divine Comedy is just that—an adaptation. It never claims to be anything else and for what it is I feel that it's successful. Chwast chooses some of the most famous scenes and highlights of the Divine Comedy to feature in the book (although he does miss some of my personal favorites). Text is kept to a minimum and he offers very little explanation, leaving his artwork to speak for itself. Fortunately, the illustrations can be appreciated even when its difficult to tell exactly what is going on in the narrative or what its significance or meaning is. In fact, the book almost seems like a collection of illustrations inspired by the Divine Comedy more than anything else.
For me, the most interesting portions of Chwast's book were "Inferno" and "Purgatory." This seems to indicate that prior familiarity with the Divine Comedy is necessary to really appreciate what Chwast is doing with the work. As soon as I reached "Paradise," which I haven't read, his adaptation started to lose some meaning for me. I can only imagine the confusion of a reader who hasn't previously encountered the Divine Comedy in some form or another before picking up Chwast's adaptation. Chwast's Dante's Divine Comedy certainly can not be used to replace the original , or even serve as a coherent summary, but it makes a lovely companion volume.