I’ve put off writing this review in hopes that I might eventually develop strong feelings about the book. After several weeks, I must accept that this isn’t going to happen. Seymour Chwast is a very well respected designer and illustrator and Dante’s Divine Comedy is a classic of western literature, but the former’s graphic novel adaptation of the latter has elicited nothing more than a noncommittal shrug. I imagine Chwast could provide an illustration of the hellish punishment suffered by the apathetic, but I’m not driven to go looking for it.
In the original poem, Renaissance-era Italian poet Dante Alighieri describes his travels through hell, purgatory, and heaven, guided first by the poet Virgil and then by Dante’s lost love Beatrice. It’s a hearty mix of theology, social commentary, history, and politics. I read the first book, The Inferno, in a classics class many years ago. I quite enjoyed the sensationally grisly descriptions of sinners’ punishments (carefully tailored to their earthly transgressions) and learned a lot from the various historical figures who showed up in Dante’s narrative (often being punished for some mortal sin, adding a bit of snarky enjoyment).
It’s quite understandable that Chwast does away with Dante’s poetic descriptions of the sights and spectacles of the afterlife; in a graphic novel we expect that job to be done by the art. Unfortunately, Chwast’s black and white line art comes up short. It’s carefully planned and well executed but rather static and lacking in emotional resonance. It conveys neither the visceral horror of hell nor the radiant glory of heaven. Additionally, Chwast’s preference for large tableaux rather than sequential panels undermines any sense of graphical narrative. Many of his pages would work well as posters or as illustrations to the poem, but they fail to form a cohesive whole as a graphic novel. The waters are muddied further by Chwast’s choice to depict most characters in 1920s fashions. Dante wears a trenchcoat and fedora while Virgil sports a bowler and pencil-thin mustache. One can draw parallels between the roaring twenties and the Italian Renaissance, but I wasn’t ever sure why Chwast was doing so.
With its descriptive duties stripped away, the text serves mostly to deliver a dry play-by-play of plot points and character names. It adds clarity, but not a lot of flavor or interest. The blank, declarative language carefully labels each moment, but does nothing to string the moments together or create narrative structure. With neither the art nor the text providing propulsion, things bog down after a while.
Of course, one of my problems is out of Chwast’s control; I lack the historical knowledge necessary to understand all of Dante’s references. When I read The Inferno I had copious annotations to help me along. I might recommend this book to any Dante scholar with enough background knowledge to render such annotations unnecessary. Their passion for the original might warm their feelings toward this adaptation. However, that’s a fairly small group and I’m not sure how many of them use my library.
Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Graphic Adaptation
by Seymour Chwast
Bloomsbury USA, 2010