Seymour Chwast: Dante’s Divine Comedy – REVIEW


I have a confession to make: I’m not really a dantista. What’s even worse than this is that I’m doing my PhD on medieval Italian literature and haven’t ever actually read the whole of the Commedia. I imagine, upon reading these two revelations, Dr. Matthew Treherne and Prof. Brian Richardson will probably call security to escort me off the premises. But the truth is that I have tried and tried time and time again to finish it but, even in translation, I can’t really get my head around what’s going on. Which is why, whilst working in Waterstones last year, I almost wept with joy when I discovered Seymour Chwast’s graphic novel version of the text.

Normally I’m totally against graphic novels, since I like to form my own images in my mind of what characters look like, but then I remembered that beggars can’t be choosers, suppressed my inner book-snob, and parted with the £16.99 (this was before I got my discount card). I buy A LOT of books, so this next statement might seem like a bit of an exaggeration, but stick with me: that was the most sensible £16.99 I have ever spent on a book in my entire life.


As soon as I opened it, I fell in love with the story. I think this might have quite a lot to do with the fact that I am a huge Agatha Christie fan and Chwast’s illustrations of Virgil and Dante bear a striking resemblance to her Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, and his side-kick, Captain Hastings. Never a bad thing in my mind.

The edition begins with a nice introduction to Dante, which gives info about the life of the poet and some basic context for the Commedia, such as its original form ‘It is composed of one hundred cantos and told in triplets to represent the trinity’ (p. 9), and then gives helpful maps of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso before each of the three canticles. A lot of Dante’s original work is missing in this edition – the story isn’t told in verse, and it’s obviously gone through quite a rigorous modernisation process (unless I’m mistaken and Virgil did, in fact, sport a bowler hat and bow tie?) – so it’s not ideal to rely solely on Chwast’s version if you’re, say, writing an essay on the Commedia, but it’s definitely worth tracking down a copy and having it by your side whilst trying to get your head around Dante’s poem.  I found that it just helps to make things that little bit clearer.

Also, I know it’s not related to Dante, and will actually probably distract you from what you’re meant to be doing, but the great thing about this book is that it is literally BEGGING to be coloured in. I find colouring-in extremely soothing, so if you’re feeling a little anxious about finals, I’d definitely recommend it. You can pretend it’s revision too.

Sarah x

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Seymour Chwast: Dante’s Divine Comedy – REVIEW

  1. Matthew Treherne

    Great to see this blog going, Sarah! Don’t worry, we’ll soon get you reading Dante – the Leeds Dante enthusiasm is irrestible… (we hope!).

    The graphic novel is great fun – and I’d like to think that Dante the great innovator would heartily approve of this kind of experimentation….

    • You know what, I’m sure he would! I have to say, I know I’ve just revealed that I’ve never read the whole of the Comedy, but I did get into the Vita nuova in a *huge* way (i.e. to the point of obsession) way back when, in my second year ‘Love Poetry’ class. And I also got quite caught up in several of the cantos of Inferno too, especially the suicide trees and the Harpies. It’s just so gothic (and I’m forever trying to repress my inner-goth) and you just can’t help but be affected by it. I see that the guy has his charms and I’m ready to embrace them whole-heartedly. Bring it on.

  2. Sarah Jumel

    If you DO color it in, use good art quality markers. The way the cheap ones change color with temperture and time would utterly spoil the book.

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