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.