The Siren's Call: Riffs on Dante
New, unexpected versions of the poet's epic work are nothing short of heavenly.
A glorious vision of Beatrice. (Seymour Chwast / Bloomsbury)
Are you kidding me?
Once you take a minute to breathe, you realize that Chwast isn't trying to replace the original. What the book's title makes clear — "Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise" adapted by Seymour Chwast (Bloomsbury 128 pp., $20) — is that this version is a riff, just like what happens when one musician remakes an old song so that we can hear a new interpretation.
Chwast takes Dante's three-part epic poem of medieval Italy and dresses it with the costumes and props of the first half of the 20th century: Dante descends into Hell through what looks like an entrance to the subway (or a carnival ride); he wears a trench coat, hat and sunglasses like a mafia hitman; the Roman poet Virgil, who serves as his guide, wears a bowler cap and black suit (not laurels and toga); Lucifer is a tuxedo-wearing, acne-riddled giant; lustful women appear as 1920s flappers; St. Peter's face is flinty and angry as he thinks about Church corruption and so on.
Chwast's clean lines and simplistic style work surprisingly well for a poem that, until now, one might have associated with the grim, beautiful engravings of Gustave Doré. In some cases, there's even a surprise: Chwast's rendering of "Paradise," for example, is so visually exciting and Fellini-esque that I couldn't help but feel that Dante's original is a little, ulp, boring by comparison. (I know: sacrilege!)
One gets quickly engrossed in this book's portrayal of Dante's journey from Hell to Heaven, which is an act of redemption he needs after leading a sinful life. After leaving Hell, Dante reaches the top of Mount Purgatory and reunites with Beatrice, the Florentine beauty who inspired his poetry. He doesn't receive a hug or a kiss, but a good scolding: "Dante," she says, "why have you wasted your God-given talents? You've gone away from the truth!"
(Why indeed. If Dante hadn't lost his way in sinfulness, we wouldn't have his poem.)
What Chwast's book reminds us is that Dante's epic is very visual, even cartoonish. This isn't an insult. Think only of the image of Lucifer flapping his giant wings and producing gusts of wind that turn sinners' tears into ice. It certainly is a medieval comic strip of sorts, isn't it? And in his adaptation, Chwast has given us a fascinating companion piece (not a replacement!) that successfully complements Dante's original.
David R. Slavitt's translation of "La Vita Nuova" ( Harvard University Press: 144 pp., $18.95) may not be in a comic-panel format, but there's far more play and variation here than at first meets the eye.
Long before his three-part epic, Dante composed this sequence of poems and prose dedicated to the maiden Beatrice Portinari, a Florentine woman he admired from afar though they both married other people.
Some translators have been too academic, draining the vigor and wonder from this work but Slavitt's version stays true to the spirit — even if it strays from the letter now and then.
Occasionally readers will come across a surprising phrase and have to ask themselves: Did Dante really say "to make a longish story short" in the original? When Dante wishes to hide the fact that he admires Beatrice, he starts praising another woman to fool his friends — did he really refer to that other woman as "a beard"? Or else consider this:
Greetings — in Love's name, whose tyranny
oppresses us all. It was a third of the way
through the night,
the hour when myriad stars twinkle their light
when Love in his awesomeness appeared to me.
One may not like that adolescent-sounding phrase — "in his awesomeness" — but that means you probably don't know Slavitt's translations very well. In his preface, Slavitt explains that poetry translation is a collaborative act, and he has "no feelings of guilt about departing from the words now and then in order more accurately to suggest the poetry."
Slavitt wants the language of "La Vita Nuova" to remain relevant even after more than 700 years. He wants us to appreciate what Dante's poem sequence can still teach us about the dangers of becoming too obsessed with this world — and the need to turn our eyes on a more transcendent goal. In Dante's case, Beatrice's sudden death changes her from a romantic subject into a beacon calling him from heaven.
Considering all the books today about finding one's center in our crazy, image-driven culture, then, "La Vita Nuova" — especially in Slavitt's version — couldn't be more relevant. And there's another parallel one can make between Dante's world and ours. Dante and several other cool young dudes all wrote poems. They would respond to each other's work, penning responses in a sweet, witty style that seems not so far from a group of friends blogging and tweeting about each other's crushes. After seeing Beatrice, for instance, Dante had a disturbing, enigmatic dream in which the figure of Love:
Held in his hand
My heart, and in his arms my lady, asleep,
Wrapped in a blanket. Gently, he woke her and
Fed her my burning heart
This provoked a host of poetic responses from his friends — among them Guido Cavalcanti, Cino da Pistoia and Dante de Maiano — all suggesting an interpretation of that dream. Were they writing today, Dante might be posting his poem on a blog — and his friends' poetic responses would form the comments thread.
Owchar is Times deputy book editor. The Siren's Call appears monthly at http://www.latimes.com/books.