Thursday, September 8, 2011

"The Canterbury Tales," an illustrated version by Seymour Chwast

When I was in school I actually read most/some/not all of the books I was required by well-meaning English teachers, who were sure that if a class of 30 bored sophomores would just read far enough into -- oh, let's say, John Knowles's A Separate Peace -- we would all be better citizens. I can't believe that novel of teenage longing and (eventual) sadness was the first book title that popped out of my memory bank, but there you have it.

Childhood reading is such a tricky and untamable undertaking. I don't even ask these days what the required classroom reading might be for my nephew's 14-year-old Sophie and 10-year old Aidan. But they live in Seattle, a pretty literate town, so I'm not worried, much.

One of the unexpected benefits of graphic novels (and I'm dancing on a limb here, I haven't read many -- there are still far too many actual novels to read before I get to novels in panel form) is that an entire generation of pen-and-ink artists has expanded the canon of what can be considered worth illustrating: I'm thinking, again immediately, of Paul Auster's City of Glass, but if I checked I would find there are now too many real surprises to name.

These aren't the Sunday-comic form of illustrated novels in the old, Classics Illustrated sense (Treasure Island, Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Three Musketeers). Contemporary novels, imaginatively drawn by top-notch graphic artists, offer readers young and old at least a glance at fiction they may have never looked at otherwise. The surprising effect of the growth of graphic novels is that even unexpected classic now are being re-imagined for a new generation by superb artists like Seymour Chwast.

Seymour Chwast's Push-Pin Studios is one of a kind -- as an illustrator and graphic artist Chwast is responsible for some of he iconic images of the past fifty years: a 60's Dylan poster was pure pop, and his work has influenced everything from advertising to album covers to publishing design.

He's turned his focus to illustrating a body of classics that rejuvenate the works for the 21st century.In 2010 he published The Divine Comedy in a witty retelling that imagined Dante and Beatrice in a 1920's world of gin joints and flappers, spats and tommy-guns: Charon took his charges across the River Styx in a motor boat. It may not have been exactly what a ninth-grade teacher may at first suggest to a class, but it was intriguing enough on its own that kids may have found it a goofy and funny introdunction to a musty, if epic, poem.

Depending on your point of view, his latest is even more striking, or unnerving: The Canterbury Tales (Bloomsbury) reintroduces The Wife of Bath and The Miller, The Knight and the Princess as they go their way from the Tabbard Inn. The twenty-four tales are twisted into modern form: here the pilgrims who tell the tales ride motorcycles, with the artist himself as the host and Chaucer waving from a sidecar. They spin stories of lust in which characters seduce each other with jaunty language: “Hey, babe, let’s party!”; “Come here, big boy. Show me your stuff!” Yet Chwast recognizes that he is doing in large part what Chaucer did, “writing in the English vernacular of the time.”

The result, again, may not make a required-reading list in a literary sense. But the humor and wry commentary on the human condition are certainly effects that Chaucer would recognize. Just as his religious pilgrims broke all the pious rules on their way to see the saint, the illustrated tales with their contemporary echoes contain the same pointed humor.

Filled as it is with profound differences between men and women, romantic betrayal that barely pays lip service to monogamy, jealousy taken to lethal extremes and the medieval love of fables, the Canterbury Tales are as modern as Chwast's fine artwork. There are plenty of beheadings, repeated bursts of flatulence and, as the cartoon Chaucer explains, action “complete with swash and buckling.” There is also a cross-cultural expanse to the epic storytelling, with biblical figures, Greek gods, Roman emperors and Arabian legends all represented within this graphic condensation of Chaucer’s classic into tales that are often as little as a few panels each.

This version of The Canterbury Tales, like Chwast's The Divine Comedy before it, is certainly not for purists -- the eternal argument when artifice meets true art. But then again, the Tales have a 600-year history of entertaining readers, and who's to say that an illustrated version -- with cartoon swash and buckle -- isn't intended to take the human condition any more seriously than Chaucer did?

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