Tuesday, August 08, 2006

An Iiad, An idiot

Last night I read Alessandro Baricco's new novel "An Iliad," translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. The book was written for a live-recitation held in Rome and Turin in the fall of 2004. Before he gets down to his actual writing, Baricco offers up some opening remarks. Here's one of them:

"I removed all the appearances of the gods. As we all know, the gods intrude quite often in the Iliad, to direct events and sanction the outcome of the war. They are probably the aspect of the poem most extraneous to a modern sensibility, and often break up the narrative, diffusing a momentum that should rightly be palpable. I wouldn't have removed them if I'd been convinced they were necessary. But - from a storytelling point of view, and only that - they aren't. The Iliad has a strong structure of human agency that emerges as soon as the gods are sidelined. Behind every action of a god the Homeric text almost always cites a human one that duplicates the divine gesture and brings it, so to speak, down to earth. However much the divine exertions transmit a sense of the incommensurable so familiar in life, the Iliad shows a surprising obstinancy still, in endowing events with a logic that has man as the ultimate actor. If, therefore, the gods are banished from the text, what remains is not so much a godless and inexplicable world as a very human story in which men live out their destiny as if fluent in a ciphered language whose code they know almost in its entirety. In sum: taking the gods out of the Ilad may not be a useful way to gain an understanding of Homeric civilization, but it seems to me a very good way of bringing into relief the essentially human story obscurred by the metaphysics of its age, retrieving the story and thus bringing it into the realm of contemporary narrative. As Lukacs observed, the novel is the epic of a world deserted by the gods."

Ah, the sweet warbling tones of the late-summer boob (biggicus boobicus) in full throat!

And as usual with first-water boobery, it's difficult to know where to start the ass-kicking.

OK, my credentials first, for those of you who don't know them and may be interested: 1) I can read ancient Greek, 2) I've read every English translation of the Iliad ever published and a half-dozen or so unpubished (fond memories, dear Arthur, dear Theo, and most of all dear Edith), and, perhaps more to the point, 3) I myself have written, as previously mentioned, a novel of the Trojan War, "Troy War," the weird, violent, cross-eyed black sheep among my far better-behaved fictional offspring.

In short, I know Baricco's putative subject at the very least as well as he does himself

So where to start?

Perhaps with the decision itself. Simply put, if you remove the gods from the story, you haven't told 'an' Iliad, you've told NO Iliad.

What you've told is the story of the Trojan War, which is a different thing. Some historical version of the Trojan War really happened (or more probably several smaller versions) - we have the pottery, the shipwrecks, and of course Troy itself. That's a different story to dramatize. For instance, I choose to think of Wolfgang Peterson's movie "Troy" as a dramatization of that historical context, which is the trick I use that allows me to LIKE it so much. But if you call your book 'an Iliad' and then remove the gods, you're lying to your audience.

But it isn't a mere choice of title that shows Baricco's boob-plumage in such drastic light. Just look at how many things are WRONG with that passage I quoted!

The gods DON'T, for instance, 'sanction' the outcome of the war - some of them do, and some of them don't. They aren't all-powerful puppet-masters: they're deeply, passionately INVESTED in the war.

And what about that business of them 'probably' being the aspect of the poem 'most extraneous to a modern sensibility'? If Baricco bothered to turn on the news, he'd see that a belief that the gods directly involve themselves in human affairs - and prompt all kinds of weird behavior - IS the 'modern sensibility.' Religious strife has made one-half of the world a hellhole for the last six years, and here in America, we have a religious zealot in the White House, claiming to get his war-mongering inspiration from his deity.

And what book can Baricco possibly be reading, if he thinks the actions of the gods in the Iliad DIFFUSE momentum? In every single instance where they appear, the gods in Homer do nothing but RATCHET UP the tension. They don't 'break up' the narrative - they're an integral part of it.

And how can Baricco say the gods aren't necessary from a storytelling point of view? If you 'sideline' them, you have to explain why some characters magically vanish in front of thousands of witnesses, why other characters heal overnight from serious wounds, etc.

Baricco is right that Homer usually provides a parallel human explanation for lots of god-acts. But he completely misses the point of WHY Homer does this, of the EFFECT it has: it's meant to show the reader that gods and humans are inextricably INTERTWINED in the war.

And what about that insane egotism of maintaining that removing the gods from the story 'retrieves' it, saves it from being 'obscurred'? I'm sure that 600 years of readers (not to mention all those rubes in the 6th century b.c.) would be alarmed to learn that all this time they've been reading a BAD BOOK. Thank Gawd Baricco came along to RECTIFY Homer!

The arrogance is as astounding as it is boneheaded.

I SHOULD have been sufficiently warned by that little disclaimer ... I shouldn't have gone on and read the book itself. But of course I did, and it's thumpingly dull. Not just because the gods are gone - nope, it's just a lifeless Cliffs Notes extended summary of the Iliad. He'd have BENEFITTED from a few narrative-obscurring gods.

Baricco says in his introduction that his Italian radio broadcast of "An Iliad" was a huge success. Says people sat and listened for hours.

The really bad news in all this? His next project is "Moby-Dick."


Sam Well said...

Quick: what are your top translations and/or retellings of the Iliad? Behind Troy War, I mean.

steve said...

well, you said 'quick' to DETOUR me from making a 100-page footnoted field project out of this, and lo! I went and started to do that anyway! Sorry about that!

So (relatively) quick: three extremely intelligent books for kids (but written long enough ago so that, sadly, no kid today could read them and they'll challenge many an adult): Rosemary Sutcliff's "Black Ships Before Troy," Roger Lancelyn Green's "Heroes of Greece and Troy," and Doris Gates' "A Fair Wind for Troy."

For adults, Sarah Franklin's smart (and sneaks-up-on-you erotic) "Daughter of Troy," John Erskine's famous "The Private Life of Helen of Troy," which is schlocky but in a good way, with Helen sort of a precursor to a Tupperware wife, Mark Merlis' wise, sad "An Arrow's Flight," in which the Neoptolemus called to the Trojan War is a gay stripper (you'll have to trust me here, you really should read it), Christopher Logue's brilliant "War Music," (may he live long enough to finish it) ... and of course the best Trojan War adaptation ever written, even better (by a smidge) than "Troy War" - Chaucer's "Troilus and Criseyde," which you should all go right out and read.

As for translations, you all know I like Fitzgerald, and Fagles has been steadily growing on me over the years. Lombardo sacrifices a lot of gravity for, I think, very little increased accessibility. Pope I love almost to distraction. But my top honor? I don't know if any of you will see it coming but ... it's Chapman!

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Eric Shanower has been producing a godless version of the Trojan War in comics form. Age of Bronze. Have you seen it?

There are two volumes so far (originally published in regular comics format and now collected). I didn't like the first one much as it seemed to me all set up. The second volume was a good read. It looks like it's going to go on for years.

steve said...

Welcome Glenn! I went straight to your website and LOVED it!

Yes, I've been following "Age of Bronze" (how the devil do I get phrases to automatically link like that? It's so convenient) with the same reservation, that it's taking its sweet time building momentum. The artwork is meticulous but a little static, I thought - but I'm still eager for the later volumes.