Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Our books today all share a common theme, and it's a theme with which countless writers have been intimately familiar over the millennia: the great matter of Homer. In the Iliad and the Odyssey, Homer passed on an entire world as complex and immediate and real as our own, full of characters that all Western culture has long since thought of as actual people.  In passage after passage, in virtuosic turn after turn, Homer shifts from panoramic action to quirky, telling little human details, and all of it is etched against an impressive natural landscape (and seascape) of winds and sunrises and cool wooded hills. The Iliad's story of the events leading to the death of the great Trojan prince Hector and the Odyssey's tracing of Odysseus' long and arduous voyage back to his native Ithaca ... these stories and the hundreds of characters who wander through them ... have warned, instructed, thrilled, and entertained us as long as there's been an 'us.'

And more to our point today, they've done something else too: they've inspired us. In Homer's own time, that inspiration took the form of all the 'Homeric' material that doesn't survive to our own time: all the 'little epics' that are echoed or adumbrated in the two huge epics we have. And every century that followed has followed suit - virtually all Western literature is indebted to Homer in one way or another, and not only would that literature look incalculably different had Homer's epics not existed, that literature would unquestionably be much smaller too.

The third century a.d. was no exception, and it was then that the Greek poet and scholar Quintus of Smyrna wrote his epic in 14 books, attempting to tell us the bulk of what happened in between the celebration of Hector's funeral games and the launching of the Greeks back to their homes after ten years away at war. There were many such works in and around Quintus' time, and some of them make interesting reading even in fragments - but none of them is finished as Quintus is finished, and none of them is half so entertaining.

Critical opinion throughout the centuries would dispute that last bit. Quintus' great book has been lavishly abused almost since the day it was written - his critics have largely misunderstood his odd and hyper-alert ways, and they've been aided in their errors by the general run of translators with whom Quintus has usually been saddled. A great exception came in 1913 with Arthur Way's blank verse translation of the whole work for the Loeb Classical Library - although Way's work caught some of the same critical denigration as Quintus', it's nonetheless a nimble and hugely enjoyable work of basically Edwardian high poetics (and, miracle of miracles, it's also now widely available in a reasonably-priced paperback put out by Barnes & Noble).

Alan James, whose 2004 work The Trojan Epic is far and away the best scholarly edition Quintus has ever received in English, is warily cognizant of his predecessor's worth. Here's his grudging passage:

Although it is often far too free to be a reliable reflection of the Greek and its style is marred by indulgence in pseudo-archaism, it is not without scholarly and poetic merit. Not infrequently it conveys the right meaning in English that cannot be bettered, and for that reason no translator can afford to ignore it.

Wording like that makes it ever so clear that James would have ignored it, if he thought he could - but fans of Way's work will take whatever meager praise they can find. And in the meantime, James has created a Quintus that is superbly supple and smart. Even if his verse were clunky, his version would still be a milestone, since it comes loaded with brilliant critical apparatus. But his verse isn't clunky (well, almost never); instead, it has an appealing directness that's nowhere to be found in Way. Here's the malediction Achilles pronounces over his fellow soldier, the insolent Thersites, after first punching a hole through his head:
'Lie there in the dust, your follies all forgotten.

It's not for men of the baser kind to challenge their betters.

On a former occasion you grievously provoked

Odysseus' patient heart with your endless stream of insults.

But I the son of Peleus have proved a different man.

I've robbed you of your life, though with less than a heavy hand

I struck you. A pitiless fate has swallowed you up;

Your feebleness has cost you your life. Now leave the Achaians

And make your abusive speeches among the dead."

We can follow the thread as it unspools right into the present era: the history of Homeric pastiche is the history of Western literature. In 1976 Doris Gates continued her popular series of Young Adult retellings of ancient Greek myths with A Fair Wind for Troy, in which she tells the story of the Iliad in extremely abbreviated form, paying special attention (as the title suggests) to the Greek High King's sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeni, who is summoned to Aulis with her mother Clytemnestra on the false promise of marriage to the young Achilles - but really in order to be sacrificed to placate the enraged goddess Artemis and lift the doldrums that have held the Greek fleet in harbor. Gates' prose is clear and tense:
Suddenly the priest raised his arm, there was a flash like lightning as the sun caught the blade before its swift descent. There was no outcry from the victim, only her bright blood spilling across the altar. Artemis had been appeased.

A few hours later a gentle wind began to ruffle the smooth surface of the harbor. It grew in strength and it was from the right quarter. The chiefs began bellowing orders. Warriors hurried aboard their ships while sailors sprang to their stations.

Agamemnon hurried to Clytemnestra's tent to take a last farewell of his queen. He was met by the old slave ...

"Queen Clytemnestra has departed for Mycenae," he informed his master. "She left no message."

We can see in those paragraphs the creeping-in of modern sensibilities, and those sensibilities are on full display in Sarah Franklin's incredibly winning 1998 novel Daughter of Troy, which tells the whole story of the Iliad from the viewpoint of the high-spirited and wryly observant Briseis, the war-captive whose new ownership is the pivot on which the 'plot' of the Iliad turns. Franklin empowers her, imagining her as the rightful queen of Lyrnessos (which, in Franklin's telling, follows the 'old ways' of hereditary rule through the female), allied with doomed Troy and possessed of goddess-inspired fortune-telling abilities.

Briseis throughout this fantastic book is no simpering slave girl but a vibrant, intelligent character, narrating her own story with a voice Franklin has mastered perfectly:
"And what brings you so far from home, son of Laertes?" I retorted.

Father and Alcathous were nonplussed, but a flash of amusement lit Odysseus' eyes, the first I had seen there.

"A favor for a friend, a matter of honor. Troy is impressive, but I am eager to return home to my humble Ithaca, to my dear wife and parents."

Alas, he was married! But he was being slick again. If his parents were both alive, then he ruled as king consort. He had just informed his audience that Ithaca followed the old ways, as Lyrnessos and the Dardanians did, as Troy did not.

"No children?" I asked, in case he had overlooked the source of his pathos.

"Not yet. But soon."

"And when you do return, will you stay there and dwell in peace?" I sucked my fingers with ladylike delicacy.

"Unless of course I come back here to fight a war."

A burst of jeering laughter at the far side of the hall coincided with angry yells nearer to hand. In that roiling, choking megaron, I was moved to an indiscretion.

"You, my lord? What reason have you to make war on Troy - just loot, common larceny?"

Imagine a large bull, standing at the front of its herd. Imagine frail little me going up to it and kicking it on its soft, tender, black nose. A bubble of shocked silence seemed to close off our group from the rest of the crowd.

There's no doubt in my mind that Homer - or all the Homers who went into making the blind old poet of legend we so rightly venerate - would have loved the thousands of such variations on his theme that writers like Franklin and countless others have produced in the last three thousand years. It's like I've said here before: pastiche is the sincerest form of literary flattery, and no writer in the world has been flattered like Homer. These three books (all three of which you should instantly buy - but do yourself a favor and read Franklin's book first ... I really can't recommend it strongly enough) span a spectrum, and legions of such works stand behind them.

I know about that allure first-hand, as some of you will know: I myself have written two such pastiches: Troy War (dedicated to Arthur Way!) and Steve Donoghue's Ulysses. Both gave me more sheer fun in the writing than any other fiction I've ever done, but I honestly thought I was done with that particular exercise. When 2011 began, I started writing a new historical novel (about the romantic, um, entanglements of two famous Elizabethan poets) and gave no thought to anything else. Then that allure came upon me as it's come upon so many others since Homer first smote his lyre ... and suddenly my plans were changed, and I was writing a third Homeric pastiche - and finding it hard to drag myself away from it to write anything else! So I can personally attest: that magic still exists, and it's mighty strong!

1 comment:

PatD said...

Just when I thought I couldn't read another Homeric book, I gave Caroline Alexander's "The War That Killed Achilles" a go. I can't remember if you'd reviewed that, Steve, but hooboy, it's brilliant. She says so much in it that needed to be said. Makes a terrific reading companion/equalizer to Elizabeth Cook's "Achilles," and the Christopher Logue books.