June 6, 2012

The Iliad (#85)

The Iliad by Homer

What I said then:

 Well ... fuck. Maybe Proust isn’t as bad as it gets after all.

 What I say now:

Oh my. So much snark. So undeserved. Seems like every time I sit down to read something I'm really dreading, it ends up surprising the hell out of me. The Iliad was no exception.

There’s a brief passage in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (one of my favourite novels) in which the characters discuss reading Dante. One of them has a theory, that in order to read The Divine Comedy, you have to be a Christian. “If one is to read Dante, and understand him, one must become a Christian if only for a few hours … [it has] to be approached on its own terms.”

I felt something similar about The Iliad: to read it properly I had to accept Homer’s morality as my own, because you simply can’t read it using contemporary judgement. By our standards, every man in the poem does vicious, horrible things. Slaughter is to be gloried in, slavery is a given, rape will follow victory without any hint of remorse. Hell, the possibility of remorse isn’t even countenanced. It’s an alien time, and an alien way of thinking, and at the beginning of the poem I had difficulty relating to that mindset. I’ll admit it, I was squeamish.

Helpfully, Homer describes his characters’ motivations with wonderful clarity. What at first seem like strange, contradictory ideas about duty, loyalty, glory, piety and honour, come to be perfectly understandable, because they’re expressed with such ease and grace. It took a while, but eventually I sort of learned to think like a Greek, and could accept their alien morality within the confines of the poem. I suspect that clarity, that ability to sum up a man’s thoughts in a moment, or with the application of one perfect simile, is why the poem has endured. Homer can make ancient Greeks of us all.

(For the purposes of this post, I’m talking about Homer as if he was one man. This may not be the case. Because The Iliad and The Odyssey were part of an oral tradition for centuries before they were ever written down, we’ll never know for certain the truth of how they were originally composed. The translator of this edition, Stephen Mitchell, believes there is a single original author, even going so far as to remove a section of the poem that scholars believe was a later addition to the text. I must admit, I’m kinda fascinated by what went on in that ‘lost chapter.’ I might have to look it up in somebody else’s translation.)

As the war rages on the Trojan plains, Homer’s narrative often flits up to Mount Olympus, where the Gods are watching, and scheming. Basically every major plot point comes about because of the intervention of one God or another. From swatting arrows and spears away from their favourites, to raising rivers, the Gods play out their bickering rivalries through the lives of men, the clash of armies. This leads to a kind of heroic fatalism that is present in all the human characters. They know they are merely agents of the Gods’ will and that they can’t change their destiny, so instead they just accept it. Achilles knows he won’t survive the war, but the knowledge doesn’t effect him in the slightest.

It’s also (in this translation, anyway) a total page-turner. Writers like Tom Clancy or Matthew Reilly or whoever should check it out, they might get some ideas. It’s incredibly violent, very gory (turns out there’s a thousand ways to kill a guy with a spear, and Homer delights in describing every single one in excruciating detail) and completely gripping. Late in the poem there comes a moment when, after a few hundred pages of squabbling and using humans as pawns, the gods actually come down from Olympus en masse to join the fighting, on either side. It’s breathtaking, and kind of terrifying (and I couldn’t help but think: ‘Why wasn’t this in that silly Brad Pitt movie? This is friggin’ awesome!’).

I’m noticing a really nice pattern with my reading: it seems like every time I’m really dreading one of the books on my list, it always turns out to be a pleasant surprised. And what do you know, The Iliad was exactly the same. I’d probably never have picked this up if not for my reading challenge, but now I’m incredibly glad I did.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite
books to go: 84

June 2, 2012

Homer and Translation (and Cheating)

Before I start yakking away about The Iliad, I thought I'd take a moment to talk translation, and how important the translation is when reading an ancient work like this, and (not coincidentally) how I'm a total cheating arse.

The many different translations of Homer that abound in English mean that each new reader, if they bother to inform themselves, has a choice about what kind of Iliad they wish to read: the Richmond Lattimore translation is the most literal, taking as few liberties with the Greek as possible; the E.V. Rieu transforms poetry into prose; the Alexander Pope is apparently brilliant, but is more Pope's poem than Homer's; and so on, and on. How you respond to the work is obviously mostly to do with Homer, but in a situation where so many differing translations exist, your translator of choice will have an effect on your reading.

I own both The Iliad and The Odyssey, but both of them were books I picked up from the store for free (damaged Penguin books don't need to get sent back, so we get to take them if we want ... it's both a blessing and a curse, trust me), and I didn't pay any attention to whose translations I was shoving in my bag. I'd always intended, once the time came to read them, to do a bit of research, figure out which translations I wanted to read, and replace my copies if necessary. So, yes, I bought a book, which is technically cheating I suppose. But my copy of The Iliad turned out to be the first ever English translation, completed by George Chapman in around 1615. Reading a Shakespeare-era translation of a 3000 year old poem, which I'm already dreading reading anyway? Umm, no thanks.

I ended up going with Stephen Mitchell's recent translation, which seemed from the reviews to be doing its utmost to be accessible. A quick glance at page one confirmed my impressions.

Let's compare them. Here's the opening of the Chapman translation:

Achilles' baneful wrath - resound, O goddess - that impos'd
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loos'd
From breasts heroic; sent them far, to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave:
To all which Jove's will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis' godlike son.

And here's the same passage from Mitchell:

The rage of Achilles - sing it now, goddess, sing through me
the deadly rage that caused the Achaeans such grief
and hurled down to Hades the souls of so many fighters,
leaving their naked flesh to be eaten by dogs
and carrion birds, as the will of Zeus was accomplished.
Begin at the time when bitter words first divided
that king of men, Agamemnon, and godlike Achilles.

It's pretty remarkable that Chapman managed to fashion the entire Iliad (more than fifteen thousand lines of poetry) into rhyming couplets. But, being that this is the first toe I'm dipping into the waters of Classical Greek literature (okay, second toe: I was in a production of Lysistrata at school), I figured 'accessible' should be the quality that should carry the day. Having just finished, and adored, Stephen Mitchell's translation, I'm pretty sure I made the right choice. Now that my toe is thoroughly dipped, when the time comes for The Odyssey, I'll probably go with a translation that's a bit 'tougher'. I'm willing to let myself get there one toe at a time, though, know what I mean?

I'll have my proper review of The Iliad up in (hopefully) another day or two. In the meantime, here's the short version: it was great!

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite
books to go: 84

June 1, 2012

Dead Europe (#86)

Dead Europe by Christos Tsiolkas

What I said then:

I'm one of the few people left that hasn't read The Slap, but I'm told by people I trust that this is a better place to start.

What I say now: 

Dead Europe is magnificent. After thinking long and hard about it, I reckon this is my favourite Australian novel.

It's also a hard book to discuss, to dissect. I finished it weeks ago, and I'm still thinking about it. And thinking about how to write this blog post.

Isaac, a gay Greek-Australian photographer travels to Europe. He starts his trip in Greece, visiting some cousins and then hiking into the mountains to visit his mother's village. After that, he travels the continent, journeying through Prague, Paris and London. Despite his destinations, the Europe he sees is not the postcard world that we here on the other side of globe picture in our collective memory. Isaac's trip is across the darker face of Europe, the Europe of docks and slums and mistreated migrant workers, of crumbling ancient buildings and crumbling ancient beliefs. Tsiolkas makes a point of refusing to give us what we might expect: nearly every time Isaac sees somebody on the street, it's not a native of the country he's in. He wanders through the Russian and Chinese neighbourhoods of Athens, the Jewish quarter of Prague, and shares cigarettes with North Africans in Paris. Everything is in flux, Isaac (and Tsiolkas) tells all the Europeans he meets, and all the things that once seemed so solid are shifting beneath your feet. And yet ...

In horrific counterpoint to Isaac's realist narrative is a second story, a bleak, black nightmarish fable. Told initially in the language of a fairy-tale, this story seems at first wholly disconnected from Isaac, worlds apart from his listless, jaded journey. Except ... except the two stories bend together, slowly converging in what becomes a masterpiece of real horror. There are monsters buried in Europe's past, and the ruptured earth can't always hold them in. When they surface --- the old stories, the old hatreds, the old wars --- anyone can be caught up by them.

I shouldn't say much more about the plot, except to say that it's breathtaking in the way it toys with the reader, and masterful in its execution. The two stories begin by seeming to have opposite meanings: is everything changing, or can nothing ever change? These two ideas are reconciled inside the body of Isaac, a Greek from the other side of the world, an exile returning home to a place he's never belonged. How that's achieved, I really shouldn't tell you. But God, it's fantastic.

I used the word 'horror' a couple of paragraphs ago, and Dead Europe could be read as a horror novel. There's barbarity, there's blood, there's even a monster of a kind. Now, I'm a sci-fi and fantasy kinda guy, and a lot of my favourite novels are literary excursions into sci-fi or fantasy territory (Handmaid's Tale, Tender Morsels, J.G. Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut). When great writers take genre and turn it to literary pursuits, there's some curious alchemy that makes those stories work brilliantly for me. Tsiolkas is doing the same thing here, only he's doing it with horror: he takes old tropes (curses, vampires) but uses them with new, startling effects.

(I probably should add as a word of warning: I've spoken to a number of people who found passages in Dead Europe really confronting, to the point that they found it difficult to continue reading. I didn't have that problem, but I've probably got a jaded reading palate when it comes to extreme violence. Seriously, once you've read American Psycho, there's really nowhere else to go, and I've also written a fairly long piece myself that is pretty bloody in parts. Just thought I ought to mention it though, as it seemed a common theme among other Dead Europe devotees. Having said all that, not one of them thought it was anything less than an exceptional novel.)

There you go. It's past midnight now, and I'm really tired, and I've barely scratched the surface of what makes this book remarkable. I also have no idea how much sense any of this rambling has made. If it hasn't made any at all, then I'm sorry, and I'll put it much more simply for you: read Dead Europe. It's amazing.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: The Iliad by Homer (translated by Stephen Mitchell)
books to go: 85