Homer in the Economist

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Bart
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Homer in the Economist

Post by Bart » Wed May 02, 2018 11:01 am

There's an interesting article in the latest issue of the Economist (unfortunately only available for subscribers) under the title 'Adrift on the Wine Dark-Sea'. It deals with Homer as a source of inspiration for modern fiction. The following novels are mentioned and shortly reviewed:

-The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller
-Circe by Madeline Miller
-The Penelopiad by Margeret Atwood
-Odysseus Abroad by Ananda Sen
-Ransom by David Malouf

I have to confess I haven't read any of them. Did you?
Especially Ransom and Odysseus Abroad seem interesting.

Alice Oswald is mentioned too. Her poem 'Memorial' (a retelling of the Iliad focussing on the obituaries of the fallen heroes) is one of the most moving texts I have read the past few years.

The article concludes with Raymond Queneau's famous dictum: “Every great work of literature is either the ‘Iliad’ or the ‘Odyssey’.”

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Paul Derouda
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Re: Homer in the Economist

Post by Paul Derouda » Wed May 02, 2018 3:41 pm

I haven't read any of these, although I've been tempted to read Atwood. I've watched the HBO series made from her book The Handmaid's Tale with horrified fascination. The series is very well written, so I assume that the book must be equally good. Generally speaking, though, I don't like historical novels – but perhaps stories inspired by the Trojan war and the Odyssey are not really historical, just fantasy. When writers "set modern sensibilities loose" in the ancient world, they the tend to suppress altogether what the ancients have to say. I prefer to let the ancients speak for themselves. It's true that what is left for us to read represents the view of only a very select minority of privileged literate people, almost exclusively men, and we'd like to know more about those other people. I have some doubts, however, as to whether modern woman writers really are inherently in a much better position than men to understand what the life of ancient women was like, as some tend to claim. They are probably more interested as a rule, which is of course a good starting point.

I was able to read the Economist article (or perhaps an abridged version?). The writer of the article calls Circe "one of Homer’s marginalized female characters". But is she marginalized? She's definitely seen from a masculine point of view, a fearsome witch and seductress, who not only turns men into pigs but also makes them impotent (that's what Odysseus fears anyway, 10.341 ὄφρα με γυμνωθέντα κακὸν καὶ ἀνήνορα θήῃς). Like the article says, epic deals in types, not in psychology, and I don't think Circe is any more marginalized than other characters Odysseus encounters during his wanderings (compare, say, Alcinous, the Cyclops, Nausicaa, Calypso, Aeolus, Athene, to name a few – all of them have distinct personalities rather economically defined by their actions in the first place and their epithets in the second; none of them gets a profound psychological portrait). Actually, one reason I like the Odyssey (as I like Herodotus) so much is precisely that it describes such a multitude of different female characters. It's a male voice speaking, but it's better than nothing.

We've talked about Alice Oswald before, and I still haven't got round to read her.

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Re: Homer in the Economist

Post by Bart » Thu May 03, 2018 9:09 am

Historical novels: a lot depends on the expectations you approach them with. Of course I also believe them to be no substitute for original texts in any way. Instead they offer an imaginative recreation of the past seen from the author's perspective. A good historical novel can convince us of the plausibility of the world and characters it depicts (I'm thinking for instance of Augustus by John Williams), even though in the end this may tell us more about the author's perspective than about the time period it deals with. However, I agree, that for some reason a bad historical novel is truly awesome in a way that a normal second-rate novel is not.

Anyway, not all the books mentioned in the article are historical novels, see for instance Odysseus Abroad, the tale of a young man from Indian descent and his wanderings through London.

. Actually, one reason I like the Odyssey (as I like Herodotus) so much is precisely that it describes such a multitude of different female characters. It's a male voice speaking, but it's better than nothing.
I heard or read somewhere that people who prefer the Odyssey over the Iliad generally like Herodotus better than Thucydides and vice versa. Be warned!

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Re: Homer in the Economist

Post by Bart » Wed Sep 12, 2018 12:14 pm

Coming back to the topic of contemporary literature inspired by Homer, I'ld like to recommend Daniel Mendelsohn's 'An Odyssey'. It's an autobiographical account by a classicist who's 81-year old father enrolls in his class on Homer's Odyssey. What follows is partly literary analysis of some highlights of the Odyssey, partly a family memoir with his father as the main protagonist, but most of all perhaps a reflection on the value of teaching. I thought it very worthwhile.

As curiosum: Jenny Strauss Clay, whose Homer's Trojan Theater I enjoyed, plays a minor role in the book.

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Re: Homer in the Economist

Post by Zazalla » Sun Oct 14, 2018 12:29 pm

While slightly off-topic, I warmly recommend Cesare Pavese's "Dialogues with Leucò", either in the original Italian or in the masterful translation by William Arrowsmith.

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