Monday, January 22, 2007

Ithaca at last

Classics Challenge #1: The Odyssey

                        But come, my friend,
tell us your own story now, and tell it truly.
Where have your rovings forced you?
What lands of men have you seen, what sturdy towns,
what men themselves? Who were wild, savage, lawless?
Who were friendly to strangers, god-fearing men? Tell me,
why do you weep and grieve so sorely when you hear
the fate of the Argives, hear the fall of Troy?
That is the gods' work, spinning threads of death
through the lives of mortal men,
and all to make a song for those to come . . .

-- Robert Fagles' translation of The Odyssey, 8: 641-51

It took Odysseus twenty years to return to Ithaca, so I suppose I shouldn't be dismayed that it took me thirty days to get him there and finish the book. Dorothy Parker once said, "I hate writing. I love having written," and, while "hate" is far too strong, The Odyssey is definitely a book that I'm happier to have read than I was to be reading it -- which is not to say that I didn't enjoy encountering some of the classic epithets ("Dawn with her [perpetually] rose-red fingers"; Hermes, "the giant killer" ...) and experiencing the source rather than a synopsis, especially for the famous clashes with Cyclops and Circe (both of which were far briefer than I expected).

The Fagles translation has been praised for its accessibility, and it is lively and easy to follow. (In his afterword, Fagles quotes Alexander Pope's "Homer makes us hearers," and his poetry preserves this; periodically, I read passages aloud to the cat just to hear the cadence.) Bernard Knox's introduction -- which, in true academic fashion, is more than 10% of a 500+ pg book -- warned me that Odysseus wouldn't show up for quite a while, and, indeed, it took more than 1/3 of the poem before he swept into the story, something else I hadn't expected, (especially having just seen the movie with Armand Assante, which emphasizes the travels along with the love story). Knox's comments also provided a framework for interpretation: I was anticipating a tale about a journey, but Knox suggests that hospitality (without which, he notes, travel would not be possible) is a recurring concept in the work; the different receptions given to travelers (especially Odysseus and Telemachus) provide continuity throughout the narrative. Focusing on that element was especially helpful during the last third of the story, when Odysseus was back in Ithaca but not yet truly home.


Blogger booklogged said...

I have felt the same way about reading some of the books I have - "I'm happier to have read than I was to be reading it."

11:40 AM  

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