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A Return To The Classics

Roman Mosaic of Odysseus and the Sirens, Tunis, Tunisia, c. 100s CE

The Odyssey

By Homer. Translated by Emily Wilson
W.W. Norton, 2017

Over the past several years, this space has reviewed books by women. Women’s fiction, if you like, though I take a broader view of this than the definition decided upon by the Women Fiction Writers Association, of which of I am a long-time member.

That definition is that women’s fiction books describe the protagonist’s emotional journey.

That’s all fine and good, but novels of all kinds except for thrillers, crime, and typical romance novels, do exactly that. The character’s emotional journey is what gets the reader immersed in the story, whether it be historical fiction or a mystery that must be solved in order for the protagonist to move forward psychologically.

In my own writing, I’ve learned, I can take a protagonist only so far without her uncovering a hidden truth. How little we understand other people, and how far we have to go to understand ourselves is not just a literary concern. It underpins the profession of psychiatry and is the basis of philosophy. The “hero’s journey” should be an interior one for it to have meaning.

The past couple of months I’ve taken a break from reading the lighter fare that makes up much commercial fiction, women’s or otherwise. Inspired by a sense of shortened time after visiting a brother with a severe illness, I’ve turned to the classics. The hero’s journey persists in literature, and the most famous is The Odyssey, written over two thousand years ago by a Greek person or persons collectively named Homer.

In November and through December, I read Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. I’ve attempted the book before, most notably with Robert Fagles’ version. I never got far. But Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate into English Homer’s story of Odysseus’s return from the Trojan War, has given us a fresh and lively version. The poem, in her translation, is immensely readable and appealing. It retains a poetic rhythm and has exactly the same number of lines as the original, a feat in itself.

At the end of her long introduction, the translator draws attention to the major theme of the book: “the duties and dangers involved in welcoming foreigners into one’s home.” The need to explore, and therefore the need to throw oneself on the mercy of strangers is central to the story. So is the risk to the host. The epic poem moves back and forward between the adventures of Odysseus and the trials of his wife and son, awaiting his return.

In her notes, Wilson talks about the central role of Penelope, Odysseus’s long-suffering wife. She’s yearned for many years for him to come home and is besieged by suitors competing for her hand. She puts them off by weaving a tapestry, telling the suitors that when it is finished she will decide. At night she unweaves what she has done. She’s in a perpetual situation of waiting, both for Odysseus to return, and for her son, Telemachus, a teenager whose father left
when he was an infant, to grow up and protect her. In other words, she represents female inaction as opposed to male action. But Wilson points out that she does act in her own defense, though in a hidden way. Penelope’s wiliness, as well as her fidelity, have been the characteristics she’s been remembered for down the centuries. In her society, she can only achieve her goal by deception. Women’s wiles have traditionally been labeled as duplicitous. But if Penelope had not deceived her unwanted suitors, she would have been unfaithful, a much more serious “crime.” Therefore, in one reading of the story, as a woman she cannot win. But Wilson says that in fact her action is crucial to the narrative and allows the denouement of the poem.

Odysseus, on the other hand, slashes his way through the world, killing and raping and lying. His wiliness, too, allows him to survive, but he is regarded as the classic hero, simply because he stops at nothing to get home, and once home, takes revenge shocking in its savagery. The violence is no doubt one of the secrets to the poem’s timelessness. That, and the random nature of events, which in Homer’s day was attributed to supernatural beings, and still may be so today.

Recently, several women have written novels based on characters from The Odyssey. Madeline Miller’s wonderful Circe (reviewed here in July, 2018) is an example. I loved her evocation of the sorceress Circe as a professional herbalist and her frustration as a single mother trying to
get her work done while soothing a crying infant. And I was fascinated by Miller’s depiction of Odysseus’s return to Ithaca and his slaughter of the suitors as the action of a psychopath. Madeline Miller’s first book was the marvelous The Song of Achilles, the story of Achilles and Patroclus, from The Iliad. The Trojan War is seen from a woman’s point of view in Judith Starkston’s Hand of Fire, which is about Briseis, the priestess captured as a slave by Achilles. The great Pat Barker also has a new book about Briseis, which I must read. That is The Silence of the Girls: A Novel.

So, classic literature as re-interpreted by women writers throws up a different viewpoint. I can’t wait to read more.

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