The first modern novel
There are books everyone puts off reading, either because they are too long or because you expect to find them too difficult or too boring. You know you should read them, but you keep making excuses not to. Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce, Homer are probably near the top of most people’s lists of great writers whose greatest works they are ashamed never to have read. What happens when you stop making excuses comes usually as a pleasant surprise. Your preconceptions fall away and you realise what you’ve been missing all these years. It happened to me with Homer’s Odyssey.
The story itself is so well known that you could be forgiven for thinking there is really no need to read the original. You met Helen in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. You know how Keats felt when he first looked into Chapman’s Homer. In my case, it was Tennyson’s Lotos Eaters that first brought me close to Homer’s Odyssey and, as if I had myself of the Lotos eaten, deprived me of the will to get any closer.
Odysseus himself appears only at the start of the poem and is not even named.
‘Courage!’ he said, and pointed toward the land,
‘This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.’
From then on, Tennyson writes from the point of view of the weary sailors.
In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon.
Time has stopped and the sailors fall under the spell of the island’s inhabitants.
And round about the keel with faces pale,
Dark faces pale against that rosy flame,
The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came.
The ‘Choric Song’ that follows is Romantic to the core.
All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave
In silence; ripen, fall and cease:
Give us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.
Preferably the latter.
Homer, especially his Odyssey, is a treasure trove of stories that writers without number have used for their own purposes. Chapman at the beginning of the seventeenth century was the first to make him accessible to English readers who could not read the original, since when there has been no lack of translations to choose from. I chose the one by E.V.Rieu, later revised by his son, D.C.H.Rieu, and published by Penguin Classics in 1991.
Reading Homer’s Odyssey in this translation, when I finally got round to it, was much less like reading an epic poem and much more like reading a novel than I had expected it to be.
It is constructed like a novel. It begins near the end, goes back to the beginning, picks up eventually where it left off and then moves swiftly to the climax. The narrative is shared between the narrator and various characters in the story, so that the reader hears different voices and experiences the action from different points of view. The narrator is in this way distanced from the narrative in a way that adds to his credibility. He is omniscient without seeming to be in control. Control is the prerogative of the gods. He is omniscient, they are omnipotent. Right at the beginning, in his invocation to the goddess, Homer disclaims all responsibility, not only for the story, but also for the manner of its telling.
Tell us this story, goddess daughter of Zeus, beginning at whatever point you will.
The dialogue between Athene and Zeus which opens the story has three functions: to introduce plot, character and theme. The first is smuggled in under the pretext of a discussion between the gods about the failings of mortals. ‘What a lamentable thing it is,’ says Zeus, opening the discussion, ‘that men should blame the gods and regard us as the source of their troubles, when it is their own transgressions which bring them suffering that was not their destiny. Consider Aegisthus: it was not his destiny to steal Agamemnon’s wife and murder her husband when he came home. He knew the result would be utter disaster, since we ourselves had sent Hermes…’ etc etc.
Athene disagrees. ‘Father of ours, Son of Cronos, King of Kings, Aegisthus’ end is just what he deserved. May all who act as he did share his fate! It is for Odysseus that my heart is wrung, the wise and unlucky Odysseus, who has been parted so long from all his friends and is pining on a lonely island far away in the middle of the sea.’
Plot, character and theme deftly introduced, it is time for action. ‘Father of ours, Son of Cronos, King of Kings,’ Athene goes on, ‘if it is now the pleasure of the blessed gods that the wise Odysseus shall return to Ithaca, let us send our messenger, Hermes the Giant-killer, to the isle of Ogygia, so that he can immediately tell Calypso, the Nymph with the plaited tresses, of our unalterable decision that the patient Odysseus must now set out for home. Meanwhile I will go to Ithaca to instil more spirit into Odysseus’ son…’ etc etc.
The action starts on page 6 with Athene getting things moving in Ithaca. Odysseus is left pining on his lonely island until page 70, when Athene returns to Olympus and reminds Zeus of his promise to send Hermes with a message for Calypso. Hermes is duly despatched, the Nymph with the plaited tresses is obliged to give Odysseus up and he sails away. After a close encounter with Poseidon, from which he escapes with the help of another nymph (Ino of the slim ankles), Athene guides him to the shore, where he is discovered by a beautiful girl (Nausicaa of the white arms). She takes him to her father’s palace and there, at a banquet, he is persuaded to recount his adventures.
The stories that everyone knows – the Lotos-eaters (to whom Homer devoted barely twenty lines, out of which Tennyson made 173), the Cyclops, Circe, Teiresias, Scylla and Charybdis, the Sirens – are told by Odysseus himself. For nearly seventy pages, the narrator is not Homer, but Odysseus. On page 193, the real narrator speaks again (as if it had not been him all the time).
‘Odysseus’ tale was finished. Held in the spell of his words they all remained still and silent through the shadowy hall…’
At last, a little over halfway through the story, we turn from the past to the present. With the arrival of Odysseus on Ithaca, his final destination after years of wandering, the Odyssey, there is an astonishing change of mood. We are no longer listening to old tales. We are here on Ithaca, now, with Odysseus.
‘Odysseus turned his back on the harbour and followed a rough track leading through the woods and up to the hills towards the place where Athene had told him he would meet the worthy swineherd…’
It is the precursor to every novel that has since been written about a man going alone to meet his destiny, every novel that has used an extended flash-back to bring us to the present and lead us, in close sympathy with the hero, towards the climax.
Homer’s Iliad was the precursor to Greek tragedy, focusing on a particular conflict (Achilles v the rest) in order to illuminate a larger one. His Odyssey, as I discovered when I finally got round to reading it and regretted all the years I had lived without it, was the first modern novel.