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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Book Reviews

Competing With Homer

An Iliad by Alessandro Baricco. Translated by Ann Goldstein. Knopf, New York, 2006, 176 pages, $21.

The Suitors by Ben Ehrenreich. Counterpoint Press, New York, 2006, 256 pages, $23.

Courtesy Knopf
Courtesy Counterpoint Press

The two books under review could not be more unlike except that each in its own way does violence to Homeric texts in the interest, presumably, of making them in some way more accessible. This is more obvious in the case of Alessandro Baricco, who introduces the Iliad story with a discussion of his narrative strategy. Ben Ehrenreich’s allusion to The Odyssey, on the other hand, must be worked out by the reader. Given that his story is about a man who travels and a woman who stays at home, whose names are Payne and Penny, it is not too great an effort. Penny for Penelope is the giveaway. As for Payne, the reader will have to dredge his memory—assuming it contains such information—to come up with the presumed etymology of the root of the Greek form of Odysseus’ name, “to be in pain, or give pain.”

As his title indicates, Ehrenreich’s novel is a meditation on desire, more meditation than novel, because the author has left plot to his readers’ memories of The Odyssey for the shape of the story. He is more interested in language for its own sake than in its deployment for any of the traditional features of novel-writing. The reader gets a sense of this in the rich, fermented description of the hacked bodies of the suitors with which Ehrenreich’s story begins. It is a preview of the endless descriptions of sex—an awesome repertory of variation on every anatomical possibility for achieving physical pleasure—set to the counterpoint of drugging and drinking. Some would label this overwriting, but Ehrenreich is true to what ancient critics often called the garrulity of Homer, whose repeated epithets and descriptions, catalogues of names and items, and alternative expressions for the same thing, constitute the hallmarks of his narrative style. Ehrenreich plays in the same way with oral poetry’s essential stereotyping in a breathtaking series of verbal portraits of couples, as he tries to define the essential male-female relationship of his protagonists. The most powerful of these archetypes is the high-school jock and his sweetheart, which underscores Ehrenreich’s dismissal of the complexity of life among the royals in Bronze Age Greece in favor of the immediate truth of hormonal excitement in unfulfilled longing. Scholarship shows that the Homeric texts demonstrate centuries-long gestation as indicated by the historically impossible mix of language forms and artifacts described. Ehrenreich, in turn, mixes spears and bombs, chariots and cars, motels and castles, and, again, foregrounds language at the expense of what is being said. By the book’s midpoint, as a character attempts to prove through a mathematical riff his various assertions about another, mystery character that has entered the story, the reader might be tempted to think “tour de force,” “Joycean,” “Nabokovian”—or maybe just unbearably tedious, a sophomoric reaching for effect, already realized with some success by Dave Eggers in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The Suitors probably reads better stoned.

Despite feminist attempts to foreground Penelope in Homer’s narrative, and Margaret Atwood’s recent extrapolation of an active, complicit wife to a long-gone husband, the ancient text established Penelope as a patriarchal audience would have had her: passive, languishing, her most active role being tearful yearning for Odysseus. Ehrenreich has richly endowed his Penelope with the mixed emotions of sexual desire, anger, despair, and sexual fantasy, as well as guilt over all these feelings. Her portrait is drawn in the letters she writes her absent husband (appearing in the text set in the typescript of an old-fashioned manual typewriter, somehow making them more forlorn, more immediate in their inadequacy, in our age of instant communication). As counterpoint, the narrator describes Payne in italics, enclosed in parentheses, lost in his travels, seduced by twentieth-century Calypso and Circe, floating in their California pools, drink in hand, weakly contemplating his absence from home, its effect on Penny, and how he will extricate himself. Odysseus’ return disguised as a beggar is converted into the arrival of an amnesiac, a body barely alive cast up on the beach, a feast for the fantasies of the paranoid suitors as well as for the sexually needy Penny, not to mention for the reader, who, if she has stayed with the narrative to this point, has the chance to work out yet another mystery in the rich obscurity of the text. It is questionable, however, whether a reader will stay with Ehrenreich’s narrative to the end. The story is flat, and the characters are neither very interesting nor sympathetic. Only the language exerts some—although not that much—fascination.

Alessandro Baricco, whose 1997 international prize-winning bestseller, Silk, launched his career as a novelist, has taken up the idea of making The Iliad more reader-friendly. Not that every present-day reader of the poem feels this need, but Baricco thinks that the story can at least be made more compatible with what he argues are twenty-first-century tastes. He uses and adapts the contemporary prose—the medium of contemporary narrative—translation of Maria Grazia Ciani because she eschews the highly stylized manner of oral epic poetry in favor of a contemporary vocabulary and a simpler manner (which Anglophone readers get through Ann Goldstein’s own translation from the Italian). While he does not omit any scenes of the original text, Baricco dramatically changes them, first, by having the story come from the mouths of its participants rather than from the impersonal narrator created by Homer and, second (and most dramatically), by eliminating any reference to divine action as a motivator in the narrative (and then sometimes by introducing small bits in italics that smoothen the joins in his storyline).

In Homer, Baricco argues, divine action is simply an extension of human action, whereby the poet gives earthly events a transcendence that, if not simply redundant in this age of fast-paced narrative, is unacceptable in a world where science and psychology drive plots. I suppose it is true that, when Aphrodite threatens Helen with the loss of her favor if she will not immediately have sex with Paris, we can read this as a woman who, having accepted adultery into her life, realizes the grim, harsh truth of being at the mercy of her sexual charms. Thus, too, when Hector looks back to accept a sword from his brother as he engages Achilles in fatal contest but sees no one there—and, so, realizes, along with us, that he has been tricked by a god (in this case, Athena)—we can feel the masculine sense of pride, well-being, and success teetering on the abyss in the sudden knowledge of the topple into impending death. But where, then, is the malignity of the universe that those glimpses of the divine bring with them?

Without entering into the impossible quibble of what constitutes an acceptable facsimile of an original text, one may simply read Baricco’s Iliad as a story. As such, it seems thin and confusing to this reader. Consider, for instance, the voice of Chryseis with which the work begins. She describes her capture and rape, just as Homer’s narrator does in the original. But it is startling to have the victim of the act using the same neutral tones. We want her reaction. Thereafter, she describes the army assembly at which Agamemnon and Achilles have their famous quarrel. But—wait a minute—are we to imagine that a female sex slave is out there as one of the group? Sometimes Baricco is alert to this problem. When he introduces Hector’s visit to Troy, for instance, he feels compelled to have the nurse who is narrating the events admit that she heard about them from other servants in the palace (p. 42). Still, while it is true that royals live among servants always, some of the reported remarks are so personal as to beggar belief—as well as the age-old injunction, Pas devant les domestiques. Even more startling is Helen narrating the events preceding the duel of Menelaus and Paris (pp. 22-23). First, she is up on the wall describing the Achaean warriors for Priam’s benefit; then, she describes how she watched Paris going out to the battlefield; then, finally, as she quotes him from where he’s fighting, we are to understand that she has heard this from her vantage high up on the walls. Just as a film’s continuity editor makes sure that reaction shots establish the same space in each take, one needs a narrator’s voices to be in predictable places. This does not seem to be happening here, nor when Thersites describes the army racing to the ships, since it is impossible for anyone on the ground in his position—not having an eagle’s-eye view—to know such a thing (p.12).

Chryseis is at pains to describe her father as a priest of Apollo. Homer says that when Agamemnon refuses to return the girl to him, the father prays to Apollo, who visits the Achaean camp with a plague. When Calchas offers a reason for the plague, Baricco has him say, “When we offended the old man, suffering came upon us.” That doesn’t say much. If not Apollo’s wrath, then what about E. coli, cholera, malaria, or anything that gives the narrative line a little punch and strength?

In any case, Chryseis tells us that Odysseus takes her home thereafter, uttering, by the way, what must be for him the most simple-minded line ever. “Beautiful Chryseis,” is all he has to say, a dubious remark for such an arrogant, superior-feeling male to make to the roughed-up and used sex slave whom his servants are no doubt leading at that moment into the ship that he will command on the voyage to return her. Immediately after this, Chryseis seems endowed with long-distance vision as she proceeds to describe Agamemnon’s henchmen taking away Achilles’ own sex slave back on the battlefield.

Because Baricco constructs his narrative on the translated language of The Iliad’s original text, he is trapped by the impersonality of the respective narrator’s voice when he introduces his personal narrators in each scene. In the event, Helen and Thersites come across as blank ciphers. The same happens when some narrator (it should be Chryseis, but she’s back on her island, so it’s not clear who it is) is describing Thetis in her great lamentation (p. 8). The language here is devoid of twenty-first-century emotion because it is essentially the distanced language of Homer stripped of its epithets, repetitions, and ornamentation. What we want is a Mediterranean mother. Where is the linguistic extravagance that needs to go with a mother like Thetis bewailing her son?

Baricco ends the book with a strange disquisition on war in which he tries to adjudicate among the claims of war’s beauty as opposed to other ways of valuing human existence. It is naive not to see that this beauty derives in part from the peculiar erotics of beautiful young men dying. The Iliad is not about bombing civilians, machine-gunning rows of soldiers, children afire with napalm running down the road, or whole cities flattened by hydrogen fission. Its meaning lies deep in the as-yet undiscovered realms of psychology in which youth, masculinity, and death are somehow entwined in the anatomical truth of tumescence and orgasm. The Iliad is not really about war. It is about males coming to understand their impotence. The extraordinary beauty of Homer’s language, the sensual manner of his exposition, are a defense against the physical fact of dying, the nothingness that lies before us. Baricco does not understand that it is this Trojan War, this killing field, as Homer describes it, that has seduced us over the millennia and will continue to do so even amid the carnage and wreckage of our own civilization.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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