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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Book Reviews

Waiting for the Barbarian

The Penelopiad: the Myth of Penelope and Odysseus by Margaret Atwood. Canongate Books, Edinburgh, 2005, 199 pages, $18.

Courtesy Canongate Books
This prolific Canadian writer of both fiction and nonfiction has been enlisted in a project of Canongate Books called the Myths series to retell myth in “a contemporary and memorable way.” Atwood’s choice, the story of Penelope, is a good one, since she can be at her inventive best, little being known. She bases her account upon the well-known text of Homer’s Odyssey in which the traveling hero’s wife waits at home in Ithaca keeping the house safe for him and his son until his return. Students of literature might quibble at calling the story of Penelope and Odysseus a myth, a category of narrative usually more sparse, archetypal, and having an element of inevitability that departs from a story’s opening up to choice and suspense even if, as in the case of The Odyssey, repeated tellings made the ending known. Students of The Odyssey in particular might note that the wife of Odysseus is kept pretty much in a secondary role throughout the poem, as befits what they imagine to have been a strong patriarchal culture in which the poem was conceived. Contemporary feminist literary criticism has been at pains to rehabilitate Penelope in The Odyssey, teasing out a stronger psychological presence for the lady than the surface narrative might suggest. Atwood attacks the problem head-on, expanding each mere mention of Penelope into a considered inner psychological drama, like dropping Japanese paper flowers into water and watching them dilate.

While she has gone beyond the Odyssey text to flesh out Penelope’s story, this is essentially a retelling of the Odyssey story from Penelope’s point of view. But Atwood has dug deep into strange places for some of her material, the tale of Icarius casting her as a baby girl into the sea, for instance, a story for which the only sources are some Hellenistic-age scholarly notations on lines in four ancient texts. This is the kind of arcane, out-of-the-way story variant that appealed hugely to Robert Graves, whom Atwood acknowledges as a source for her material. He figures again in her explanation of ritual origins and sacrifice, when she deals with the murdered maidens. Graves is so preposterous as evidence (see Nick Lowe’s powerful debunking of him earlier this year in the Times Literary Supplement, “Killing the Graves myth,” January 1, 2006) that one would have to laugh except that, of course, this is fiction and anything goes.

Indeed, in making Penelope’s story contemporary, Atwood has found the perfect opening with a bit of parental abuse: Oprah would be moved by this poor girl. As the author has Penelope recount her life, she is not only haunted by the memory of her father’s rejection, but is overshadowed by her beautiful cousin, Helen. After both are dead and in the underworld, Helen—now no more than a wraith but still indulging in luxurious baths—continues to sneer at her. She calls her “Duck,” etymologizing from the ancient Greek word for duck that has given the world the classification, Anas Penelope, a certain kind of widgeon, although Penelope is generally thought to derive from the word pene, or “spindle,” because she is forever described as weaving, when not crying, particularly in the story of weaving the shroud for her father-in-law. “Ugly duckling” cannot help but come to the reader’s mind, or “waddles like a duck” perhaps, and Penelope, as Atwood describes her relationship with her glamorous, self-assured, sexy cousin, does seem quite the Plain Jane. Like the sad heroine of Welcome to the Dollhouse, you just know she’ll never get to the right table in the high-school cafeteria, just as she has to settle for dumpy Odysseus as a husband. As if that were not enough, she has to preoccupy herself with her husband’s preoccupation with Helen. There’s no question about it. Atwood has indeed brought this story up to date, making Penelope into Everygirl.

The events are told by Penelope, now dead, an immaterial ghost in the underworld, wandering in fields of asphodel. Atwood has shaped her work like ancient Greek drama, breaking the prose narrative every now and again with poetic interludes. She assigns these to a chorus of 12 women who provide a dark undertone to the characteristic voice of wife and mother that Atwood has come out of Penelope’s mouth. Accused of having a sexual relationship with the suitors, the women are condemned to death by Odysseus, whose son, Telemachus, proceeds to execute them with particular cruelty. The Odyssey narrator is careful to attach the act to Telemachus, establishing, it seems, a distinction between a prudent property-owner, lord, and master, who cannot allow sullied goods to continue at his establishment or countenance disloyalty from slaves, and his out-of-control son. Twenty-first-century readers who are quick to sympathize with the slave underclass are appalled that Odysseus cannot see that these women chose to surrender and comply to escape more aggressive rape. But he cannot, any more than his narrator can. Atwood, however, writing for a twenty-first-century audience, and from a woman’s viewpoint, makes her Penelope aghast at the news, and assigns to her the novel idea that she herself encouraged the good-looking ones to consort with the suitors so as to keep their mistress aware of the latter’s schemes. While Homer does describe Penelope as going about with a set of keys that suggest a housekeeper, it is hard to imagine that she ever talked with the slaves below stairs. In any case, as Penelope remembers it in Atwood’s narrative, she was preoccupied with fending off her mother-in-law (who sniffs her disapproval) and restraining the jealous old retainer, Eurykleia (who is spoiling Telemachus rotten). Still, conspiring with the downstairs slave women allows Penelope to position herself as just one of the girls: a slave like every woman in the house.

The chorus is scripted for other poetic performances as well, one a meditation and celebration of the birth of Penelope’s son, Telemachus, which highlights one of the ways a woman in that culture was defined. It is immediately preceded by Penelope’s proud recollection that Odysseus had remarked at the time that Helen herself had not managed to bring forth a male child (although Penelope is concerned again that Odysseus has Helen on the brain). There is a marvelous choral outburst that interrupts Penelope’s reminiscences more or less at midpoint. Entitled a sea chanty, it is a droll run-through of the travel narrative of The Odyssey, quite amusing for having a clumsy rhyme scheme that seems to have been improvised on the spot, in a sense recalling Odysseus’ spontaneous telling of his story as an after-dinner amusement at Scheria.

But, essentially, these women are there to sing of grimmer things. The crime of the hanged slave women runs like a leitmotif through Penelope’s recollections, a choral threnody culminating in a powerful finale when the chorus sings of haunting Odysseus. This is preceded by a heavy-handed script of a trial where Odysseus and his accusers have it out and, predictably enough, he is acquitted by the judge. One might be tempted to decide that Atwood has surrendered to the notion of the husband as the Big Bad Man. In point of fact, in a society where women were in every way the pawns of males of the family, worthy only of the respect they could command as exciting sexual partners and then as childbearers, there is no reason to doubt that women would loathe men. But I doubt that Penelope herself, who was reared in a world in which there had always been slavery and cruelties perpetrated on slaves, would, if she had managed to notice, have especially cared that the women were killed, or think her husband out of line, although it keeps the poem alive for a modern reader.

There are marvelous and sometimes weird touches in this book. Calling the chapter in which the slave women are killed, “Odysseus and Telemachus Snuff the Maids,” is just so delightfully a camp way to be contemporary that you want to cry. The description (pp. 85f.) of Penelope’s Naiad mother, who eats food like a sea creature, conjures up a female entity that is fearful and gross, and you have to say “Poor Penelope!” One of my favorite moments is the quoting of the maxims of that tiresome old piece of baggage, Eurykleia. Who would have known before Atwood’s masterful description how thoroughly invasive and dreadful she was? How could Penelope bring herself to descend the stairs when the old nursemaid was there to dish out still more of her maxims, as, for instance?

Mistress lazy, slaves get bold,
Will not do what they are told.
Act the thief or whore or knave:
Spare the rod and spoil the slave.
(Eurykleia! You go, girl!)

Atwood has a conceit that works well intermittently in which these legendary figures float through time and space on something like an Ethernet, and thus come down and into the twenty-first century through the television screen from which they can look out on the people of this time. Sometimes the wraiths inhabit bodies in later centuries. The idea works well at the very end when Penelope says that Odysseus came back and just as quickly went off again; in fact, she confesses that he comes and goes again and again, and, although she insists that he seems to care for her, he can’t resist turning up elsewhere over the centuries in one historical epoch after another as a variety of historical figures. Helen, likewise, goes off and comes back to report on the various lovers she has sampled over the ages. Penelope claims that she is content to stay home. One might say that she has found peace early on in life and the other two are simply anxiety-ridden overachievers who need the stimulation of another trip. (Atwood might have mentioned Attention Deficit Disorder to make the scenario truly à la page.) Yet what Atwood has let Penelope say about herself in this narrative suggests to the reader that this Plain Jane is maybe a little tentative and a little dull.

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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