November 4, 2010
"The Odyssey" by Homer and "The Penelopiad" by Margaret Atwood
Well, you're gonna get a 'two-fer' tonight; a review of Homer's The Odyssey (translation by Robert Fagles), and Margaret Atwood's brilliant little novella, The Penelopiad. Secondly, I am sharing this with the Literary Blog Hop at The Blue Bookcase. These women are writing and promoting some very fine book reviews. I encourage you to go their blog and have a look. I have learned to truly love the cross-pollination that occurs on the world-wide-web; particularly when it comes to the books we read and our impressions. Think about it for a moment, but where do we really learn about most of the books we read? Yup, from other people.
Some of you may be aware, but I read Homer's The Iliad recently and loved it (my review here). I figured that the smart thing to do was to go ahead and just follow it up with a reading of Robert Fagles's 1996 translation of The Odyssey.
Robert Fagles's translation is a modern and contemporary, yet extraordinarily lyrical translation that just seems to preserve the classical feel of Homer, i.e., it begs to be read aloud. This puts the reader squarely in the midst of the Homeric oral tradition of the itinerant bard and the hexameter verse structure of this ancient epic poem. Fagles has masterfully brought this feeling to his English translation. Now it is time for a 'Warning' from the Management--If you haven't read The Odyssey before, and are truly concerned about plot spoilers, I suggest you toddle along and find another blog posting to read right now.
The Odyssey is a nearly three-thousand year old 12,000 line poem that tells the tale of the Greek warrior, Odysseus, and his return from Asia-Minor following the sack of Troy. While it took the Achaean army ten years to defeat Troy, it takes Odysseus ten more years to return home to his island kingdom of Ithaka. Suffice it to say that Odysseus has nearly every adventure that you're likely to imagine, and then some, during his journey before he reaches his home. This is a rollicking good read with loads of action-packed hand-to-hand combat, scary monsters, femme fatales, and damsels in distress.
Intermingled with the story of Odysseus's macho-man Mediterranean cruise is the concurrent tale of his patient, but suffering, wife, Penelope, holding down the fort on Ithaka. She is not only trying to raise their surly teen-aged son, Telemakus, but simultaneously fending off the less than honorable advances of the hordes of suitors who now assume that Odysseus is dead and want to take over his kingdom (and wife).
Meanwhile, during the course of all of his mad-cap adventures, Odysseus is called upon to use every ounce of his guile and inventiveness to outwit his foes and safely return to Ithaka to his wife and son and the host of suitors pursuing Penelope and looking to supplant him. And deal with them he does. Near the end of the poem Odysseus and Telemakus go on a premeditated spree of horrific violence and slaughter all of Penelope's dastardly suitors and her twelve palace maids. It ain't pretty, folks; nope, not at all. This is bloody in-your-face killing Homeric style, and a lot like today's video games.
Reading The Odyssey will not only keep you enthralled from the first page to the last--and it is an amazing travelogue after all--but it will cause you to dip into your Bullfinch's or Hamilton's mythology too. Reading The Odyssey is quite like peeling an onion--layer after layer--one story leading to the discovery of another related myth. Also, do pay attention to the bits about Penelope and her defense of the homefront. This will become important in the next part of this posting as I review Margaret Atwood's marvelous little novella, The Penelopiad.
If you haven't read Homer's great epic, The Odyssey, I simply can't recommend it enough. I strongly suggest reading The Iliad first though. They go together, like hand-in-glove. I also strongly recommend reading the translations of Robert Fagles of both of these classic epic poems. I recently read Richmond Lattimore's translations; and while very beautifully done, I truly believe that the Fagles translations are the renditions for our time. For The Odyssey, I award five stars out of five, a genuine classic.
Okay, now lets turn our attention to Margaret Atwood's 2005 novel, The Penelopiad. At just under two-hundred pages, I read this novella in one sitting, and enjoyed it immensely! Also, having just finished reading Robert Fagles' marvelous translation of Homer's The Odyssey, finding and reading The Penelopiad seemed more than serendipitous. This is a retelling of The Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus's wife, the 'patient' Penelope. Atwood uses humor, pathos, and a significant dose of imagination and creativity to tell the story of Penelope and the twelve maids. With one of the niftiest opening lines I've read in some time, this is an innovative piece of modern writing that finds Atwood cleverly reaching back to the ancient Greek dramatists as she structures the entire book as an ancient classical drama, with the interesting literary device of the 'Twelve Maids' providing the voice of the Chorus. The Chorus of the Maids interjects quite frequently (eleven chapters) in the midst of Penelope's soliloquy (eighteen chapters) to share their perspective of Penelope, Odysseus, and the on-going events in the palace on Ithaka. Some of these choral interludes include bits of funny poetic doggerel, a lyrical and well-written lamentation, a folk song, an idyll, a sea shanty, a ballad, a drama, an anthropology lecture, a court trial, and a love song. I have to say that each of these choral interludes works very well in bringing to life these twelve, largely unknown, maids.
At first blush the reader might be tempted to dismiss this little book as nothing more than a light-hearted bit of fun that Atwood has at the expense of elements of Homer's great epic. In my opinion, that would be a mistake though. There's a lot going on in this book, and much of it doesn't manifest itself immediately. I re-read it this morning on the train to the office, and I'm now even more in awe of Atwood's talent as a writer. While acknowledging the patriarchal and male-centric tone of The Odyssey, Atwood in her The Penelopiad has brilliantly explored the feminine side of the Palace of Ithaka, as well as in Hades (the Underworld) where Penelope; her cousin, Helen-of-Troy; and the maids now all reside. Atwood tastefully, but emphatically, uses her brief little tale to illustrate the double-standard that existed between men and women, not only that contained in the oral tradition of Homer's epics, but that of the ancient classical world. After my recent reading of Homer, I found her use of a completely different voice and gender to tell the story of Odysseus' return to his home after twenty years, and the horrific violence he inflicts on 'the suitors', as well as the Twelve Maids, to be simply fascinating. Also, while Homer goes to great lengths to highlight Odysseus as the "trickster", "dissembler", and "tactician", Atwood is equally successful in causing the reader to continually sift through Penelope's thoughts and statements for the kernels of Truth in her story, and in this task it is sometimes wise to pay attention to the Chorus.
Is The Penelopiad intended to be a feminist interpretation of Penelope, or The Odyssey? No, I really don't think so. This wonderful novella seems to be nothing more than Atwood's contribution to the Canongate Myth Series (a terrific series of books, by the way), and simply addresses the Odyssean mythology from the perspective of one female protagonist and a series of events that have received little scholarly or literary attention prior to this. Having said that though, I found the book to be a very well written and cleverly constructed story by one of Canada's great living authors. In sum, I thoroughly enjoyed The Penelopiad, and I'm quite glad that it has taken up a permanent home on my shelves. For me, this book rates a solid four stars out of five.