Monday, March 31, 2014

2014 Classic #2

The Odyssey – Homer, translated by S.H. Lang and A. Butcher, 1879

I’d never read this classic in its entirely, ignorantly thinking that every “rosy-fingered dawn” and “crafty Odysseus” and “grey-eyed Athena”  and “wine-dark sea” would culminate in driving me  around the bend.  But then I chided myself for being so prejudiced; after all, epithets and glorified nicknames are part of epic territory.

Inarguably this epic is at the heart of our literary tradition, the forebear of myth, fairy tale, ghost story, and fiction. After I read this, I got into Look Homeward Angel and lo and behold Wolfe gives us this:

Gant had the passion of the true wanderer, of him who wanders from a fixed point. He needed the order and the dependence of a home— he was intensely a family man: their clustered warmth and strength about him was life.

After the urge to be culturally literate, another reason that I jumped into a prose rendition of this fundamental text of the Western culture was to prepare myself to read James Joyce’s Ulysses later this year.

I enjoyed reading about Odysseus' journey to return to his home, hearth, wife Penelope, and son Telmachus. Odysseus wriggles by all kinds of challenges and dangers with his formidable character, a mix of big-heartedness, bravery and cruelty. A model of decision-making, he believes in his own abilities. He uses both intelligence and cunning and weaves a web of lies if that seems like the right move. He’s all about all or nothing – when he snuffs the obnoxious suitors, he also takes out the good guy Amphinomus  who was the only wooer who took the hero’s part.

Odysseus, being the hero, is the center of the text. But I found the settings wonderful. The sea is our hero’s prime adversary, deadly and unavoidable. Rock-strewn beaches, the dense forests, the mysterious caves of the Cyclops and Calypso, the beautiful dwelling of the sorceress Circe – no wonder the Med draws us.

The themes are timeless. Foster resiliency to weather trials. If you want to receive friendship and loyalty and hospitality and generosity, have to give them. Distinguish settling for what you get from feeling grateful for what you get. Keep in mind things can always be worse. There’s no place like home.  It’s okay to believe the wary suspicion that hero or not, best efforts or not, we sometimes feel like the mere object of the whims of the unseen forces. Life’s pretty strange when you come to think about it.

Simply because it fell into my lap (as books tend do), I read Lang and Butcher’s 1879 version. I take the completeness and accuracy of translations on trust, but if the language feels flat, insipid, musty or dry, I drop it. As Joseph Brodsky said of Constance Garnett, "The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren't reading the prose of either one. They're reading Constance Garnett."

Lang and Butcher’s Odyssey often sounds like the King James Version. Most of the time I found the antiquated language and style grand and stirring but I confess to moodiness. At other time I found the style quaint and schlocky. Near the end, I started to feel, “Persevere, you survived Tom’s elaborate scheme to free Jim, so you can handle Odysseus visiting his pop back on the farm.” This translation is available for tasting at

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