I spent this entire morning snuggled up in bed reading the final fifty pages of The Iliad, aloud, to myself, because out loud is the only way the book should be read, trust me on this. The blog has been in a slump through December and I can’t think of a better way to revive it than by sharing impromptu musings on my new-found respect for translators and a glimpse at the best reading experience of my life – yes, that’s what it’s been. It’s The. Effing. Iliad.
In all honesty, a part of me wanted to read The Iliad for the same reason you’d want to read Proust – so I could say I’ve read it. I was looking at attending university, studying literature and hardly well versed as I am in classics, I thought being legitimately able to insert “When I read the Iliad…” into conversation would tip the scales in my favour. Of course, that was only one reason. Another was just trying my hand at reading an epic. I chose The Iliad because it was a History Channel film on Helen of Troy I’d seen as a kid that had first sparked my interest, if a dull spark back then, in mythology.
Choosing the translation was a difficult business. This was back in July; I spent days perusing Wikipedia’s English Translations of Homer page. I did not want to pick something too heavy or clunky to get through and end up abandoning it. Finally, I narrowed my choices down to the post-1950s translations by Richmond Lattimore (most recommended,) Robert Fagles and Robert Fitzgerald. Sampling their translations on Amazon, I found Fitzgerald the easiest to follow and the most poetic. Interestingly, my copy arrived with a blurb on the back cover by Atlantic Monthly that says,
“Fitzgerald has solved virtually every problem that has plagued translators of Homer. The narrative runs, the dialogue speaks, the military action is clear, and the repetitive epithets become useful texts rather than exotic relics.”
I won’t get into what I thought of the epic. It is still far too fresh in my mind for that. But reading this book has completely made me question an initial unthinking stance on translators and here’s why. Homer is not easy and Fitzgerald just plays with words. The writing is beautiful and I cannot stress enough how smoothly the writing flows, how rhythmic it is; how deceptively with-ease he makes rhymes. It retains the conversational-recital tone of the epic, and it can be experienced, as is appropriate, without academic help.
between the remote frontier community of Picture City and the neighboring
Apaches. That delicate peace is shredded when the bodies of two white men are
found hideously mutilated. The angry townspeople are certain the “savages” have
broken the treaty, but Billjohn Finley, the local Indian agent, fears that
darker, more unholy forces may be at work. There’s a tall, dark stranger in
town, who rode in wearing the dead men’s clothes. A stranger, who is incredibly strong, looks neither white nor Injun, who has a scar around his neck, a stranger who may not be
knowing what comes next, not being able to understand what happens; that causes fear. Shadow on the Sun by Richard Matheson shows the
difference between suspense and intrigue.
straightforward. About six pages in, and with one glance at that first cover, you can guess what should have been the
biggest mystery of all – what mauled the two young men and how is it related to
that strange man with the scar around his neck? But that’s the thing about this
book. Knowing who is behind the killings, knowing how a man is able to brutally
mangle his victims, the knowledge that the crux of the mystery lies in
Native American mythology doesn’t make the story any less scary. Suspense – uncertainty of fact – is one quality of horror. If wielded
effectively, intrigue is a much better tool. You have all the answers you could
ask for and yet, every time the stranger steps onto the page with his scornful smile you find yourself shuddering.
(Spoiler!) Billjohn Finley is the bridge between the two cultures and you can see him struggling to make sense of the savagery to the sceptical Boutelle – the fact that Little Owl died of fear, that his remains would be burnt inside his house, that Braided Feather and his tribe would perform a cleansing ceremony to dispel the work of evil forces. The dreamlike scene when Boutelle witnesses the ceremony and learns the story of the son of Vandaih, the man-eagle, is important because that’s when a part of his mind opens up to the possibility of some truth in the myth, because all the details start falling neatly in place, the man and his scar, the shaman, the Night Doctor, the mutilated bodies, the Indians’ obvious uncontrollable fear of the stranger, the inhuman shrieks in the forest. (end of Spoiler!)
The stranger, the tall large man with the scar around his neck, from his physical description and his alienated behaviour, his desperation, his unthinking ruthlessness, is reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster. The fact that he’s looking for a Night Doctor only strengthens the impression. Whether he carries the blame for what he was turned into is not a question to address in this story, but the likeness could not be unintentional.
The thing that makes this book special, like the other two I’ve read by Matheson, is the clean-cut precision of the story. It begins mid-action and ends on just the right note, leaving us to conjure up a suitable tying up of loose ends. The plot is crisp, the mood evocative, and every word seems deliberately chosen to make you shiver. A nice, short read by a great writer – recommended by Stephen King as the author who influenced him the most as a writer – what more could you want?
In his own world a man spoke only to give shape to a decision he had come to, or to lay out an argument for or against. To offer thanks to one who had done well, or a reproof, either in anger or gentle regret, to one who had not. To pay a compliment whose decorative phrases, and appeals to vanity or family pride, were fixed and of ancient and approved form. Silence, not speech, was what was expressive. Power lay in containment. In keeping hidden, and therefore mysterious, one’s true intent. A child might prattle, till it learned better. Or women in the seclusion of their own apartments.
But out here, if you stopped to listen, everything prattled. It was a prattling world. Leaves as they tumbled in the breeze. Water as it went hopping over the stones and turned back on itself and hopped again. Cicadas that created such a long racketing shrillness, then suddenly cut out, so that you found yourself aware once again of silence. Except that it wasn’t silence at all, it was a low, continuous rustling and buzzing and humming, as if each thing’s presence was as much the sound it made as its shape, or the way it had, which was all its own, of moving or being still.
What I didn’t like: Flitting tenses are annoying, but that’s just me. Patroclus’s narration is often maudlin and he seems infatuated with Achilles and absurdly unaware of his own potential, until the moment it’s revealed to us (surprise!) that Patroclus is the best of the Myrmidons. Patroclus’s descriptions of Achilles are garish and repetitive, and the love scenes are sometimes laughably awkward. At some of the key moments, the purple prose strives to invoke a reaction and we lose the profound simplicity such scenes demand.
(a young Achilles, full of hope, in spite of his godly destiny)
“Name one hero who was happy.”
I considered. Heracles went mad and killed his family; Theseus lost his bride and father; Jason’s children and new wife were murdered by his old; Bellerophon killed the Chimera but was crippled by the fall from Pegasus’ back.
“You can’t.” He was sitting up now, leaning forward.
“I know. They never let you be famous AND happy.” He lifted an eyebrow. “I’ll tell you a secret.”
“Tell me.” I loved it when he was like this.
“I’m going to be the first.”
(Chiron, on the futility of war)
Chiron had said once that nations were the most foolish of mortal inventions. “No man is worth more than another, wherever he is from.”
“But what if he is your friend?” Achilles had asked him, feet kicked up on the wall of the rose-quartz cave. “Or your brother? Should you treat him the same as a stranger?”
“You ask a question that philosophers argue over,” Chiron had said. “He is worth more to you, perhaps. But the stranger is someone else’s friend and brother. So which life is more important?”
We had been silent. We were fourteen, and these things were too hard for us. Now that we are twenty-seven, they still feel too hard.
(Odysseus and Pyrrhus on the randomness of glory)
Odysseus inclines his head. “True. But fame is a strange thing. Some men gain glory after they die, while others fade. What is admired in one generation is abhorred in another.” He spread his broad hands. “We cannot say who will survive the holocaust of memory. Who knows?” He smiles. “Perhaps one day even I will be famous. Perhaps more famous than you.”
“I doubt it.”
Odysseus shrugs. “We cannot say. We are men only, a brief flare of the torch. Those to come may raise us or lower us as they please.”
three generations of men, and I know that they dazzle our eyes and flow in and out
of one another like eddies on a river, and nothing that is said clearly can be
said truly about them. Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength,
not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin
like water, but thick and dark like blood.”
escape from them into sleep or madness, for they can pursue you into them with
dreams. Indeed you are then most at their mercy. The nearest thing we have to a
defence against them (but there is no real defence) is to be very wide awake
and sober and hard at work, to hear no music, never to look at earth or sky,
and (above all) to love no one.”
the strongest reason for distrust. The gods never send us this invitation to
delight so readily or so strongly as when they are preparing some new agony. We
are their bubbles; they blow us big before they prick us.”
that its sluggish crawling, seemingly without aim, was like my life, or even
the life of the whole world.”
was the hardest work I’d ever done, and, while it lasted, one could think of
nothing else. I said not long before that work and weakness are comforters. But
sweat is the kindest creature of the three— far better than philosophy, as a cure
for ill thoughts.”
last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years,
which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll
not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us
openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they
hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till
we have faces?”
even though I knew nothing about Ragnarok (the Norse Armageddon) and very
little about Norse mythology in general. Why? Well, firstly, it’s part of a series of books on mythology, of which I’ve read the first introductory book; The Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong. Secondly, well, it’s written by A.S. Byatt, who has grown to be one of my favourite authors, and not without
reason. Byatt is a brilliant writer, a wordsmith. Her prose is rather
poetic; a combination of apt imagery and beautiful sounds, which
together with the strong emotions that her stories invoke in you, leaves you
book a little too basic, as some of the Goodreads reviews seem to suggest. But
if all you want is a general glimpse into the Norse myths, without having to
struggle through a reference journal, the book is perfect. It is far from scholarly, and that, somehow is the magic of it. Throughout the book, Byatt maintains these careful inconsistencies, even with the names; because, she says, myths are always changing, there is no right or wrong, no accurate version. Where you’d have footnotes and in depth analyses of the different allegories, you have a thin young girl, who has had to move to the English countryside with a war raging around them, reading and shaping her world according to a book she loves called “Asgard and the Gods“. It draws parallels to our world, at every step, through the mind of that little girl, who likens her father being away bombing the enemy’s planes to Odin’s Wild Hunt.