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Epic Endeavors

The PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay is given for a book of essays published in 2012 that exemplifies the dignity and esteem that the essay form imparts to literature. One of the runners-up is Daniel Mendelsohn for his book, Waiting for Barbarians.

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Toward the end of John Banville’s new novel, The Infinities, a more or less contemporary tale over which the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes rather startlingly preside, a snooty character to whom someone is describing an “updated” production of a play about the parents of Hercules declares that he “does not approve of the classics being tampered with”: the Greeks, he says, “knew what they were doing, after all.” The joke is that the pretentious young man doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The play in question, Amphitryon—whose themes, of adultery, confused identities, and improbable Olympian interventions, are threaded through Banville’s novel—isn’t Greek at all. Rather, it’s an early-nineteenth-century German reworking of late-seventeenth-century French and English rewritings of a second-century-BC tragicomedy written in Latin. And that was just then. In the twentieth century alone, the Amphitryon myth has been adapted by a French novelist, two German playwrights, an opera composer, an anti-Nazi filmmaker, and Cole Porter. Have we ever done anything but tamper with the classics?

No one, as it happens, tampered more than the Greeks themselves. Shaped as we are by printed literature, we tend to think about myths the way we think about novels—as narratives whose plots and characters and incidents are fixed, as stories whose shape is as immutable as that of, say, Anna Karenina. In the same way that, when we hear someone mention Anna Karenina, we think of the woman whose unhappiness leads her to the underside of a railway carriage, when we hear the Oedipus myth mentioned we think of a particular story about the unlucky man who unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother, and about the awful aftermath of the revelation of incest and parricide—how he blinds and then exiles himself, how she hangs herself over her grotesque marriage bed. If the name Helen of Troy comes up, we think of the adulterous Greek wife whose passion for a handsome houseguest started a world war.

But for the Greeks—whose culture was, even in classical times, till a largely oral one—myth was a great deal more fluid. Not twenty years after Sophocles put on his Oedipus Tyrannus—whose huge popularity from ancient times on has crystallized the self-blindingexile- hanging version of the story—Euripides presented his tragedy Phoenician Women, in which Oedipus and Jocasta are still shuffling around the palace long after the revelation of incest and adultery. In the same dramatist’s lost Oedipus, of which only fragments remain, the Theban king’s blindness is not self-inflicted at the climax of the play but the result of an injury inflicted during that initial, fatal encounter with his father. As for Helen of Troy, some people may be startled to learn that she might not have run away with Paris at all—and that, therefore, the decade-long Trojan War, like certain other wars, was based on a fatal hoax. In his play Helen, Euripides dramatized a tale that had been in circulation since not long after Homer: in it, the woman whom Paris takes home is just a phantom spun from clouds, while the real Helen, virtuous and loyal, is spirited away to Egypt. There she weeps for her sullied reputation and mourns her husband, Menelaus, who eventually turns up and rescues her.

To us, brought up on D’AulairesBook of Greek Myths, all this may seem odd. It’s as if Tolstoy’s novel were only one of many possible Anna Kareninas, and there was a version in which the heroine acts on her final, panicked moment of hesitation, climbs back from underneath the train in the nick of time, and goes home to squabble with Karenin. But the Greeks had no Book of Greek Myths; they just kept tampering. They knew what they were doing, after all.

As it happens, Banville’s book is one of three recent novels that, to varying degrees, not only “do” the Greeks—his features Greek gods as main characters, while David Malouf’s Ransom is based on a climactic episode of the Iliad and Zack Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey invents forty-four new chapters for that epic—but, far more interestingly, do the Greek thing: play with the texts of the past in order to create, with varying degrees of success, a literature that is thoroughly of the present.

 

By far the most profound and successful of these is Malouf’s. The novel is a riff on the twenty-fourth (and final) book of the Iliad—the book whose climax is the tense and poignant meeting between the Greek hero Achilles and the aged Trojan king Priam, who comes to the Greek camp in order to ransom the body of his fallen son, Hector.

Like Euripides, Malouf has scrutinized the vast fabric of Homer’s story, looking for open spaces in the weave to insert his own design; he has found one in the last lines of the epic. Here, during the already extraordinary encounter between the Greek and the Trojan—the two sides have, after all, been killing each other all through the previous twenty-three books—a remarkable thing happens: one of the characters tries to imagine an alternative to the foreordained plot of the poem, to step outside, as it were, his own narrative. Priam and Achilles have been sketching the details of a truce that will give the Trojans time to mourn and bury Hector, and decide that eleven days is sufficient. “On the twelfth,” Homer’s Priam says, “we’ll fight again . . . if fight we must.” That “if we must”—pregnant with the tantalizing, wishful possibility that the two sides might not have to fight anymore, that we can break out of character and create a new history—is the subject of Malouf’s subtle and extremely moving novel.

Ransom taps the enormous emotional energies unleashed at the end of Homer’s poem, which, in its final book, enacts a great drama of restitution and resolution. At the beginning of the Iliad, the Greek commander Agamemnon steals a captured princess, part of the spoils of war, from Achilles. The affront provokes the great warrior to sit out the fighting—until his beloved friend, Patroclus, is killed by Hector. Returning to the field, he kills Hector in single combat and, in an outrageous violation of religious propriety and a severe affront to divine sensibilities, refuses to give back the body for proper burial; instead, he lashes it to his chariot and drags it back and forth before the walls of Troy as the dead man’s anguished family and people look on. Offended, the gods intervene, ordering Achilles to relent and Priam to go to the Greek camp and offer Achilles a huge treasure as ransom for the body of his son. It is at this point that Malouf picks up the story.

Priam, whose name, as Malouf reveals in an ingenious bit of flashback, could be taken as meaning “ransom”—as a young prince, he had been a prisoner of war, ultimately ransomed (priatos) as a favor to his sister—obeys this divine order, and travels to the Greek camp. His eventual return to Troy with Hector’s body (the point at which Malouf’s narrative ends) precipitates a great outpouring of lamentation on the part of the Trojans that, we are meant to feel, will serve not only as an appropriately cathartic ending but also as their own funeral lament, since Troy itself will soon fall. Thus the work that begins with a man refusing to give up a body—Agamemnon won’t return the captive girl—ends with another man, Achilles, finally agreeing to give up a body that doesn’t belong to him, either. The epic travels a great arc from selfishness and ethical rigidity to a magnificent relenting.

The plot of Ransom is, for the most part, the plot of Homer’s Book 24: Malouf deftly covers Achilles’ grief-driven rage, the uncanny epiphany of the divine messenger Iris, which inspires Priam’s supplicatory embassy, the trip across the plain to the Greek camp with his herald (where the two old men are accosted by Hermes, who has been sent to protect them while they’re in enemy territory), the fraught meeting with Achilles and then the return home in a cart that has exchanged its treasures for a single body. The book’s only significant weakness is that Malouf, the novelist focusing on a single book of Homer, has to cover twenty-three books’ worth of exposition in a handful of rather breathless and unstylish pages. One great advantage of epic, of course, is the leisure provided by length.

On the surface, at least, these episodes constitute inventive paraphrases of Homer, embroidered with lovely imaginative details that often reanimate some familiar elements of the epic. Homer’s Hecuba, the mother of the dead Hector, famously and rather shockingly wishes that she could eat Achilles’ liver raw, if she only had the chance; Malouf’s Hecuba expresses pretty much the same wish, but with an additional, modern consideration. “I carried him,” she hisses at her husband, as the couple discuss Priam’s planned mission. “It is my flesh that is being tumbled on the stones out there.” And this is what Malouf does with the divine appearances that happen so often in Homer: “The air, as in the wake of some other, less physical disturbance, shimmers with a teasing iridescence,” muses a drowsy Priam, who in Malouf’s novel is a hieratic figure prone to divine visitations when he dozes. “The gods will materialise, jelly-like, out of the radiant vacancy.” “Jelly-like” is a wonderful touch, giving this mythic scene a novel concreteness.

“Novel” is, indeed, the operative word here. Ultimately, Ransom’s tampering with the Iliad is the vehicle for a rich meditation on literary genre—on the difference between Homer’s form, the epic, with its encrustations of formulaic language, its strict codes of heroic behavior, and its fated ending, and Malouf’s own form, the novel. In Ransom, the stiff and glittering ceremonial life by which both Priam and Achilles, in their different ways, are constrained—the former by the trappings of a monarch, the latter by the codes of honor that govern the hero’s life and actions—becomes a kind of symbol for epic itself. Here is Malouf’s Priam thinking about his long life of ceremony:

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.

This is the world of Homer’s poems, too, a world governed by conventions that, at the beginning of the novel, neither Priam, in his passive grief, nor Achilles, whose maniacal back-and-forthing before the city walls symbolizes his endless, fruitless rage, knows how to break out of. “This knot we are all tied in” is how Malouf’s Priam describes the impasse.

For Malouf, the solution to this epic problem is, in both senses of the word, the novel—a new way of thinking, and a new form for thinking it. In his retelling, Zeus’ messenger Iris doesn’t order Priam to go to Achilles; rather, she subtly suggests that Priam is free to act as he likes, that things are not foreordained but simply “the way they are. Not the way they must be, but the way they have turned out. In a world that is also subject to chance.” It is at this moment that Priam has the idea of going to Achilles not as a king but as a father, “to take on the lighter bond of being simply a man”; he suspects, correctly, that Achilles will be just as happy to “break free of the obligation of being always the hero.” In a marvelous aside, Priam wonders whether this relaxation of coded behavior may in fact be “the real gift” that he will be bringing to Achilles—the real ransom.

Priam gets to sample his newfound freedom during his journey across the plain to the Greek camp, in a simple cart and with only one humble companion: an episode that is brief enough in Homer, but here opens out into a mini-Odyssey, in which the king, for the first and last time in his life, experiences the pleasures of an existence that didn’t become the focus of serious literature until the rise of the novel, more than two millennia after Homer: the life of ordinary people. Accompanied, in this version, not by his royal herald Idreus, as in Homer, but by a talkative carter named Somax (an appropriately concrete name: soma is the Greek word for body), Priam wiggles his hot toes in cold water, learns how pancakes are made (“The lightness comes from the way the cook flips them over. Very neat and quick you have to be,” Somax advises the king of Troy), and sees that the world “of ceremony, of high play” to which he has always belonged is merely “representational . . . and had nothing to do with the actual and immediate.” Only during his fateful, novelty-filled and novel journey does he realize that “out here,” in the real world—which is to say, in the new narrative space that Malouf’s novel invents—“everything was just itself.”

The pathos of Malouf’s novel, as in that one half-line of Homer’s Iliad, is that the possibility of a different ending, of a life filled with simple pleasures, is and must always be a fleeting one: the end of Ransom includes a terrifying flash-forward to the grotesque murder of the aged Priam at the hands of Achilles’ young son, Neoptolemus, during the sack of Troy. But for the duration of this book Malouf’s Priam, like his creator, has done something truly novel. “He has stepped into a space that till now was uninhabited and found a way to fill it,” he thinks as he drives his son’s body home. “Look, he wants to shout, I am still here, but the I is different.” So is your sense of the possibilities of Homer’s story, once you’ve read Malouf. This is tampering at its very best.

 

The coda of Ransom informs you that Somax, long after the Trojan War is over, goes on telling the tale of Priam’s remarkable journey to anyone who will listen—becoming, that is, the first of many bards in a long line that leads to Homer. This preoccupation with how history becomes myth, how stories become epics, is a very Greek one, and lies at the heart of the other Homeric epic, which furnishes the material for Zachary  Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey.

The first adjective in the first line of the 12,109 that make up the Odyssey is polytropos, which means, in the context, “clever”—literally, “of many turns.” Both are apt modifiers for the poem’s hero, who is subject to many detours and is also notorious for his intellectual and verbal twistiness—he’s the preeminent talker, fibber, and plotter of Greek myth, the man who dreamed up the Trojan Horse and survived his decade-long journey home from Troy by employing an impressive and sometimes disturbing array of lies, disguises, traps, and tricks. If the Iliad, set during a war, keeps showing us men’s bodies, either in frenzied action or stilled by death, and anxiously wrestles with the values that compel those men to act and to die, the Odyssey, set in war’s aftermath, can be described as a poem about the mind—a celebration of the intellectual and verbal qualities that we might need to survive in a world uneasily settling back into the forgotten habits of peacetime.

One quality of mind that the Odyssey admires extravagantly is the ability to tell a good story. (Whether the story is true or false is a question that preoccupies this poem, which in different ways keeps worrying about what is, in the end, a philosophical question: just how you can know whether something is true—the tale told by a total stranger, the protests of a wife who claims to be faithful.) It’s sometimes easy to forget that nearly all the famous adventures we associate with Odysseus—the encounters with the Cyclops, the witch Calypso, Scylla and Charybdis, the Lotus-Eaters—are narrated not by the poem’s invisible narrator, the “I” who invokes the Muse in the first line, but by Odysseus himself, about himself. At a certain point in his voyage, he finds himself on an island inhabited by refined, pleasure-loving natives called the Phaeacians, and, one night over dinner, he tells them the story of his homecoming thus far. This takes up four entire books of Homer’s poem.

Another way of saying this is that much of the Odyssey is a kind of epic performance within the epic, a long flashback in which the poet and the hero are one and the same person. (It is no coincidence that both bards and archers—Odysseus is a renowned bowman, too—need a stringed instrument to perform.) This self-conscious interest in narrative gamesmanship and in the nature of storytelling gives Mason the modishly postmodern theme of his book, the preface of which tells us that the chapters that follow are translations of newly discovered sections of the Odysseus cycle: “forty-four concise variations on Odysseus’ story. . .where the familiar characters are arranged in new tableaux.”

So, for example, the first such tableau (“A Sad Revelation”) consists of a three-page-long variation on the epic’s famous ending: here Odysseus returns home to a Penelope who waited only twelve years, instead of the canonical twenty, before marrying a man who has been courting her. The moment the hero understands what has happened, he tells himself that “this is not Penelope . . . this is not Ithaca—what he sees before him is a vengeful illusion.” Odysseus turns and “flees the tormenting shadows,” presumably en route to further wandering. Many of these tiny chapters riff Tennyson’s famous idea that Odysseus’ long-awaited homecoming and, afterward, life back home end up boring the hero; many, if not most, have the gnomic, abbreviated feel of this one. If Homer’s Odyssey is expansive, Mason’s odysseys are studies in compression, but brevity brings many of them close to triviality: too often the sections end with inconclusive teases (“Also not recorded is whether Odysseus had poisoned the ring or whether he had found the word and it sufficed”) or with riddles to which, you suspect, the author himself doesn’t have an answer.

Some chapters, however, are extremely inventive and suggestive—“clever” in a good way. “Record of a Game” imagines that the Iliad is a text that began as a chess primer:

The purity of the primer eroded over time—formulaic descriptions were added as aides-mémoire (pieces were called swiftmoving, versatile, valuable in the middle game, and so forth). . . . By the eighth century BC the instructional character of the primer had largely atrophied and the recitation of the by then baroquely ornamented text had become an end in itself.

A terrific little chapter called “The Book of Winter” similarly thinks both inside and outside the Odyssey’s narrative: here, an amnesiac living in a hut at the frozen edges of the world realizes, after reading a book that turns out to be the Odyssey (“I wonder what the book was meant to tell me. The allegorical possibilities are many. . .”),that he is Odysseus—an Odysseus who has managed to pull off his greatest trick yet. For in order to escape the wrath of Poseidon (whose harassment is the reason for Odysseus’ long wanderings), he has for gotten who he is and become “no one.” As readers of the Odyssey know, No One is the false name Odysseus assumes in order to trick the Cyclops: when the Cyclops’s neighbors come to help after Odysseus has blinded him, he keeps saying “No One has attacked me,” at which point they go away. One way of saying “no one” in classical Greek—outis—sounds enough like “Odysseus” to constitute a kind of pun; another way, mê tis, is a precise homophone of mêtis, the word for intellectual resourcefulness. During his long anonymous homecoming Odysseus has indeed been “no one”—just as he has also always been “the resourceful one.”

But these sustained, really ingenious variations on Homeric themes are too few and far between; for the most part, The Lost Books of the Odyssey leaves you unsatisfied, like a meal of hors d’oeuvres. As you go through the book, it occurs to you that Mason thinks he’s doing what Malouf has managed to do—opening a space in the original epic and finding something new to say. The newness that interests him has to do with what academics call “narrativity.” One chapter, entitled “Fragment,” consists of a single paragraph:

Odysseus, finding that his reputation for trickery preceded him, started inventing histories for himself and disseminating them wherever he went. This had the intended effect of clouding perception and distorting expectation, making it easier for him to work as he was wont, and the unexpected effect that one of his lies became, with minor variations, the Odyssey of Homer.

The author’s suggestion that the Odyssey itself is just one reflecting surface in a giant literary hall of mirrors has won the book extravagant praise; it feels like such a contemporary conceit, something out of Borges or Calvino.

The problem is that the narrative conjuring tricks that Mason attempts pale, in both scale and complexity, beside the ones that Homer mastered three millennia ago. The Odyssey constantly toys with the possibility that it is just one of a number of alternative epics: at one point, a bard at a feast starts singing a kind of parallel Iliad, in which Achilles quarrels not with Agamemnon but with Odysseus. (Some scholars, moreover, have wondered whether the song the Sirens sing is not, in fact, the Iliad.) Even more dizzyingly—and troublingly—Homer’s poem makes you wonder whether there’s any more reason for us to “believe” the stories that Odysseus tells his Phaeacian audience (about the Cyclops, the Lotus-Eaters, and so on) than there is to believe certain other long yarns that he spins. Once he’s back in Ithaca, for instance, he poses as a Cretan and tells three notoriously elaborate autobiographical stories, all of which contain elements from what we think of as his “real” life. It’s at this point that you start to wonder what words like “real” and “true” mean in a work that is itself a fiction.

Yet playful as the Odyssey is, it is always serious. At the heart of its narrative Russian dolls and suggestive punning is a profound, ongoing exploration of identity: What does it mean, after all, if your cleverness, the trick that at once defines you and that you need to stay alive, reduces you to being “no one”? At the end of the Odyssey, you get the answers to questions that start forming in the first line, the first word of which is andra, “man”: to be a man, a human being, wildly inventive and creative but inevitably subject to dreadful forces beyond our control—which is to say, death—is to be something wonderful and, at the same time, nothing. The clever games that the Odyssey plays are, in the end, games worth playing. Mason’s book is merely jokey—too clever by half.

 

Both the Iliad and the Odyssey wrestle with paradoxes of life and death, mortality and immortality. Achilles is willing to die young if it means winning undying renown; Odysseus will do almost anything to survive his journey, but when he’s offered immortality by the amorous nymph Calypso, he rejects her in favor of returning home to the aging Penelope—surely the greatest and most moving tribute that any marriage has ever received in literature. The allure of immortality and the competing rewards of a humble human life are the themes that animate John Banville’s The Infinities, which, like the novels by Malouf and Mason, has things to tell us about the act of adaptation.

The myth that Banville adapts is that of the Theban king Amphitryon (a story that the author already engaged with a decade ago, when he produced an adaptation of Heinrich von Kleist’s Amphitryon). In the story, Amphitryon goes off to war and, while he’s away, Zeus assumes his form and seduces his unsuspecting wife, Alcmena. The confusion of identities leads to often hilarious theatrical and philosophical complications and, ultimately, to the birth of twin children, one of whom is Hercules. The novel, like its model, not only toys with genres—it starts out as a deathbed drama and ends with a surprising deus ex machina—but also wrestles with deeper questions. Chief among these is the paradox that human creativity (and procreativity) seeks to attain a kind of immortality—“infinity”; and yet mortality, the knowledge that we are finite, is what gives beauty and meaning to life. The existence of the Greek gods, “immortal and ageless,” might, you suspect, be pretty boring, in the end.

The title The Infinities refers to a revolutionary theory promulgated by the novel’s main character, an eminent mathematician with the heavily symbolic name Adam Godley, whose work has somehow unlocked the key to infinity and made it possible “to write equations across the many worlds, incorporating their infinities . . . and therefore all those other dimensions.” Not the least of these dimensions is, it seems, death itself: when the book begins, Godley has suffered a colossal stroke, and the plot follows his family during what seems likely to be his last day on earth. There’s his much younger, harddrinking wife, Ursula; his son, also called Adam; his daughter-inlaw, Helen, an actress, who, like the mythical Alcmena, is unwittingly carrying on an affair with Zeus; and Godley’s tormented daughter, Petra, whose boyfriend is the pretentious know-it-all who doesn’t recognize the plot of Amphitryon even when he’s in it.

The infinities that Banville unleashes have startling and provocative implications. Among other things, you come to realize that the world of the novel is not our own world but one of the parallel possible worlds to which Godley’s discovery has provided the key. Here Mary, Queen of Scots triumphed against Elizabeth I, Scandinavia is a Middle East–like political mess plagued by endless wars, and energy is derived from saltwater. And, of course, the Greek gods are real—a nice thought since, as the narrator, who happens to be Hermes, reminds us, “we offer you no salvation of the soul, but no damnation, either.” These gods envy humans and yearn for mortality, which they attempt to taste by means of “intercourse” both literal and figurative. Such premises give Banville a useful vehicle for his themes of mortality, creativity, and the possibility of making something truly new in a world that seems increasingly exhausted morally, politically, and spiritually.

And yet the book lacks a certain urgency. As often with this author—not least in his highly overwrought The Sea, which won the Man Booker Prize—the conceits, the symbolic names, and the ostentatiously “lyrical” diction are striking, but too often you feel that the author is simply amusing himself, swatting, like a cat at tinsel, at notions that have caught his eye. Somehow, it doesn’t add up. (The shocking dramatic climax of The Sea—a book in which Banville, or at least the excessively gloomy narrator who has “a fair knowledge of the Greek myths,” is already thinking of “the possibility of the gods”—is almost totally inorganic, constructed.) By the end, it’s hard not to think that Banville himself has fallen into an error that his fictional Hermes observes in Adam Godley: “the peril of confusing the expression of something with the something itself.”

About one thing The Infinities is not in the least confused: lurking within it is the sly acknowledgment of a fact that has been clear to authors, if not to mathematicians, since that day, three millennia ago, when a blind itinerant singer tampered with some old heroic lays and turned them into the Iliad. Literature, like the universe that Godley reveals, has always been a series of endless tamperings, “an infinity of infinities . . . all crossing and breaking into each other, all here and invisible, a complex of worlds.” However flawed or successful Banville’s novel and its fellows may be, the mere existence of these proliferating adaptations points, once again, to the inexhaustible, indeed seemingly infinite potential of the classics themselves.

The New Yorker, April 4, 2010