Odysseus and Poldy…

The original plan was to read Homer’s The Odyssey, followed by Joyce’s Ulysses before Bloomsday 2012, but, time caught up with me and I was still with Odysseus having just landed back on Ithaca when June 16 rolled around… So next year, I am prepared.

The OdysseyThe Odyssey

Considering the distance between the modern reader and Homer, Fagles’ translation of Homer’s Odyssey is a very accessible easy-read adventure tale, that may be light on direct action for some, but has definite narrative energy through its framed story-telling. There is historical and cultural interest on a theory level, particularly in the often repeated oral-story-telling devices: when Odysseus is stressing about the occupants of a new unknown island he’s about to land on, for example, and is wondering if the occupants will be friendly or not, human or monster, the ‘eating of bread’ is a feature, placing the ability to produce bread as an intrinsically social and humanistic act: that those groups of people that are capable of this act are the kind that will also be moral and caring.

This is obviously a canonical work of literature, an example of how we began to understand ourselves and think ourselves into the human condition that we enjoy today, so much can be said about it on this level, and has been many times, including in the excellent introduction of this translation by. Suffice to say, I enjoyed it on a number of levels, including purely its existence as a story, and its characters and how Homer, with maybe help from Fagles (I can’t read Ancient Greek), played with Odysseus ironically, like when the King and husband is telling of his time with Calypso, how he was stuck on this island paradise with a nymph whose beauty made Hermes weep, and forced to sleep with her every night, but yet he spent all day crying his grief out on the shores of the island, beating his chest with outrage… on this island he was so firmly imprisoned upon that he could only leave when Calypso told him: ‘Hey, why don’t you just chop down some wood and build a raft, man?’

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It’s impossible and obscene to review a book like this, genuinely, other than to talk about your experience of it and what the novel means to humanity and storytelling as a whole.

This is not an easy-read, but it is literary art: it is art fashioned from words, in the form of a novel and it is difficult to deal with. It is dealing with complex, difficult, perhaps impossible to reconcile characteristics of being human, and it is trying to render that onto a page with words. It is trying to do something that is beyond words, with words, these flawed building blocks of being human.

The problem with combining this form with this project is that unlike with other more immediate forms of art, let’s say, a great work of visual art that is wrestling with the same project, if you don’t appreciate it on that level, you only have to invest a couple of seconds, scan the paining, shrug your shoulders and then walk off. You’re not going to hold much of a grudge against it, and if someone who did appreciate it at that level asks you if you’ve seen it, you can still say, yes, I have, I liked the composition and its use of the colour red. You’re not going to say, no, I read the first fifty pages and threw it away. It’s crap. It’s artsy fartsy wankery. What? Are you saying I’m stupid? Well, stuff you, you’re pretentious…

Some art needs to be difficult. It needs to defeat you in some way. It needs to go past your limits so that you know your limits. This novel will lose you. It will surpass you, just as it did me. That’s not a bad thing.

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It’s not laughing at you. It’s laughing with you and at you and at itself.

This novel changed the narrative game. It moved human experience into new positions. Very few individual works of anything are in this category. Joyce’s project is, of course, a failure and absurd, but it soars all the more through the purity of its failure and its depiction of the absurdity of our condition, we story-telling self-aware animals doomed to die and know about it.

It is worth the effort to read it. Let it beat you. You need to be beaten as a reader sometimes.

On a final note, I was all ready to hate on Melbourne’s obsession with the Molly Bloom character while reading her famous soliloquy, the final chapter of the book, and had a few clever, snide sentences all ready primed for my review regarding the vague, Sex-In-The-City kind of emptiness I was reading into her. The last three or so pages hit me right in the guts with the subtle, building energy that only a true, absolute master artisan of story-telling is capable of.

I swallowed every sentence I had and sat quietly on the bench of platform 3 at Box Hill railway station, waiting for the 6:37pm Belgrave train to arrive, and it felt like I didn’t breath until it did.


Jeremy, Bookseller, The Co-op Bookshop Bundoora

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