Friday, January 04, 2008

Alberto Manguel: Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey

Melinda Harvey reviews Alberto Manguel's Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey.

New books crowd our view of old ones. But publishers and authors are culling while they clutter. Thousands of original titles are printed each year and a significant number of them tell us precisely which books to read and how many.

There have been Melvyn Bragg's 12 Books That Changed The World and Peter Boxall's rather more dispiritingly titled 1001 Books To Read Before You Die. Meanwhile, Penguin's slim and chichi Great Ideas titles continue their reign at bookshop counters.

Upping the ante, American publisher Atlantic Books has launched a Books That Shook the World series. Alberto Manguel's Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey is its ninth and penultimate addition. Earthquakes, bombs and asteroids shake the world - but do books? More to the point, do poems? The Republic, The Bible, The Koran, Rights of Man, On The Origin Of Species, The Wealth of Nations, On War and Das Kapital - the focus of the previous eight instalments of the series - can lay clear claim to whipping up seismic shocks on history's timeline. But, as Bragg observes, explaining the absence of novels from his list, literature didn't put men on the moon or clinch the right to orgasm for women.

For Manguel, the more things change, the more things stay the same. Literature has accompanied us every step of the way from the polis to the politburo, and Homer's epics have managed to talk in time, regardless of the ideological beat. Or indeed tribal beat: Manguel tells the remarkable story of a remote jungle people who, supplied with a copy of The Iliad as well as a selection of practical handbooks on farming by Colombia's Ministry of Culture in the 1990s, refused to return it. When the village elder was asked why, he replied that Homer's story exactly mirrored his people's own past - of wars without reason and unhappiness without relief.

Manguel celebrates literature's pat-head-rub-tummy ability to reflect the real world, as well as entertain and move. He notes that The Iliad and The Odyssey have served as geographical textbooks (Strabo), war manuals (Alexander the Great), treasure maps (Heinrich Schliemann), not to mention Ancient Greek primers and civilising agents for countless boys from Horace to today. These poems are also "the beginning of all our stories". Beyond pioneering techniques related to plot, character and point of view in fiction-telling, they have seeded myriad books, from Virgil's Aeneid to James Joyce's Ulysses and beyond to Jean Giraudoux's Tiger at the Gates, Derek Walcott's Omeros and Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad.New books crowd our view of old ones. But publishers and authors are culling while they clutter. Thousands of original titles are printed each year and a significant number of them tell us precisely which books to read and how many.

There have been Melvyn Bragg's 12 Books That Changed The World and Peter Boxall's rather more dispiritingly titled 1001 Books To Read Before You Die. Meanwhile, Penguin's slim and chichi Great Ideas titles continue their reign at bookshop counters.

Upping the ante, American publisher Atlantic Books has launched a Books That Shook the World series. Alberto Manguel's Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey is its ninth and penultimate addition. Earthquakes, bombs and asteroids shake the world - but do books? More to the point, do poems? The Republic, The Bible, The Koran, Rights of Man, On The Origin Of Species, The Wealth of Nations, On War and Das Kapital - the focus of the previous eight instalments of the series - can lay clear claim to whipping up seismic shocks on history's timeline. But, as Bragg observes, explaining the absence of novels from his list, literature didn't put men on the moon or clinch the right to orgasm for women.

For Manguel, the more things change, the more things stay the same. Literature has accompanied us every step of the way from the polis to the politburo, and Homer's epics have managed to talk in time, regardless of the ideological beat. Or indeed tribal beat: Manguel tells the remarkable story of a remote jungle people who, supplied with a copy of The Iliad as well as a selection of practical handbooks on farming by Colombia's Ministry of Culture in the 1990s, refused to return it. When the village elder was asked why, he replied that Homer's story exactly mirrored his people's own past - of wars without reason and unhappiness without relief.

Manguel celebrates literature's pat-head-rub-tummy ability to reflect the real world, as well as entertain and move. He notes that The Iliad and The Odyssey have served as geographical textbooks (Strabo), war manuals (Alexander the Great), treasure maps (Heinrich Schliemann), not to mention Ancient Greek primers and civilising agents for countless boys from Horace to today. These poems are also "the beginning of all our stories". Beyond pioneering techniques related to plot, character and point of view in fiction-telling, they have seeded myriad books, from Virgil's Aeneid to James Joyce's Ulysses and beyond to Jean Giraudoux's Tiger at the Gates, Derek Walcott's Omeros and Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad.

That we have read and treasured Homer for more than 28 consecutive centuries is, for Manguel, proof that the poems have shaped, if not shaken, the world. Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey is subtitled A Biography, and Manguel believes a biography of a book is a history of its readers. With a Casanovan mixture of fickleness and genuine affection, we gad about the ages, rendezvousing with a galaxy of authors, artists, scholars and translators for whom Homer mattered. There's the painstaking Aristarchus, the conflicted St Jerome, the ecstatic John Keats and the speculative Samuel Butler, who wholeheartedly believed that The Odyssey was the work of a young unmarried Sicilian woman and not a blind and wandering male bard. The story of Caliph al-Ma'mun, who, after an encounter with Aristotle in a dream, had the entire corpus of Ancient Greek writing translated into Arabic, ensuring its survival, serves as a timely parable for our times. Manguel's world view is a cosmopolitan one: while we should delight in differences, the world is a single civilisation, and Homer is the one thing upon which we all agree.

Manguel exults in unearthing an imprecise decoding of The Iliad by Pope here, a fleeting allusion to Homer by Goethe's Werther there for the same reason that he waxes lyrical about the mutable materiality of books themselves in A History of Reading (1996). Like a slight tear on page 72, a coffee ring on the right-hand corner of a back cover or a handwritten poem on a flyleaf, these are signs of life, proof that literature has a pulse. Like his hero, Jorge Luis Borges, whom he famously met at Pygmalion, a Buenos Aires bookshop, aged 16 and subsequently read aloud to for the next two years, "the concept of the 'definitive text' corresponds only to religion or exhaustion".

Yet one wonders whether this fad for treating books like historical relics is a symptom of literature's decadence. A curiosity of the statistically verifiable decline in reading in our time - the US National Endowment for the Arts's recent study, To Read Or Not To Read, found we read less and less well - is the preponderance of books about books in our marketplace.

In Manguel's books, readers are eulogised as an endangered species. This book harbours more than a hint of nostalgia for the days when people read Homer with passion and with real world issues at stake. As for Manguel himself - well, it's clear he dearly prizes Homer, but what his poems have whispered into Manguel's ear when no one's watching one cannot, ultimately, say.




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