Saturday, April 03, 2010

The New Yorker reads Mason, Malouf and Banville

Mussy notes this New Yorker piece, in which Daniel Mendelsohn reviews three recent fictions working with classical Greek materials: John Banville’s “The Infinities,” David Malouf’s “Ransom,” Zachary Mason’s “The Lost Books of the Odyssey."

Among Mendelsohn's fine observations noted:
The first adjective in the first line of the twelve thousand one hundred and nine 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 Greek myth’s preëminent talker, fibber, and plotter. If the Iliad, set during a war, keeps showing us men’s bodies, either in frenzied action or stilled by death, 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. And a quality of mind that the Odyssey admires extravagantly is the ability to tell a good story. It’s 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, 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—which is to say 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.
Which adds resonance to some of the parallels we've noted between Milton's Satan and Odysseus.

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