Over the rocky course of the pandemic, many of us have turned to books for solace, inspiration and entertainment. We have revisited old favourites, sought comforting distractions, digested challenging ideas, found fictional friends, tackled different genres and, perhaps for the first time, delved into the wealth of literature that explores, celebrates, confronts and reimagines events and stories from the ancient past. Since the late summer of 2020, our LSA CA Book Club has met to discuss and share our thoughts on a selection of fiction and non-fiction.
We began by reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: a Father, a Son, and an Epic, an engaging book which gets to the core of what makes us human: our relationships, our encounters with adversity, our need for identity and for home, our thirst for love and for escape. Part [auto]biography, part novel, part academic study of Homer’s epic poem, it tells the story of Daniel’s father Jay, an irascible and stubborn eighty-one year old retired professor of mathematics, who announces without explanation that he will join his son (himself a respected academic and professor of classics) in his class on the Odyssey. Whilst Jay hopes to better understand Homeric epic and Daniel uses these episodes as a lens through which to tell the story of his father’s personal journey through life, parenthood and old age, it soon becomes clear that both men seek a more elusive goal; a deeper understanding of each other. This they eventually reach through a series of poignant and vividly described events. From the ‘Proem’ to the ‘Apologoi’, ‘Nostos’ and ‘Sema’, Mendelsohn reminds us of the universality of Homer’s epic and of Odysseus’ struggles and of the complex relationships between fathers and sons throughout the poem, whilst the very Homeric way in which Mendelsohn flits between different temporalities and narrative threads highlights the ring composition of each life story.
We shared our thoughts on the book’s style, tone and sometimes complicated content, and discussed the similarities between Jay and Odysseus, who are equally multi-faceted and ‘complicated’ (to borrow Emily Wilson’s translation of ‘polytropos’, Homer’s opening description of his protagonist). Both men have anonymity in the narratives as well as nicknames derived from madness; they experience the trauma of war; undergo a process of self-realisation; challenge and learn from their sons (as their sons do from their fathers); travel to the underworld – both figuratively and literally as the Mendelsohns undertake a real life Odyssey across the Mediterranean – and experience ‘nostalgia’ first-hand. Yet, ironically, throughout the book Jay gets increasingly irked by Odysseus’ many failings, not least his mismanagement of his men and, in his eyes, his frequent fits of tears.
Mendelsohn’s academic points, refracted through the lens of his undergraduate students at (rather fittingly) Bard College in New York, are eloquently and powerfully expressed, and appeal to the seasoned scholar as well as a reader encountering the Odyssey for the first time. This is a compact yet expansive book that benefits from a close reading, firstly as it can take some time for the cast of characters to settle in the mind, and secondly because it encourages us to re-read and re-examine both ancient texts and our own lived experiences. Like the Odyssey, this felt like a book where everyone, from the reader to the author – Mendelsohn encounters new ideas from his students, his own reflections, and his father – gains knowledge, empathy and wisdom all at once. The structure, the repeating motifs, the heart and soul of the Odyssey are poured into this memoir and Mendelsohn may leave you thinking that perhaps life does resemble art after all.
Next, we turned to the Roman world with John Williams’ semi-epistolary novel Augustus. Unusual for its historical accuracy and methodology in a work of fiction by a non-classicist, this complex but colourful and captivating book has a huge scope and delivers on its promise to give a rich account of the life of Rome’s first emperor. With Augustus (who is referred to as Octavius throughout, perhaps somewhat belying the point of the title) himself largely absent from the text, not only is his character revealed largely through the eyes of others – an effective tool – but much is therefore revealed about the array of people who, either as companions, slaves, lovers, enemies, relatives, teachers, soldiers, politicians or poets, enter the imperial circle. With masterly changes of narrator and a neat linking of time and place, Williams encapsulates the rapid change and Romanisation of the Mediterranean world during the late first century BC and the accumulation of power that made so many people – their fates, fortunes and happiness – dependent upon a single individual. The machinations of key political players are grippingly though not sensationally captured and whilst this may be a work of historical fiction, it has great humanity. Its power lies in understatement rather than hyperbole.
Its linguistic register cleverly tailored to give letters and diary entries a realistic Roman feel (and indeed some, such as Cicero’s letters and Agrippa’s memoirs sent to Livy, are based on real texts), the politically salient aspects of Williams’ writing were widely enjoyed by the group, especially the final section where Augustus reflects on leadership. Williams’ handling of Julia’s story was particularly deft, his take on Ovid’s ‘error’ refreshingly decisive, his use of the different biographical accounts of Suetonius, Plutarch and of course Augustus’ own Res Gestae gave breadth and depth and added to his impressive mastery of combining fact with fiction whilst never losing authenticity. Indeed, the crossing of timelines means some stories overlap, giving us conflicting tales and opinions to reflect the different authorial voices of multiple narrators. There was some blurring in the voices of Horace, Propertius and Ovid but overall, we felt, Augustus was a great success and a highly enjoyable read.
In January we held our first author event: it was a pleasure to welcome Dr Emily Hauser, Professor at the University of Exeter and former Yale and Harvard scholar, whose Golden Apple trilogy gives voices to some of the many female characters in Greek mythology – from Helen to Briseis, Atalanta and Hippolyta – and highlights the divine agency of gods like Hermes and Apollo. We had enjoyed reading her debut novel For The Most Beautiful, which draws on a rich history of ancient literature and modern reception to retell the story of the Trojan War from a fresh perspective. Beginning with the war’s divine antecedents, Hauser captures ten years of war and condenses the events of the Iliad into a single narrative that interweaves the stories of Briseis and Chryseis whose roles and voices are brushed over by Homer’s omniscient narrator.
As Dr Hauser explained to us, she was influenced by the works of Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin, whose The Penelopiad and Lavinia respectively had also been the key sources of inspiration for her doctoral thesis Since Sappho: Women in Classical Literature and Contemporary Women’s Writing. When writing fiction herself, she wanted to engage as broad an audience as possible and draw young adult readers, in particular, into the world of Homer. Meticulously researched, both in historical detail and textual reception and re-interpretation, we commented on the book’s strong sense of space and the rich descriptions of domestic activities, personal objects and ordinary life that are often omitted or swiftly, if poignantly, described in simile form by Homer. The presentation of the gods, who speak in modern vernacular with all their fickle faults on constant display, divided opinion and, indeed, it transpired that their inclusion wasn’t originally planned – like Madeline Miller, Hauser had planned to keep them out of the text, but they protested their own absence! – so it was interesting to discuss the decisions authors face when transporting the divine sphere into modern writing. The presence of the gods, we agreed, did lend the narrative additional depth and colour and reinforced Homer’s sense of the intractability of fate and divine intention which was maintained despite some clever plot twists and toying with alternative outcomes.
For The Most Beautiful sometimes smoothes over the vivid horrors of war, in a departure from the gnomic and often bleak tragedy of the Iliad – perhaps to shield the novel’s target audience – but individual loss, suffering and (lack of) agency were clearly and hauntingly drawn. There was great flow to the story, which was punctuated by references to Bronze Age calendars and switches of place which reflected the reversal of the heroines’ fortunes. The two lead characters were given pivotal roles in Troy’s tale, as prophecies, fateful speeches and brave actions were interwoven with the wider mythological canon and with interpretations such as Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, which kept us gripped until the very end!
The LSA CA Book Club’s next meeting will be on Thursday 25th March at 7pm on Zoom when we will share our thoughts on Colm Tóibín’s House of Names. Everyone is welcome to join the session, including non-branch members, free of charge – please email Katrina at firstname.lastname@example.org to register for a place.