Saturday, 3 October 2009

A classics issue of TLS

The Times Literary Supplement covers classics very well - unsurprisingly, with Peter Stothard as Editor and Mary Beard as Classics editor. Their reviews on all subjects tend to be the right length, finding a golden mean between the curt notices of Literary Review or the newspapers, and the endless narcissistic non-reviews of the ghastly London Review of Books.

Those classicists who are not subscribers may want to buy this week's issue. It contains reviews by Mary Beard on two books, one on the Verrines (Margaret Miles) and one on the Borghese collections (Carole Paul), which she links by an argument about cultural property; Christopher Kelly on collections edited by Walter Scheidel and by Fritz-Heiner Mutschler and Achim Mittage on comparisons between the ancient Roman and Chinese empires; Peter Stothard on Robert Harris' new Cicero novel, Lustrum (which I'd rush out and buy, were it not that I can't see time to read novels coming up in the next few weeks); Rowland Smith on a new edition of Seneca's De Clementia by Susannah Braund; Denis Feeney on Ruth Webb's Demons and Dancers: performance in late antiquity, as well as an edited volume on ancient pantomime; Malcolm Schofield on the final volume of Simon Hornblower's monumental commentary on Thucydides (the one review which should definitely have been given more space); and Gail Trimble on Katharina Volk's book on Manilius.

In the novels section is a much slighter review of mine on a piece of popular fiction set in the ancient world, the second volume of Glyn Iliffe's Adventures of Odysseus. Regrettably, an editorial intervention at a late stage, after I had already corrected it back, led to the review implying that the book includes the tale of the Trojan horse. It doesn't. So I offer here the full review before cuts:

Glyn Iliffe, The Gates of Troy
478pp. Macmillan. £12.99
978 0 230 52929 8

One consolation for Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004) was to be reminded through the film’s flaws of Homer’s brilliant selectiveness in narrative: the Iliad starts in medias res and ends with the sack of Troy still unachieved but inevitable (and thus evades the charming but silly story about the horse). The long list of those who have, with varying success, expanded and elaborated on Homer is now joined by Glyn Iliffe: his six-volume Adventures of Odysseus are projected to cover the hero’s whole career, though it appears that he may intend to focus on events not described in the Homeric poems. This, the second volume, opens ten years after the events of the first (King of Ithaca, 2008). Odysseus is established on Ithaca with Penelope and the newborn Telemachus, when the news comes of Helen’s elopement with Paris. The story is taken through a series of semi-familiar set pieces from the epic cycle – the feigned madness of Odysseus, Achilles among the women of Scyros, Iphigenia at Aulis, the marooning of Philoctetes – and climaxes with the Greeks landing at Troy.

Iliffe is a talented storyteller, but it is hard not to see him struggling somewhat with the episodic nature of the material, and also the fact that some of it is just as hard to take or describe seriously as the Trojan horse. Still, his plotting is very much helped by having the archetypal plotter as protagonist. Odysseus’ wiliness is sharpened by being observed through his guard-captain, Eperitus, a more stolid and traditional hero.

Eperitus does not know what to think when Odysseus tells him that ‘the age of heroes is gone… we’re entering a time of kings’. Eperitus’ uncertainty here can stand for what is distinctive and potentially problematic about this book. It straddles the genres of historical novel (a paradox in a period of which we know next to nothing), and fantasy (unlike Petersen, he keeps the gods in his story). Iliffe does not so much offer an imaginitive reconstruction of Greek life in the heroic age, in the manner of Mary Renault’s Theseus books, as a blend of elements taken from different periods of Greek history: Mycenaean, dark-age, and occasionally classical. Readers will have varying feelings about how successful this melange is – but they should consider that his practice is not so different from Homer’s.

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