Nicolson’s Why Homer Matters


Why Homer Matters: A History
Adam Nicolson

This one hit all my sweet spots. A book about Homer that is part travelogue / memoir, part meditation on deep engagement with a text, and part ancient history primer. A must read for the ancient history enthusiast.

Nicolson’s easy erudition and his deep emotional connection to the works of the great bard lead to a book that is really very special.  Much of the historical and linguistic knowledge here is well known, but Nicolson’s application of it, to his travels, and to his life, resonated with me and helped deepen my own understanding of why Homer remains so important. Nicolson travels to the main sights of the texts, and engages with them as he sorts through his own complex and fraught life. Through these experiences, he brings us a little closer, I think, to answering why these stories of marauding and duplicitous Greeks, plagued by desires and loves which lead some to ruin, and some home again, still resonate.

 

If you haven’t read Homer, I suggest you do (probably the Fagel’s translation), and I suggest you pair it with this book.

 

Recommended.

 

*But if you haven’t this is as good a place as any to start.

Review: Weil and Bespaloff’s War and the Illiad

I’m going to start by giving you a little hint: if you’re wandering through a used bookstore and you see a book published by the New York Review of Books, buy it. Don’t worry if it isn’t something you’ve heard of, or is about a subject matter you’re not particularly interested in. It doesn’t matter literally everything I have read from this publisher, everything from horror to experimental fiction has been absolutely top notch.

No surprise then that this book is remarkable. It collect two essays ostensibly on the Illiad by Simone Weil the other by Rachel Bespaloff, two Jewish women, caught in the snare of Nazi era Europe. These are essays about the Illiad, for sure, by writers who have read the text closely, but they are much more than that. They are meditations on the attraction and repulsiveness of war and the nature of narrative.

I’m in the midst of a long term engagement with Homer, and I found these essays illuminating not only for the insights they give to the poem itself, but also in how they show how Homer speaks to us across the ages, giving context and (perhaps) solace to two women fleeing the Nazis, or a father in Brooklyn terrified of what the next four years will bring.

Recommended.

 

Literature Reveals the World: Some Quick Thoughts on Finley’s The World of Odysseus

The World of Odysseus

M.I. Finley

A stunning work of social history which uses what we know about the historical time period which produced the Iliad and the Odyssey to help understand these two classics. We need to remember that even to homer, the events of the Iliad and Odyssey were ancient history. His codification of these myths tells us then about his time times, as well as about how his peers viewed their ancestors.

Like all literature, the Homeric myths are not just stories to pass the time, they are the means by which a culture explains itself: its morals, its family structure, its economy. Read closely, and literature reveals the world.

Finley uses archeology and anthropology, philology and the history of ideas to inform his thoughts on the world of Odysseus, but in the end, this is a book of hyper close reading. Nothing gets past his eye, not a variant in god description, nor telling bit of dialogue. All if informs is understanding of who the ancient Greeks were, why they wrote these stories, and what they’re trying to tell us. If only I were half the reader Finley was, these books reviews would be much more worth illuminating.

Very, very glad I read this right after finishing a re-read of the two classics. Finely gave nuance and new meaning to what I just read, making me think more than once, “why didn’t I see that?”
Recommended.

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A Magical Adventure for Some; a Tale of Return and Venegence for Others: Homer’s The Odyssey

The Odyssey

Homer (trans. Robert Fagles)

The story of the heroes return from the war.  The story of a son in search of his father. The story of a woman using her guile to ward off her suitors and wait for the return of her love. The story of a man through intelligence and strength, defeating his enemies and returning his family to calm.

These plot lines are the true heart of the Odyssey, and to this old man, what gives the poem its power. Odysseus is both honorable and unethical, hell bent on returning home, willing to do whatever it takes to get there. Telemachus is young, impressionable, desperate to make a name of himself. Penelope is incredible, perhaps the only person in the poem about whom one cannot say a bad word. When they finally reunite, vengeance is brought down on those who tried to destroy their family. It isn’t complicated stuff. It is elemental. It still moves.

Of course there is also the cyclops, the sirens, and Gods intervening left and right. A young me was drawn in by these magical elements, but today it’s the through line of the man trying to return to his family, and his family trying to cope with his absence that resonates with me.
Perhaps this is why we’re still reading Homer, still translating him for new audiences, each book contains multiple readings (a magical tale of adventure for some, a dark homecoming tale of revenge for others) looking forward to what will come to the fore when I read it again someday.

Recommended.

Odysseus taking it to the suitors

Quick note: As with my most recent reading of the Iliad, I read this in the Fagel’s translation. I found the language direct, and powerful and would recommend this one over the Lattimore I previously read.

A Foundational Text of our Fucked Up World — My Quick Thoughts on Homer’s the Iliad

The Iliad

Homer (trans. Fagles)

It’s hard to believe that the first time I read the Iliad, I didn’t enjoy. I was in my youth more of an Odyssey guy. That seems insane now. Sure, the first time was in undergrad reading under deadline. It was also the Lattimore edition, well loved by many, but in my opinion greatly inferior to this Fagles edition. And I was younger, and perhaps, in my abhorrence of war, failed to appreciate how straight up gorgeous this poem can be.

Whatever the reasons, at the time I thought of the Iliad as a long poem of fighting without much of interest. I was wrong. It incredible and I’d argue today, greater than its companion, the Odyssey.

As with all classics, it seems silly to write a short review on a vanity website about why it is so important, but I’ll forge ahead all the same.

In this translation, the Iliad is a poem of war, no doubt, but its depiction of it is complex. War is celebrated for the honor it can bring its combatants, for how it strips the world down the essentials of life and death, and for how it decides the history of our families, and our communities. It is without doubt, glorified here.

But its horrors are not overlooked. Hector knows his son will soon by fatherless; Hecuba knows her son is to die. Homer, through Fagles, doesn’t shy aware from the physical horror of war either. Throats are torn out, bodies are ripped to pieces, and brave men die horribly. Perhaps one could read this as audience pleasing gore, but I didn’t. To my reading, it’s the opposite, it reminds you that while these men and women believed war brought honor, it was also a bloody, awful, business.

In addition to the battle scenes, there are moments of quiet humanity. Priam begging for Hector’s body, Achilles’ mourning Patroclus (even if like me you’re sick of that overgrown man child). heroes are complex, not likeable, and human.

There is much that is repugnant about the book of course, slaves are traded for honors, women are clearly second class, and average people die so their lords may have glory. All that is reprehensible, but to my mind, grappling with it is part of what makes this book what it is — a foundational text of our fucked up world.

One more quick note on this edition: Fagles is a master. The language is immediate, accessible and gorgeous.  The introduction is informative for a novice like me. If you’re going to read this (and you should), read this translation.

Recommended.

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Book Review: Cline’s The Trojan War: A Very Short Introduction

The Trojan War: A Very Short Introduction

Eric H. Cline

The title says it all. This introduction is focused on the history of the war itself, and the changing nature of our knowledge of it, and doesn’t spend much time on the literary aspects of the works (Iliad, et al) which have arisen around the conflict. What we really know about the war is scarce and contradictory. We’re not even sure there was a single war. We are sure, today, that Troy existed, and we are sure wars were fought around it, but beyond that, its mere conjecture.

Incredibly, even that level of understanding of the war is of a very recent vintage. Before Schliemann’s discovery in the 1860s, most viewed the stories of the war, and of ancient troy, as legend. Turns out, as with most things about the classics, the story of Troy is much more complicated.

This book gives us a nice, brief overview of those complications looking at the archeological record of troy and ancient Greece in general as well as the stories and histories of the Greeks (i.e. the Iliad and other Homeric epics) as well as the stories and myths of the Hittite and other cultures.

 

A great starting point for someone (like me) looking to get into the Trojan War and the Iliad. Worth it for the bibliography alone.

 

Recommended for the enthusiast.

the walls of ancient troy

The walls of troy