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The Lost Books of the Odyssey

by Zachary Mason
Starcherone Books, 2007

Whenever the great classicist Arthur Way was asked about the perils of the undertaking, he’d always answer with the glimmer of a smile in his eyes: “Well, that’s the trouble with ‘writing Homer’ … Homer did it first, you see.”

He was making a point regarding the toughest act in the world to follow, and he knew what he was talking about: in 1945 he took on the task of translating into English Quintus Smyrnaeus’ Posthomeric, a long and detailed epic telling of what happened between the death of Hector – with which the Iliad concludes – and the fall of Troy. Quintus Smyrnaeus’ book has been enjoyed by readers hungry for more Homer since it was written in the fourth century, but it’s a maddening book: the critical mind wants to believe it’s got some kind of sanction, that Quintus was working from material we no longer have. This material would be the so-called ‘Cyclic Poets’ who first chronicled this story in the wake of Homer: the Aethiopis and Iliupersis of Arctinus, the Little Iliad of Lesches, etc. But even to the untrained eye, Quintus seems to be making rather free with his sources … Arthur Way was not the first scholar to wonder if he wasn’t in main part just making stuff up.  

To a classicist, the thought is heresy, which is why classicists have always been the killjoys of the intellectual world. In truth, Quintus – whoever he was – probably couldn’t help himself. Homer is the beginning, the great inexhaustible font for so much of Western literature that he’s attracted hopeful collaborators since the moment his works saw the light of day. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides all try their hand at adapting his elemental drama for their own more specific ends, and when classical learning returns to the West ten centuries later, fiddling around with Homer returns just as promptly, with Chaucer leading the effort in his Troilus and Creseyde, a full-out masterpiece that wouldn’t be nearly so effective if it weren’t standing on Homer’s shoulders, plying us with invention after invention whose cleverness works so well precisely because it’s playing off a text we all know already.

After Chaucer, the list is practically endless. Shakespeare takes up the story of Troilus and Cressida himself; a thriving anonymous poetry-cycle centers on the love between Achilles and Patroclus; every great translator, similarly, makes subtle alterations, little changes to let the reader know that they were here, that they made the works their own even while they were striving to disappear into them.

The 20th century ran rampant with ‘writing Homer.’ The Internet age may well see the great and final flowering of the novel as it had been known to all ages before, and so it’s perhaps fitting that the age so consistently looked back to the beginning of all secular, popularist entertainment, to Homer and his endless, endlessly transmuting matter. A long roster of writers went hunting in Homer for the themes that spoke to each in turn, and the result are books that couldn’t be much more different from Homer in their aims and executions – but which couldn’t exist at all without him.

Christopher Morley’s Trojans and Greeks talk like early 20th century enlisted men; there’s an Edwardian aura surrounding their pranks and slang. The century’s greatest writer of historical fiction, Mary Renault, chose to avoid working in Homer’s shadow (although she does mine the same approximate time period, the 6th century B.C., in her two novels starring Theseus), but such reluctance is on display nowhere else: the film The Private Life of Helen of Troy was adapted from a book that had already been a best-seller, and the book and movie spawned innumerable imitators that came and went out of print in the middle of the century. Science fiction writer Marion Zimmer Bradley followed up her groundbreakingly feminist retelling of the Arthurian cycle, The Mists of Avalon, with her version of the Siege of Troy as told from poor prophetic Cassandra’s point of view in The Firebrand, which sold enormously and introduced a whole new generation to Homer’s characters.

The waning years of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st have seen a renaissance in this peculiar sub-genre, as more and more writers allowed themselves more and more liberties with the canon. Perhaps the most traditional of all these was Sarah Franklin’s Daughter of Troy, which imagined the story from the viewpoint of captured war-maiden Briseis and which positively bristles with wry humor and pointed insight. Elizabeth Cook’s slim novel Achilles burns away the fat of the story into raw bullet points of almost poetic precision, as in her version of the death of Hector:

Achilles takes his sword too. After the day’s slaughter the divine blade still flashes like the sun. There is all the time he could ever want. He looks Hector over, scanning the armour that fits him so well, searching for a place to insert his blade. Like a lover taking in every inch of his beloved as they lie in the hot sun. All the time he could want, no rush, no fear of missing.

There is one point where the armour does not close over Hector. The tender diamond hollow between the clavicles is naked. Achilles fits his sword’s tip here.

Slowly, evenly, the pressure mounting, he pushes.

In the world of music, Suzanne Vega, in her song Calypso, re-imagines Odysseus’ long stay with the eponymous nymph, who in Vega’s lyrics emerges as sympathetic – but still possessing the self-deluding stubbornness we find in Homer (where she’s summarily ordered by the gods to release her captive but still contrives to make it sound like her own decision):

My name is Calypso. I have let him go.
In the dawn he sails away, to be gone forevermore.
And the waves will take him in again, but he’ll know their ways now.
I will stand upon the shore with a clean heart and my song in the wind.
The sand may sting my feet, and the sky will burn.
It’s a lonely time ahead. I do not ask him to return.
I let him go. I let him go.

Barry Unsworth treats the material in his best book, The Songs of the Kings. Mark Merlis gives the whole story a gay-hustler makeover in The Arrow of Time. John Barton spawned an epic ten-hour stage version of the story in Tantalus. In black and white comics, Eric Shanower is bringing us the entire Homeric saga and every possible detour (and, in something of a narrative feat, entirely without the presence of the gods), in Age of Bronze. Perhaps most impressively, the last fifty years have seen the slow, incremental publication of Christopher Logue’s utterly unique – and utterly Homeric – War Music:  

Odysseus and Calypso, by Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901)

‘There’s Bubblegum!’ ‘He’s out to make his name!’
‘He’s charging us!’ ‘He’s prancing!’ ‘Get that leap!’
‘He’s in the air! ‘Bubblegum’s in the air!’ ‘Above the dust!’
‘He’s lying on the sunshine in the air!’ ‘Seeing the Wall!’ ‘The arrows to keep him up!’
‘Ole!’ ‘He’s wiggling in the air!’ ‘They’re having fun with him!’
‘He’s saying something!’ ‘Bubblegum’s last words!’
‘He’s down!’ ‘He’s in the dust!’ ‘Bubblegum’s in the dust!’
‘They’re stripping him!’ ‘They’re stripping Bubblegum!’
‘You can’t see anything!’
‘His mother sold her doves to buy his plate!’
‘You can’t see who to kill!’

So it’s to a deep and varied tradition that Zachary Mason now adds his own voice, in his new novel (or else a piece of one), The Lost Books of the Odyssey.

The aforementioned Arthur Way once remarked that the two qualities necessary for ‘writing Homer’ are ‘an ear for words’ and ‘a touch of lunacy.’ The reader will observe from the little biography of Mason provided in the book that he’s quite likely to have both:

Zachary Mason was educated at Trinity College, the University of Michigan, and the Sorbonne. He is currently the John Shade Professor of Archeocryptography and Paleomathematics at Magdalen College, Oxford. He divides his time between Oxford and the Greek island of Ogygia. He lives with his cats, Talleyrand and Penthesilia.

Even the least wary reader will get the sense that our author has a, shall we say, playful relationship with what is commonly known as the truth, but a moment’s reflection shows this to be a perfect stance; Odysseus, in his many voyages home, is forever refashioning himself, as is the truth he claims to embody.

Mason’s book is one of unabashed lyricism, a manuscript broken up into 46 chapters and no straightforward narrative line. These are glimpses, varying in length but none very long, turning on various points of the Homeric myth-cycle (despite the title, the fragments cover a good deal more matter than just Homer’s Odyssey), generally combining to yield a picture of Odysseus and the various stages of his life. Mason’s command of English prose is soaringly intelligent, and his ability to evoke the strange and the wondrous is as hard and swift as a poet’s:

In lassitude after love Odysseus asks Circe, “What is the way to the land of the dead?”

Circe answers, “You are muffled in folds of heavy fabric. You close your eyes against the rough cloth and though you struggle to free yourself you can barely move. With much thrashing and writhing, you manage to throw off a layer, but find that not only is there another beyond it, but that the weight bearing you down has scarcely decreased. With dauntless spirit you continue to struggle. By infinitesimal degrees, the load becomes lighter and your confinement less. At last you push away a piece of coarse, heavy cloth and, relieved, feel that it was the last one. As it falls away, you realize you have been fighting through years. You open your eyes.”

This is the most beguiling strand of a generally beguiling book, this way Mason has of gorgeously dramatizing how alien the world-views are of the various supernatural beings who populate his story. Since this is the story of Odysseus, the book will necessarily have much of Athena in it, and Mason imparts to her a strangeness and a yearning all her own:

Water-logged, frozen, exhausted. Odysseus clung to a floating spar, dark waves surging over him. He could not help but think that this was happening to someone else, that someone, a stranger, was being consumed by the sea, was near drowning. His teeth had long since stopped chattering when a were-light appeared on the waters and his mind went from pain to dullness to clarity – Pallas Athena was with him. He said, Goddess, who are you, to find me and bear me up when I am lost in the waste? In the sudden stillness she said:

Water flowing through pipes, pouring into unlit reservoirs there to eddy in silence. Runes of ephemeral fire. A book of many pages written in inks that vanish and reappear. A twilight forest haunted by beasts, watchful and inquisitive. Steadfast of heroes. An onion, an ocean, a palimpsest, a staccato machine of oiled iron gears. These are among the metaphors with which I describe myself, like a hand trying to grasp itself by reaching into a mirror.

And not just Athena’s voice, but her relationship with Odysseus: Mason creates a kind of bond between the two, lopsided, awkward, and unprecedented in the dealings of gods and men. This can be tricky stuff to write – more than one adaptor of Homer has lingered over this particular relationship, to get it exactly right, as Mason obviously has:

She carried me through the war. Nestor said he had never seen a god so openly love a mortal and I suppose it is true. So much so, in fact, that my friendships with other men were strained – more than once I overheard someone call me uncanny and some of the Achaeans made the sign against the evil eye when I passed. But I did not care – their fear added to my mystique and made them pliable, easy to manipulate, and anyway I had her.

Like so many Homeric interpreters before him in the last century, Mason decides to inject his proceedings with many anachronistic modern notes and tones. Characters think and act with almost exclusively modern sensibilities – they speak of psychoanalysis, of China and India, of young girls’ ‘coming out’ in society, and the like. This adds a good deal of fun to The Lost Books of the Odyssey, as well as some nifty juxtapositions with freighted mythic iconography. In one fragment, Odysseus steals up on three mysterious women conversing in the dark. The reader will think of the Weird Sisters from Macbeth, perhaps – and will be drawn up short, delightedly so, by the entirely modern diction:

“Ten years is ten years, no matter how you cut it,” said one, brandishing a cooking knife. “You can interpret all you want but the facts are inescapable.”

“Mere simple-minded literalism,” said another, using a ladle to stir a tarnished copper pot on a tripod all but swallowed by the flames. “If it said he was to be brave like an eagle, would you have him plucking mice out of fields and climbing a tall tree to sit on a nest of sticks and guard an egg? It is understood to be a guideline, an indication to be fleshed out as required by the details of the situation, and not an exact recipe…”

“It is exactly a recipe, only far more binding,” said the first in a voice like a fast, cold wind.

“…unless you’re a blockhead,” finished the second.

“Blockhead yourself, Miss I-shall-do-as-I-please-for-it-is-only-a-guideline,” said the first. “I beg your pardon most humbly, great Madame. I never meant to imply that one as august as yourself should be obliged to be bound by the iron chains of necessity.”

“Tut. There is some room to move within those chains, and I say he has suffered enough,” replied the second.

“He has not begun to suffer,” said the third, whom Odysseus now saw was the fairest and most terrible. “If he got home now he would be unmarked. His suffering, as you are pleased to call it, would be the stuff of tales to enliven the winter of his old age, stories for his grandchildren. Fie on you. We will draw him thin and fine.”

The book is full of such marvelous stuff, and weighed against it in the balance is one thing, but it’s a big thing: conceit. Not the ‘is my hair just perfect-does my butt look big in this?’ kind of conceit, but rather the hoary old gremlin so well known to undergraduate English majors: the organizing trick, the gimmick by which the author feels compelled to tell his story. Countless promising novels have been fatally marred by their author’s weakness for conceit, and The Lost Books of the Odyssey very nearly shares their fate. Conceits are just that deadly.

Mason’s conceit in The Lost Books of the Odyssey is both unoriginal and incredibly distracting, a potentially lethal combination. The unoriginal part can be guessed from that author bio: he poses his book as the genuine article, an actual fragment of the lost post-homerica that perhaps lay open on Quintus of Smyrnaea’s desk while he was working seventeen centuries ago. These Lost Books disgorge their mysteries only when plied with cutting-edge cryptographic algorithms, but aside from the mathematical mumbo-jumbo, the device isn’t at all different from the one countless Sherlock Holmes pastiche-writers have been using for a century: this is Doctor Watson’s battered tin dispatch box, only with algebra.

Which would be bad enough and could be safely confined to the introduction and the historical appendix, if it weren’t for the second part, the distracting part, because, alas, Mason keeps picking at his conceit, ill-advisedly proud of the gimmick he’s created. The whole ‘I’m-just-transmitting-what-the-cryptology-tells-me’ gambit is a blank check for him to indulge in any little fixation he wants, such as the disastrously out of place chapter on modern-day chess, which necessitates this excruciating footnote:

This chapter is clearly a late addition to The Lost Books. The language is credible Homeric Greek, but the contents are, at the earliest, late Renaissance and the tone is more scholarly than narrative. The text of this chapter is the most corrupt of any in The Lost Books. There are long sequences of uninterpretible triplets that are, most probably, due to errors in encoding. I have therefore been obliged to use greater license in this chapter’s translation.

And lest the reader think this amount of hyperventilating (instead of merely excising the goddamn chess-digression, for Pete’s sake) is as bad as these distractions get, sample this little elucidation:

Mathematically, the structure of this chapter is this: the nth section encapsulates the telling of the n+1th section, is encapsulated by the n-1th, is a continuation of the n+2th, where all section numbers are computed modulo the total number of sections. Since the number of sections is odd, each section ends up containing, contained by, continuing, and continued by every other section.

Got that? Everybody still enjoying themselves?

That such gallimaufry might be intended by its author as tongue-in-cheek cannot possibly matter: the act of so regularly drawing attention to the scaffolding of the story only weakens the spell of the thing overall. Not simply dumping this burden of exegesis is the telltale mistake of a first-time novelist (or, ever so much worse, it’s a conscious gesture toward some species of dippy poststructuralism). Talleyrand and Penthisilia might have known better.

Still, amazingly, it does not scupper the book, and for that miraculous fact Mason has only his own linguistic virtuosity to thank. His writing is so spellbinding, so fluid and suggestive, that any irritation the reader may have felt at his gimmickry is washed away time and again by the sheer symphony of his invention. When it’s not tediously explaining itself, this is very much a book to get lost in – much as Odysseus is lost, going from one possible mythic future to another as the story-fragments spin forward:

Perhaps he went through each scene of his life and held it fixed in his mind’s eye until it disappeared. Eventually even his most vivid memories (the first time he touched Penelope’s skin, falling overboard and gasping just as a wave broke over his face) would fade to burnt-out after-image. Then, perhaps, he contaminated and diluted the remaining fragments of memory, rearranging them in every possible permutation: Penelope as a vapid giggler with apple green eyes, Penelope as a heavy immovable woman whose chief pleasure is resentment, Penelope as a young wanton who in middle age cherishes respectability above all things. Eventually, memory is subsumed in white noise.

Even this, though, would be not quite enough. There must have been some final discipline that destroyed the last vestiges of self, but, whatever it was, it was so thorough that I lack the capacity even to imagine it.

With relief, I open the stove and feed the book to the flames. It is the last link to who I was, and there is just enough of me left to realize it. The book writhes, blackens and disappears. Now every debt is paid, every sin is erased and I can begin anew, I who was once Odysseus and now am no one.

Passages like that fill this gem of a book and recommend it easily over the cacophony of the calculus involved.

Steve Donoghue was a child actor for MGM Studios in the 1930s and had small roles in dozens of motion pictures, including Queen Christina, Chained, and The Barretts of Wimpole Street. He retired when films began to be produced in Technicolor (the change did not flatter him), and is now composing a scandalous tell-all memoir and hosting the literary blog Stevereads.