Thursday, March 11, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul - The Odyssey Part 4

The man of twists and turns deals mainly with beggars and servants this week, sometimes lying to them (although he also feeds Eumaeus well), sometimes helping them, sometimes beating the tar out of them, sometimes, in sort of proto-slapstick, escalating an insult fight and ducking a chair that is thrown at him so that it hits a servant instead. Although as class conscious as I try to be, I didn't think it was very funny if that was the author's intent. The poor wine steward was just doing his job and there's no compensation for injured workers. There's probably not even time off.

But mainly Odysseus spends this week talking to beggars and servants for a very very long time. This is, as Sedge foresaw, kind of a dry spell in the text in my humble opinion (and, not to pat myself on the back, but I think it was wise to take the back 1/3rd of the book in two big gulps.)

We've passed through most of the magical bit into the domestic part of the story. Although the gods are still hanging around, particularly Athena who is still watching over Telemachus. Also there are weird omens like the passage with the eagle carrying the goose and the following Book's hawk with a dove parallel passage, means Odysseus is going to return and clean out the suitors. Laurie and I just tried to talk Gina out of reading omens a few hours ago. I don't think it's a helpful practice or an accurate way to view reality, but I'm willing to suspend my objections for the sake of the story. Because we can be fairly certain that the omen will prove true in this case as they do only in works of fiction.

So, the lesson of this week's reading would be something along the lines of "Don't let your kids grow up to be servants anywhere near Odysseus" but he lies about his identity so often that it's kind of hard to even draw that lesson.

I will say again this week though, I love love love the Robert Fagles translation and if I had it to do over I would have insisted on everyone getting that version. I am a Fagles convert.

It might be a little unfair to characterize this week's reading as one of those passages where nothing happens. Certainly a lot happens. In fact, I'm finding myself shifting yet again on what this epic poem is all about. I came into it expecting an epic poem, found it highly comedic and more than a little romantic as well as, as I mentioned last week, sort of a "whopper story" which I still think comprises the first half of the text. But I think the overarching theme is completely different than anything I'd ever imagined or hear about The Odyssey before. I submit to you my hypothesis that the book is actually a coming of age, rite of passage, bildungsroman of Telemachus. In fact, I caught myself remembering Johnny Cash's A Boy Named Sue and thinking "wouldn't it be awesome if this poem was really a labor of love from some ancient father who went away to war as a fantastical explanation to his son as to why their life went the way it went?" You know, something like "Dad, I'm almost grown, about to start growing facial hair! Where were you all of my childhood? Where were you when all of those men were courting Mom and eating all of our food?" And Odysseus busts out this epic poem.
Which is probably a fine indicator of an overactive imagination, but I say all of this to point out the sophistication of the piece. There are so many possibilities to The Odyssey and truly it could be any or all of these things and more. We like to think ourselves so advanced and sophisticated, but I don't know of many contemporary works that are this leveled.

Odysseus and Telemachus are reunited and I would argue that this is the point where we enter the third act of the story.

In spite of the slower bits, I've enjoyed this book tremendously. I hope you have as well. If you thought this week was a little slow at parts, just be glad it wasn't Beowulf. So, next week we'll finish The Odyssey.


  1. This section was not as dry as I thought, but when you really look at it, nothing really happens. There's a lot of posturing and puffing out of chests, but very little actually moves along. Here's the short list of what did actually change. 1.) Telemachus meets Ulysses. Everything else was pretty much as it was before. Ulysses is a pompous ass, and a decent liar. The suitors are bastards. Telemachus is a bit wimpy, and won't stand up to anything. The wife is part tease, part whiner. I think nothing would have been lost from this book if this entire section was edited down to a paragraph or two. Since nothing happened, I don't feel compelled to write much. So there you have it - on to the conclusion. I expect great things, after having to sit through this last section.

  2. I see we're taking different sides on this - you wrote your comment first, but I wrote my comments separately, and didn't read yours while writing mine. So this is where I continue to assert that nothing really happened in this section. After you state that "a lot happens", you point out only one thing that happened - which I concede gladly. Everything else is texture, and while I don't mind some texture, this was a bit much for me.

    Now, I don't dislike this book. I dislike the apparent hero, have little sympathy for the coming-of-age anti-hero, and find very few characters actually to my liking. I like the swineherd, he seems like a decent sort. I can dig Minerva. Still, the story is just that - a story. It's not the characters that drive this book, it's the action - so naturally, when the action dies down and all you have is some beggar brawling, I get a little worried about what the editor was thinking. Kind of like the love interest sub-plot in Transformers. At least I think it was Transformers. It was the one with that apparently pretty girl that can't really act. Unfortunately, I couldn't identify her from most of the other young actresses and models of today.

    This section was like that - a sub-plot in a movie that you didn't feel the need to watch, played out by actors you don't really care for, or about. I'll be content to hold on to my saturday cartoon memories of the Transformers, and my Zena Warrior action memories of Ulysses - I think there was a knock-off show of Zena that used parts of the Odyssey for plot points. I may have watched it - but I could be getting confused. I think there was a hydra.

    Enough Fuzzy Memories.

  3. No, I think we're way less at odds in our reactions. Actually I think you're right and probably more on the money in your terms than I was with mine. The things I site as "happening" in this section really are little more than hobo fights, plus the one plot point of Odysseus and Telemachus reuniting. Agreed that the book would not have suffered much in my eyes if some editor somewhere had sliced into this section heavily.
    I liked the swineherd too. But I think I also agree that I'm not crazy about almost all of the main characters.
    Although the action really is what makes it awesome. I miss it already.

  4. Sedge, I also think you're the only one in the reading group reading the actual translation used in the Penguin edition. How is it?

  5. I must admit, while I own the Penguin Edition translation, I haven't read a page of it. I'm entirely hooked on the Librivox. That way I can continue reading my Tom Robbins novel at night. I doubt Librivox could ever capture Tom Robbins adequately, as he is a bit of a wordsmith.