Magazine article The Spectator

A Tale of Two Timeless Epics

Magazine article The Spectator

A Tale of Two Timeless Epics

Article excerpt

HOMER'S THE ILIAN AND THE ODYSSEY: A BIOGRAPHY by Alberto Manguel Atlantic Books, £12.99, pp. 304 ISBN 9781843544029 £10.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

It is oddly moving, at a time when mention of the name 'Homer' invariably conjures up thoughts of donuts, to know that the author of the Odyssey remains the first classical author to whom most children are introduced. At my daughters' primary school, for instance, they are told the story of the Cyclops in Year One.

The thread of continuity that this represents reaches back ultimately all the way to archaic Greece. Homer's epics, wrote Alexander Pope, are 'like a copious nursery, which contains the seeds and first productions of every kind'. The metaphor is doubly effective: for Homer stands at the beginning both of the Western literary tradition and of many an individual's experience of it. No wonder, then, that what Alberto Manguel gives us in his biography of the Iliad and the Odyssey is nothing less than a history of literature itself.

An ambitious project -- but one for which the author is perfectly qualified.

This is recognisably the work of a compulsive translator and anthologiser: for like a literary bloodhound, Manguel has only to pick up the scent of a theme, and he is off pursuing it through a dizzying variety of languages and genres. Naturally, there are those that lead him along the grand thoroughfares of literary history: from Homer to Virgil, from Virgil to Dante, and so on. But there are also those that take him in less expected directions. In one particularly brilliant passage, an analysis of the language that Homer uses to describe the dead in the Odyssey ends up crowding the page with poets summoned from any number of different periods: Milton and Verlaine, Shelley and Hopkins. It is as though Manguel has cast his own book as the trench that Odysseus filled with blood, so that the departed might have their voices restored to them.

Manguel's justification for the occasional jettisoning of chronology, however, is reminiscent less of Homer than of a fellow Argentinian. 'Readings influence one another back and forth across time, ' he explains, 'and we mustn't accuse St Augustine of anachronism for studying Homer under Goethe's guidance, or Heraclitus for allowing himself to be prejudiced by the commentaries of George Steiner. …

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