The (Re)Birth of the Classics

Sunday, September 2, 2007

REDISCOVERING HOMER Inside the Origins of the EpicBy Andrew Dalby Norton. 266 pp. $15.95

"By common consent," writes Andrew Dalby, the Iliad and the Odyssey"are still among the greatest stories ever written." But all we know of the person, or persons, who composed these epics is a name and centuries of historical inference. Scholars do know enough, according to Dalby, to determine "that the legendary poet Homer, forefather of the Greek oral tradition, must not be confused with the real poet who created the written Iliad and Odyssey." For the tales were told for perhaps hundreds of years by many poets before one person decided to write them down. "Why did someone decide, on these two occasions, not to create a poem orally and earn food and applause for it but to write it?" wonders Dalby. "Why are these two poems so much longer than anything a poet would create for an audience? Who was the patron who fed the poet while this work was going on? Who supplied the ink and the many goatskins that had to be covered with writing?" Dalby explores all aspects of this great act of creation, including the historical accuracy of the epics and his belief that "it is possible, even probable, that this poet was a woman."

AN ILIADBy Alessandro Baricco Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein Vintage. 158 pp. $12.95

Homer's work, whoever he or she was, has informed Western storytelling from Virgil's Aeneid to Brad Pitt's "Troy" (2004). Now Italian novelist Alessandro Baricco has assayed a modern retelling of the Iliad. Baricco has not dressed Achilles up in blue jeans. Instead, he has, as he writes, "carried out a series of interventions" with the original text. First, he took out all the gods because the Iliad "has a strong structure of human agency that emerges as soon as the gods are sidelined." Then he removed the "external, unitary, Homeric narrator" and let the characters -- Odysseus, Helen, Patroclus and so on -- tell the story themselves. And last, he added things (most notably the Trojan Horse, which actually appears in the Odyssey). Baricco planned to read the entire epic in a public performance and, he explains, "it seemed to me treacherous not to tell how the war finally ended."

SAILING FROM BYZANTIUM How a Lost Empire Shaped the WorldBy Colin Wells Delta. 335 pp. $14

We can read the Iliad and the Odyssey now because "Byzantine scholars painstakingly preserved the ancient Greek classics," explains Colin Wells in his study of the empire that he calls "the medieval heir of ancient Greece and Rome." And those scholars were the ones to bring these works to the attention of Italian scholars. "Were it not for this small but dynamic group of Byzantine humanist teachers, ancient Greek literature might have been lost forever when the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453," Wells argues. He credits Byzantium with shaping the Western, Islamic and Slavic worlds -- the West through Greek literature, the Islamic world through the introduction of Greek science and the Slavic lands through the introduction of Christianity. Where once the story of this empire was "a long, unedifying tale of imperial decay," writes Wells, "more recent historical research has revealed a story of lasting achievement."

From Our Previous Reviews

? "With passion and no little grit," wrote Elie Wiesel of Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million (Harper Perennial, $15.95), "he weaves in snippets of language, fragments of incident, fleeting names -- and succeeds in assembling an immensely human tableau in which each witness has a face and each face a story and destiny."

? Lee Smith, author of On Agate Hill (Algonquin, $13.95), a novel about a girl orphaned by the Civil War, "is a subtly intrepid and challenging storyteller [and] never allows her narrative to slip into kitsch, stereotype or melodrama," discovered Donna Rifkind.

? "Now there can be no doubt about it," wrote Jonathan Yardley of All Aunt Hagar's Children (Amistad, $14.95), a collection of stories set in Washington, D.C., "Edward P. Jones belongs in the first rank of American letters."

Rachel Hartigan Shea is a senior editor of Book World.

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