What if Penelope got to tell the story?
What if, instead of being centered on the travails and triumphs of the wily husband, Homer's "Odyssey" was built around the experiences of the faithful wife? What would happen if the blind Greek bard himself were ushered offstage and replaced by, say, the sharp-eyed Canadian poet and novelist Margaret Atwood?
Actually, we know the answer to this.
We'd get Atwood's new book, "The Penelopiad," part of an ambitious series of re-imagined myths being released simultaneously by more than 30 publishers around the world. (She'll read from it this afternoon at Politics & Prose in Northwest Washington.)
We'd get the harrowing tale of our heroine's childhood with her homicidal dad, which Atwood's Penelope tells in the first person. "You have to admit there was something humorous," she writes, "about a father who'd once tossed his own child into the sea capering down the road after that very child and calling, 'Stay with me!' "
We'd get a chapter called "Helen Ruins My Life," about the selfish twit who caused the Trojan War. And we'd get a new take on Odysseus's much-delayed return from that war, disguised as a dirty beggar, to confront a houseful of suitors paying rowdy court to his wife.
In Atwood's version, Penelope sees right through his disguise but doesn't let on. "It's always an imprudence," she explains, "to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness."
But we wouldn't just get Penelope's point of view.
We'd also hear from the 12 maids Odysseus summarily executes for the sin of sleeping with the suitors.
Atwood first took note of this casual brutality when her parents gave her "The Odyssey" for Christmas at the age of 15. "The maids being hanged bothered me," she says, reached by telephone before her Washington visit. "It seemed very excessive." She calls the hangings "honor killings," designed to show that Odysseus was back in charge, and her book gives the wronged women voice as a mournful, accusing chorus.
The myth series is the brainchild of publisher Jamie Byng of Canongate Books, who came up with it six years ago.
"In my naive state, I thought: Wouldn't a lot of writers be interested in this?" Byng says. But he wasn't so naive as to think that a small publisher based in Scotland could attract the likes of Atwood on its own. He figured he'd need to team up with other publishers around the world before approaching writers -- reversing the usual practice, in which foreign rights are sold after a book is acquired.
Atwood was one of the first he went after. He "leapt out from behind a gorse bush in Scotland and talked me into it," she writes in her acknowledgments -- though the bush isn't to be taken literally.
Byng had recruited eight or 10 other publishers by then (including Grove Atlantic in the United States, with which Canongate has formed a more extensive partnership). Thirty-two have now joined in -- from Latvia, Korea, Israel, Poland, China and Brazil, among many other countries.
The series kicked off with Atwood's book and two others: Karen Armstrong's introductory volume ("A Short History of Myth") and Jeannette Winterson's take on Atlas ("Weight"). The plan is to expand it gradually over many years. Among the writers who have signed on are A.S. Byatt, Donna Tartt and Chinua Achebe.
The small-format books are designed to be under 30,000 words. This modest scale is an advantage, Byng says: If the length were open-ended, writers might hesitate to commit.
Beethoven in Brief
Speaking of small-format books: Edmund Morris has finally written a biography that's (1) not about a Republican president and (2) less than 784 pages long.
Morris -- the author of "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan," "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" and "Theodore Rex" -- took a break from his Roosevelt opus, a third volume of which is still to come. The result was 243 small-format pages on Ludwig van Beethoven, whose music Morris has loved since boyhood.
"It's great fun writing short books," he says. "One gets the knowledge that one wants, and one is forced to be brief, which is a good literary exercise."
"Beethoven: The Universal Composer" presented a larger challenge as well.
"How do you communicate the essence of great music in words?" Morris asks rhetorically over coffee at a restaurant near Capitol Hill. (When the conversation ends, he'll head to the Library of Congress for more Roosevelt research.) He says he aimed his book at "intelligent, literate, culturally sensitive people" with no technical knowledge of music. Yet Beethoven is his music, of course, and it is impossible to understand his life without it.
As he prepared to write, Morris listened to almost all of the composer's work, encountering much that he had never heard before. An obscure early piece, the "Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II," particularly struck him.
He enthuses over a transition in the cantata that begins with a soloist singing "this gorgeous, glorious melody." Other voices join in, but so gradually and subtly that "you're never quite aware of where the joins are. . . . You can only see how subtle it was by looking at the score, seeing how he brings in voices on weak beats when there's an instrument covering it. It's all deliberate deception . . . and the guy was 19 years old!"
Beethoven's life was full of conflict, Morris says: "Between his gregariousness and his solitariness, his ill health and his muscular hyperactivity, between the desire to compose for the sheer joy of composing and the need to make money." His music was, too. But in the music, even the most intense conflicts are ultimately resolved -- and this, Morris believes, is a key to the composer's appeal.
"One gets the feeling at the end that great issues have been raised and debated and settled. And that resolution is hugely satisfying."
Writing Beethoven's life appears to have been hugely satisfying to Morris, so much so that he turned in twice as many words as he'd been asked for. He says that James Atlas -- general editor of the "Eminent Lives" series, of which the book is a part -- was forgiving.
"We don't like to count pages," says Atlas, laughing.
Atlas, who has written traditional-size biographies himself, has made the short book central to his editing career. In 1999 he created the "Penguin Lives" series. When it was discontinued, he started his own company and partnered with HarperCollins on "Eminent Lives." Atlas Books has also developed a short-form series matching well-known writers to scientific, business and historical subjects.
"My dream is to get these books into airports," he told Publishers Weekly before "Eminent Lives" was launched last year.
"They're in!" he says now with some glee. Last time he was at La Guardia Airport, he says he spotted Morris's "Beethoven" at the US Airways terminal, along with "Caravaggio," by Francine Prose.
But suppose you're looking for a smart, bite-size read and you're not into myths or biography?
Don't despair. The Penguin "Great Ideas" series might be just the thing for you.
Handsomely designed paperbacks, none exceeding 165 pages, these 12 little books make the political and philosophical writings of folks like Marcus Aurelius, Niccolo Machiavelli and Friedrich Nietzsche "much more accessible to readers," says Penguin Senior Editor Caroline White.
Want a female perspective? You'll have to wait for the next batch, due out in June, which will feature Mary Wollstonecraft's "A Vindication of the Rights of Women." Non-Western writers have taken a back seat, too.
Still, some of the current crop can seem extremely relevant.
Take "On the Pleasure of Hating," by William Hazlitt. "We've always had a hard time selling Hazlitt," White says, but the title of this one seems to have helped.
Or take the best-selling book in the series, George Orwell's "Why I Write." The phrase selected to adorn its all-type cover should prompt Washington booksellers to display it right by the register. It reads as follows:
"Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."