Friday, April 20, 2012

Thoughts on The Lost Books of the Odyssey

I can't remember exactly when I first became aware of the Homeric epics known as The Iliad and The Odyssey, except that I had my first chance to study them in a special English class I took in high school my senior year.  I was a poor student but the best one in that class.

Raised Catholic, I developed a deep affection for Old World stories and the art of reinterpreting them, because in my early years I read and reread biblical tales fashioned for children, and became fascinated by their visions of a time long past.  Somehow I put that experience into other corners of history (none of my four siblings did, but then, none of them are writers today, either), and started my studies in Greek myth.  It's inescapable in doing so to stumble across the Trojan War and its complicated and thorny matters, names like Achilles and Odysseus, who together take center stage in the two basic works we still remember today about a conflict Heinrich Schliemann confirmed for posterity some hundred and fifty years ago.

So yes, I've read both The Iliad and The Odyssey in their entirety, translations by Robert Fitzgerald, and know fairly well their narratives.  I gave a clumsy report on the continuing debate on the existence of an actual Homer for a different high school English class (all the best work anyone can do academically is asked of them before they are properly prepared to do it, and then you have to deliver large sums of money to continue and then only if you're lucky or excellent in the art of education do you receive the guidance worthy of these funds).  I continued my amateur fascination with these tales after graduating from college, the main reason why I enjoyed the movie Troy and why I suspect most critics couldn't.  I have regularly sampled Eric Shanower's comprehensive graphic adaptation Age of Bronze, and continue to seek out all experiences that will allow me to continue this minor obsession.  I have been pecking away in spare time at Greg Tobin's Siege of Troy for the past few years.

That is how I have entered into a small marathon of modern works inspired by the Homeric epics, and why I cared when I stumbled upon Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey.  Simply put, I could not have been more rewarded.

Mason displays a keen understanding not only of his own literary prowess but the rich potential of historic inheritance and tradition.  With just a few chapters I knew I was reading what was to become one of my most treasured experiences.  Each chapter is a rumination and variation on the story of Odysseus, broken into fragments that reveal a vital individual, so that he is exhumed from the cloisters of musty pages and brought into our own times, a living and breathing individual who exists in the past but feels vibrant.

This is the difference between what literature can do and what film cannot, for anyone still trying to figure that out.  Many are the voices that have called film a poor substitute for the richness of literature, but few are the voices that have been able to articulate any real differences in the finished product.  Film is a visual medium, where narrative is a regular companion and must be followed fairly evenly in order for any meaning to be found.  Literature can break into whatever pattern it wants, can be enjoyed over a single reading or broken into as many moments as possible.  Mason understands this, and this is only his first book.

You don't need to have a Homeric bent to enjoy The Lost Books.  It probably helps, but all you really need is an interest in the human condition, and the way literature can offer an insight as you would never have expected.  Old stories used to be told and retold.  Somewhere along the way someone convinced us that to tell the same story again is to display a lack of creativity and inventiveness.  Here is an experience that will contradict this intellectual fallacy, in a most profound manner.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...