Fitzgerald’s Odyssey and Art History

After failing to find a copy of the Aeneid, I turned my attention towards The Odyssey instead. I haven’t yet had time to visit a decent bookstore though, so I had to reserve a library copy. I say ‘decent bookstore’, because the only bookstores nearby are small chainstores that sell the likes of Jodi Picoult and Bryce Courtenay, and maybe the occasional Rushdie or McEwan. Not that I have anything against those writers; it’s just that most stores don’t seem to include Homer and Virgil on their list of bestsellers.

Turns out libraries don’t either – my branch of the library didn’t have the Odyssey, so they had to bring one in from another branch. After waiting a week, I was finally able to borrow a copy of Fitzgerald’s Odyssey on my way home. So yes, it’s Fitzgerald for now. I plan on reading the Fagles and Chapman translations as well, but I want to purchase my own copy of the Fagles, and I plan on leaving Chapman til last – I already own a copy, but I find the language so dense that I feel I need a solid understanding of the text before I can attempt it.

Initial impressions? Well, from the few pages that I’ve read, I’m both relieved and disenchanted. Relieved because the language is modern, highly readable and in verse. Disenchanted because it isn’t as lyrical or ‘pretty’ as I thought it would be. I suppose that’s asking for too much though. To expect ‘prettiness’ from the Odyssey is insulting to its nature; it is first and foremost an epic tale of – among many other things – redemption, revenge and temptation.

I’m probably spurting out gross generalisations and ignorance of poetry (daffodil poems? I cringe at myself), but the jist of it’s there. What I’m trying to say is that I really shouldn’t expect the Odyssey to be “pretty”. To be fair, the language, as C S Lewis once wrote, has “a strong, salty flavour of its own”. It does have rhythm, and it does flow. Which is essential, because unlike the Romanticists and their daffodil poems, the Odyssey was written in verse with the purpose of being recited. Yet the praise I’d heard concerning Fitzgerald’s translations led me to believe that they would be more intensely poetic than those of Lombardo or Fagles. It’s still early days, though. I have a few hundred pages left to read.

Edit: In hindsight, I don’t really make sense here. What I’m attempting to say is that while the Odyssey is many things – profound, powerful, eloquent, immensely beautiful – it isn’t necessarily “pretty”.

Other books that I borrowed from the library include:

  • Ladies in Waiting: From the Tudors to the Present Day, Anne Somerset
  • The Enchantress of Florence, Salman Rushdie
  • Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell
  • The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
  • Kim, Rudyard Kipling

The last two can’t be read until 2009, as I’ve put them down for various challenges, but the others I’ll be reading as soon as I’ve finished Little Dorrit and The Odyssey. First thing next year is Anna Karenina, though. I’ve waited long enough to read it :)

Oh! And I joined another challenge today – Sarah G’s Art History Reading Challenge. Here are the six books I’ll be reading:

  1. The Matisse Stories, A S Byatt
  2. Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood
  3. The Lady and the Unicorn, Tracy Chevalier
  4. Life Studies: Stories, Susan Vreeland
  5. My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk
  6. The Painted Kiss: A Novel, Elizabeth Hickey

9 thoughts on “Fitzgerald’s Odyssey and Art History

  1. I just bought a beautiful paperbook edition of Cranford at our used book store at the library for $1.50! I was so excited. I’ve only seen the movie of Wives and Daughters, but would like to read the book someday. Rushdie is one that I’ve never read before. I’m going to start with Midnight’s Children.
    Good luck with the Odyssey. I’ve read it and liked it but didn’t love it. I did really like a children’s retelling of it by Mary Pope Osbourne. My kids liked it too. We call my daughter “grey-eyed Athena” now because of it.

  2. Rebecca – Hm, maybe I didn’t make myself very clear. I do agree that the Odyssey is poetic, but it isn’t necessarily pretty. Maybe it’s because I’m still stuck into the orientation – the background information, and the introduction of the characters etc., – but it’s all been a bit “he did that, and then he did this, and finally he did this” …

    Chain ReaderThe Enchantress of Florence is also going to be my first Rushdie, so I’m a bit apprehensive – maybe I should also start with Midnight’s Children? So far, I am also merely liking the Odyssey, but I should probably reserve any sort of judgement until I’ve read the last page.

    Oh, and I’m a paperback girl myself, but my library’s copy of Cranford is a really beautiful midnight blue hardcover with silver filigree-esque engravings, and it almost converted me to hardbacks. But I suppose these days hardbacks are just paperback covers in thicker cardboard. They don’t make em like they used to :)

  3. I read Enchantress of Florence earlier this year and liked it much better than Midinight’s Children. (Shalimar the Clown was my first Rushdie and remains my favorite.)

    I’ve just started The Sun Also Rises and am having trouble getting into it, but I think that’s my scattered mood, so I’m not blaming the book. Kim is very near the top of my TBR pile, so we may end up reading it simultaneously!

  4. Teresa, I just browsed your blog and we seem to have similar tastes – Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, Breakfast at Tiffany’s – so I’ll go ahead and read Enchantress of Florence. It’s just that Midnight’s Children is the Booker of Bookers, and I’ve heard so many disappointing things about this year’s longlist (most of which I found out to be correct)…

    The only other Hemmingway I’ve ever attempted is A Farewell to Arms and similarly, I had trouble getting into it because my mind was extremely scattered at the time. I ended up returning it to the library without having finished it!

    As for Kim, I can’t really start reading it until 2009, since I put it down for the A to Z challenge, but then again it is almost the end of the year!

  5. I can’t believe your library didn’t have the Odyssey! My library didn’t have Lolita, which totally blew my mind. I’m interested to see what you think of Elizabeth Gaskell. I’ve been more interested in 19th century women writers lately, and she’s on my list.

  6. Sarah – I should work on my coherency! Or at least, I shouldn’t write blog posts late at night when I’m half asleep. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds; they did have a copy of the Odyssey, but it was a translation I already owned. One published in the 1600s. Without footnotes. I don’t think I’m brave enough to try it just yet :)

    I’ve also been looking out for more 19th century women writers – next year I’ll definitely be reading more Eliot and Gaskell. I ropened “Wives and Daughters” to a random page and read a paragraph, and she’s definitely got me interested.

  7. A few years ago when I decided to reread Shakespeare I decided to tackle both The Iliad and The Odyssey because of all the references to both in Shakespeare’s plays. I read The Iliad, and it was close to torture, but I slogged on. Last year, I had the bright idea to listen to The Odyssey instead of reading it. I loved it, which makes sense as both were oral epics. So I checked out The Iliad audio version and enjoyed it so much more than when I read it.

    My library (which is amazingly good for such a small town) luckily had both in fairly recent translations on CD, but I’m sure you could get them via Interlibrary Loan.

    Also, I found Elizabeth Vandiver’s lectures on both at The Teaching Company to be fabulous. Here’s a link to her set of lectures on The Iliad: Again, my library had both sets of lectures. What a wonderful place!

    Good luck :)

  8. I live in the city, but the library is shocking – it must be the entire public library system, though. They started renovating a few years back and the building is huge and modern, but it’s an empty shell. There aren’t many resources, and the catalogue isn’t even complete yet!

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