Reading in a Classical Mode
From Homer to Casanova
By Peter Kadzis
DECEMBER 8, 1997: There is no denying that Oprah can flog a volume to bestsellerdom. And there's no denying that certain publishers are paying millions in advances for trash. Publishers have not completely ignored serious readers, however. Some of the most important and satisfying works in print today are exciting new translations of ancient literature and newly annotated reissues of classics. And the good news is that they are readily available at good bookstores or through special order.
Before moving on to recommend a shelfful of books that would make wonderful gifts for just the right reader, let me call attention to the second edition of the Reader's Catalog (Rc Publications, $34.95), a sort of Amazon.com between soft covers. If you can't find the Catalog at your bookstore, you can order by phone (1-800-733-BOOK). It contains an annotated listing of the 40,000 best books in print as judged by a distinguished group of academics, critics, and writers. Divided into more than 300 categories, it ranges from world history and current affairs to literature to food, travel, and leisure. With timelines, maps, and illustrations by David Levine, it is at once a unique literary tool and a browser's delight. In keeping with the realities of the digital age, the Catalog maintains its own Web site (www.nybooks.com). But don't be seduced by the power of search technology, admirable though it is -- the Reader's Catalog is a delight in and of itself, animated by a love of reading and learning that is Victorian in scope and intensity.
For more than 650 years, Homer has cast a spell over writers in the English-speaking world. No one is quite sure where or when the poet lived, or even of the origin of his name. But talents and temperaments as diverse as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and Robert Lowell have been inspired to reimagine all or parts of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The power of Homeric plot and sheer narrative drive has made the poems benchmarks for Western literature. For years, a prose translation by E.V. Rieu was publishing's best-selling paperback. Today there are more English translations of Homer than there are of the Bible. Critic George Steiner, with the help of scholar Aminadav Dykman, has assembled more than 100 notable and moving selections -- including two from journeyman Rieu -- in the splendidly accessible and fast-paced Homer in English (Penguin Classics, $14.95). Steiner's anthology underscores Homer's relentless ability to entertain and enlighten.
Homer's language was highly stylized and, even by ancient standards, somewhat archaic. Nevertheless, for generations of Greeks born hundreds of years before Christ it had an evocative power not unlike that which Shakespeare once exercised over English speakers.
The ancient Jewish historian Josephus speculated that the poems were not written but were "transmitted by memory" and were "not unified until much later" -- an insight that was ratified in the late 1920s by a young Harvard scholar, Millman Parry. Knowing this transformed our conception of the epics. Once seen as literature of a noble but primitive sort, they were revealed as something closer to a form almost as ancient but more sophisticated and supple: drama.
Matthew Arnold, an apostle of high-Victorian culture, maintained that a proper translation of Homer should be rapid, plain, direct in expression and ideas, and noble in sentiment. For more than 25 years, scholarly opinion has held Richard Lattimore's intensely taut translations of the Iliad (University of Chicago, $9.95 paper) and the Odyssey (HarperPerennial, $13 paper) to be the modern ideal. That assessment stands, even in the face of the graceful and poetically accomplished work by Robert Fitzgerald, Harvard's late Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory (Everyman's Library/Alfred A. Knopf, each $20 cloth).
While Lattimore's remains the ideal for textual fidelity enlivened by creative interpretation, the recent work of Princeton's Robert Fagles, accompanied by introductions of exquisite cultural sensitivity by Bernard Knox, have subtly and significantly altered how these ancient poems are now appreciated. (Viking publishes the cloth editions, $40 for the Iliad, $35 for the Odyssey; Penguin has them in paperback, $9.95 for the Iliad, $14.95 for the Odyssey.)
"In comparing Robert Fagles's translations to those of his predecessors," wrote Peter Green in the New Republic, "the first thing we should stress, and by far the most important, is that this is [work] consciously crafted for performance. The wheel has indeed come full circle. Just as it was for centuries an article of faith that Homer wrote his poems, so, virtually since the Renaissance, all translations . . . have been composed to be read. But Fagles's Homer is accompanied by audiotape versions (Penguin Audiobooks, each $45.95). This is not an electronic gimmick; it is an integral part of this translator's purpose: to re-create, for those who have ears to hear, the ambiance and the impact of the rhapsode's magic, his voice, like that of Odysseus, 'holding them spellbound down the shadowed halls.' " In its spoken force lies the unparalleled quality of Fagles's work. Its surface is modern, its soul ancient.
Fagles's Homer is immediate and intense. No one, however, has captured Homer's nobility and grandeur more convincingly than Alexander Pope, whose first translations of the Iliad (Penguin Classics, $22.95 paper) were published between 1715 and 1720. True, at first glance Pope's heroic couplets appear to be far removed from Homer's spare language. But the end result is something different indeed. Pope's Iliad did for Homer what King James's translators did for the Bible -- it's different from, but in many ways equal to, the original.
As was customary in his time, Pope considered Virgil's Latin epic, the Aeneid, superior to Homer's efforts. According to Pope, "Homer was the greater genius, Virgil the better artist." (In another context, he wrote, "Homer makes us hearers, and Virgil leaves us readers.)
Where the Homeric cycle is best known for its passion and drive, Virgil's reinterpretation of it is characterized by subtlety and nuance. Fitzgerald's translation (Everyman's Library/Alfred A. Knopf, $17 cloth) sets the same standard for the Virgilian epic that Lattimore and Fagles set for the Homeric.
The first volume of Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of
Gibbon's original six volumes has been reissued in three paperbacks in a handsome box set (Penguin Classics, $75), edited by David Womersley of Jesus College, Oxford. "The present edition bears witness to the fact that The Decline and Fall is now by general acceptance a classic," Womersley writes. "We should not forget that in its day, it was a work modern to the point of ostentation in its erudition, and innovative to the point of flamboyance in the deployment of its learning." Gibbon was the first truly modern historian, although a case can be made for David Hume. That his scholarship remains relevant is one triumph. That his prose still resonates with the verve of Homer, Virgil, and Pope is another.
There is, perhaps, no better way to understand the intellectual milieu of the 18th century than to read History of My Life by Giacomo Casanova, Chevalier de Seingalt. Willard R. Trask's award-winning 12-volume translation has been reissued in six sturdy paperbacks by Johns Hopkins University Press ($15.95 a volume; $95.70 for the set). Casanova's scope was Proustian and his sensibility feline, with a carnivorous appetite for experience. As Paul Zweig wrote in the Nation when this translation was first published: "These are what Edmund Wilson has rightly called the most interesting memoirs ever written. Indeed, Rousseau, Stendhal, even Augustine must take their proper place a half-step behind this greatest of storytellers." A final note: if there were such a thing as a Pulitzer for book design, this work should be a contender.
Peter Kadzis owns piles of books by dead white European males.
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