A number of reviews over on goodreads seem to have two things in common: the reviewer hasn’t read the source material, and they didn’t particularly enjoy this collection. I applaud someone for stepping out of their comfort zone, but I really don’t understand bagging something when the fundamental context isn’t understood. Because this really, really doesn’t stand stand with knowledge of The Iliad and The Odyssey, and it doesn’t pretend it even wants to.
I adored this collection, and I am fantastically thankful that I happened to pick it up a few years ago at the closing-down sale of my favourite bookshop (which has since reopened!). I’m not an author, but I would suggest that anyone who wants to write short fiction – and who has the background – should read this, because it does the short form in glorious, scintillating ways.
The Preface claims that this set of 44 stories translated from variations to the standard Homeric tale found in Oxyrhynchus. I’ll admit that for the first couple of stories I actually half-wondered whether this might possibly be true – I’d never heard of such a find, but Oxyrhynchus has been an incredible literary treasure trove; it’s not like I work consistently in the field so it’s feasible I might have missed hearing about it. I fairly quickly decided that this wasn’t the case, but it doesn’t matter in the slightest. I feel that Mason has stayed true to the core of the mythology, and what more could you want?
Some of the stories presented here are vignettes, others are more substantial stories. Most of them take aspects of The Odyssey and… shift them. Sometimes subtly, sometimes extravagantly, but almost always with that kernel that means it feels basically plausible to an archaic Greek mythological milieu. There are a few that stray beyond those bounds, but even those are wonderfully well written, so I don’t mind. They too help to build up sense of shifting possibilities, what-ifs and could-have-beens. There are a few stories that take aspects from other parts of Greek mythology and tie them, in convoluted but logical ways, to the Troy story; and just one or two that could feasibly be set outside of the 13th century BC, but not with any firm proof that they do so.
A review of all 44 stories would be tiresome and, in some cases, impossible without ruining the sheer pleasure of the reading act. Suffice it to say that Penelope gets some attention, Athene a bit more, and Calypso and Circe a lesser bit. Most of them involve travelling, which is naturally appropriate; some are in Troy and some on Ithaka. Sometimes Odysseus is triumphant, other times a coward, and occasionally seen through others’ eyes – like Polyphemus (sorry, bad joke). Once, Paris is Death. Occasionally, the reality of a two-decade absence is hinted at. Tragically, Hektor does not feature in any meaningful way.
This collection is wonderful and glorious and I loved it very much.
I shouldn’t have had the wine.
I have a bad habit. When circumstances conspire – bit tired, warm-to-stifling environment, not too loud and not too bright – I have a tendency to fall asleep. In public. Sitting up. *sigh* And when you add a glass of wine to the mix….
Anyway, I went to see a performance of The Odyssey at the Stork Hotel this afternoon. I only saw it advertised yesterday when I was walking in the city, thought I had missed it (like I missed their performance of The Iliad – GAH!), then found out they were doing a matinee today… very excited. But this is also where the wine comes in (average service at the Stork on a Sunday, just by the way): I didn’t hear all about Polyphemus….
The performers were excellent. Rod Mullinar was brilliant as the patriarchs – and his voice is so familiar, I will have to go and google him. Helen Morse, Jane Nolan and Humphrey Bower were also fantastic – although I am still thinking through Bower’s very Yorkshire Poseidon. They were thoroughly engaging, and easy to listen to, and didn’t go too overboard on characterisation – which actually worked very nicely.
Couple of things:
* Odysseus in the Underworld, after he pours out the libation? First zombie appearance in Western literature. That’s my theory.
* I was dreading the Telemakos bits. I can’t stand those bits (actually, I’m more of an Iliad girl, but you take what you can manage to get to). They skipped them out! Telemakos only appears on Ithaka – no jaunting off to Menelaos or Nestor! Very relieved.
* The one thing that didn’t work so well was Odysseus returning home. I thought it was a bit jerky, the events of landing on Ithaka – being found by Telemakos – and eventually getting the suitors (and Morse as the nurse was so evil in her delight at their deaths!). It didn’t flow very well at all.
All round, though, this was fantastic. Not too long, lighting was effective, music was a surprise (not the music itself, when it started – the fact that there was music at all) but also effective, and the performers… marvellous.