Last week I was trying to explain to my kids about Odysseus getting his men to tie him to the mast so that he could listen to the Sirens sing, and afterwards took down from the shelf my copy of The Odyssey to check the story. This book belonged to my father, it's a Penguin classic, translated by E V Rieu ... in fact, it was the very first Penguin classic, published in 1946, although Dad's copy is a 1952 reprint. He also had its companion volume, The Illiad, bought and inscribed with his name and the date, August, 1950. Lovely old books, browning and fragrant and disintegrating.
I'd just been reading a collection John Fowles' occasional prose, which includes a long essay in which he elaborates on his view that The Odyssey was written by a woman - he held this in common with Robert Graves and Samuel Butler and, who knows, maybe he's right. Anyway, I read the bit about the Sirens and then, for some reason, curiosity I guess, turned to the front and started to read from the beginning. How long since I had? When did I last? Don't know, doesn't matter, I was gripped from the start and have been reading it ever since. With intense and unalloyed pleasure. Particularly in the intricate and wonderfully non-linear structure of the story-telling.
Then, a couple of days ago, I finally reach the point, about a third of the way in, when Odysseus arrives in Phaeacia, where he will tell the story of his wanderings to the King and Queen and their company. The King is called of Alcinous and his wife, the Queen, on whose mercy Odysseus has been instructed, by Athene, to throw himself, is called ... Arete. The name I heard called in a dream a week or so ago, and wondered who or what it meant. It is in this sequence that the assembled company is entertained by a blind bard singing of events at Troy, which does make you question what kind of a homage this is - Homer speaking of himself? Or another, speaking of Homer?
But The Odyssey has been in my mind for another reason, I've been writing a film treatment called The Return, set on a remote NZ farm in 1948 and also, in flashback, on Crete in 1941. The plot is pretty simple: a man who is thought to be dead returns to find his brother has married the woman he loves and is the de facto father to the daughter who is actually his. The brothers were involved in a fatal misadventure on Crete in the hiatus between the evacuation of Greece and the German paratrooper invasion and this has changed things forever between them. The drama plays out on the farm in a manner I like to think of as Rural Noir.
At one point, I had the returned man sitting outside the rabbiter's hut where he stays, reading a copy of The Illiad. Then I realised two things: the E V Rieu translation, which I want to use if and when the film is made, wasn't published until 1950; and The Odyssey is more appropriate to the story I'm trying to tell. So I changed it. Now, here is what the translator has to say of the circumstances in which it was made:
I began on the Odyssey three years before the Second World War started, and completed the first draft as France fell. Home Guard service intervened, and I could not finish the job till 1944. Even so, its revision was undertaken to the sound of v1 and v2 explosions and the crash of shattering glass - an accompaniment which would have chimed in better with the more warlike Iliad, and which, I hope, is not reflected in my style. Actually, I went back to Homer, the supreme realist, who puts his magic finger every time on the essential qualities of things, by way of escape from the unrealities that surrounded us then - and still surround us in a world of fantastically distorted values.