Book review: Penelope’s Web by Christopher Rush

Combining Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey for a contemporary take on warfare is fascinating but flawed. By Allan Massie

Rush makes his Greeks and Trojans almost uniformly foul-mouthed

Penelope’s Web

by Christopher Rush

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Polygon, 509pp, £14.99

When Alexander Pope published his translation of The Iliad in rhyming couplets, the great Classical scholar Richard Bentley told him, “it is a very pretty poem, Mr Pope – only you must not call it Homer”. This was doubtless fair comment. Pope’s Iliad is splendidly accomplished, remains readable and enjoyable almost 300 years on, but even those of us who can’t read the poem in the original Greek will surely feel that it is by some way too polite and polished a rendering of Homer’s epic. Many have attempted to give us English versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey, in both verse and prose, and at any time one may be sure that a number of translators are at work. The challenge is tempting. Yet it may be that a truly satisfying translation is impossible.

Christopher Rush, notable as poet, novelist and autobiographer, has eschewed translation, but nevertheless attempted something every bit as ambitious, re-casting and combining both epics as a freely – very freely – adapted and imagined prose narrative. He employs three voices: that of Odysseus himself, his wife Penelope, and “arching over these two accounts is that of the omniscient narrator, the invisible author, who sees all. “Sometimes,” he adds, “the voices merge and blur as truth shimmers like a mirage.”

There are problems with this approach, not surprisingly; there are problems with any approach to Homer. The first one here is that the Iliad and Odyssey are very different poems. Nobody knows how or when they were composed. Common opinion would have them as oral compositions, subsequently given their surviving form in a literate age. But there is a good argument for believing that the Iliad is older than the Odyssey. Certainly the world it describes is very different. It belongs to the Heroic Age, the Odyssey to a later commercial one. Or so many scholars believe. In the Odyssey, as Professor Peter Green has written, “we are moving out of the heroic past into the human present”. By cobbling the two poems together as a single narrative, this distinction is obscured.

There is another difficulty for Rush. Though the author of the Iliad is ready to present us with the horrors and cruelty of war and battle, nevertheless the emphasis is on heroism and nobility. Achilles, the Greek hero, and Hector, the Trojan one, are both magnificent. They are also tragic figures but to be admired for their courage and prowess in battle. War is terrible but it is also glorious; death in battle may be magnificent. This is not a view easily tenable today. We are more likely to be conscious of the horrors of war, and the stresses those engaged in it experience. Rush is more comfortable with the idea of post-traumatic stress than with the heroic. So his version of Homer is, suitably enough, a version for our own times when heroism and relish in battle are alike unfashionable. In choosing to present events through the eyes of Odysseus, he had chosen well, for Odysseus, at any rate, the Odysseus of the second epic, is more trickster and adventurer than noble warrior. Nobility indeed is something that Rush and his narrator are suspicious of.

The narrative of the novel drives along fast, and Odysseus’s adventures on his long journey home are vividly presented. Readers already familiar with them are unlikely to be disappointed; many who come to them fresh will be enthralled. Likewise the scenes in Ithaca, presented to us by Penelope, are convincing. When Odysseus is within sight of Ithaca he is relieved to be once again blown off course by a storm. The thought that his adventure might be over depresses him. Home, he reflects, is so sad. That’s “why a sailor who could smell the seaweed and hear the gulls would actually give the order to turn back.” It’s “like the sorrow after sex, spiralling into emptiness, the dread of all endings... the fear of peace, the fear of life itself.” This is good, very good. So there is much to enjoy.

Unfortunately there is also much to regret, even deplore. No doubt in an attempt to give vigour to his narrative, Rush makes his Greeks and Trojans almost uniformly foul-mouthed. War, he has Odysseus, tell us, is rape: rape of lands, rape of women. No doubt again soldiers may think like this; equally we all know that squaddies are not given to drawing-room language. Nevertheless to have his “heroes” speaking of women – and notably Helen of Troy – with the contempt expressed in four-letter words such as used to be written only on the walls of public conveniences is surely a mistake, an error of both taste and judgement. It is ugly and it is tedious. Homer, whoever he was – or the poets who together make up Homer and their translators over the centuries – did and have done without four-letter words and other obscenities. It is extraordinary and sad to find a poet and discriminating critic like Christopher Rush employing such language and thinking it suitable. It isn’t. It is boring and it diminishes the pleasure one has in what is in other respects a finely imaginative re-creation for our times of the Homeric world.