Book of a lifetime: Stories from The Odyssey, By Jeanie Lang


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The Independent Culture

This book was given to me – by whom? – at the age of five or six, and was first browsed for its illustrations by Heath Robinson in misty watercolour. I would now describe these as resembling opium visions, but then I was simply lit up by images of Circe turning men into swine, Odysseus confronting the Cyclops, Lotus Eaters drugged on grassy ground, nymphs, sirens, and the rest.

The book was in the superb "Told To The Children" series, nursery digests of great classics, published by Nelson in the 1950s in yellow wrappers. I don't come from an academic or artistic background – these were books for the mainstream.

Very soon the text had become as vital as the pictures. Re-reading it now, the little volume having survived its own odyssey through all the moves of my parents and my own, I recapture effortlessly the wondrous mood into which it originally put me: the enchantment of voyaging to unknown places, gorgeous violence, strange dramas, fantastical beauty. Perhaps most important of all was its refulgent mysteriousness, forcing the imagination outwards.

The prose is simple but not dumb, and the grammar faultless. I see that on the first page the words "rugged", "devices", "overlord" and "besieged" occur. The quality of the typeface is notable; such outstanding legibility I'd not encounter again until many years later, with remarkable aptness, I came across the typeface which The Bodley Head used for their standard edition of Joyce's Ulysses.

Here was a dream-world of plenty – flowers, grapes, olives – but you had to kill to survive, and build boats, make clothes. Everywhere monsters and tricksters were out to destroy you. Men and women wept a lot. There was sex too, and vivid poetical phrases. Here's a sentence: "A great cleared space lay in front of the palace, and backwards and forwards in this clearing roamed mountain-bred wolves and tawny lions, whom Circe herself had bewitched." The only thing which grated was that Nausicaa seemed a stupid name for a fair princess.

At that time – well before puberty – I was deeply fascinated by other aspects of the nomadic or journeying life: fun fairs, circuses, American Indians. In retrospect I can see this as having an erotic charge. So Stories from The Odyssey was a case of the right book hitting the right temperament; an affirmation of one's inner nature taking place at an early age. A thrilling adventure into the unknown still strikes me as the most beautiful and rewarding view of life.

'How to Disappear: a Memoir for Misfits' by Duncan Fallowell is out in paperback from Union Books