EPIC / A voyage round Homer: As Derek Walcott's Odyssey opens, Kevin Jackson hails Homer and, Georgina Brown talks to director Greg Doran

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The Independent Culture
In the first scene of his new RSC play The Odyssey, Derek Walcott introduces us to a singer called Billy Blue who apostrophises Helen of Troy in these raffish couplets: Brother you ain't see nuttin' / Till you see Helen struttin' . . . They'll be singing 'bout you, Honey, for another thousand years. True enough, though Blind Billy's estimate is a trifle modest. It's now close to three thousand years since Homer first sang about Helen, Achilles, Odysseus, Penelope and the rest of them, and there's still not much sign that people are starting to be bored with his tunes.

This is, on the face of it, odd. Classical languages are no longer lodged in the synapses of every educated reader's brain, and from listening to the Spenglerian wails of teachers and educational pundits one might well have assumed that the only Homer of any interest to the modern world has a five o'clock shadow, a beer-belly and an obnoxious son called Bart Simpson.

And yet 20th-century translations of Homer, such as E V Rieu's English prose versions of The Iliad and The Odyssey for Penguin, continue to be best- sellers on a scale that would have made Alexander Pope envious, while Christopher Logue's poetic variations on books from The Iliad, War Music and Kings, bask in rapturous notices, transfer to the stage and excite enough attention to make rival poets eat their livers. (Kings will be performed by Alan Howard in the Cottesloe this September.)

Still more surprising than the healthy state of Homeric translation is the fact that so many writers and artists should continue to use the ancient epics as quarries for their original work. For example, Walcott's Odyssey is his second major foray into Homer's world in the last few years: the first was Omeros (1990), a long poem in triplets which discovers ingenious and telling parallels between mythical Greece and the modern Caribbean, and is peopled by penurious fishermen with such resonant names as Achille and Philoctete.

Nor is it just the names and events of Omeros which have a familiar ring. The main trick of the poem, as Walcott obliquely acknowledges in one of its chapters, is in many ways similar to the one patented by James Joyce for Ulysses, in which Odysseus' 10 years of exiled wandering around the Mediterranean were boiled down into a middle-aged clerk's progress around Dublin in the course of a single day.

Ulysses still has its enemies, who hang around outside the seminars on Modern Fiction like so many murderous suitors, but for the most part the book has made it through years of exile and ill-treatment to the cosy Ithaca of the 'Modern Classics' list. Through painstaking labour, Joyce managed to transform the oldest of novels into the newest.

And at the same time as Joyce was hard at work on his prose epic, Ezra Pound was laying the ground-plan for his latter-day Homeric poem The Cantos by translating that section of The Odyssey known as the Nekuia. This is an extraordinary coincidence, not made any the less remarkable when you learn that the two men were frequent correspondents. It is hard to think of any other occasion when the leaders of a new movement have looked back to a past master with quite such eerie simultaneity.

Granted, Pound's standing has suffered even more attacks than Joyce's; the late Philip Larkin joined his name to those of two other great Ps, Picasso and Charlie Parker, and claimed they were the gang who had murdered art. But even those who think Pound was a wicked charlatan can scarcely deny the fact that, for good or ill, he and Joyce were at the heart of the new school of writing. Push that admission a little further and the conclusion seems inescapable: the presiding spirit of modernist literature is Homer.

What sent these writers back to the Greek? Books could be written on the subject, and have been (interested newcomers could do worse than peruse Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era, just reissued). Both men were exiles of sorts, and would have been personally drawn to the story The Odyssey tells, but their reasons go deeper. For Joyce, it was partly a question of finding a suitably complex structure for an interior epic: he toyed with the possibilities of Faust and Peer Gynt before settling on The Odyssey, and was helped to his choice by studying an essay by Vico, who had argued that Homer was not so much an individual as the whole Greek people.

Pound's motives were, if anything, even more complex. For one thing, he was fascinated - like other keen minds of the early 20th century - by the 'anthropological' aspects of the classical and archaic worlds (the Nekuia may be the oldest part of the Homeric poems). For another, he was engaged in a life- long study of the reasons why works of art endure or perish, and the durability of Homer's work has no Western rival. Pound and Joyce have had an immeasurably powerful influence on other writers and artists, and so have kept Homer alive at one remove. Yet even if they had never written, the blind bard's presence would still be substantial today.

As one might expect, it has been most manifest in modern Greek literature, which includes not only Kazantzakis's 33,333-line Modern Odyssey and his translation of The Iliad, but Cavafy's Ithaca and the work of those poets discussed in David Ricks's recent study The Shades of Homer. Homeric themes and ideas have also inspired the likes of D'Annunzio, Hauptmann, David Jones and Robert Lowell. T E Lawrence, having written a sort of latter-day Iliad in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, went on to translate The Odyssey in 1931 - he was well qualified for the job, he said, having hunted, lived with pastoral peoples and 'killed many men'. There are Homeric operas (Tippett's King Priam), and musical settings such as Xenakis's Nekuia.

Considering, however, that the simplest explanation for Homer's endurance is the fact that he has some great stories to tell, the cinema has been surprisingly slow to cash in. True, there was Kirk Douglas in an Italian Ulysses (1954), and Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (with its one-eyed monster HAL 9000 and a hero called Bowman), but no major director has so far tried a frontal assault on the epics themselves. Except one. As his forthcoming volume of autobiography Million Dollar Movie explains, in 1952 the late Michael Powell began to round up some choice collaborators for a 40-minute version of the Nausicaa episode. The screenplay was to be by Dylan Thomas; the score by Igor Stravinsky; and the part of Odysseus to be played by Orson Welles.

The project never got off the ground. There are many reasons to bemoan this fact, and one of them lies in the possibility that future generations may lose the habit of reading so thoroughly that it will be as difficult for them to encounter Homer in prose translation as it was for Keats to read him in Greek. If some poet of the 21st century ever writes an updated version of 'On First Looking into Chapman's Homer', he or she is likely to be a film buff.

(Photograph omitted)

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