Boyd Tonkin: Verse that lasts in Troy or Tripoli

The week in books

Boyd Tonkin
Friday 09 March 2012 01:00 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Far from home, six young soldiers die together in the 11th year of an unending, unwinnable war. Women flee from a captured city in darkness, bearing tales of the savage slaughter of their menfolk after a brutal siege. Enraged by defeat, humiliated warriors smash the tombs of foreign fighters. Afghanistan, Syria, Libya: this past week of news has – just like any other – brought stories of combat and carnage both utterly modern and timelessly ancient. Any of those headlines might refer not to today's theatres of war but to scenes from Homer's Iliad.

I never tire of citing Ezra Pound's dictum, from The ABC of Reading, that "Literature is news that STAYS news" – because it never ceases to be true. In the case of Homer, you might argue that the repetitious, self-perpetuating, honour-driven warfare of the Iliad fits today's never-resolved conflicts like a gory gauntlet. Rooted in oral recitation, probably given its canonical Greek form sometime in the eighth century BC, the epic of Achilles's wrath and the siege of Troy may preserve the memory of historical events from around 1200BC. Yet you turn straight from its 24 books and 15,693 lines to the TV or computer screen and feel that nothing much has changed.

Tomorrow, at the Independent Bath Literature Festival, two events will tap into its evergreen lure. One is a discussion between festival director James Runcie and poet Alice Oswald, whose blazing Memorial is a sawn-off Iliad, an epic shattered into coruscating shards; the other, a performance of passages from the poem by Hugh Lupton and Daniel Morden.

For existing lovers of the Homeric battlefield, and newcomers to its clang and clash of gods and arms, the past few months have brought rich pickings. Two fresh translations appeared late last year to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the completion of his Iliad by George Chapman – the first full English version, and the one whose reading made young John Keats marvel "like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken".

Stephen Mitchell's (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is hipper, slangier, takes quite a few liberties (and has aroused some scholarly ire); Anthony Verity's (Oxford) sticks to the tradition with a whiff of old-school Victorian grandeur. In addition, Chicago has reissued Richmond Lattimore's 1951 translation, a postwar landmark that determined how two generations of poets saw and heard the epic.

Meanwhile, the partial renderings and oblique approaches keep on coming. Oswald, with her spellbinding sense of elegy and remembrance, and hypnotically reiterated similes, belongs in the vein of Christopher Logue and his volumes of War Music. Madeline Miller, just long-listed for the Orange Prize, has enriched the shelf of Iliad fiction with her novel The Song of Achilles. Troy, Wolfgang Petersen's Hollywood blockbuster, was the entirely legitimate offspring of a literary bloodline that draws strength from its mingled sources.

Another kind of continuity lives on in the prose and verse revivals: the legacy of translation and re-interpretation, whether undertaken by professional scholars, or by poets and novelists who build on their expertise. From Chapman onwards, these four centuries of Iliads track the branching and blossoming of literature in English. It would be a feeble critic's truism to say that every age and culture fashions an Iliad of its own. Of course. We might also ask what survives and transfers: a kind of verbal DNA, to match the poem's unchanging human stuff.

Near the end of Oswald's Memorial, a simile from Book VI compares mortal warriors to leaves: "The wind blows their ghosts to the ground/ And the spring breathes new leaf into the woods/ Thousands of names thousands of leaves/ When you remember them remember this/ Dead bodies are their lineage/ Which matter no more than leaves".

Now rewind 400 years to George Chapman: "'Why dost thou so explore,'/ said Glaucus, 'of what race I am, when like the race of leaves/ The race of man is, that deserves no question?... The wind in Autumn strows/ The earth with old leaves; then the Spring the woods with new endows/ And so death scatters men on earth, so life puts out again/ Man's leafy issue'". Bleak, stoic, yet invigorating, the language of cyclical decay and rebirth persists as robustly as the wars that call it forth. Homer, like Shakespeare, is – tragically – still our contemporary.

Independent Bath Literature Festival:

Hello again to Russian verbs?

With Putin's disputed re-election over, a bolder but jumpy Russia may come under closer Western scrutiny than at any period since the Soviet empire fell. A good moment, then, for Waterstones owner Alexander Mamut (right) to open a stylish Russian Bookshop at the flagship store in Piccadilly. Russian titles chosen by a leading Moscow bookseller - Boris Kupriyanov - sit beside a wide spread of translations, as well as English-language works on art, history and politics. The capital's 100,000 expats will rejoice, but should Mamut's largesse extend to language courses for natives? Russian teaching, boosted here by the Cold War, tanked at its close. Time to say privyet snova?

Rescue workers in Orange livery

Since the train-wreck of last year's Man Booker prize, other awards have had to clear the debris, rescue the survivors and offer compensation. The salvage continues with the Orange Prize long-list. Booker absentees who rightly find a place on it include Ali Smith (There but for the), AL Kennedy (The Blue Book), Jane Harris (Gillespie and I) and – a particular favourite of mine – Francesca Kay's The Translation of the Bones: a shining example of how to write a state-of-London novel that spans classes, cultures and conditions but in 200 rather than 600 pages. Even if chair of the judges Joanna Trollope says so herself, the selection does show off the panel's "eye for quality". And Serpent's Tail, the small dark horse of an imprint that so often comes up fast on the book-award rails, boasts two titles, by Esi Edugyan (who was Booker-shortlisted) and Aifric Campbell. Just published, Campbell's On the Floor returns to the roaring City of the 1990s and draws on her own years as a senior investment banker with Morgan Stanley.

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