Dec 302008

I was in the midst of reading Robert Fitzgerald’s interpretation of The Iliad when I abandoned it to read Stanley Lombardo’s work instead. Before setting out to read the poem, I wanted to make sure I was in good hands. So, I poked around on the internet and found an numerous opinions on the published efforts available. One author recommended a blank verse translation, but I was unable to obtain a copy. So, I waded into Fitzgerald’s attempt.

Recently, I’ve been studying Borges and learned the hazards of reading lousy interpretations. For the most part, I like Fitzgerald’s work; however, his use of the ancient Greek names threw me off at times. The true test of an interpretation, at least of something this ancient, is the interpreter’s ability to capture the feeling of the piece. I’m sure there are plenty of people who would take issue with that statement. But, I’m neither a Greek scholar or classical specialist. I’m a creative dilettante living in the 21st century. When I read The Iliad, I want to come as  close to what it felt like to sit in a great feasting hall: eating great amounts of roasted meat, blasted on wine, listening to a master orator. This is no time for dictionaries and Google every other line; instead, I should be able to hear the groans of the wounded and the stoic tramping of doomed legions.

Yeah, I know it sounds melodramatic. But you try marching into a wall of spears without a solid warrior code that is married to a complex belief in divine kings. For today’s reader, space flight is a little over a generation removed from being a novelty ; indeed, DNA has been mapped, and telescopes strain to look backwards through time to glimpse the very origin of our universe. Post colonialism, gender studies and deconstructionist theories all clamor to complicate and challenge any reader with the slightest awareness of theory and history. Sometimes these theories seem to exist merely to urinate on the parade. I thought that reading this epic poem from such a vantage point and not revel in the irony would be more difficult than suspending disbelief. However, this wasn’t a problem as the story is so completely alien to everything I know while making grand gestures to thousands of stories that I’m familiar with via cultural osmosis. Within the Iliad there is a multitude of narrative echoes that resonate within me, yet I’m unable to provide an exact reason why.

Anyway, after a few hundred pages of Fitzgerald I found a copy of Stanley Lombardo’s translation sitting around. I found there to be a bone jarring difference between the two. The person who elects themselves to be a neo bard has quite a task: to make the verses sing without losing the silhouette of the archetypes that inhabit it. For example, below are the first 8 lines out of both translations:

“Anger be now your song, immortal one,
akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men—carrion
for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.
begin it when the first two men contending
broke with one another—” (Fitzgerald 1)

Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalcuable pain, pitched countless souls
Of Heroes into Hades’ dark,
And left their bodies to rot as feasts
For dogs and birds, as Zeus’s will was done.
Begin with the clash between Agamemnon—
The Greek warlord—and godlike Achilles.” (Lombardo 1)

Lombardo does not concern himself with the formal cadence or elevated diction of this epic. Instead, his primary concern is how the narrative will sound as an oral presentation. To this end, he keeps a contemporary audience in mind. I think this is the primary reason that Lombardo’s version holds more appeal because he takes risks with the language other scholars seem to avoid. One of these risks is in his use of common language or slang as dialogue. Sometimes, he will have a hero turn to his men, and say things that sound like lines from The Longest day, or some other WWII era film. Lombardo makes a deliberate choice to use language in this manner, and for the most part it’s effective. Although I have to admit, I found myself wincing several times when a Greek warlord’s voice would end up sounding like James Cagney or Jimmy Stewart. Regardless, I read Lombardo’s version straight through, and will be returning Fitzgerald’s efforts to the library unmolested.

Still, I feel as though I’ve somehow cheated: on scholarly footnotes and examination of critical response. After all, this epic poem is one of the central precursors to western, narrative tradition. So, at some point I’ll take the time to read another translation. In the meantime, I have The Iliad under my belt. To my surprise, the journey was not a chore.

Nov 022008

I have been reading Flannery O’Connor, which seldom fails to please me as a reader. As a writer, I’m usually slack jawed at the amount of control she maintains throughout her work. For example, I consider both “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Good Country People” to be nearly flawless short stories. They remain prime examples of the wide range of thoughts and emotions a writer can produce in a reader within a limited textual space.

One of the ways O’Connor accomplishes this is by maintaining a constant undercurrent of tension throughout each piece. Take the dynamics of the family in “Good Man,” where the reader is presented with a strange yet familiar narrative of a road trip with grandma in tow. The family is of course awful, which makes their familiarity all that much more uncomfortable. If the reader is not somewhat sickened and intrigued by seemingly mundane journey to Florida, they will not be ready for the final encounter with The Misfit. The final encounter would seem contrived if you read it as the ending to most stories. Instead, the reader grits their teeth as each member of that annoying tribe is led away. When I read “Good Man” as a writer, it is the “mundane tension” that I marvel at, the masterful way O’Connor manages to get me from the living room to the wrong road without losing my attention.

This same tension is present and used to effect in “Good Country People.” The reader, once again, is presented with a straightforward setting, which is inhabited what could be written as rather boring characters. However, there is something strange and compelling about the relationship between the three women, and it keeps the reader’s appetite wet until the bible salesman arrives. The resulting tryst with Hulga, and her betrayal is effective because of the tension which builds up to her abandonment. As a reader, I find myself relieved that she is abandoned. If you know this writer’s work, you probably feel relieved for Hulga as well. She comes away faring much better than most of O’Connor’s characters who are usually killed off on the last page or die muttering to themselves in some kind of destitute state. The fellow she is with could have done much worse than run off with her leg and her dignity. OK, that’s arguable, but that’s exactly why the story works. Joy/Hulga, the superior know-it-all, is left blind and temporarily helpless in a hay loft. What’s worse, she’s been left there to meditate upon sure knowledge that she’s been blind all along. The reader has no idea what Hulga will do with the rest of her life or how she will deal with the questions of Mrs. Freeman and Mrs. Hopewell.

When I finish an O’Connor story, I often feel relief to have a second chance at life. Often, she holds the reader gently for the first 2/3rds of the story before beginning to apply pressure that grows excruciating near the end. The dénouement seldom grants the reader anything more than a few moments to gather their bearings in regards to their own reaction to the dark irony that has just occurred on the page before the story ends. In other words, I often feel the end of her narratives have an abruptness to them but it is not awkward or unwarranted.


Oct 112008

The other night, I was laying in bed, reading a novel, as John and Barry pointed fingers at one another on my television screen. I found it remarkably easy to concentrate on my book and shut out the debate. The bailouts’ passing was like one last kick to my skull. I have no fight left in me.

This is a good thing.

My anger over where I see this country heading was getting me nowhere with my writing. I have been angry, frustrated for weeks. The evening would find me typing out long impotent letters to my senators and congressman. I was nasty to family, friends and unfocused at work, upset about a system that has very little to do with what really matters in my life.

In contrast, my mindset of the late eighties and early nineties was much healthier. I have always detested politics and politicians and had a healthy dislike for authority of any flavor. It is much better, for me, to live snugly wrapped in the assumption that neither of the major parties gives a damn about me or mine. I have a couple of core issues I care about. Beyond tracking those major concerns, I am better off keeping my head low, the powder dry – and writing my ass off.

That same night, I began to think about my thesis and what I wanted to write about. Suddenly, it all crystallized and I could see where I wanted to go. I am compelled to write a novel length story. That story will be influenced by my own obsession regarding race and class, but those issues will not be its motive force. It is extremely important, to me, that the stinking carcass of polarized, political ideology be kept out of my fiction. I know that my politics will always inform my working aesthetic just as they inform my taste in music, clothing and even food. But in the end, I believe my own ambivalence (or vehemence) regarding such things can only frustrate my fiction and my reader.

Recently, I read an introduction to Labyrinths, a collection of Borges stories, which helped to bring the idea of the effects of the historical climate on a writer into focus. One passage in particular caught my eye:

Borges’s and his companions’ situation as not unlike that of some North American writers of the same generation who suffered the impact of war, industrialism on modern European art on a tranquil Midwestern or Southern heritage.

But out of these general conditions, shared by many in our time, Borges has created a work like no other. Perhaps the most striking characteristic of his writings is this extreme intellectual reaction against all of this disorder and contingency of immediate reality, their radical insistence on breaking with the given world and postulating another.

I have always felt a deep connection to these stories. Borges has informed my own view of literature in a number of ways. However, I was never sure how it would impact my work. I feel I have solved part of the riddle, and I am comforted. There was a reason these brief, yet vast, stories spoke to me for so long. It was important enough to wait for, and I am humbled by it.