For the last few years, I’ve occasionally passed time by thinking of the shortest way to become literate in the Western literary tradition. In other words, what is the smallest number of books one can read, and which books, to say one is familiar with the general outline of Western literature?…
Last summer, I decided to brush up my knowledge of Classical literature by reading a few Greek authors. Last week I decided to read The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is older by around a millenium, because I always like to go one step beyond.
I read Maureen Gallery Kovacs’s translation, and she provides a lot of supplementary material, including an introduction to the composition and history of the text, a glossary of proper names, many footnotes, and summaries of each “tablet.” The annotations and summaries come in handy, because as the introduction explains, much of the Epic is lost. In fact, Kovacs uses a few different versions of the Epic to fill in gaps in the “Standard Version.” Now, Kovacs’s translation was published in 1989, so perhaps newer editions have more of the work restored. Either way, though, these gaps generally do not create a serious obstacle to understanding. Kovacs is able to provide a probable description of what happens in the lacunae. More often they’re simply nuisances. For example, when Gilgamesh confronts the demon Humbaba, we get the initial threats, dialogue, and some of the action, but then suddenly Gilgamesh has captured Humbaba. How did he accomplish this, exactly? There’s no way to know.…
Just this afternoon I finally finished Homer’s The Iliad, translated by Robert Fitzgerald. “Finally,” partly because I should probably have read it years ago, and partly because it took me a solid two months to get through – slow going, even at the more relaxed reading pace I’ve adopted since graduating university.
So, I thought I’d share a few impressions from the epic. For one, like The Odyssey, it began in media res, in the ninth year of the Trojan War. Unlike The Odyssey, it also ended in media res. I thought that may happen as I neared the end, since there were several events I know happen during the war that there simply wasn’t room for in the volume I held, but I didn’t expect it to just… stop.
Akhileus struck me as mopier than I expected. One of the most famous heroes in Western literature spends the vast majority of the poem moping in his tent. I’ve heard enough synopses of The Iliad to know that Akhileus was a moody one, but I expected to see more of the poem’s best-known character. He did make up for it when he finally did emerge to fight, and seemingly single-handedly turned back the Trojan army.
If Akhileus came across as too moody for my taste, though, the other heroes carried the epic brilliantly. The poem is more action-heavy than I expected – in fact, most of the book describes combat, and Homer spares no detail in describing who killed whom and how. Homer uses (and Fitzgerald translates) his language beautifully. His metaphors were always vivid, though perhaps a bit repetitive with some imagery. He describes men as lions and cattle, for example, several times.
I also liked the multitude of speeches, though I did find it hard to imagine how some of these men found time to stand and talk during battle. I also noticed that apparently when a Greek wanted to propose something, he first had to set forward his credentials by giving his family history, and acknowledge the credentials of his fellows. An inefficient mode of speech, perhaps, but impressive nonetheless.
Overall, I really enjoyed the epic, though I do prefer The Odyssey. It’s something I needed to read eventually, but I’m always glad to read a classic and see immediately why it’s held in such high esteem.…
It occured to me about a week ago that I didn’t have enough literature on my shelves. Though my bookshelves groan under the weight of my books, novels and poetry make up less than a third of them. Non-fiction makes up about a third, and the most represented genre are the graphic novels, though the number of volumes per series gives that contingent an unfair advantage.
Anyway, I wanted to read some good fiction or poetry, so off I went, and have set myself even more hopelessly behind in my reading backlog. I found good stuff, and for cheap too (they were all used), but I look at this list of books I got and despair. I list only those books I’ve purchased in the last seven days.
From Half-Price Books:
The Iliad, by Homer (trans. Robert Fitzgerald)
Vile Bodies, by Evelyn Waugh,
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
La Vita Nuova, by Dante (trans. Dante Gabriel Rossetti), which I just finished reading today, all 48 pages of it.
I had actually wanted to pick up Les Miserables, but HPB didn’t have any copies except for one abridged edition. They did have eight or nine copies of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, oddly enough.
I also picked up On Duties, by Cicero, while there.
From a neighbourhood garage sale:
Bullfinch’s Mythology, ed. Edmund Fuller
The Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
The Gulag Archipelago, by Solzhenitsyn again. I got One Day because it was shorter at HPB, but at garage sale prices I couldn’t resist. I also got a non-fiction book here, Searching for Your Ancestors, by Gilbert Doane.
From a local comic-book store:
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill.…