Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Homer's Daughter

Robert Graves' small masterpiece, Homer's Daughter, is not in print. This is not surprising. Graves' compelling novels about men, I, Claudius, Claudius the God, and King Jesus are still in print. But the feminist classics are disappearing in the wake of desperate pop publishing decisions that have, if Publishers Weekly is to be believed, nearly bankrupted them.

Publishers are mad not to exploit the commercial potential of this absorbing, well-written, mythic masterpiece, a perfect candidate for revival in the current classics boom that embraced David Malouf's much-revered novel, Ransom, and a misguided remake of the film, Clash of the Titans.  In Graves’ feminist novel, The Odyssey is not the work of Homer, but of Nausicaa, an intellectual princess and rescuer of the shipwrecked Odysseus in Book VI of The Odyssey.  She has listened all her life to bards’ poems about Odysseus’ homecoming.  Nausciaa reshapes the narrative to accommodate her own experiences and to invigorate the characters of women like Penelope. According to the post-Homeric sagas recited by a guild of traveling bards known as the Sons of Homer, Penelope was found “living riotously with fifty lovers, all of whom he killed on his return to Ithaca.” And then Odysseus sent her home to her father.  Not so in Homer/Nausicaa's Odyssey, in which Penelope forever unwinds her weaving at night to delay her suitors--a trick Nausica also plays to deceive her rustic suitors.
Graves speculated that the Odyssey was composed 150 years later than the Iliad and was written by a woman.  Apollodorus informs us that the scene of the poem was traditionally Sicily;  Samuel Butler in 1896 comfirmed this from his own research and speculated that a woman was probably the author.  Graves came to the same conclusion while compiling a dictionary of Greek myths.  
Nausicaa, a princess and priestess of Athena, is the lively narrator of a political drama that comprises the disappearance of her brother, her father's departure on a quest to find his son, political manipulations of rustic suitors, squashed coups, strangers, and returns.  As Graves says in his Historical Note:  "Here is the story of a high-spirited and religious-minded Sicilian girl who saves her father's throne from usurpation, herself from a distasteful marriage, and her two younger brothers from butchery by boldly making things happen, instead of sitting still and hoping for the best.
This novel is exactly the kind of thing that should be in vogue.  Retellings of myths are popular this year.  David Malouf's Ransom (reviewed here), a reworking of the episode in the Iliad about Priam's ransom of Hector's body, was hailed in The New Yorker as a great novel.  John Banville's The Infinities (reviewed here ) is even better, I think, though the New Yorker writer liked it rather less.  

An aside:  I am reading this novel in the company of the former owner of the book. She marked it with red ink, random underlinings, and comments that usually are along the lines of “Interesting!” but left one charming note that almost makes me forgive her.  She defines “oleaster:  a small Eurasian tree having oblong silver leaves...”

I wouldn't have bought this edition, however, if I had known there were notes in the margins. How I hate that!


Twain Shakespeare said...

his is my favorite of Graves mythological works. Obscure is Thomas Burnett Swann, who is more of a juvenile writer. The best story I ever read in the mythological genre, ahead evenof Renault, is CS Lewis' 'Til We Have Faces.

Frisbee said...

Yes, Renault is lovely and it's been too many years since I've read her. Never heard of Thoma Burnett Swannn but he can certainly "go" into my TBR notebook (newly arranged, with cross-references. :)