The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The PenelopiadMy rating: 3 of 5 stars

Atwood offers us a very intriguing telling of the Odyssey from two different points of view: Penelope and her twelve maids. These maids were executed at the end of the Odyssey. It gives a different and valid perspective that challenges one to look more closely at Homer’s epic and at similar instances in literature and life. Emily Wilson, in her new translation of the Odyssey, also commented on these maids and how they have been misinterpreted by male translators over the centuries, adding words that weren’t there in the original Greek and implying they were simply throwing themselves at the suitors and deserving of death. Atwood offers another, more active, perspective, for these maids and for Penelope. Penelope calls out blatant sexism but Atwood weaves a more complex tale, adding a class dimension as well. Atwood complicates Penelope too, with respect to her relationship with the maids and how the maids view her in the underworld. Attempts at justice for these maids feels like reading a newspaper article today. Atwood’s prophetic writing streak continues.

Atwood roots her story firmly in the Homeric tradition and mythology. I smiled at references I knew and learned several new ones, such as Odysseus possibly being the son of Sisyphus (p. 46). She nails some important facets of male vanity too, especially when Penelope says of Odysseus: “it’s always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness” (p. 137).

I have to say I loved the reference to Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses. Penelope and Odysseus are just reacquainting themselves with each other and are telling each other stories. She says to him, “We’re not spring chickens any more,” to which he responds, “That which we are, we are” (p. 172). His words are a direct quote of Tennyson. Well-woven, Ms. Atwood!

Her story is somewhat similar to the burlesque translations of Homer that were popular up to the Victorian era. More often, those tended to be risqué just to be risqué, whereas Atwood has a definite set of points to make. But, at times, I felt her writing was a bit too much. Not in the content but in the “wink wink”, breaking the 4th wall, cutesy modern-day commentary. I might be somewhat influenced by having immediately just finished Madeline Miller’s excellent The Song of Achilles”, a retelling/revealing of the lives of Achilles and Patroclus. Miller told an amazing story without the pithy asides and snarky commentary.

I have to say that in the last 15 years or so, women have brought such fresh air, new ideas, and solid scholarship to Homer. Caroline Alexander’s Iliad and Emily Wilson’s Odyssey are great additions to the list of translations (Alexander’s is the best translation I’ve read of Homer, ever, in my opinion). And now Atwood’s reimagining of the Odyssey and Miller’s take on the Iliad add to the corpus. Avail yourself of these wonderful works.


The Inferno by Dante Alighieri (transl. by John Ciardi)

The InfernoMy rating: 2 of 5 stars

I read the Inferno sometime during high school or college. I was trying to pick my brain as to whether it was for a class or if I was just being pretentious. At the time, I thought it was pretty cool, mapping out hell, and placing various people, be they contemporaries or Dante or historical/mythological characters, in various states of torture and distress. Reading it a second time, I came away very differently. It comes off as part laughing, little boy torturing ants with a magnifying glass, part high school clique sniping, and finally, part poorly written propaganda.

One thing that saved the book were the notes that concluded each Canto. I didn’t like or dislike John Ciardi’s translation … it was okay. But, his notes were really useful and I believe the first time I read the Inferno, there were few notes so it was quite difficult figuring out who was who among the more contemporary characters.

If you’re interested in exploring similar matter at a higher level, I’d wholeheartedly suggest Milton’s Paradise Lost, with fully developed characters, incisive philosophical and political commentary, problematized dilemmas, and just a damn fine read.

The Sorrows of Young Werther and Selected Writing by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (translated by Catherine Hunter)

The Sorrows of Young Werther and Selected WritingsMy rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my second time reading Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, and I really do enjoy the story. Maybe even more so this second time. Great flow of emotions, especially through the first part and most of the second.

I went with 3 stars for this review solely based on the translation, where sometimes more modern day phrases were used. One examples dealt with Werther contemplating suicide by talking about “blowing my brains out” (p. 51). In the 1850s translation by Thomas Carlyle and R.D. Boylan, it was rendered as “when I am ready to commit suicide” (p. 25 of Dover Thrift paperback edition). In Dr. Pratt’s 1813 edition, it was “when the desponding soul meditates its own destruction.” Now, the 1813 edition is simply too outdated for today, but the 1850s version, I think, is the best of the three.

I had 3 copies of Werther open while reading, and while it makes for slow going, for me, it was a joy to compare the different choices that each translator made, some of which expressed their current cultural mores. One instance of different choices (besides not explicitly referring to suicide in the 1813 edition) regards Werther pointing a pistol at his head. In the 1813 edition, it was unconsciously done, and not premeditated. In the 1850s and 1962 version, it was definitely an intentional act.

The translator’s choices reminded me a little of my negative reaction to Stanley Lombardo’s updated text for the Iliad and Odyssey. I can understand trying to make the text more accessible, but for me, there’s also a meta-understanding that this is an older text and that some modern language doesn’t fit with the experience. Then again, as I’ve said with other reviews, if this is what it takes to lasso in a younger, new reader, than perhaps that’s what might be needed. Then, after they’re hooked, they might be willing to explore the book more fully through other translations or the original.

For me, I will likely come back to Werther again.

Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature by L. D. Reynolds & N. G. Wilson

Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin LiteratureMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reynolds & Wilson’s Scribes and Scholars was such a great read, though its true value to me will be as a reference work that I will no doubt turn to again and again. I read the 3rd edition, which a large number of reviewers said was the best in that it immensely improved upon the earlier editions and that the 4th edition didn’t add that much more to the work.

There were many things that caught my attention. One was the Egyptians “borrowing” a definitive Athenian copy of Attic tragedies for the Alexandrian library. They chose to keep it, forfeiting a deposit of 15 talents of gold (p. 7). They wanted to build up their library and figured it was worth the cost in order to obtain such a fine copy. Another uber-cool item is the value of ancient dictionaries. They are useful not just for definitions of words at the time, but also for the quotes they provide from sources that are no longer extant (p. 33). The discussion of Homer was, of course, extremely intriguing for me, such as the publication of the Venetus A marginal scholia by Jean-Baptiste Gaspard d’Ansse de Viloison in 1788 and F. A. Wolf’s Prolegomena ad Homerum in 1795, which helped start the scholarly discussion of the Homeric Question (p. 198).

Speaking of ancient works, while much was lost, it was still possible in Italy circa 500 CE to obtain copies of most Latin authors. “As late as the sixth century Johannes Lydus at Constantinople had more complete texts than we have of Seneca’s Natural Questions and Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars; in Africa Fulgentius was able to cite passages of Petronius that have not come down to us; and in what is now Portugal, Martin, bishop of Braga, was able to plagiarize a lost work of Seneca that could barely have survived him” (p. 81).

When it came to Greek, much of the language was lost when the Western empire collapsed, but it continued in the East. Amazingly, Aristotle was being translated from Arabic into Latin in Spain in the 12th century (p. 120). Only after the collapse of the Eastern empire and the emigration of scholars from those lands into the West did Greek knowledge gain a foothold again. The return of Greek and textual analysis let scholars discuss and resolve various religious questions, e.g. addressing an issue with the Vulgate bible (p. 152).

There were many good sections on early and important printers and presses. I enjoyed the part on the Aldus Manitius’s Aldine press and its impact on the production and dissemination of Greek and Latin texts. It was very cool to hear that Erasmus stayed with Aldus for several months where he had access to so many Greek manuscripts. Erasmus was able to incorporate many of these into an expanded version of his Adagia (p. 159). Erasmus also helped set the established pronunciation of Classical Greek in his time (p. 159). Publishing in the Netherlands focused on two people: Christopher Plantin in the south and Louis Elzevir in the North (p. 178-179). The presses were centered in two intellectual capitals, Louvain in the south and Leiden in the north. Plantin produced many famous works, including his Polyglot Bible (1568-73) and Horace (1566). Elzevir helped further scholar studies with his small-format (duodecimo) series of classical authors that Louis’ sons put out. These small formats were affordable and portable, very useful for students.

Reynolds & Wilson highlight good Dutch scholarship, including Wilhelm Canter (p. 179), Justus Lipsius (p. 180-181), and G. J. Vossius (p. 182). The two most important editors of Latin authors in the 17th century were J. F. Gronovius for prose and Nicolaus Heinsius for poetry (p. 183). Gronovius put out very good editions of Livy, Pliny the Elder, both Senecas, Tacitus and Gellius, while Heinsius produced excellent editions of Ovid, Vergil, Valerius Flaccus, Claudia and Prudentius.

To conclude, this is a great read, but it is scholarly and dense, so it works best as a reference. I’m glad to have read it through and made some notes so that I can come back to the sections I need quickly in the future.

The Odyssey by Homer (Emily Wilson, translator)

The OdysseyMy rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was so excited to read Emily Wilson’s Odyssey, the first full translation into English by a woman. I’d recently finished Caroline Alexander’s Iliad, the first translation of that work into English by a woman. Alexander’s was the best Iliad I’d ever read and I savored each line. She blew away translations I’d read from the 19th, 20th and 21st century. I have to say I wasn’t as enamored with Wilson’s edition of the Odyssey.

To be fair, a chunk of my unhappiness was that I really dislike Odysseus. If you asked me five or ten years ago, I’d have said the Iliad sucked and the Odyssey rocked. I’ve totally flipped and prefer the Iliad these days. I find Odysseus to be arrogant, selfish, vain, and ungrateful. Homer perhaps meant us to see Odysseus this way, and if he did, he succeeded. Of the 20 years he was away from Ithaca, he spent 10 at war in Troy, 8 years in bed with two different goddesses, and the other two years mouthing off and strutting around, often leading to his men being killed. My reaction to Odysseus reminds me of the TV series MASH. Larry Linville was an amazing actor for creating such a hated character as Frank Burns, I can’t like Burns, and by proxy, Linville. I should praise Linville for creating such a deep & real character. I should praise Homer for showing us how awful Odysseus is. And, therefore, I should praise Wilson for conveying Homer’s intent into English.

As for Wilson’s translation, her introduction was amazing. I loved that she gave the original Greek words for certain things, a definite help with my study of the language. I was so happy that she tracked her translation close to the original, line for line. It makes study and following along with an original text (and Latin translation) so much easier. Caroline Alexander did that too and I was forever grateful. As reviews of Wilson’s translation (and Alexander’s) noted, many translators have embellished the text, adding so much more than was actually there in the original epic. Some of that is male arrogance. Some is academic pomposity. Either way, it often slows the story down and complicates tracking with the original. Wilson’s Odyssey flowed smoothly and quickly. I welcome her approach.

Some of the choices she made I didn’t find so exciting. For example, her choosing to update the language to a more contemporary, colloquial tone. This reminded me of Stanley Lombardo’s recent translations of both of Homer’s epics. Wilson chose things like “pigheaded” for “boaster/big talker” in the original. She described Demeter “with the cornrows in her hair”. The original Greek meant godly locks or fair-tressed. That seemed a stretch for me. Now, these are translator choices and translation by definition is meant to reach out to a larger audience (i.e. those who can’t read the a text in its original language). I got hooked on Homer a long time ago, in translation, and the one I read fit for the time I read it. If I’d first encountered Alexander Pope’s or George Chapman’s translation, I would have politely did my class report and then moved on and never looked back. The translation I read worked for me. People encountering Homer for the first time today might want language that is different, that they can relate to. If it captures them, then they can move into all the varied versions in English since the early 1600s, and maybe explore further.

While word choices can be battled over by both sides with both sides being correct, one decision Wilson made that I can’t be happy with was her disposing of the repetitive epithets. These are phrases found in Homer that modify the name of people, deities or objects. “Rosy-fingered dawn”, “bright-eyed Athena”, etc. She said that these were due to it being an oral poem originally and that they weren’t necessary for a written work. I disagree. I find them useful to root the story and characters, giving something familiar to hook onto as you move through the work. “Comfort words”, if you will, like comfort food. Caroline Alexander kept them in and I loved them and didn’t feel like they were repetitive or slowed the flow of the story. Wilson changed the translations around, choosing alternative forms each time she came upon one. She changed “rosy-fingered Dawn” to “her fingers bright with flowers” and also “the early Dawn was born; her fingers bloomed.” Perhaps valid translations, but the “nickname” for these characters is something I remember and I like re-encountering it when I meet them.

So, as I was getting into the book, I was thinking 4 stars. That dropped to 3 stars through the bulk of it and when I finished, I initially chose 3 stars. I changed that a few seconds later to 2 stars. Goodreads rankings are roughly “Hated”, “Ok”, “Liked”, “Really Liked”, “Loved”. I’m torn. 2 is too low, 3 seems a teensy bit too high. But, I’ll go with my original gut feeling and choose 3 stars.

On a person note, I have to say that after Odysseus’s men kill the cattle of Helios, I wanted to become a full-time vegetarian: “It did no good; the cows were dead already. The gods sent signs–the hides began to twitch, the meat on skewers started mooing, raw and cooked” (Book XII: 391-394). Wow.