Edward Luttwak begins his brilliant essay on Homer with the mistaken premise that the Iliad has always been preferred to the Odyssey, ‘from antiquity and the Byzantine millennium to the Terminal 2 bookshop’ at San Francisco airport (LRB, 23 February). The preference for the Iliad, in English translation at least, ended rather before Luttwak’s visit to San Francisco earlier this year. As I point out in my prefatory essay to the forthcoming catalogue of the Bibliotheca Homerica Langiana to be published by the University of Chicago Library,
this preference continued to be reflected, in English at least, until the end of World War One. Not surprisingly, by the November armistice, the Western romantic notion of war, first expressed in Homer’s portrayal of aristocratic warriors engaged in glorious combat, was utterly shattered. On the battlefields of France and Belgium the sword and spear were superseded by a chilling impersonal mix of wire, gas and artillery. The tactics of modern warfare could no longer accommodate Homeric models. Reflecting this cultural turnabout, the line of translations reveals that during the three centuries between Chapman’s version and the November armistice, the Iliad was fully translated into English 38 times, compared with just 26 versions of the Odyssey. In the nine decades after 1918, only 16 complete Iliads appeared, compared to 25 Odysseys. Thus it seems to have taken almost three thousand years for the story of Odysseus’ long and difficult journey home to finally surpass, in general popularity at least, Homer’s pounding tale of war.
Although Edward Luttwak says ‘the Iliad can now be treated as a historical source, if only because of its many and surprisingly precise geographical references,’ there is a notable geographical inconsistency in Book One which should not be passed over. Achilles, arguing with Agamemnon, emphasises that the Trojans never did him damage because they never attacked his native land of Phthia: indeed how could they have, seeing the ‘endless miles that lie between us … shadowy mountain ranges, seas that surge and thunder?’ (I’m quoting from Robert Fagles’s translation.) The problem is that Phthia is fairly close to Homer’s Troy in the Hisarlik, about two hundred miles across the northern Aegean, at most two days’ sail, and much closer than just about all the other Achaean combatants.
San Diego, California
There were ten translations of the Iliad, Edward Luttwak writes: ‘one succinct W.H.D. Rouse prose translation and one Robert Graves, in prose and song, both in paperback; two blank verse Robert Fagles in solid covers; one rhythmic Richmond Lattimore … and three hardback copies of the new Stephen Mitchell translation’. I see one problem straightaway: Luttwak counts as ‘translations’ individual copies of the book; Fagles hasn’t done two separate blank verse translations of the Iliad. That means that there are five translators present in the well-stocked Terminal 2 bookshop. So he must be adding up copies of the books, calling each copy a ‘translation’. But that adds up to eight enumerated copies, not ten.
Santa Monica, California
Just as Close
Helen Deutsch’s statement that ‘Boswell was left nothing’ in Samuel Johnson’s will, although factually correct, is somewhat misleading in seeming to imply that Boswell was less intimate with Johnson than was Sir John Hawkins, who served as one of Johnson’s executors (LRB, 9 February). Boswell did feel anxious about his omission from Johnson’s will, as he writes in his journal for 28 December 1784 (‘I was a little uneasy that I was not mentioned in his will amongst other friends who had books left them “as a token of remembrance”’), but he consoled himself with the thought that he ‘had several books in a present from him, and many more valuable tokens’, among them, according to Irma Lustig and Frederick Pottle in Boswell: The Applause of the Jury, 1782-85, ‘a quantity of the original copy of the Lives of the Poets’. Lustig and Pottle continue: ‘In the Life of Johnson Boswell pointed out that such intimate friends as Dr Adams, Dr Taylor, Charles Burney and Edmund Hector were also omitted from the codicil in which the small memorials were listed. According to John Hoole, who was present and recording the major provisions of the will, Johnson dictated them to Sir John Hawkins, under pressure from Hawkins, when he was suffering so acutely from asthma that he could scarcely speak.’
Boswell’s omission was surely the result not of any lack of affection on Johnson’s part but of the mental agitation of a dying man.
Hudson, New York
The eucalyptus tree at the end of my garden has four main upright members of varying thickness. Buds regularly appear on each, facing all directions, but only those facing away from the centre ever develop into branches. The others die off, being redundant. A series of violent storms in recent years has caused the whole tree to lean to the right, making it dangerous. Only the bole on the extreme left is truly upright. In order to prevent a catastrophe and defend the neighbouring apple tree and my greenhouse, I am going to have to cut away the majority of the material, leaving only the member on the extreme left and its leftward facing branches.
I fully expect it to grow new branches in other directions and become a beautiful, fully rounded organism again, albeit reduced in stature. But who knows how great it may become in the future?
Colin Kidd, please note (LRB, 8 March).
Get out of the foothills
Ross McKibbin’s review of Mark McKenna’s life of Manning Clark doesn’t pick up on a huge lacuna in the new biography, which fails to discuss Clark’s extraordinary talents as a teacher (LRB, 23 February). The Clark known to those of us who were taught by him at the Australian National University is very different from the thin-skinned, jealous and ‘self-invented’ figure that McKenna presents.
Clark used to take us away with all his staff for weekends at his own expense to discuss the grand themes that concerned him and us; he invited us to dinner with luminaries of left and right, and encouraged us to ‘get out of the foothills and into the mountains’, no matter what our views. Certainly, he was mannered, romantic and a raconteur. And he was against the current of historical writing then and now. But ad hominem criticisms shouldn’t colour our assessment of his multi-volume history of Australia. Such idiosyncratic grand narratives were no more in vogue in the 1960s than they are today. He chose that form because he believed that what was being written as Australian history was deadening for both the intellect and the spirit. He had already shown in his early writings on convicts and in his documents that he could do what other historians did. By situating the story of the ‘discovery’ of Australia in the context of Pigafetta and Cheng Ho, he both opened up new horizons and gave us a sense of the limitations to a Rankean approach. Of course there were errors of detail. But then, as he reminded us, we would not still be reading Gibbon if errors of fact were of great concern.
Ouroux en Morvan, France
Ours, or not?
An actor’s best lines are usually written by somebody else and Sean Penn may come to regret airing his lopsided views on the Falklands. But I was shocked by Jenny Diski’s unreconstructed Thatcher Basher rant on the subject (LRB, 8 March). I can never understand why people think there is anything embarrassingly imperialistic about the three thousand Falkland islanders wishing to remain British. There is nothing racist about their claim, and no disenfranchised, downtrodden Spanish-speaking mass yearning for enosis with the motherland.
Diski says that it is ludicrous for Britain to retain islands that are geographically much closer to Argentina than the United Kingdom. By the same yardstick the Turks have the right to continue to ignore UN resolutions and occupy over a third of Cyprus; Greece’s Dodecanese archipelago should also be Turkish and the Channel Islands should be surrendered to the French. They are certainly much closer to France than the Falklands are to Argentina.
Shaving-Pot in Waiting
Rosemary Hill, in her review of Helen Rappaport’s Magnificent Obsession, refers to the ‘late and childless marriage of convenience between William and Adelaide’ (LRB, 23 February). It was not childless: two girls were born, but lived for only a short time, and there were several miscarriages. Also, to call Prince Albert’s father ‘Bavarian’ is eccentric in the extreme.
James Stevens Curl
Holywood, County Down
Reader, she married him (or did she?)
Charlotte Brontë didn’t straightforwardly kill off the fictional counterpart of her teacher, as Brian Bracken’s comment about the end of Villette suggests (LRB, 8 March). Brontë herself described the ending as a ‘little puzzle’. This seems to have been taken as an invitation to see through what should puzzle nobody. Villette has been said to be the earliest English novel which seriously contemplates lasting unhappiness for its heroine. It certainly contemplates it, but I don’t believe that’s the issue.
The book is wholly narrated by Lucy Snowe, but she isn’t a fully reliable narrator, burying material particulars behind calculated vagueness, before filling in the details much later. But neither conscious lying nor total concealment seems to be her way. Right up to the last pages, she writes with cool detached observation of everyone else’s passions, not speculating on what she does not actually observe, and seems consistently baffled by evidence that she has passions of her own. At the end of the book, she gives a breathless account of a shipwreck involving her fiancé, but stops short of actually reporting, or inventing, his death. Instead, the narrator declares that she will not do such violence to the reader’s feelings as to shut out the possibility of a happy ending, and so the book comes to a close. Plainly, in claiming to spare the reader’s feelings, Lucy is announcing an unhappy ending and demanding sympathy for her own unacknowledged pain in a characteristic passive-aggressive style. It is only a ‘puzzle’ for people who think of this as a gentle hint, and not as the literary equivalent of hitting the reader over the head with a frying-pan.
The account of the shipwreck is insistently presented as a work of her own imagination. This is the story of how a disastrous marriage came about. Reader, I married him – and so much the worse! It is Mme Paul Emanuel who kills off M. Paul Emanuel, if only in her imagination.
Two Cheers for Nixon
Like Christian Lorentzen, I remember the first candidate I voted against: Richard Nixon, in 1972 (LRB, 23 February). It’s a sign of how far we have fallen from that low point that I may just reverse myself and write in Mr Nixon’s name this year. After all, he signed the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Social Security reforms that took dog food off seniors’ menus. It’s hard to imagine Barack Obama (for whom I voted in 2008) pushing very hard to enact similar legislation.
Now that I’ve begun to think along these lines, I can see that I would prefer Ol’ Creepy to any major party nominee for the last thirty years. The fact that he’s dead only adds to the allure; the dead can no longer bomb Hanoi.