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Showing posts from 2012

War and Peace 2013: Entry 2--Preliminaries Continued

In my first post about what I am affectionately calling WandP2013 (follow us on twitter at @wandp2013), I discussed the various translations available for Tolstoy's epic and the reading plan we'll follow as we move through 1300 pages of text. Now, I want to lay out what essentially would be considered supporting materials for the book. It's highly likely your edition of War and Peace comes with an editor's introduction that lays out the sort of material, written by someone who is both better informed and a better writer than I, so feel free to skip this and read that instead. Fair warning, however: such introductions often include what some people would consider "spoilers," which I will do my best to avoid.

Historical Context

War and Peace is a historical novel. Written in the 1860s, War and Peace is set largely from 1805-1812 during the Napoleonic Wars that raged in Europe in the early part of the 19th century. Indeed, it has often been joked that the novel is…

War and Peace 2013: Entry 1--Preliminaries

The Odyssey is barely behind us (in fact, it's not completely behind me, as I still have a few posts to do on the entire poem in review), but I'm already looking forward to 2013. After many excellent suggestions, consultations with friends and business associates, and a three-round voting system, I ignored what everybody else wanted and chose Tolstoy's War and Peace. Originally serialized and then published in its entirety in 1869, this book was actually a clear choice for what I'd read and blog about (slowly) over the course of 2013. In all sincerity, this is a truly brilliant book, well deserving of its reputation, and I really hope you'll grab a copy and join in. Speaking of copies...


There have been numerous English translations of Tolstoy's epic in the 150 years since it was first published. The most notable translations are probably those of Constance Garnett, Aylmer and Louise Maude, Ann Dunnigan, and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I…

The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 44: Thoughts on Book XXIV

First, by way of a preamble, I should say that, while this is the last regularly scheduled update for The Odyssey Reading Club, I plan to do at least two general overview posts in the coming weeks, so now would be a very good time to submit any questions or comments you have about my posts, or about the book as a whole. You can comment here, shoot me a question on Twitter ( or over on the Facebook page--Odyssey Reading Club.

Second, as a sort of premature epilogue, it's time to "officially" announce that, while The Odyssey is ending, the story continues--or at least this crazy idea of living with a text for a year continues. 2013 will be the year of Tolstoy's War and Peace, perhaps the archetypal long classic novel. A separate post, previewing the new project, will go up soon. All I'll say for now is that War and Peace is long, but it is highly readable, and if you've made it through all 12,000+ lines of Homer's occasionally dense…

The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 43: Thoughts on Book XXIII

Admit it, you cried a little. Or, at least, you felt as if crying would not be an inappropriate reaction to the final reunion of Odysseus and Penelope.

However, as with everything involving this preeminently cagey couple, their reunion is perhaps more complicated than seems strictly necessary from the outside. Indeed, both the nurse who fetches Penelope (and, it should be noted, upbraids her slightly for doubting the evidence she's put before her) and Telemachus fail to understand the nature of the bond between Odysseus and his queen. After Penelope descends and takes her place in the great hall, she eyes her husband but says nothing; for his part, too, Odysseus is silent and only speaks to Telemachus, urging him to go about creating a diversion that will buy them time to figure out how to prevent an uprising by the suitors' many relatives.

Of course, the fact that the diversion that Odysseus has his son create is of a wedding celebration in progress--well, that's exactly …

The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 42: Thoughts on Book XXII

Well, we were promised a bloodbath, and that's what Homer gave us. But I can't be the only who found the whole thing rather distasteful, surely?

The question, of course, is what Homer meant us to feel. I will admit, when that total jerk Antinous got an arrow through the neck, part of me cheered. He was a truly loathsome human being who had plotted to kill Telemachus and usurp the throne. And even when most of the other suitors were speared and gouged and stabbed until they became a lifeless pile of bodies, I felt little compunction. (Incidentally, if anyone wanted a glimpse of the goriness and violence of The Iliad, well, you got it here. It's not pretty.) So far, I think Homer was portraying a justifiable reaction to some truly disgraceful crimes.


It wasn't even that the serving women who had disrespected Penelope and had sex with the suitors were killed that got me--I knew that was coming. What bothered me was that, before sending his son and servants to hac…

The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 41: Thoughts on Book XXI

I mentioned on Twitter today, only half jokingly, that this section of the poem was so good that it almost seemed wrong to try to break it down into smaller units or analyze it. The book divisions are artificial, created long after Homer died, but just as with the Bible, they are often so perfect as to be almost impossible to to imagine anywhere else.
For example, think of how we open this book compared to where we close it. We start with Penelope, guided by Athena, who gathers her handmaidens around her and fetches her husband's bow, which has been locked in storage for twenty years. We end with Odysseus, having proven his worth with that bow, still in his hands, flanked by his son Telemachus and aided by his loyal male servants. We begin with "feminine" cunning and end with "masculine" strength. In between, we've essentially had one long set piece--the Test of the Bow, as it's called. That, my friends, is structure serving narrative, and it's amaz…

The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 40: Thoughts on Book XX

So, you know how every action movie or war movie or super-hero movie has the lull before the action where we check in with all the main characters on the even of the big battle? Often a montage, it generally sets the stage for the action set-piece that's going to wrap up the narrative. Well, you can thank Homer for all of those, because this book is exactly that. It's the dangerously deceptive calm before the storm. It's also mentioned that the day that is dawning is a feast day to Apollo, the god of prophecy, hence the portents take on an even greater impact--another trick picked up in future narratives. Also, Apollo is, along with is sister Artemis, the god of the bow, another bit of foreshadowing to what is to come.

As for the text itself, it is quite short. In a very clever bit of construction on Homer's part, we see in turn essentially all of the key players on Ithaca: we start with Odysseus, tossing and turning and finally being chided to sleep by Athena; then we…

The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 39: Thoughts on Book XIX

Not the reunion between Penelope and Odysseus you were expecting, was it?

Of course, there is much else here besides, with Telemachus and Odysseus plotting the slaughter of the suitors and the wonderful story of Odysseus' naming and the origin of the scar; like a mystery writer, Homer has saved some vital information until the end. But what makes this book special are the scenes between Odysseus and Penelope.

Many readers of The Odyssey argue that it's somewhere around this section that Penelope realizes who her husband is--if not sooner. That can't be proven--the text, like Odysseus himself, is too wily for that--but there are a few things that allow a reader to infer that Penelope has more knowledge of the situation that she's letting on.

First, and most subtly, especially in translation, is Homer's language. Penelope and Odysseus, you may have noticed, are often described in similar ways: thoughtful, mindful, etc., depending on your translation. Remember when Pe…

Never Let the Doctor See the Damage

First of all, let me say that nothing I write here is an attempt to persuade anyone to either like or dislike "The Angels Take Manhattan." Taste is by its definition subjective, and I would no sooner want to persuade you that yours is wrong than I would want you to tell me that mine is. Rather, what I hope to do is to look at two elements of the story that seem to be troubling some viewers who aren't sure what to make of them: the nature of the time paradox and the tone and circumstances of the Ponds' departure. The first will mainly entail a close examination of the structure of the story; the second is more of a thematic interpretation.

Now, for a disclaimer. Almost all time-loop/paradox style plots (and this surely is one) are problematic in that they, by necessity, leave loose ends. While I think this story has most things wrapped up fairly neatly, I'm sure there is a strand left undone somewhere, so please forgive me if I miss something blindingly obvious.


The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 38: Thoughts on Book XVIII

Here we have a rather strange little section. The main dramatic incident comes from a fight between Odysseus (still in disguise as the old beggar) and another beggar, named Arnaeus, but called Irus because he runs messages for the suitors, Iris being, along with Hermes, one of the two messenger gods of Olympus. The fight and the events around it are brutal and squalid and I think fairly shocking to modern sensibilities. The fact that it's meant to be at least a little shocking doesn't really lessen its effect for most people, I'd expect. Still, it's an unpleasant thing to read and congratulations if you made it through; I wish I could say that it's the last passage in The Odyssey that might give more sensitive readers pause, but there are still those pesky suitors to deal with.

First, however, we have what is, to the eye, a sort of proto-historic "Bumfights" where the two beggars fight for the amusement of the suitors. There is, fortunately, more than she…

Some Semi-Personal Thoughts on My Odyssey

I don't get personal on this blog often--or in real life, actually. I'm generally more inclined to analyze and laugh at the world than I am to share myself with it. This post, however, is going to lean strongly on the personal side--not intimate or spicy or oversharingly personal, mind you. Just about me as opposed to about something else. If that doesn't interest you, and there's no reason it should, you can close your browser tab now without me hunting you down and ask why you don't want to hear about myfeelings.

As you no doubt know if you're reading this, for the past nine months, I've been embarked on a little project called the "Odyssey Reading Club" inspired by some peeps on Twitter. In brief, a few of us (a very few, I'd guess), have been readingHomer's tricky second album slowly--really slowly. As in, we started in January and will finish some time in December slowly. The point of this approach is to both allow people to go at the…

The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 37: Thoughts on Book XVII

Let's begin with the ending, shall we?

"The day was over. Dusk was falling fast." (Fagles translation, line 677)

I really can't sing the praises of the Fagles translation enough, and his rendering of this last line is a good example of one of the key reasons why. This entire section of the poem is full of dread, and heavily laden with dramatic irony, where we know things that aren't known to the characters. Moreover, there are layers of irony, because only we the reader have complete knowledge both of what is happening and what lays ahead. Odysseus has shared some things with Telemachus; Telemachus has shared certain information with Penelope; the seer has shared information with Telemachus and Penelope, and on and on. There are many secrets being kept, many games being played, but the final aim for all of them is clear: bloody death awaits the suitors, and soon. The endgame has truly begun, so Fagles, knowing that, can take the opportunity of working the final l…

The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 36: Thoughts on Book XVI

How do you write about a passage of poetry that literally makes you cry? How do you try to analyse or explore or critique lines that you don't connect to rationally but rather that you feel in your heart and soul? As much as I love this poem (and that is a great deal), Book XVI is the first time since embarking on this epic reread that I had to put down the book to wipe away tears. Words written 2500 years ago by a poet lost to time can still do that. Just words on a page--what a miracle a poem is.

Anyway, enough about my personal reactions. This section is all about building to and coming down from THE moment--the moment when Odysseus and Telemachus meet and recognize each other for who they both are, father and son reunited. These passages are the fulfillment of one of the thematic elements that has been churning away under the current of this entire poem: Telemachus needing to know that his father lives and have it recognized that he is his son, and Odysseus needing to be recog…

The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 35: Thoughts on Book XV

First off, let me say that I do intend to get back to updating the glossary--I think one is sorely needed for Book XV, and one for Book XIV wouldn't go amiss, either. Time, however, is at a premium for me right now, and I feel it's more important to get this post out there before backtracking a bit.

That said, this is a bit of a strange book, isn't it? It's ostensibly "about" Telemachus' return from Sparta, cutting off just before father and son are reunited at the hut of the loyal swineherd Eumaeus. Homer breaks up the story of Telemachus, however, with a lengthy exchange between the (still disguised) Odysseus and Eumaeus detailing how Eumaeus came to be in service to the royal family of Ithaca.

The question, as always, is why? And not for the first time, I genuinely am not sure. Moreover, not only am I not sure, from a literary perspective, why Homer places this story where he does, I'm not even sure in terms of the narrative why it's told, by w…

The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 34: Thoughts on Book XIV

Welcome back! I know we're already moved on to Book XV in the schedule, but I haven't shared my thoughts on Book XIV yet, darn it, so I'm going to do so now. But, seeing as how this is well behind, I will be (hopefully) brief.

This is a lovely scene, really--and it essentially is one long scene, featuring the disguised Odysseus and Eumaeus talking, eating, and becoming friends. Of course, Eumaeus does not know that the disguised stranger is his beloved master Odysseus, but he nevertheless treats him as well, insofar as he is able, as have any of the great kings as Odysseus has encountered on his travels.

Which is one of the weird things about this section, really. Odysseus has returned home, but he has not yet had his return, his nostoi. The suitors are still plaguing his house, a topic about which his loyal swineherd is most upset, and his son, Telemachus, is still across the ocean, about to encounter an ambush. In a strange way, this need for secrecy and discretion turns…

The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 33: Thoughts on Book XIII

Yes, this post is late, but like Odysseus, who wanders for years in order to reach his beloved Ithaca at last, so does this post finally make it onto the web. Or something.

But yes--Ithaca! Odysseus has made it home. So what's left in store? Many, many things including some of the most romantic passages in all narrative literature--but we'll come to those in time. Let's say late autumn.

For now, let's talk some about the poor Phaeacians. Not only does Poseidon destroy one of their finest vessels, plunging it to the depths of the sea; he then completely surrounds their island with a mountain, making it completely inaccessible to the outside world. Added to that, Odysseus, however briefly, curses them! After all the time he spent there, and all he learned of King Alcinous and Queen Arete and the society of peace and virtue they've engendered, he's still willing to believe the absolute worst of them. His opinion of them sinks so far so fast that he actually does a…