Magazine December 22, 2014, Issue

A Very Bright Wake Indeed

Why Homer Matters, by Adam Nicolson (Henry Holt, 320 pp., $30)

There is no hope for me. Twenty years of reviewing popularizing scholarly works in the humanities, chiefly the Greco-Roman classics, has done such damage to my temper that now, when I have in hand a book that demands almost unrestrained praise, I am (just as if the book were awful) skulking around my garden, pruning bushes within an inch of their lives and grinding my teeth about the pitiful state of literary culture in this country. Why did it take a high-bred Englishman to write an engaging, imaginative, yet learned book about Homer? Wasn’t there an American who could do it?

Guess not. Adam Nicolson is an Etonian and Cantabrigian and the fifth Baron Carnock, who has farmed his family estate. I’m not pulling your leg about him: His type was not extinguished in the Great War, and persists outside of the Ralph Lauren–sponsored fantasies of Downton Abbey. If it’s possible to summarize Nicolson’s expertise, he could be called deeply versed in the connections between place and literary heritage. Though his best-known book is God’s Secretaries (2003), about the making of the King James Bible, he began in 1981 with The National Trust Book of Long Walks and in all his travels never ventured far from a prismatic consideration of where we come from, how beautiful it is, and why we’re in essence still there.

To write that Why Homer Matters is wide-ranging is like writing that the sky is high. Through existing scholarship, Nicolson connects the Homeric texts to, among many other things, the Greeks’ ethnic origins on the Eurasian steppes (in a deep well of time before the Iliad and the Odyssey were written down in the 8th century b.c.); to modern gang culture; to Hittite court etiquette (according to which a rude stare at a lady’s maid could get a visiting barbarian executed); to the bardic traditions that Milman Parry found still vital in the Balkans in the early 20th century; to the physical properties of the bronze in world-changing weapons and the Hades-like sufferings of its components’ miners; and to the ensorcelling properties that parents’ storytelling about everyday matters can assume.

This last is my favorite part of the book, with a cogency to which I can testify, having enjoyed a family life probably very different from Nicolson’s in everything but that both our households speak a form of English. As an example of what is intoned “in the evening, upstairs in the bedroom, traditional, formulaic, with lumps of the culture embedded in it, full of memories, lullingly soporific,” he reproduces, typing it “straight onto the keyboard,” what he used to chant to his children about the night train to Scotland:

That was the night and it was very dark

That the children found their way to the station

and there at the station waiting in the dark

was the long long train they knew from before.

Dark was the train and wonderfully shiny

the lights from the station shining on its flanks

and the lights in the cabins glowing inside

and there as the children stood in the station

watching the train that was dark in the night

they said to each other Can we climb aboard?

Can we find our way to our beds in the train?

And their father said No to them, No not yet.

Wait till the guard opens the doors.

So they stood in the cold and longed for the warmth

Of the long train as it made its way north.

This book’s philosophical helpfulness hurries from every page. Being in the wrong place, or simply on the move, and yet making any place a home through words, is a defining condition of humanity. In the Iliad, the Greeks are camped, crowded and squabbling, on a powerful city’s shore near the Bosporus (the modern straits of the Dardanelles), to retrieve a queen absconded from the Peloponnese (the southern Greek mainland), and they inflict and endure thousands of lines’ worth of mayhem. In the Odyssey, Odysseus, the wiliest of the Greek leaders, adds ten years of wandering and sojourning to the ten-year Trojan War, and his way “home” necessitates a detour to the underworld, where he meets the shade of the Iliad’s hero Achilles with his unforgettable complaint that his glory has come to nothing: He would rather be alive as a day laborer for a peasant than lord it over all the dead. Back on Ithaca, after killing the suitors who have invaded his house and besieged his faithful wife, Odysseus must, oddly, travel far enough inland that the oar he carries is mistaken for a winnowing fan: Only there — in a place unspeakably distant from his island kingdom — will a sacrifice to the touchy sea god Poseidon bring peace.

#page#The truly heartbreaking thing about human displacement is not its agonies but its beauties, epitomized in the Iliad’s battle scenes with their flowing yet pounding hexameter lines. It’s to a musical chant and stately verbal formulae that men find themselves at distinctly wrong places at distinctly wrong times, their defiant or wistful speeches (if they have a chance to make any) followed by the strewing of their brains or the sliding forth of their intestines — and by the victors’ equally sonorous speeches, equally meaningless in practical terms.

If life weren’t so engrossing, so ravishing, we wouldn’t mind; we wouldn’t even bother, but instead simply find a quiet, out-of-the-way spot in which to sleep off existence, like a wolf on its last legs. This is, in my view, why Saint Augustine called God “beauty”: The tensions of beauty and loss create the peculiarly human kind of life, with its strivings to connect to the infinite. Animals — duh! — have emotion, and they have complex thoughts, but they don’t have aesthetics. They don’t react to music unless the pitch hurts their ears, or to flowers unless these have a pragmatically useful scent.

Nicolson is a great describer of musical effects, and of flowery landscapes too as he travels and observes. He visits the island where a man named Homer might have originated, and the one where Homer is first quoted in extant writing. (Touchingly, the poet is quoted with erotic wit on a drinking cup that has been excavated from the grave of a teenager from an apparently relaxed, prosperous community unfamiliar with the adventurous upheaval Homer depicts.) But Nicolson’s great strength is his willingness to learn through his own suffering what Homer means.

The book opens with a description of his own “ruinous journey” along the west coast of Ireland in a storm, with broken instruments and the bowsprit submerged again and again. Nicolson’s determination to live the literature seems a bit much here. “Steering across the swells, holding the wheel against them as they came through, releasing it as they fell away, I tied the great Robert Fagles translation of the Odyssey on the compass binnacle, holding it open with a bungee cord against the wind.” He reads the story of the Sirens, whose irresistible song Odysseus listens to while tied to his mast, while his crew, their ears stopped with beeswax, relentlessly row past the shore and the hero screams to them to turn the ship in to where it would wreck and deliver them to the crooning monsters.

Such adventures on Nicolson’s part, however — though they may first evoke an “Oh, please!” — prove useful in this intricately structured book. One of the main lines of argument is that the Greeks, far from being natural and immemorial sailors, found the Mediterranean alien and rather horrifying, at best comforting themselves by calling its barren surface “the broad backs of the sea,” as if it were full of the vast herds of their ancestral memory. Seafaring for them was about the violence of war and brigandage as well as of storms, not least because of the long period they spent as a displaced or precariously settled people. Nicolson makes it undeniably clear how dangerous and wearing voyaging in a small vessel can be.

Several other times, he goes to a rather shocking length of personalization. Instead of just narrating (in the course of showing how heroic adventures are traditionally remembered and sung) the kidnapping by two British officers of a German general on Crete during World War II, Nicolson has retraced their trek with their captive over hair-raising mountain terrain. For two weeks, he slept in chapels and vineyards, and emerged covered in lice, his boots shredded by the spiky stones.

He also narrates how, as a young man lost on an evening stroll away from his hotel in Syria, he was raped at knifepoint by someone who had first seemed polite and helpful, and who afterwards walked back partway toward safety with him, the victim feigning cordiality. Most of the world, of course, used to be and much of the world still is like this, its brutality close below the surface, its opportunism untouched by religious or philosophical considerations, its compunctions, at best, limited within the family or the tribe. But nothing makes this more vivid or instigating than an account like this one. Yes: Homer is real. Literature is about life. What do we do about that?

#page#First, everybody read this book. Nicolson has assembled some of the most lovely, funny, troubling, strange, and ironic passages from Homer and re-enlivened them. Odysseus, for example, sits sobbing after he hears, amid a foreign kingdom’s civilized hospitality, a singer’s account of Troy’s fall and his own brutal role in it. Almost unbelievably, his emotion is now compared to that of a woman in a captured city as she wails over her dying husband and the enemy spears-ends hit at her from behind, signaling impatience to drag her away to a life of slavery. Like time and space, individual fates merge the closest even as they seem to diverge the farthest.

If I have a serious complaint about this book, it’s that it threatens to be better than Homer — and I say this as a qualified classicist, who is supposed to be extensively trained for snottiness toward an amateur enthusiast like Nicolson. Against the howl that must be rising from the academy at my judgment, I’m standing my ground. I’m offering, first of all, a genuine criticism within that judgment. Nicolson has a rare — if not freakish — gift for excitement, and the uninitiated would not know from him about such boring Homeric passages as the Catalogue of Ships, or about the sometimes cheesy, CSI-type descriptions of weapons entering the human anatomy. This isn’t a slacker’s assessment on my part: The great Roman poet Horace adjudged that Homer (whom he had read in Greek since boyhood) “nods” (better, “keeps dozing off when he shouldn’t”). A reader scooping up even the congenial Fagles or the superb Fitzgerald translations of the epics on Nicolson’s say-so is likely to be disappointed.

But at the same time, “threatens to be better than Homer” is the most appropriate kind of praise for a popularizing book. “Homer” (and there probably was a single compiler and redactor in the 8th century) looks like a popularizer himself. He seems to have been the genius who distilled thousands of years of disparate folklore, some middling, some outstanding, and some outright bad — as the odds would dictate. He refined, he selected, he amalgamated however he saw fit, and he came up with something performed as a competitive sport for a mass audience.

In Plato’s Hippias Minor, we meet a sophist who entertains crowds with his expertise on Homer, and we hear the well-bolstered, quarterback-type ego that annoyed the philosopher so much, as it naturally would. New ways of presenting Homer were about the most thrilling thing going — people loved this stuff, and there was nothing Plato could do to draw his fellow citizens away from it to pure abstraction or strivings toward totalitarian conformity. Culture would go on enforcing its heavy but changing will, in spite of what Plato thought. To bring ancient literature into a new age, it takes a confident, sweeping, somewhat heedless, maybe even ruthless talent, like that of Adam Nicolson.

– Sarah Ruden’s forthcoming book is The Music Inside the Whale, and Other Marvels: A Translator on the Beauty of the Bible (Knopf), and she is working on a translation of Augustine’s Confessions (Random House).

Sarah Ruden’s most recent work is a translation of Augustine’s Confessions.

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