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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, January 28, 2008

continuing ed

Up again in the cold and dark of predawn: I could feel the colder air here in the house when I set about the morning routine of turning on heat and lights and putting on the kettle for coffee. Kimmie advised me that it was –4° C outside when I took her coffee and crackers up to her.

We were both tired after a restless night. In my case, I found that some of my concerns about life were weighing on my mind. But eventually I started drifting into dream, back awake, into dream, and back awake.

Over the weekend I underwent a spasm of book-buying: five online and two at a bookstore.

The bookstore buys were translations of the Iliad and the Aeneid by Robert Fagles, intended as part of my ongoing education in the epic genre.

I first read the Iliad back in 1975, when I was in English 10. It was among a small collection of alternative books that the teacher, Mr. Ryan, offered me in lieu of reading what the rest of the class was reading, since (as I recall) I had already read that book. I chose the Iliad because I was aware that it was supposed to be a great classic, and I wanted to have read it.

Even though the translation by W. H. D. Rouse was in prose, not verse, I found the book heavy going: lists of difficult Greek names and places, and a, for me, hard-to-follow story. I don't think I finished it. Indeed, I never returned the old, peeling paperback--I may even still have it: one of two thefts-by-carelessness that I can recall perpetrating in my school career. (The other theft was at the end of grade 7, when I hung on to a social-studies text, The Ancient and Medieval World. Come to think of it, that theft may not have been carelessness, but a more willful desire to keep the book, again, I think, so I could finish reading it--although I don't believe I ever did.)

Now that I'm studying the epic genre, the Iliad and the Odyssey are indispensable. I recently read that Tolstoy read the Iliad through five times consecutively before embarking on War and Peace. If Tolstoy could do it five times, Vitols can do it once.

I bought my copy new at the Chapters-Indigo store at Park Royal. I wasn't going to buy any books there, since I am one of the many Canadians who resents the fact that bookstores here are still charging "Canadian" prices for new books: prices much higher than the "American" prices printed on the cover, even though the Canadian dollar is now at par with the U.S. dollar. This copy of the Iliad is a good example: $24.00 Canadian vs. $15.95 U.S. That's a premium of 50%.

For this reason I've been resisting buying in bookstores, and choosing to buy online instead, paying in U.S. dollars. But I made an exception, and was also encouraged by Kimmie, who wanted to make these books part of my package of birthday presents, since we had just returned one of the presents she had given me--a fleece that was not quite the right color. She was happy to get a substitute that I genuinely wanted.

And yes, I was happy too. I decided on getting this version simply by opening the book up and reading some of Fagles's verse translation. The opener:

Rage--Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

I found it vivid and vigorous--very readable. Right away I felt myself drawn to Fagles's direct, simple way of expressing the thoughts. I glanced at one or two other verses, but had already made up my mind that I was happy to try this translation. It was a bonus that Virgil's Aeneid was also available in his translation, also as a Penguin Classic.

So more books wing their way toward me. I feel anxious about it: I know I won't be able to finish the ones I've got going; I'll put some or all of them aside to start the new ones as they arrive. I've already started the Iliad--that is, I'm reading Bernard Knox's 64-page introduction. I'm thrilled to think that a book written 2,700 years ago is still being printed and read today--that I can acquaint myself with people from that remote time.

I enjoy reading with purpose. And the more definite and important the purpose, the more I enjoy the reading. As a writer in the epic tradition, I continue my education. It seemed to work for Tolstoy.

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  • "If Tolstoy could do it five times, Vitols can do it once." ;)

    I thnk I should read these two pieces, too. Better with some comments.

    By Blogger Liza, at February 04, 2008 1:03 AM  

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