Category Archives: books

Geoff Dyer’s Not Books

Four or five years ago I was wandering around Bristol when I saw someone who looked like Geoff Dyer walking up the street. I knew it couldn’t be Dyer because he lived in Los Angeles, but scurried up behind this lookalike, overtook him and walked by again, this time trying to get a closer look. It was him, of course.

He was there to promote his latest book White Sands – I soon discovered he’d be in Waterstones later that day giving a talk, so I went along. I’ve followed Dyer’s career for many years. I’d heard him on the radio reading from one of his earliest books, a novel, The Search. The book was disappointing, a bit flat, but nevertheless Dyer’s voice, his take on things had stayed with me, so when he started to find his feet as a non-fiction writer, I soon followed. And I loved what he wrote. Out of Sheer Rage is a sort of non-biography of DH Lawrence. Dyer is researching Lawrence, has an advance, a deadline, but he can’t get the book finished, so instead writes a book about not writing a book. Dyer is very good at not doing things. Hence the title of a later book Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It.

In the spirit of Dyer I didn’t buy a signed copy of White Sands and still don’t own a copy. It was serialised as Radio Four’s Book of the Week, I’d also picked it up several times in bookshops to flick through it. There’s a chapter on not seeing the Northern Lights. It was another book of nots. So I was not buying it.

Last week Dyer turned up in Bath to promote his new book The Last Days of Roger Federer which, as Dyer was keen to explain, is not a book about tennis. This is a book about endings, but not abrupt endings, but declines. How someone’s decline sets in long before things end completely. It’s a book about finitude. About ageing, and about time. The book is 86,400 words long, the same number as there are seconds in a day. Nietzsche, for example, lived long after his madness set in, and Bob Dylan, according to Dyer, still makes records long after he has since being any good at all.

So is Dyer in decline too? He admits to feeling a bit creaky: he plays tennis but his knee is messed up. He had a mild stroke some years ago (he mentioned it at the Bristol talk), but his mind seems still capable of pinpoint accuracy. He is extremely funny, most of his books are smart but some are hilarious too, and in Bath he talked for almost an hour and his performance was worthy of stand up. Certainly funnier than Ricky Gervais’ Supernature.

I bought a signed copy of The Last Days of Roger Federer but like many of my signed first editions, I won’t read it. I’ll keep it on my shelf, out of the sunlight, and it’ll stay there until my last days when my son or daughter will come and throw it in a box and take it to a charity shop.

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What We Can Learn from Germany

Go into any bookshop in the UK and look in the German history section – the vast majority of books are related to World War Two – there is almost nothing on German post war reconstruction, or the origins of the state. Britain’s inability to see beyond the war has prevented us from learning from German success, and their achievements are, of course, very many. From the arts, the sciences, manufacturing, Germany is a world power: Adidas, Aldi, Audi, Bach, Beethoven, BMW, Bosch, Dr Martens, Einstein, Lidl, Mercedes, Porsche, the printing press, Puma, Wagner. Alexander Von Humboldt has more animals and places named after him than anyone else. Heard of him? Why not?

William Hershel discovered the planet Uranus from his back garden in Bath. I spend much of my time in that city and am struck by how few of the residents have heard of him or know there is a museum there dedicated to the man, his equally famous sister and their discoveries. Hershel, like Humboldt may be less than well known because they were German. And the British, particularly the English, have a bit of thing about Germans. (When England play Germany at football commentators always refer to the two countries having a rivalry, but I’m pretty sure it’s one way – the Germans don’t think about the English anything like as much.)

John Kampfner’s Why the Germans Do It Better is a great book with a terrible title. Kampfner is in awe of  the Germans, but not so much that the book avoids being critical.

If the Germans are more successful than the rest of Europe and particularly the UK it maybe because their economy is distributed, geographically and productively. 80% of Germany’s GDP comes from family businesses. And two thirds of these businesses are in places with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants. Compare this to the UK, where we are a predominantly service based economy. One astonishing fact exemplifies the difference between Germany and other major economies: Berlin is the only capital city where GDP per capita is lower than the rest of the country.

Germany was unified in 1871, before then it was made up of the states of the Holy Roman Empire, each with its own prince, or elector, its own identity. This maybe one origin of Germany’s more distributed economy. German unification came too late for any major colonial influence, the country did not grow rich on the proceeds of the slave trade. The Germans had to create their own wealth. Germany introduced compulsory education sixty years earlier than the UK and by the early 1800s had fifty universities compared to just Oxford and Cambridge in England. (Scotland was also ahead of England in this respect). The printing press was invented by Gutenberg in Mainz – in 1785 Germany circulated 1,225 periodicals and by 1913 more books were published annually in Germany (31,051 titles) than any other country in the world. In 1900 illiteracy was lower in Germany than France or the UK – all these factors led to the creation of an educated middle class, and in turn helped give rise to the family businesses that fuel the German economy. German law requires significant employee representation on the supervisory boards of large companies. Germany has many faults: its obsession with cars and coal, successive coalition governments that are often slow to act, huge, disastrous, infrastructure projects (the Tempelhof Airport) and a less than world class banking system. But if the UK (and particularly England) can learn from Germany then we must all put the past behind us and maybe think of the country as a friend rather than as a rival.

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Octopus Consciousness

Consider this: an octopus has one central brain and possibly eight smaller brains, each for the independent control of its limbs. It also has skin that reacts to colour changes in the environment even though the octopus cannot see colour itself. How? Its skin can see. Therefore it’s possible that the octopus has several forms of consciousness operating independently. Maybe the limbs communicate with each other, and thus the octopus has three levels of awareness: the central brain, the limbs and the skin. All this is explored in Peter Godfrey-Smith’s  dazzling ‘Metazoa’, a book which blew both my minds, particularly when Godfrey-Smith considers the consciousness of the octopus in light of experiments on split brain patients. Then things get very weird. If, after surgery, or damage, a patient’s brain has weak communication between its two halves, then the patient may recognise objects, but not be able to name them. Such patients live in a world that is separated into things and their names, and somehow the two never quite hold together. It is only by what Godfrey-Smith calls ‘switching’ that the patient can function – the patient must learn to switch perception from one side of the brain to the other: the vigilant right brain flips to the more forensic left. ‘In a wide range of animals, the left side of the brain specialises in identifying food, the right has an aptitude for social relations and threats.’ Maybe all humans use ‘switching’, one moment concentrating, focusing, the next, vigilant, open to new impressions. (Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary‘  explores this subject in great depth).  Could the octopus do something similar – switch its focus from central brain to its limbs, or even to its skin? ‘Metazoa’ is a book about consciousness, or perhaps subjectivities. Bees ‘are masters of logical abstraction’, insects and slugs have emotions, fish can count and even discriminate different genres of music, cuttlefish dream, rats hatch plans. With such intelligence in life forms we may have assumed were lacking in complexity, maybe its time to reconsider our attitude to all other beings, and accept that although humans may be more destructive, we aren’t so special after all.

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Knausgaard’s End

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s huge six volume series My Struggle concludes with a gigantic 1100 page bruiser of a book, aptly title The End. Knausgaard’s writing has been termed ‘auto-fiction’ – his books tell the story of his life, all characters are real people, but unlike a conventional biography, this is life in all its maddening, repetitive detail. I’d like to be able to compare it with minimalist music, but at least that can have some beauty. Knausgaard’s six novels are crudely written, dwell on his insecurities and are dense with endless, insignificant minutiae. He pours coffee, smokes cigarette after cigarette. He worries, makes tedious trips to the shops and the park, stares out of windows. And yet there is something else happening here. It’s as if we’re trawling through our own lives, but with an intensity of focus on all the trivia: cooking sausages, loading the dishwasher, remembering the colour and smell of children’s clothes, the feel of warm rooms in summer, of cold streets in winter. Knausgaard creates a vivid reality, he seems to have an acute visual memory, seems to hold details of moments from decades ago that the rest of us have forgotten. In this last book he attempts to rationalise his obsession with the banal: in a long digression on the power of language in the rise of the Nazis, Knausgaard rejects reaching beyond the quotidian, elevating the world to something more than it is. There is desire for what is authentic, for what matters, for the human world. This is why, he seems to be saying, I have filled five volumes with getting up, making breakfast, doing the laundry, and, in this last book, worrying what others he has written about will think of him. He has a hyper-vigilance, a tension, a constant anxiety. When it’s remembered that book one of the series describes his father’s death, stirring up Knausgaard’s hatred for the man he regards as a thug, then there is some explanation for this vigilance: since he can remember, Knausgaard was bullied and beaten by his father. Many passages recall him waiting to hear his father come home, terrified what mood he would be in. These are novels of fear, of a lifelong insecurity, and although there is love and laughter here too, there is an overwhelming sense of man battling to be free. This, then, is his struggle.

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Searching for Mary and Jane

I’m working on an idea for a play, or ‘noise opera’, ‘Mary and Jane‘ – in which I imagine them meeting in the handsome streets of Georgian Bath. Jane Austen lived in the city from 1801- 1806, Shelley arrived just over ten years later. Austen’s stay there has been described as creatively fallow, whereas it was in Bath that Shelley completed her manuscript of Frankenstein.

Austen novels seem to offer infinite interpretation, yet the author is largely a mystery. We might try and find her in her writing, but her technique of ‘free indirect’ speech, loading her third person prose with the thoughts of her characters, makes it difficult. We might like to assume that some of her character’s views represent hers, but we can never know. There is little of contemporary events in her novels (even though a close relative was guillotined in the French Revolution), almost nothing of the Napoleonic Wars, nor any scrutiny of how her wealthy men made their money. There is only a very vague sense of the country on the verge of the dramatic changes which would be triggered by the industrial revolution. Mary, younger by over twenty years, has one foot in the future. Whereas Austen’s novels seem almost pre-industrial,  Shelley is firmly in the modern world: electricity, evolution, exploration, the romantic individual, these are all starkly evident in Frankenstein. Shelley left us her journals, Austen only her novels, (her sister Cassandra destroyed her letters).

Shelley’s politics cannot be doubted: she was the daughter of two radicals, her mother was, arguably, one of the first feminist philosophers. Austen can be all things to all readers, indeterminate, open to endless speculation, seen by some critics as a ‘conservative propagandist’ and yet, by stressing her characters have an intelligence and a rationality equal to any man, she too can be viewed as a feminist icon. But I know neither that well, and my search continues.

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A World in Which Nothing is Blue

Does language determine how we think?

In Dennis Villeneuve’s 2016 film, Arrival, aliens visit the Earth with a gift to mankind: their language. By learning this language, one of the protagonists begins to see the future as a memory. This, one of the characters explains, supports the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that language determines how we perceive the world.

Although many have questioned the claims of the hypothesis, and to some extent it is no longer taken seriously, there is still merit in examining the idea, which is explored directly in Guy Deutscher’s ‘Through the Language Glass’ and indirectly in Lisa Feldman Barrett’s ‘How Emotions are Made.’

Deutscher’s book begins with a long exploration of colour. William Gladstone, before becoming British Prime Minister, devoted many years to his three volume ‘Studies On Homer’. One of his most astonishing observations is that Homer does not refer to the colour blue. So the question arises, and this is central to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: if Homer had no word for blue, was he unable to perceive the colour? Homer describes the sea as ‘wine dark’, but then sheep are violet, honey is green. According to Gladstone, Homer’s colours were not facts but images, and maybe the use of green to describe honey was to convey a sense of it being fresh, like a newly snapped twig. The sea is dark, forbidding. The ‘unharvestable sea’.

Nevertheless, nothing, in Homer, is blue.

In 1898, the year that Gladstone died, W.H.R. Rivers, anthropologist and psychiatrist, while studying the people of the Murray Islands, off the coast of Australia, discovered that although they had no word for blue (they described the sea as ‘black’) they could differentiate colours as well as anyone else. Thus the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was refuted.

But Deutscher’s book takes the reader along a clever path, first demonstrating that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is ‘ludicrous’, and how could anyone seriously entertain such nonsense, but then slowly pulls us back to a point on that path where it may have some substance after all, the most astonishing example being the Aborigine speakers of Guugu Yimithirr. This language does not use egocentric coordinates as we do, but geographic coordinates. Guugu Ymithirr has no words for ‘left’ and ‘right’ and doesn’t use ‘in front of’ or ‘behind’. Instead speakers use the cardinal points north, south, east and west. Instead of saying ‘John is in front of the tree’, they would say ‘John is north of the tree’. This means, of course, that they must always know where north, south, east and west are. And they do. They have, as Deutscher terms it ‘a perfect pitch’ for direction.

So, is it because they speak a particular language they are more likely to have this ‘perfect pitch’? If so, this may uphold Sapir-Whorf.

Deutscher’s book is wonderful. He leads you to agree an argument, then shows you how wrong you were to trust him. Towards the end of the book he explores ‘Russian blues’. Russian has a word for ‘light blue’ (goluboy) and ‘dark blue’ (siniy). Do Russians see these colours more distinctly because of these words? Well, yes, it seems they do, again supporting the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

But what we’re left with is a very diluted form of the hypothesis, language does affect how we see the world. A little. Maybe not much.

If Deutscher comes to any conclusion he states it first in quoting Franz Boas: ‘Languages differ essentially in what they must convey not in what they may convey.’ And his own pithy maxim: ‘culture enjoys freedom within constraints’.

Meanwhile Lisa Feldman Barrett’s ‘How Emotions are Made’ explores similar territory but with specific attention to the language of emotions. Her theory of ‘constructed emotion’ is interesting, although, compared with Deutscher’s book, her book is woolly, overlong and burdened with too much speculation. Feldman Barrett suggests that emotions do not exist, are social constructs, and ‘each of us needs an emotion concept before we can experience or perceive that emotion.’

This, I think, is central to her argument. Find a word to describe your inner state, and that inner state will be isolated, understood. Most emotions are the result of this, but what is being isolated is not necessarily something physical, but a senstation simplified because it corressponds to what is socially agreed. ‘Culture is a cohesive set of mental representations.’

Norwegians have ‘Forelsket’ the intense joy of falling in love; Russians ‘Tocka’ or spiritual anguish. And the Japanese have ‘Age-otori’ – the feeling of looking worse after a haircut. These emotions may not be unknown to English speakers, but they are more elusive. Nevertheless, she argues, they are all socially constucted and when a word is allocated to them, they have a new reality.

What Feldman Barrett advocates is a scepticism of simplistic emotional termniology, while, at the same time, exploration of a greater granulartiy of language will give us more access to our inner states, and therefore a deeper understanding of ourselves.

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The Original Druidic Orchestra of Mediolanum

Graham Robb’s book ‘The Ancient Paths’ so confused and entertained me, my only response was not to attempt a critical review, but to create a series of improvisations.

The book suggests that the ancient Gauls created a road network which ran across what is now modern France, a network which was subsequently obliterated by the Romans. This in itself is contentious enough, but then Robb goes on to speculate that these roads ran in the direction of the rising and setting sun at the summer and winter solstices.

He pinpoints place names that reflect the location of ancient paths, for example any ‘middle hill’ – a station that would have been used to plot the roads, so, for example, we get Mediolanum, the Roman name for Milan.

Robb also describes the Nemetons, the Druidic temples, showing how none of them are perfectly rectangular, all slightly askew. These were based on the elliptic, the sun’s apparent journey around the zodiac. Of course!

The book verges on being so speculative it is a work of rich fantasy, but no less enjoyable for all that. So, as I said, I don’t really have the time to pick apart his arguments, even in this tenth week of Lockdown, so instead composed a series of short musical pieces.

And here they are:

The Original Druidic Orchestra of Mediolanum

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Faust’s Metropolis

The Romans failed to conquer the lands inhabited by the Germanic tribes: in 9CE when an army led by Varus was ambushed in the Teutoberg forest, the Romans suffered one of the worst routs in their history. As the Roman Empire came to its end, these tribes began to occupy what was Roman territory, and the region evolved into a conglomeration of tiny states known as The Holy Roman Empire. The Empire lost almost half its population during the massacres of the Thirty Years War, and remained fragmented until 1871, when Bismarck, then President of Prussia, pursued a war against France, and in doing so, forced the empire into uniting. France was defeated and William I was crowned first Emperor of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles. Prussia had become the most militarised state in the empire, and its capital, Berlin, became the capital of this new, mighty country.

Faust’s Metropolis is the history of the German capital. It is a huge book, 800 pages, but its subject is vast and complex. Berlin lies at the heart of Germany, and has been at the centre of a European nightmare which has its origins in Prussian militarisation. Berlin has been at the epicentre of two world wars, and almost a third. The Cold War, a stand off between opposing political systems, was epitomised by the division of Berlin, and, to a great extent, ended when border was opened in 1989, and the Wall subsequently destroyed.

As far as the English speaking world is concerned, the history of Germany, and particularly, Berlin, have been foreshadowed by those catastrophic events. In most bookshops at least three quarters of any section on German history will be devoted to Hitler, the Nazis and World War One.

When Napoleon conquered Germany, he stood before the tomb of Frederick the Great in Berlin. ‘Hats off gentlemen,’ he said, ‘if he were still alive, we would not be here.’  There is no doubt that Versailles was chosen for the coronation of the first German emperor, William I, as revenge for the Napoleonic wars. The reparations set out in that treaty of 1919, ending World War One, signed in Versailles, had a significant role in the rise of the Nazis. After the invasion of France, Hitler stood before Napoleon’s mausoleum, creating a sinister symmetry with Napoleon’s tribute to Frederick. He said it was the ‘greatest moment’ of his life.

In the closing months of World War Two, Stalin’s armies swept through the Berlin, committing atrocious acts, murdering and raping, taking revenge, as they would say, for the failed Nazi invasion of their country. The city was divided, the Wall built.

Berlin has been occupied by the French, the Russians, the Americans and the British.  It has been the home of Hegel, the Bauhaus, Einstein, German Dada, Brecht. Alexander Von Humboldt, an intellectual giant, born and died in Berlin, he was a scientist, explorer, mapmaker, yet his achievements remain relatively unknown in the English speaking world, probably because of wars that began and ended long after he died.

In the early 1700s the city welcomed immigrants from Denmark, Sweden, France and Scotland. There were an eccentric series of monarchs: Frederick William the First who appointed a jester to replace Leibniz in the Academy of Science, and who called intellectuals ‘dogfood’. He disguised himself as commoner and wandered the city, physically attacking those he saw as idlers. He conscripted taller men for his ‘giant grenadiers’ and made them march through his rooms. Frederick the Second, perhaps the most famous Prussian king, better known as Frederick the Great, was a tormented, bullied young man. He was an accomplished flautist, Bach wrote ‘A Musical Offering’ based on a theme he composed.  Voltaire, despite being a friend of Frederick, said of Berlin it had ‘too many bayonets and not enough books.’ Indeed, Berlin, as the capital of Prussia, was at the heart of a militarisation that would spill over into the twentieth century. For many years Berlin was like a garrison town, and its citizens in awe of the military. Berliners deference to authority is beautifully encapsulated in the story of Wilhelm Voigt, an unemployed shoemaker, who, masquerading as a Prussian officer, ordered a company of troops to accompany him to the city treasury, where he was handed 4000 marks, an enormous sum at the time. He was jailed for two years, but eventually pardoned by the Kaiser, and is now something of a folk hero, a statue of him still stands, perhaps reminding Berliners that their once great reverence for authority had grave consequences for the world.

The city was completely destroyed in World War Two, very little of the past remains. More bombs were dropped on the city than on the entire United Kingdom. Most buildings from the Nazi era, and from the German Democratic Republic, have gone; the Wall has more or less disappeared. In Faust’s Metropolis, Alexandra Richie’s galvanising study, the city is conjured before our eyes, rebuilt layer upon layer, rises from the dust.

 

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Finnegans Wake

James Joyce’s Ulysses is often referred to as the greatest novel of all time. Published in 1922, it was a revolution in literary form. From then on a novel could no longer just represent reality, whether naturalist or realist, fiction was on the run. Character, plot, setting, these were no longer enough. The novel had to examine itself, the history of how it came to be. So Ulysses, although representing one day in the life of Dublin, a young man’s search for meaning, an older man’s search for love, it is The Odyssey, all history, all humanity’s search for sense. Joyce’s next work, and his last, Finnegans Wake, took him 14 years to complete. If Ulysses is difficult, Finnegans Wake is impossible. If Ulysses is one day in the life of Dublin, Finnegans Wake is one night. There are characters – Earwicker, the dad, Anna Livia, mum, Shaun, Shem and Issy, the children. But the book is a dream, and it is written in dream language. There is a plot, settings, themes, but these are fluid, and everything is in flux. Earwicker dreams and is plagued by guilt. He has been accused of something. He is a hill, his wife is a river, they are the landscape of Dublin. Earwicker is Howth Head, his wife the River Liffey. At its densest, when the dreamers are in their deepest sleep, almost every word is some sort of amalgam, sentences seem to abide by syntactical rules, but then they spin off into chaos. But read it aloud and patterns, rhythms, sometimes songs emerge. It is like music. Themes emerge, disappear and reemerge like a log floating down a river. This is one of my favourite passages (and I warn you, one of the easiest).

‘Well, almost any  photoist worth his chemicots will tip anyone
asking him the teaser that if a negative of a horse happens to melt
enough while drying, well, what you do get is, well, a positively
grotesquely distorted macromass of all sorts of horsehappy values
and masses of meltwhile horse. Well, this freely is what
must have occurred to our missive…’

A negative of a horse, if it melts during processing will produce a horse that is distorted, a monster, but a happy one. This is, I am sure, Joyce referring to his book, his missive. It is a happy mess. And, yes, it is very funny.

There are threads of themes, like streams, that run through the book: there are courtroom scenes, inquisitions, a letter offering evidence of guilt and innocence, meanwhile a hen pecks at litter. HC Earwicker and Anna Livia Plurabelle mutate and reappear in hundreds of forms, as do their children, Shem the Penman, Shaun the Post and Issy, Chapelizod, a village within Dublin, as Isolde, and then there is Tristan and the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who often mutate into prosecutors, inquisitors.

The book is long and dense, and there is rarely any breathing space. The Wake does with fiction what Picasso did with figurative art. But whereas Picasso’s vision has been absorbed into contemporary painting, the book remains a curiosity, largely unread. And it has few successors. Anthony Burgess (who wrote a shorter version of Finnegans Wake) pays homage to Joyce in his use of language in A Clockwork Orange. Russell Hoban’s wonderful Riddley Walker probably owes a great deal to Joyce. But these novels are far less impenetrable and a much easier read that Finnegans Wake. Joyce’s last book is about everything: gods, heroes, humanity, world history, Irish history. Published in 1939, the year of the outbreak of World War Two, it almost marks the end of time, of recorded history. The book is a tip, a letter, litter, ‘scribbledehobble’. The hen picks at the litter, finds a letter, or letters, and somehow, humanity sees in this chaos its guilt. HC Earwicker’s nightmare: he is all of us, Here Comes Everybody.

 

 

 

 

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The Iliad

It took me three months to wade through Robert Fagles’ 600 page translation of the Iliad. There were days when, exhausted, like the warriors, I felt I could not go on. It is brutal, graphic and relentless in its description of how one after another of the men are slaughtered, and, as each one falls, he is named and often his family and origins recorded in excrutiating detail. Yet something compelled me on. There is Achilles, the loner, a romantic human figure among the automatons, the one whose rage begins the book. There are the gods, whose arguments change the course of the war and whose voices act like the consciences of the protagonists. There is the music of the verse, because this is epic poetry, and whether Homer was the sole author, or whether it is the work of generations, there is a rhythm to the narrative, woven out of repetition, it riffs like jazz, it thunders like techno. Phrases like ‘wine dark sea’ ‘grain giving earth’ and ‘unharvestable sea’ appear again and again, like a chant that lulls the reader into the landscape of the beached ships, the citadel on the horizon, shimmering in the heat.  In The Mighty Dead Adam Nicolson contends that the origin of the Iliad can be traced back to as early as 1700 BCE, to the ancestral homeland of Achilles, the steppes between the Caspian and Black seas. We know the Trojan Wars took place in the Bronze Age, just before the mysterious collapse of many eastern Mediterranean civilisations, so the Iliad may have travelled hundreds of years before it was commited into writing by the man we know as Homer. No other work of European literature can claim such a formidably long gestation, so it is no wonder deep and ancient tradition, a civilisation long lost, ‘floats all through the songs like dust through air.’ Fagles’ translation is stunning, and finding my way through it, continually cross referencing protagonists, place names and gods has been one of the most profound experiences of my reading life.

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