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.
Tag Archives: prehistory
Tristram Shandy is a book I always mean to read but never do. I know it well enough without reading it. it’s a mid eighteenth century novel with the feel of modernist literature. Stearne makes the sort of clever literary jokes that appear in books by Borges, Calvino or Will Self. I still haven’t read Tristram, but driving down to Gower a few weeks ago I listened to the Naxos audio book, and although I found myself losing the thread (it was a beautiful journey, one the best weekends of the year so far) I managed to dip in and out of it enough to feel I had some of the sense of Stearne’s language.
I’d planned to meet my friend Neil in Gower, where we would walk the cliffs, drink the Gower Gold Ale, and try in vain to get to Goat’s Cave, Paviland, the oldest surviving ritual burial in the UK. The Red Lady of Paviland (actually a man) is 30,000 years old, and his bones lie in Cardiff museum, on loan from the Ashmolean, Oxford. Goat’s Cave, then is one the most important prehistoric sites in Europe, but is largely unknown. I got very wet trying to get to it, and gave up after realising I could well kill myself trying to scramble across a vertical cliff some hundred feet above the rocks.
Intrigued by Tristram Shandy – and having enjoyed it more for listening to it on a journey through some startling landscape, when I returned home I bought Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation, A Cock and Bull Story, in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon slip in and out of character, pausing to describe events inside and outside the story, but this isn’t Steve Coogan discussing the movie he’s in, it’s Coogan playing a version of himself, of course. The film weaves the layers of fiction together into a warm, gentle comedy.
As a result of the success of the film, Coogan, Brydon and Winterbottom went on to make The Trip, the duo once again consciously playing themselves, eating their way across the north of England (and, indeed Yorkshire, location of Shandy Hall).
Neil and I ate out once, in the Britannia Inn, Llanmadoc, Gower, but it was very, very disappointing, and if it wasn’t for the cuckoo we could hear as we returned to the car, it would have been quite miserable.