Monday, March 28, 2011

An Odyssey Through The Odyssey

This week, I'll be posting about a few modern books inspired by Homer's The Odyssey. Do you have any favorite examples? Please give me your suggestions in the comments!

No-Man's Lands: One Man's Odyssey Through The OdysseyI'll start off with a non-fiction book sometimes called a literary travelogue: Scott Huler's No-Man's Lands: One Man's Odyssey Through The Odyssey.  After Huler reads James Joyce's Ulysses more or less on a dare, he decides to read Homer's epic.  He already knew the basic story, as most of us in this culture do, since "its content creeps into our minds through back channels, like the symphonies we learn by snatches as background music in Bugs Bunny cartoons."  But only as a mature adult does Huler really read the story of Odysseus.  He is stunned by its power to speak directly to him.  As he writes, "by the time I finished, I felt the book had sought me out, that my need for The Odyssey had manifested itself and brought the book to me."  He continues, "I came to see the passage of Odysseus from Troy to Ithaca as a metaphor, a series of adventures in which Odysseus demonstrates what he needs to learn--or unlearn--to live his life."

Huler became so obsessed with Homer's epic that he decides to make his own journey through the Mediterranean and explore the history of the epic.  "I wanted to go where Odysseus went," he writes, "to learn what Odysseus learned."  Like Odysseus, the author travels without knowing exactly what is coming next, letting the winds (metaphoric winds in Huler's case) carry him where they may.  Like Odysseus, his travels keep him away from his wife.  His desire to be back home is clear and profound--but he also admits to the wanderlust and excitement that also tempts Homer's hero.  (Huler doesn't have quite the same kind of temptations in his path.  As he says, "depressingly few goddesses demanded my sexual favors.")

The author's odyssey is of course rambling and shallow compared with the magical and magisterial journey taken by Odysseus.  Nevertheless, the two both learn lessons about the deep ties of home and family.  Odysseus traveled for years and was "so weary of travel and excitement that he hopes to never leave home again."  Huler hopes for the same commitment: "I aspired to even a tiny piece of Odysseus's weariness, his gladness to be through with adventure, to be home at last..., Wouldn't it be grand to feel so complete, so finished?"  The author returns home from his trip to his pregnant wife June--about to give birth to a little boy.  He promises that together they will embark on their next adventure: raising their child.

I enjoyed this book very much and found Huler's personal take on Homer to be a fascinating way to approach the text.  Sometimes he stretches the parallels between his odyssey and Odysseus's journey a little too much.  Sometimes I was irritated that Huler left his pregnant wife and talked about the temptations of other women (just as I was irritated by Odysseus).  But overall, I found his insights into Homer creative and thoughtful, his narrative appealing, and his efforts to make ancient literature seem relevant to our lives today highly laudable.


  1. This sounds like an interesting read. I have admit, even without reading the book I'm a bit irritated that he left his pregnant wife for this journey. It's one thing when a fictional character in a story does something like that (though I understand Penelope wasn't pregnant during the Odyssey) but it's another when someone does it in real life.

  2. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood is my only real suggestion. There's the infamous Ulysses, but I'm ashamed to even write that down after wussing out on reading it last month. :)

  3. I'm not sure how I feel about this trend (literary travelogue or whatever). There were a couple I found on Herodotus (enjoyed one, didn't make it past the second chapter on the other) and I know there are several more on The Odyssey (although I do like the title of The Idiot and the Odyssey, maybe because I can identify with it).

    That being said, for recent releases I highly recommend The Lost Books of The Odyssey by Zachary Mason. (Fortunately) Not a travelogue, it reimagines various parts of The Odyssey in clever and engagning ways. While it isn't long, the pleasure was in placing each "lost book" in context.

  4. Your timing is extremely fortuitous because there's actually a play on at Studio Theatre right now with an Odysseus connection! The play is Penelope by Edna Walsh and it's about four of Penelope's suitors, all of them living at the bottom of a drained swimming pool and attempting to woo Penelope from a distance. I saw it on Saturday and found it pretty interesting and quite cleverly done. I think it's on a limited run, so there might not be much more time to see it

  5. For some reason this post made me think of the poem "Ulysses" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Have you read it? It is an interesting counterpoint to how Odysseus is presented in The Odyssey.

  6. I'd second Lost Books of the Odyssey.

  7. Red: Absolutely. The fictional/real split makes a big difference, as does the ancient/current one.

    Trisha: While I am promising myself I will try Joyce someday, I'm definitely not doing it now...

    Dwight: Now that is one of my favorite titles ever. But I think I've had just about enough Odyssey travelogue for the time being. The Mason, on the other hand, is already on the coffee table.

    Teresa: I'll look into it! Thanks for the tip.

    Read the Book: Ooh, I'll try to find the Tennyson. Sounds fascinating.

    Falaise: This one is up very soon!

  8. Enjoying everyone's recs! and no, I haven't fallen off the face of the earth, I'm just immersed up to my neck in reading ;)

  9. The Tennyson poem is actually based on an episode in Dante's Inferno. Dante, meeting Odysseus in Hell, learns about his restless final voyage.


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