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Picturing a World

Ancient classics, modern fiction

My sister mailed me Daniel Mendelsohn's An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic just when I had run out of library books (yea, Janet!). I was primed for it because, as it happened, I had recently read Emily Wilson's 2017 translation of the poem (more about that in a minute). Mendelshohn has written a multi-threaded memoir of his teaching Homer's Odyssey to a freshman seminar at Bard College, his eighty-one-year-old father's attendance in that class, a Mediterranean cruise the two men took together afterwards, explorations of the poem's themes, and many circlings back to each of their earlier lives. It is artfully written, deep and rich, while all while seeming (only seeming) to be a candid, easy retelling of one unusual semester. I recommend it highly to anyone who has ever taught, or grew up on Long Island, or loves the classics, or is fascinated by the relations between a father and a son.
 
But, wait, isn't this blog mostly about women's creativity? Well, yes, and that's where An Odyssey pointed me in the end. Enough of fathers and sons! Let's reframe the picture to highlight wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, lovers, and slave girls.


 
After you've read Emily Wilson's version of the Odyssey, you can't help thinking that the slaughter of the slave girls at the end of the poem deserves a good hard look—and maybe it got one in Mendelsohn's actual seminar, but the topic doesn't fit the themes of his book so it isn't mentioned. Re-seeing classical mythology through women's eyes, however, is a rich theme for contemporary artists and scholars, and it has set me on a reading course of new fiction.
 
First I'm going to reread Madeline Miller's Circe (2018), which luckily I have on my shelves. Miller relies not just on Homer but on the wider and often contradictory world of Greek mythology to fashion a story of Circe's whole life. Absorbing, unexpected, beautiful.
 
Next, I'll hope to get hold of Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls (2019) as a way of engaging with the Iliad, a poem I don't much like. Ditto Natalie Haynes, A Thousand Ships (2019).
 
Finally, come July, I'm looking forward to jumping ahead a few thousand years to a different kind of classic, this time Shakespearean, again with a feminist twist: Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet (forthcoming 2020).
 
Two questions for you: Does anybody have suggestions for other works of art that engage with the classics, especially from a woman's point of view? Or have any of you found that the current pandemic has led you to reading projects? If so, I'd love to post what you have to say in the comments.

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