Odysseus: a Life (Hyperion Publishing; New York 2004) 195 pp.
The publisher of Hyperion, Bob Miller, was once a student at Boston University where we read the Greek text of Homerís Iliad together while he was working on an undergraduate honors thesis for the English department on English language translations of Homer. Over the years we have stayed in touch most recently over breakfast when he passed on a suggestion evidently made to him by his senior editor Will Schwalbe that a life of Odysseus on the order of a life of Christ published a few years back might sell well. It seemed to me a crazy idea since it seemed to me that everything one needs to know about Odysseus was contained in Homerís dactylic hexametric account. But Miller brought Schwalbe into the discussion. He had majored in classics at Yale and therefore talked the talk and walked the walk of a classicist. I was impressed, decided he presumably knew what he was talking about. The two of them persuaded me to write up a few pages as an experiment. I was immediately hooked. There is a surface smoothness to the orally generated narrative of the Odyssey , its stereotypic characters, its formulaic scenes, its furious forward thrust that inhibits question. It is a narrative manner that cries for opening up. This one does, obviously in rereading, or in stopping to ponder or when one is lecturing about the poem. Suddenly it would be a challenge to re-think episodes and characters and situations. For instance, what effect did Eumaeusí story have on Odysseus the child (when obviously he first must have heard it and not as a grown man as the poem indicates)? What was it like physically and psychologically to have to maintain a sexual relationship with a woman for seven years as an obligation as Odysseus did with Calypso? And so on and so forth.
It so happens that there are accounts of all sorts of activities connected to Odysseus that do not find their way into the Odyssey. There are also mere allusions in the Odyssey story to events which are large enough to have a life of their own. In short, there was plenty of material to make a life of Odysseus that would both use the material known and loved by all and fleshed out with a variety of other adventures and interests. The narrative of the Odyssey has little psychology, often no motive such as Tolstoy or Flaubert would want to introduce into their stories. A biographer of Odysseus would thus have his work cut out for him. I had great fun conceiving him in the round. Writing a book like this was for me an exercise in irony since I was writing against the known exemplar in every sentence. I expected that the reader who knew the Odyssey would see the irony that was infecting every page. I resisted the editorsí suggestion to bring in a historical excursus at the beginning and a kind of bibliography at the end since it seemed a fictional biography of a fictional character was fundamentally so little moored to the realities of time, space, and materiality that those features were even too dishonest for someone who positively wallowed in irony most of the time. They prevailed however which I have often thought confused the reviewers if not the readers.
The reviews ran from those who found Odysseus: a Life hilarious, to those who saw it as a serious exposition of the conditions of Bronze Age life, to those who castigated a professor who would make fun of the Homeric text or attempt to be hip and vulgarize the heroic world. People have so much invested in their memories of the poem, it seems. Playing games with the Odyssey is not unlike rewriting the Holy Writ.
The book has been translated into Italian, Czech, French, and Korean.