Homer, schlemiel, Ellroy and raw nerves


Homer, schlemiel, Ellroy and raw nerves

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH has devoured ‘The Iliad' and three other books. He inspires us to read.


AS I write, the morning's news is that Israel and Hamas have resumed the war in Gaza after a ceasefire. Also on my mind is an article I came across on the internet about the possibility that in future robots with AI will take the place of soldiers, and that thanks to AI, fighter jets will no longer need pilots and tanks will no longer need crews.

Long road

Humanity has “progressed" immensely since Homer wrote The Odyssey and The Iliad in the eighth century before Christ. The influence of Homer on man's thinking and approach to warfare is great. Reading John Keegan's A History of Warfare, it is instructive to see how many times he traces things to Homer and his two great classic works.

Wars always have contexts; time and the magnanimity of leaders are of absolute importance. It's not always easy to make the leap of imagination into the culture and circumstance of The Iliad, but Emily Wilson's new translation is, without a doubt, one of the great publications of 2023.

Not only is The Iliad one of the great examples of an epic poem from the cultures and civilisations before Christ, it also offers severe challenges to anyone who wants to translate it. Alexander Pope's effort (which took him from 1715 to 1720 to complete) was considered unbeatable by Samuel Johnson.  Wilson's translation is certainly not decked out in the flowery language of Pope, but she created an Iliad that is infinitely more readable. She prefers, as a rule, to use words more familiar to the modern reader than Pope's choices.

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I usually prefer to look only briefly at introductions to translations like this, not really reading them. But this time it is advisable to read the introduction and the translator's note thoroughly beforehand. Wilson illuminates the time and the human spirit, her maps are useful, and Homer's genealogical placement makes reading so much easier.

After that, your imagination starts playing games. Is it Vladimir Putin whom I recognised in King Agamemnon's words? So many pretenders have draped the garment of leadership around their shoulders since Homer's days, and so many of those robes dripping with blood. War is never pleasant, but imagine that one of the central figures, Achilles, sits down in his tent for a long while in the throes of a temper tantrum. What a story!

I'm about three-quarters of the way through the book and have already ordered Wilson's translation of The Odyssey. It's like David Copperfield and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. You have to reread them every few years. Now I can put away Richard Lattimore's translation of The Iliad, with which my preoccupation with the poem began in 1972. It's falling apart.

The Iliad of Homer, translated by Emily Wilson, was published by WW Norton & Company and costs $17.99 at Amazon

Faux schlemiel

The third season of the TV series Slow Horses has just begun. It's based on this novel. Two tips: for now, watch the series on TV. It's something special. The best of the moment. Second: get the book from Amazon, or if it's available in bookstores again. It was published in 2016.

I thought there would never be anyone who could follow in John le Carré's footsteps. But Herron does it, novel after novel. Interdepartmental warfare. Jackson Lamb, the faux schlemiel, the slob, is my new hero.

Real Tigers by Mick Herron is published by Soho Press and costs R360 at Exclusive Books.

Upping the ante

Out of the blue, a new novel by James Ellroy. I have good news for you, then more good news. The first good news is that Ellroy has the unreadable writing style of White Jazz, The Cold Six Thousand and so on out of his system, returning to the voluptuous, coarse noir style of LA Confidential. The other good news is that he's upping the ante this time. There are no sacred cows and he also adds fictional characters in between.

Famous names make an appearance. John and Bobby Kennedy. Jimmy Hoffa and Marilyn Monroe. A bunch of cops from the early sixties in Los Angeles who were seemingly really scaly. Ellroy frolics with Monroe's naughtiness, and in passing he reveals a bunch of gossip stories that one might also pick up on Wikipedia if you could actually read between the lines and know where to look. Ellroy makes it that much more fun, and there's an excellent detective story as well.

Enchanters by James Ellroy was published by Cornerstone and costs R385 at Exclusive Books

Raw nerves

All the lists of the best publications of 2023 bring nice surprises. In one of them, I noticed this book, which was released in February and made the shortlist for the Booker Prize. Huge — and it's a debut on top of that.

Chetna Maroo deals with one of the most difficult topics a writer can tackle — how a family experiences the grieving process after a mother or father suddenly dies. Here, it is the mother who moves on, and Dad sits with three daughters between 11 and 15. He must keep the family together and find a way to divert their attention from the temptations of a decadent world. Squash becomes their refuge. Western Lane had me in awe in its highlights, and in emotional depths when one finally finds out where the raw nerves of grief just don't want to heal.

Western Lane by Chetna Maroo was published by Pan Macmillan and costs R360 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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