The Lost Books of the Odyssey

I’ve been meaning to write a review of this book for ages, since it’s not only one of my favourite Classics-based books, but also definitely has a place in my (long) list of favourite books ever – as the many of you to whom I’ve recommended it already know!

‘The Lost Books of the Odyssey’ is the literary debut of Zachary Mason, a computer scientist from California who wrote it in his spare time after work (don’t you just hate some people?). It’s a collection of forty-four stories, most of which are loosely constructed around episodes, characters and themes from the Odyssey (there are also a few based on the Iliad, and on other Greek myths) – the premise being that these are remnants of the epic tradition as it was before the canonisation of the Homeric versions of these stories. (The preface claims it to be a translation of a papyrus found at Oxyrhynchus, which ties in quite nicely with all our discussions last term about creating authority through ‘translation’.)

Some of the stories are alternative endings, “what-if”s based around Odysseus’ return to Ithaca – what if he came back to find Penelope had remarried? What if he came back to find she had died? Others play on certain themes – storytelling and meta-narrative in particular recur again and again. Odysseus flees from Troy and makes a living as a bard telling his own (embellished) story; the blinded Polyphemus finds comfort in inventing and narrating further sufferings for Odysseus to undergo; Alcinous wonders if his guest-friend is really the narrator of the story the Phaeacians believe their lives to be. Two Kafka-esque stories tell of ‘Mr O’, recovering in a sanatorium after a war he cannot remember, and a man who finds himself in a hut in the forest with no memory of who he is; others are fairy-tales peopled by the characters of the Iliad and Odyssey – like ‘Agamemnon and the Word’, set in a labyrinthine underground castle dug into the beach before Troy. One story even explains the origins of the Iliad as a manual of ‘Achaean chess’.

Overall, despite the many thematic links between stories, the book is a wonderful miscellany – you never quite know where the next story is going to take you. The author’s stated aim is to ‘[hone] a single trope or image down to an extreme of clarity’ and his writing reflects this: the language is for the most part very clear and simple, yet still highly evocative in its characterisations and descriptions. But there’s a playfulness and wit to the language as well, especially in the descriptions of Agamemnon’s underground castle or the Byzantine bureaucracy of the Mycenaean court, giving a real sense of the author enjoying himself playing games with the stories – this isn’t a book that takes itself utterly seriously all of the time. The style is allusive, not just in its references to the events of the Homeric poems that are being retold, but also frequently ending a story with the eventual outcome still unknown or only hinted at, further reinforcing the theme of endless possible alternative versions. (In fact, the only thing I really dislike about this book is the occasional footnote explaining the identity of a character or the nature of an allusion. I don’t know whether these were an authorial or an editorial decision, but having the allusions to the Odyssey explained kind of takes away the point, as far as I’m concerned. Frankly, if you’ve read the Odyssey you don’t need them, and if you haven’t you’d need a lot more by way of explanation.) In short, though, this book is one of the most readable, thoughtful and interesting works of fiction I’ve ever read, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone.

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Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

16 thoughts on “The Lost Books of the Odyssey”

  1. Coincidentally, I just finished rereading this. It truly is wonderful, and I wholeheartedly echo the recommendation. I found the final story, where an elderly Odysseus returns to Troy (now a theme-park celebrating the Trojan War for tourists) and is gently tricked by Athena deeply moving. I also really liked the story of a werewolf Penelope.

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    1. Yes those two are definite favourites! I think my ultimate favourite is probably ‘Guest-friend’ (the Phaeacian one), though I also love ‘Agamemnon and the Word’ just for the insane underground castle…in fact, every time I try to compile a list of my favourites I end up including about half the book. Hence I’m just telling everyone to read all of it 🙂

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    2. Oh and the other Phaeacian one, where Odysseus marries Nausicaa – that one really needs a mention just for its ending. In fact, just for its last five words…

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    1. Also, do I remember right that you haven’t read Tom Holt’s ‘The Walled Orchard’? Because if not, you should. A very authentic (and funny) depiction of Classical Athens.

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      1. Will be happy to lend it to you if you like – Matt’s currently got it but you can be next on the list! And yes I haven’t read that, will definitely put it on my reading list…

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      2. Ooh, yes please! I’d offer you The Walled Orchard, but it sounds like Dan’s got it covered. If there were any of the other books I’ve mentioned that you fancy borrowing, let me know – my mum’s probably visiting at the weekend so there’s a rare window for me to have things brought from my Main Stash.

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        1. Well, I now have Embassy Town from the library. My terrible memory means I can’t remember the titles of the other ones (I know there was a long discussion of which Tom Holt books to read and which ones not to…but I’ve no idea now which ones were in which category). What would you particularly recommend apart from The Walled Orchard?

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    1. Yes please – I swear I won’t run off with it/lose it/throw it away/eat it/do anything else to prevent it being returned to you. And if a freak tsunami carries it away I promise to buy you another copy.

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  2. This has been one of my favorites of the last few years and I’m glad to see someone else that enjoyed as well. If you get a chance to read the extra stories from the Starcherone Books edition (the original publisher), I highly recommend doing so. The final chapter, “Endless City,” turns out to have being a Mobius-strip type of structure, endlessly alternating and looping back on itself.

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    1. Thanks for the recommendation! I only found out there was a previous edition with more stories in the course of writing this post…I will have to try and get hold of a copy!

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