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.