OUP (2016) h/b 154pp £10.99 (ISBN 9780198788300)
This new booklet is a side shoot of a wider research project entitled ‘Living Poets: A New Approach to Ancient Poetry’. The study is divided into three parts containing ten chapters overall.
In the first part, four chapters set the poet and the Homeric texts in what Walter Benjamin would call the ‘aural’ context of archaeological evidence. The first two chapters are devoted to the figure of Homer and his poetic style. In particular, G. examines Homeric idiosyncrasies such as formulae, patterns and type scenes and dwells on the flexible variations of thematic structures and patterns. According to G., the poet Homer could be seen reflected in the character of Odysseus: just as in the Odyssey survival depends on being adaptable, Homer adapts traditional tales to his new story. In chapter three (‘Material Clues’), G. discusses mythical past and real (Mediterranean) landscapes in the Homeric epic, whereas chapter four (‘The Poet in the Poems’) is a succinct exploration of more theoretical approaches such as narrative voice, focalization (perception of scenes through the eyes of characters) and authorial presence (e.g. in the Iliad the position of the narrator in relation to the events is extremely accurate and the angle of vision is always the same: a view from above, back to the sea, facing the plain of Troy. Conversely, in the Odyssey the narrative angle of vision is the same as, or closer to, that of Odysseus). G.’s view of the authorship of the epics is that ‘the voice of the narrator can clearly be heard’, which is ‘important today, not because it reveals the actual author(s) of the poems, but because it characterizes the narrative’.
The second part devotes a chapter each to three key themes of the Iliad: the characters of Achilles, Troy and Hektor. The Iliad creates a ‘poetics of inclusion’ (p. 74) as it seeks to encompass the whole Trojan saga within the final days of the war. It is also a poem on war without being a glorification of violence. G.’s final remarks (‘it offers an intense exploration of leadership and its failures, (…) a clear-sighted reflection on the value of life’) seem to echo the reading of Simone Weil on the Iliad as a poem of sympathy for ‘la condition humaine’.
The final part explores in three chapters the epic exploration of power and its consequences in the Odyssey and in particular, the figure of Odysseus, the mingling of fantasy and reality (‘Women and Monsters’) and the descent of Odysseus in the Underworld. This last chapter ends with a final paragraph on the reception of Odysseus’ infernal journey by later poets from Vergil to Primo Levi.
This book is aimed at non-specialists, A-level and undergraduate students of Homeric studies. It offers several insightful ideas, an updated bibliography and interesting ideas for further investigation and class discussion. The book is supported by 14 illustrations and handy final sections on references (pp. 127-35), further readings (pp. 137-48) and a general index.
Roberto Chiappiniello Valente—St. Mary’s Calne