Book Review: The Odyssey by Homer, translated by T. E. Lawrence

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Book Review: The Odyssey by Homer, translated by T. E. Lawrence

When my daughter saw me reading “The Odyssey,” she made a face. Back in high school, I think it was, she had to read it, and hated it.

Truth be told, my attempts at reading the book and its predecessor “The Iliad” have pretty much come to naught. All that slogging through archaic language. And where’s the plot?

Well, T. E. Lawrence — yes, that T.E. Lawrence — in that unsettled (for him) period after he played a major role in re-shaping the Middle East as “Lawrence of Arabia,” tried his hand at translation.

Not just any translation, but “The Odyssey.” Despite his lack of expertise at Greek, despite his many other interests, avocations and, for want of a better word, hobbies.

And the result written in prose is just wonderful.

Oddly — or, perhaps, given Lawrence’s deeply squirrelly nature, not unexpected — Lawrence dismisses “The Odyssey” as something less than art.

In a translator’s note, he writes, “Crafty, exquisite, homogeneous — whatever great art may be, there are not [the Odyssey’s] attributes. In this tale every big situation is burked and the writing is soft. The shattered Iliad yet makes a masterpiece; while the Odyssey by its ease and interest remains the oldest book worth reading for its story and the first novel of Europe.”

Well, I’ll leave that for the scholars to debate.

In Lawrence’s hands, the story is constantly moving apace, even when seemingly mired in a bog of speeches. The 24-page set-piece in which the suitors are given their venge-filled end are a marvel of description and rhythm.

How much is Homer and how much Lawrence?

I couldn’t say. But I can say: Read this book.

Patrick T. Reardon
6.26.11

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