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A Biography

by Alberto Manguel

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-87113-976-4
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly

Brief but rich history of a mysterious bard and two wondrous works that serve as foundation stones for Western culture.

“We don’t know anything about Homer,” bluntly declares prolific polymath Manguel (A Reading Diary: A Passionate Reader’s Reflections on a Year of Books, 2004, etc.). Nor, it seems, do we know much about the composition of The Iliad and The Odyssey, both attributed to him though it’s evident they were assembled by a person or persons from a variety of oral sources. Using principally Robert Fagles’s translations (“among the best and most graceful”), with some kind words for Alexander Pope’s efforts as well, Manguel walks us through the centuries with Odysseus, Achilles, Penelope et al. After a brief, book-by-book summary of each epic—a delight for dilatory high-school students who haven’t prepared for class—he offers a few pages (there can be no more) of speculation about Homer’s identity. Then he marches through intellectual history. Plato, Aristotle, Virgil and others, the author avers, felt the epics’ powerful influence. Early Christians attempted to extract religious principles from the texts. Shakespeare, apparently unfamiliar with them, took Troilus and Cressida from non-Homeric sources. Arabic scholars translated the texts in premedieval times, and Dante plopped Homer in hell. This causes Manguel to pause for an enlightening discussion of Homer’s underworld before continuing his journey into the Renaissance. We learn later that Pope knew no Greek and adapted his monumental translation from others’ work. Byron, Shelley and Mme. de Staël make appearances. Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” appears in its entirety, as does Rupert Brooke’s lovely “Menelaus and Helen.” Nor does the author neglect Tennyson’s memorable lines about the aging Ulysses, home from the wars and bored. Heinrich Schliemann’s quest merits some pages, Joyce and Kazantzakis share a chapter and Walcott and Borges appear too.

Perhaps too dense for casual readers, but lotus to lovers of Homer.