Downfall of the Gods: K.J. Parker

★★★★

When I was in Oxford last weekend (in the Oxfam bookshop on St Giles, to be precise, which is extremely good; you must go), I found something remarkable: a K.J. Parker novella that I’d never even heard of before! Unable to believe my luck, I snaffled it and read it all in one go the following day. It was exactly what I needed: undemanding but witty, irreverent and smart in all the right ways. While, like most of Parker’s fiction, Downfall of the Gods has a Grecian tinge, it looks further back in time, beyond the days of the Byzantine-inspired empires in his Engineer and Two of Swords trilogies, to an older time, when men still have to worry about annoying the gods – and the gods themselves can’t always be trusted.

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Ransom: David Malouf

★★★★

This book has been on my to-read list for a very long time. Such anticipation can lead to disappointment if a novel fails to meet expectations; but this one turned out to be well worth the wait. Simple and yet deeply poetic, it tells the story of an old man – Priam, King of Troy – who sets out to ransom back his son Hector’s body from the man who has killed him – Achilles, the ruthless warrior par excellence. Malouf’s book goes beyond the story as related in the Iliad, probing questions of majesty, nobility and, most importantly of all, humanity. Elegant and poignant, it centres on a moment of unforeseen compassion in the heat of war and breathes new life into its two famous protagonists.

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Circe: Madeline Miller

★★★

For her second novel, Madeline Miller returns to the fertile world of Greek mythology, and to another figure often overshadowed by a swaggering hero. This time her protagonist is Circe, sorceress and nymph, ruler of one of the many islands where Odysseus manages to get lost en route from Troy to Ithaca. Artists have always loved Circe: John William Waterhouse, in particular, seems to have been obsessed with this exotic enchantress. And yet Miller invites us to look beyond the magic, the sensuality and the unfortunate habit of turning people into pigs. As she did in The Song of Achilles, she gathers strands of myth from various sources and reveals little-known aspects to a familiar figure. Like Penelope, Miller is a master weaver; and yet there’s something at the heart of the book that doesn’t quite work.

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An Odyssey: Daniel Mendelsohn

★★★★★

A Father, a Son and an Epic

In January 2011, Classics professor Daniel Mendelsohn began to teach an undergraduate seminar on the Odyssey at Bard College in New York. It would be one of the most unusual experiences of his career, for one of his students was his 81-year-old father, Jay Mendelsohn. The tale of the term that followed is distilled into this extraordinary book, part memoir and part literary criticism. An insightful and passionate teacher, Mendelsohn conveys his enthusiasm for Homer’s epic; but he is also a sensitive chronicler of the human soul, and his story spirals out from the seminar to encompass the history of his complex relationship with his prickly, combative father. Written with compassion, it is both intellectually and emotionally brilliant – not to mention hugely moving.

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The Return of Ulysses: Claudio Monteverdi (1640)

Monteverdi: The Return of Ulysses

★★★★

(Royal Opera House & Early Opera Company at the Roundhouse, 19 January 2018)

We now use the word nostalgia to mean a bittersweet memory of the past or, sometimes, a desire to go home. But the original Greek has a slightly different meaning. Nostos means, not ‘home’, but ‘the act of returning home’. And algos means ‘pain’. Thus, in its original form, nostalgia literally means ‘the pain of homecoming’. And that strange emotion is at the very heart of this bleak but intelligent production of Monteverdi’s late opera, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, rendered here in an excellent English translation by Christopher Cowell. While I think that Ulisse is, overall, my least favourite musically of Monteverdi’s operas, this stripped-back production proves that it’s capable of packing a powerful emotional punch.

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Lion of Macedon: David Gemmell

★★

Parmenion: Book I

I’ve read fantasy for as long as I can remember, but this is the first time I’ve managed to finish a book by David Gemmell, one of the dominant British authors of speculative fiction in the 1980s and the 1990s. I tried his Lord of the Silver Bow a few years back, being unable to resist anything to do with the Trojan War, but I confess it just didn’t do it for me. I hoped that this – essentially a historical novel with added demons – might be slightly more to my taste, but I’ve finished it in a state of slight bafflement. There’s a good idea behind it and some clever twists, but once again it just hasn’t engaged me. Join me, as I try to figure out exactly why that is.

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The Battle of Salamis: Barry Strauss

★★★★

The Naval Encounter That Saved Greece – and Western Civilization

Just before dawn on 25 September 480 BC, a Persian armada sailed out of the harbour at Phaleron, just along the coast from Athens. The ships took up position at the entrance to some narrow straits between the Greek mainland and an island called Salamis, where the Greeks had taken refuge. Their fragile alliance, so the Persians had been told, was on the brink of collapse. All they needed was to provoke panic: the Greeks would crumble. And… well, it didn’t quite happen as planned. What unfolded over the next twelve hours was one of the greatest sea-battles of antiquity, and Barry Strauss’s book brings it to pulsing, vivid life. This isn’t a story of nautical jargon and dry-as-dust tactics: it’s swashbuckling of the first order, set against a mighty clash of civilisations, and populated by a cast of characters so colourful that it’s easy to forget it all actually happened.

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Penelope’s Web: Christopher Rush

★★★

I was drawn towards this book in the library by a kind of magnetic field, as usually happens with books about Troy. I’d never heard of Christopher Rush before, but I was tempted by the sound of a novel that retold the story of the Odyssey and Iliad from different perspectives, focusing on the way that stories ennoble and refine the hard, unpalatable facts of real life. The concept is intelligent, but the language is occasionally unremittingly filthy and the attitude to women is (perhaps unsurprisingly for soldiers in Bronze Age Greece) dismally misogynistic. While I don’t for a minute suggest that the author shares the views of his characters, I found it very hard to warm to a book in which women are seen as having only one function.

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House of Names: Colm Tóibín

★★★

I had high expectations for Colm Tóibín’s new novel. His Testament of Mary was so powerful, so raw in its evocation of a mother’s grief, that I thought his treatment of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon would be equally striking. And the opening line seemed to bear that promise out: ‘I have been acquainted,’ muses Clytemnestra, with the smell of death’. Unfortunately, however, the book has a strangely detached quality, as if all the emotion of this shocking story has been cauterised out of the characters.

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Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria: Claudio Monteverdi (1640)

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria

★★★★

(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 15 October 2016)

Most operas are about infatuation: the sudden, all-consuming flare of love that causes kingdoms to fall, mountains to crumble and worlds to change – the love of Paris for Helen, for example. We don’t hear quite so often about the quieter, more enduring kind of love that ‘withstands tempests and is never shaken’. Yet here, in his second surviving opera, Monteverdi does just that. His heroes, Ulysses and Penelope, aren’t tumultuous young things: on the contrary, they’re two people of a certain age, trying to make the best of a bad job. It doesn’t sound terribly dramatic, does it? And it isn’t, if by drama you mean fire and the clash of steel. But it’s one of the most moving stories I’ve seen in opera so far, because it takes the power out of the hands of kings and emperors, and lays bare the workings of the human heart.

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