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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Bacchae: Euripides

Bacchae: Euripides

★★★★

(Actors of Dionysus at Osterley Park, 29 July 2016)

In November 2000, when I was fifteen years old, my parents took me to see my first Greek tragedy. It was Bacchae, performed in the QEH theatre in Bristol by the touring company the Actors of Dionysus. I was utterly captivated: by the story; by the simplicity; by Tamsin Shasha’s sexy, dangerous Dionysus; and by the translation. Ever since I’ve been hunting down a translation which begins with that same commanding cry: ‘Thebes! Thebes! First city of Greece! I have come back…‘ So when I heard that, sixteen years later, the company were performing Bacchae again, in an open-air production in the grounds of the National Trust’s Osterley Park, I absolutely had to go.

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The Just City: Jo Walton

★★★★

Thessaly: Book I

In his book The Republic, Plato dreamed of a just society in which the pursuit of knowledge and excellence would be the highest goal. It was a daring dream, the first utopia: an elaborate thought-experiment which has captivated the imagination of thinkers through the ages. But could it actually work? Athena is determined to find out. Gathering together those who, throughout history, have read Republic and prayed to her that it might be possible to live in such a place, she prepares the groundwork for the realisation of the greatest political fantasy ever imagined.

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The Double Tongue: William Golding

★★★

When William Golding died in 1993, he was in the middle of working on a new novel, which was left unfinished. At an advanced draft stage, it told the story of a young woman plucked from her miserable family life and offered the chance of a new existence at the ritual site of Delphi, where she becomes a servant of the god Apollo and, later, the mouthpiece for his words. The story was in good shape and so Golding’s editors and executors decided to publish it – and it became The Double Tongue. That title is apparently only one of those which Golding had tried out on the top of the manuscript, but it’s a very fitting name for a book which is all about the duplicity and sleight-of-hand that accompany the act of prophecy.

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