ACHILLES AND THE DODGERS
Putting Agamemnon down as sack of wine,
with dog's eyes and the heart of deer, Achilles
anticipates the way the Dodgers too may whine
if in the playoff they are beaten by the Phillies.
There won't be mayhem when the final player falls,
struck out or caught or even maybe merely tagged,
but once it's over they will say: "If we'd had balls,
we would have played the game of love, not war, and shagged."
Written a day before the first game of the National League playoff between the LA Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies, repeating the playoffs that the LA Dodgers lost last year, and inspired by a quotation from Caroline Alexander's version of the "Iliad," The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer's 'Iliad' and the Trojan War, reviewed by Dwight Garner in the NYT, October 14, 2009 ("Beneath a Sheen of Glory, The Ugly Horror of War"):
Great translations of Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey" are rare, Matthew Arnold said in 1861, because close attention must be paid to Homer's four essential poetic qualities: that he is rapid, that he is "eminently plain and direct" in expression and in substance, and finally that he is noble. The most plain, direct and noble translation of "The Iliad" into English, at least for that generation of college students who had it pressed into their lucky, sweaty palms, has long been Richmond Lattimore's of 1951, though Robert Fitzgerald's translation of 1974 and Robert Fagles's of 1990 have their fierce adherents. Lattimore's version, once read, doesn't leave you: it is supple, unvarnished, morally complex and, in a word, thrilling. Caroline Alexander's new book, "The War That Killed Achilles," is not a new translation of "The Iliad" -- she leans mightily (alas, too mightily) on Lattimore's -- but an attempt at a fresh reading of it, one that focuses almost solely on what this martial epic has to say about the conduct and meaning of war. Her book takes a chapter title from "The Things They Carried," Tim O'Brien's collection of short stories about Vietnam, but Ms. Alexander has more recent wars on her mind, notably the one in Iraq....
The problem is that her book is such a dutiful walk-through of Lattimore's translation. Ms. Alexander quotes from, and summarizes, Lattimore's words so frequently that without them her book would threaten to collapse into a heap of thin if shapely sticks and twigs. From a reader's perspective, this is not always a tragedy. Ms. Alexander quotes Lattimore well, and it's a treat to be made intimate again with his language. She notes Achilles' terrific put-down of Agamemnon. ("You wine sack, with a dog's eyes, with a deer's heart.") She understands that a large part of the appeal of "The Iliad" rests in its exactingly detailed bouts of mayhem and grievous injury. ("Next he killed Astynoos and Hypeiron, shepherd of the people, striking one with the bronze-heeled spear above the nipple,/and cutting the other beside the shoulder through the collarbone/with the great sword, so that neck and back were hewn free of the shoulder.") She quotes very well, too, from the book's famous arming scenes. As "The War That Killed Achilles" moves along, though, some squirming readers may begin to ask themselves, or at least this one did: Why am I not simply holding a copy of Richmond Lattimore's plain, direct and noble "Iliad" instead?
© 2009 Gershon Hepner 10/14/09
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