Poetry

METAMORPHOSES BY OVID

Certain philosophers, including John Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, have claimed that one has to accept, to confront, the fact that one has been abandoned, and, as such, one has to take responsibility for who you are and what you do. I’ve always liked that idea, have lived my life that way as much as possible, and yet I find religious belief, which certainly allows for individual responsibility but which is the anthesis of a philosophy of abandonment, incredibly attractive. For many of the existentialists religious belief is bad faith, in that it is to accept, and submit to, an authority outside of yourself which provides guidelines [and demands] for your behaviour. Well, I’m not a believer, and never have been, but I happen to find that unfortunate. Bad faith it might be, but it would be a relief, would ease a lot of my anguish, if I could look at the world around me and see a plan, could envisage a plan for myself. I can’t though, I just don’t feel it; and then I read Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Metamorphoses is an epic poem, comprising fifteen books and over 250 myths [thanks wiki]; it is an attempt to chart the creation and progress of the world, in much the same way as the Old Testament does. Now, I’m certainly not saying that I believe, in the strictest sense of that word, the stories that Ovid laid down, all those Gods and shape-shifting beings, but the book did have a profound effect on me. Genuinely so. I think sometimes, and I’m guilty of it too, that reviewers give the impression of being permanently enraptured. Not every book we read is life-changing, or perfect or a profound and beautiful experience; some are though, and this kind of feels like one. As a result of my reading I’ve started to look at the world a little differently. Ovid’s poem explained the world to me, presented the world to me, in a new and exciting way; and, suddenly, it is a richer place.

Behind each of the things and creatures Ovid touches upon there is a story, and as I came upon these things in my every day life I was reminded of the applicable tale and felt, yeah, happier, somewhat comforted. It may be naíve, but it struck me that this must be what it’s like to be a religious believer: everything makes sense, everything is as it ought to be. Take one of my favourites, the story of Arachne. Arachne was involved in a weaving contest with Pallas Athena. At the conclusion of the contest Arachne hangs herself; Pallas Athena transforms the girl into a spider, her nimble fingers now her legs, to hang forever more. As a result of this story I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eye one without thinking of Arachne, without seeing her in it; of course, I’ll still  murder the multi-eyed motherfuckers, but my experience has [like Arachne herself] been transformed, and so I’ll perhaps do it with a heavier heart; I even feel a little less frightened of them.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that the only way to relate to the book is as a pseudo-spiritual experience. Metamorphoses is, more than anything else, great fun. As the title suggests, the primary theme is one of change or transformation, and within the pages we encounter people becoming trees, birds, bears, and rivers, to name a few; then there are the nymphs, naiads, and dragons etc. A great number of the stories or episodes are parables, yes, but one could justifiably approach them as fairytales. Obviously, some are more interesting than others, but all are short and readable; if you were to open the book at random I’d wager that you’d find something to entertain you within a couple of pages. I was particularly taken with Phaeton and his dodgy driving of his father’s [the sun god Helios] chariot of light [he loses control and burns half the earth], Tereus’ kidnapping of his wife’s sister [don’t worry, his wife gets payback], and Echo’s unrequited pursuit of Narscissus [yeah, so that wasn’t doomed, was it? You’ve got great taste in men, love].

It is, it’s worth noting, a pretty lusty book too, with lots of gettin’ it on between Gods and Gods, and Gods and mortals, and just about everyone and everything else. On this point, this is apparently what happens to you if you trick your father into bumping uglies with you:

Frankincense Tree1

Oh Myrrha, you dirty so-and-so.

There is also, by the way, a lot of rape to navigate, which, as is always the case, I could have done without, but which is, thankfully, never graphic. The women aren’t all mindless airheads either; Juno, for example, is one of the strongest, certainly most wicked, characters; her stock response to her husband’s [Jupiter] indefatigable infidelity is to try and ruin the girl[s] and, usually, the resulting offspring. Her behaviour would make Glen Close blush and could provide inspiration for a whole series of Japanese revenge films.

If I have any criticisms of the work they would be structural ones. In the translation I read the individual stories are titled, yet it is clear that Ovid intended his Metamorphoses to be read as one long continuous poem, that it is essentially meant to work as a complete piece. However, some of the connections between the episodes are tenuous at best and this may irritate readers who want a more straightforward narrative. Ovid will often tie one story to another by saying something along the lines of well, that happened over there, but over here something equally interesting was going on or after presenting the story of, say, Perseus he will write Perseus’ nephew had a friend, whose uncle knew someone who had a goat. Well, that goat was owned by… as an introduction to the next, and so it’s sometimes a bit like he was playing six degrees of Kevin Bacon. I didn’t mind this though, the [sometimes amusingly unsuccessful] attempts to link the individual stories made the book more engaging, satisfied that part of me that usually doesn’t enjoy short stories. On a side note, one could also perhaps credit Ovid with inventing the idea of stories-within-stories, as sometimes he would begin by telling the tale of one character only for that character to then embark on another story entirely.

I don’t have any other negative comments to make, except to say that there is some repetition. My biggest regret was reading Stanley Lombardo’s translation, which is just awful. His word order is at times odd and confusing, although I guess he would claim that Ovid’s is too. What I do know is that Ovid was not responsible for the use of slangy contemporary phrases, such as it got on his nerves or hot under the collar [these are my examples; I can’t remember any of Lombardo’s off the top of my head, but they are exactly the kind of phrases he regularly employs]. I was genuinely concerned that Jupiter was going to tell someone to not have a cow, man. Or announce that the girl he has just spied is well fit, or that the lyre playing is dope. Of course, some people may prefer modernised language, but, quite frankly, fuck ’em. Other than that, Metamorphoses is very highly recommended. Get Allen Mandelbaum’s translation if you can though. 

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THE RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHAYYAM TRANSLATED BY EDWARD FITZGERALD

Hark! Who goes there? Ah, ‘tis Death, our familiar foe,

Who comes, and takes, before we art yet ready to go.

How unerring thy compass; yet how blind thine eyes

To falling tears, and deaf thine ears to cries of woe.

 

Who dost thou want now? All. Yes, all, of course;

Ye speak without gaiety, still more without remorse.

Come in, sit down; I will not fight ye, for ‘tis futile,

So let us engage, for a time, in a kind of discourse.

 

Brother Death, I’ve lived my life with thee in mind,

Now there’s scant life before me, too much behind.

So much time I’ve wasted, in the final reck’ning,

But so much treasure ’twas my fortune also to find.

 

Let me tell you, Death, of a poem I not long ago read.

Say, do they have poetry in the land of the dead?

Ne’ermind, I could recite for thee the well-known lines

Of The Rubaiyat, before I am laid in my eternal dusty bed.

 

The poem, ‘tis about you, and your relentless ways,

And how such as I ought to make the most of the days,

‘Fore you come knocking, and we must answer your call

For no one is overlooked and no one with their life stays.

 

Live well, and for today, is the message of Omar Khayyam.

Drink wine! Be merry! Say, wouldst thou like a dram?

Let us drink to my ill-health and your latest success,

E’en though I despise thee and to hell I thee damn.

 

Are thou impatient, brother Death, for us to depart,

When regarding The Rubaiyat I have more to impart?

Edward Fitzgerald, ’twas who translated it, famously,

‘Though more composer, than translator, was his part.

 

Omar Khayyam’s lines were a basis for his own poetry,

The original was handled and used by Edward liberally.

Thus raising questions about the nature of translation

And of authorship. Say, does any of this interest thee?

 

How silent thou art; how blank thy features, thy face;

No colour in thy cheeks; of laughter-lines: no trace.

Yay, man may be mortal, but for his allotted years,

He can laugh and love, be chased and give chase.

 

So, who is favoured, you or I? Who to be pitied for his lot?

My loved ones thou hast taken, but in truth what have ye got?

So, take me now; come, let’s go, before the sun doth rise,

And my friends and family gather to mourn upon this spot.

HUMBOLDT’S GIFT BY SAUL BELLOW

I keep getting drawn back to Saul Bellow’s novels like a crazy-ass bee to a barren flower. I must love the disappointment, the confusion, the frustration. I’m a literature masochist. Bellow sees my eagerness, my dog-like enthusiasm, beckons me in closer…and then smacks me on the nose. His novels are never truly satisfying; they almost enrage me. How could a man be so talented, such a great writer, and yet churn out such flawed books? In truth, I don’t know how to review Humbodt’s Gift. It defeats me. Yet to live these days you have to be ok with defeat, I guess, so I am going to give it a go.

My mother taught me that if you’re going to say something critical about someone or something you always ought to say something nice first. Well, I am not going to do that. I’m going to jump right in with the things I don’t like about the book, which, I am sure she would agree, is more my style. There is a hell of a lot wrong with Humboldt’s Gift. Fatally wrong. These things kill the book, if your expectation is that it will be a masterpiece [and why shouldn’t that be your expectation, bearing in mind its reputation?] Some of them are predictable Bellovian problems, some of them new, unexpected, flaws. Bellow goes all out here to fuck up his novel; he doesn’t hold back.

Typically, it starts well. We are introduced, via Charlie Citrine, the first-person narrator, to Humboldt Fleisher, who appears to be a gargantuan personality, a potentially classic tragicomic character. Yet twenty or thirty pages into the book and you start to realise that he has no depth whatsoever, that Bellow is just listing things in lieu of developing him in a substantial manner. For example:

“We were off: we discussed machinery, luxury, command, capitalism, technology, Mannon, Orpheus, and poetry.”

And:

“He moved easily from the tabloids to General Rommel and from Rommel to John Donne and T.S. Eliot/and this rained down on me/the sayings of Einstein and Zsa Zsa Gabor, with references to Polish socialism and the football tactics of George Halas…”

Bore off, Saul! This tells us nothing. It feels, in fact, as though the author was simply showing off. And it’s not even good showing off, because anyone can do it:

[P] was a great reviewer; a great mind; he would bring in Joyce on the English language, the Cuban missile crisis, Beckett in French, and the movies of Yasujiro Ozu. He’d be off, riffing on Rilke’s stay at Duino castle, Proust’s mother fixation, the Son of Sam serial killer and the Summer of Love.

And Bellow doesn’t do this kind of listing once or twice, he does it frequently. As a result, Humboldt is reduced to a kind of Uni reading list, a series of topics or themes. We’re meant to believe that he is an intellectual, someone with an encyclopaedic mind, but it’s a classic case of an author telling us rather than showing us. Bellow’s approach is akin to a poet trying to convince someone he’s great by counting off his influences, rather than by reciting some poems.

Of course, Citrine is narrating sometime after the events he is describing. Therefore, that he can only remember topics, rather than content is understandable, I guess. But, still, you can excuse anything if you try hard enough. I don’t buy that Bellow was trying to make a point about how we remember people, because Citrine’s memory works fine in other parts or passages of the book. Besides, Humboldt is meant to be charismatic and there is no sense of that in the book at all. In fact, it’s pretty much unfathomable as to why Citrine loves or admires the man.

Humboldt isn’t the only one lacking substance either. Demmie is little more than a pill-popping hot chick who suffers from night terrors, and Kathleen, Humboldt’s wife, is pretty much a total void. The only characters with any personality are Citrine himself and small-time hood Rinaldo Cantabile. In all fairness, Cantabile is fantastic. He’s the right amount of tough guy and the right amount of sensitive/vulnerable schmo. I enjoyed all his bits very much. As for Citrine, he is mostly charming and endearing. However, the tone of the novel is sometimes too patronising; Bellow, much like the searingly average Javier Marias, appears to believe that he is blowing our minds with his philosophical, cultural, societal musings, but, really, he isn’t at all; there’s no great insights to be found in the book. Indeed, I studied philosophy and English and the narration, at times, reminded me of having to listen to first-year students gabbing on, without any sense of their own pretension or middle-of-the-road opinions, in seminars.

As with many novels-of-ideas the plot is pretty thin on the ground. That’s not really a problem for me, if the ideas are top-notch. But, as noted in the previous paragraph, Bellow does not bring a new or even fresh perspective to the issues he tackles in the book. This is not to say, however, that what he does tackle isn’t at all interesting. It is. Humboldt’s Gift is about many things – the changing face of Chicago, money, alienation, ennui – but, at heart, it is a book about art and commercialisation, about how increasingly difficult it is to be an artist, how undervalued they are, etc. Coming from an artist himself, in the broadest sense of the word, there is a chance that one could view Bellow’s concerns as well-to-do, self-interested whining. I can’t argue against that, I’m afraid.

I said earlier that you can excuse anything if you try hard enough, and that is true of what, for me, was the biggest issue, which are the passages of Anthroposophical guff that turn up intermittently in the text. I know next to nothing about Anthroposophy, other than it is attributed to a Rudolf Steiner, and having read Humboldt’s Gift I am none the wiser. It appears to be some kind of mystical claptrap about soul and the afterlife. Now, if you were being kind you would perhaps want to explain away all the cringy mystical crap as satire. Citrine is a celebrity, a celebrity under pressure and, in need of some form of salvation, is wanting to engage with the big questions in life. From the celebrities around us these days one can see how these people often turn to some weird form of spiritualism for their answers; look at Madonna with Kabbalah, or Tom Cruise with Scientology. So, as a genuine satire, I would be impressed and amused by the Anthroposophy passages. However, that stuff is clearly not satire, because it is well documented that Bellow was, around the time of writing the novel, actually studying, and well-disposed towards, Steiner’s work. Furthermore, he is clearly, to some extent, Citrine, just as Humboldt is his friend Delmore Schwartz. If you draw this conclusion, then the book kind of feels like a joke played, unintentionally, upon himself.

So, what, then, did I like about it? Why did I read all 500 pages? It always comes back to the same thing with me and Bellow: on a sentence by sentence basis he is terrific, almost without peer. Yes, there’s a lot of hair-tearing stuff to endure, but I still enjoy myself because at least once on each page he will deliver a paragraph or a line that floors me. Things like:

“She’s very pretty but she’s honey from the icebox, if you know what I mean. Cold sweets won’t spread.”

And this:

“Maybe America didn’t need art and inner miracles. It had so many outer ones.”

Reading Bellow is a kind of archeological exercise for me. One that is, just about, worth it.

PARADISE LOST BY JOHN MILTON

[ring ring]

[P]: [into the phone] Y’ello?

Adam: I’ve done a really bad thing.

[P]: Adam! S’up, bro?

Adam: You gotta help me!

[P]: Cool your boots. Tell me what’s up.

Adam: Eve…

[P]: Ah, man, you didn’t did you? But, listen, maybe she won’t find out? As long as it wasn’t her best friend…

Adam: No, it’s not that. I ate something I shouldn’t’ve.

[P]: What have I told you before? Don’t take anything unless you know what it is and you trust the person giving it to you.

Adam: No, you don’t understand. We’re all fucked!

[P]: Preaching to the choir, Ad; I’ve been telling you this for months.

Adam: Turn on the news.

[P]: ‘K. Hold up.

Voice from the tv; the host of a topical news-based tv programme: …author of the best-selling book Paradise Lost, which some claim predicted today’s tragic events. Mr Milton, what are your thoughts?

Milton: Wrote I did, that mankind father wudst apple eat!

[P]: Hey Ad, why’s he talking like that? Has he had an accident?

Adam: He’s a poet or something.

[P]: Ah, that makes sense. Have you read that Paradise Lost thingy?

Adam: Of course I have, I’m in it!

[P]: Oh yeah. Any good?

Adam: This is not the time!

[P]: No, I know, but, quickly though, what you reckon? I’m struggling with my reading choices at the moment.

Adam: Yeah, it’s very good. Bit confusing sometimes; you’ve heard Milton speak. He writes like that too. His word-order is, I dunno, odd. It takes some getting used to. You have to concentrate. At times it’s like you’re reading the book backwards. 

[P]: Hey, have you heard that if you read a book backwards the devil appears? Or is that playing records?

Adam: Playing records backwards does not make the devil appear, you dunce; and, anyway, it’s bit late for that, he’s already…

[P]: So, what’s it about?

Adam: What?

[P]: The book.

Adam: It’s about me!

[P]: I know, I just mean, like, what about you? Like, I love you, dude, but you’re really not that interesting. All you ever do is potter about that garden with Eve, sexing her occasionally and feeding the animals.

Adam: That’s what I’m trying to tell you!

[P]: In a minute, Ad; the book?

Adam: [sigh] It’s about Satan’s fall from heaven, about the war that preceded it…

[P]: I heard about that. Quite funny really. I mean, God’s God, for fuck’s sake, how’d you reckon you can defeat God? All-powerful, there’s a clue in that.

Adam: Yeah, but after the war Satan…

[P]: Hold up, Ad; he’s on tv right now! What are the chances?

Satan:…so I said to myself ‘it’s better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven!’

[Audience laughter ]

Host: But why Satan? That is the question on everyone’s lips.

[P]: I’m telling you, Ad, I’m not that way inclined but I’d go gay for Satan.

Satan: Payback, Kent. Can I call you Kent? You see, I was pretty miffed at losing the war and getting exiled to Hell. Hell is not a nice place, Kent.

Host: I can imagine.

Satan: Ah, you won’t have to imagine, you’ll see it soon enough. Anyway, and then his Lordship creates Adam, and from Adam Eve. And, yeah, I admit it: I was jealous. They were so perfect and so happy and, ugh, it made me sick.

Host: And that’s when you came up with the apple plan?

Satan: Bingo! And I knew Eve would fall for it, because, y’know, women are weak and credulous.

Host: Now, steady on!

Satan: I’m just joshing, chief! Besides, women love a bad guy, don’t they? You wouldn’t believe how many phone numbers I’ve got on the back of this.

[P]: I’m telling you, I totally would. So what’s this about an apple?

Adam: I’ve been trying to tell you! Satan got into the garden…

[P]: Haven’t you got security?

Adam: Yes, but he tricked the guards.

[P]: Two words, bro: electric fence.

Adam: …he got into the garden and tricked Eve into eating an apple and now we’re all fucked.

[P]: Braeburn or Granny Smith?

Adam: The type of apple is irrelevant! We’re doomed!

[P]: So, she ate an apple, so what?

Adam: It was from the forbidden tree!

[P]: Oh shit. We’re doomed! Why did she do it?

Adam: Satan turned himself into a snake and the snake convinced her that he had been given the power of speech by eating from the tree. I mean, it makes sense, right? She thought it would give her greater knowledge, would make her more like one of the immortals.

[P]: Oh right, so we’re all in the shit because of her inferiority complex?

Satan: you see, Kent, my take on this is why did God create man ignorant and why did he want him to remain so? The tree is a tree of knowledge, and yet God says, ‘do not partake of the fruit of that tree.’ Why must man not have knowledge? That seems kind of screwy to me. You create this being and yet you don’t want him to be the best he can be?

[P]: Y’know he makes a good point, Adam.

Adam: I know, that’s why we did it. But God works in mysterious ways, and all that, and I’d rather be pig ignorant and alive than smart and dead.

Satan: And it also strikes me as odd that you would create man with a curious nature and then ask him not to be curious; and isn’t it kind of fucked up to create temptation, when it wasn’t necessary? The tree didn’t have to exist, he created it! He could not have created temptation. It makes one wonder just how nice his Lordship is, makes one feel as though he was toying with man.

[P]: He does make some bloody good points, you know!

Adam: I know. Look, I gotta go; there’s talk of some kind of bridge between earth and hell, thought I’d better warn you. Oh, and the weather is going be a little freaky from now on, either really hot or really cold.

[P]: But I haven’t got a jacket.

Adam: Buy one. One last thing, from now on there will be bad things happening, murder and rape and misery and destruction and promiscuity.

[P]: Promiscuity? Now, hold on, let’s not be hasty. Why not ride this wave out for a while?

Adam: You’ve been a…uh…great help, [P].

[P]: Any time. And thanks for the heads up, Ad. Keep in touch.  

Adam: It may be a while; me and Eve’ve got to look for new digs.

[P]: You’re leaving the garden?

Adam: [exasperatedly] That’s the whole point!

[P]: How much you been paying pcm? Cos I’ve always liked your place.

Adam: I…I…I…you’re an idiot, [P].

[Adam hangs up]

WORLD LIGHT BY HALLDOR LAXNESS

If I were ever to compose a list of my favourite books Independent People by Halldor Laxness would stroll into my top ten with a shit-eating grin on its face. So, I was sure that I was going to love the Icelandic author’s other work, especially the epic [in girth, at least] World Light. And yet I don’t know what to make of the book at all. Indeed, if I was inclined to use them I’d be scouring the internet for a head-scratching gif right about now. Without doubt, parts of it are great and parts of it are beautiful, and yet, equally, parts of it are poorly executed and large parts of it are simply baffling.

The book is split into three sections. All of them are concerned with the poet Olafur Karason. The first section is a Hardy-ish tale of a poor child who is mistreated by his foster family. We first meet Olafur by the shore, mournfully staring into the sea, and it is quickly established that he is a sensitive boy who, physically and emotionally, cannot meet the demands of working on a farm or even those of interacting with the boorish people who have taken him in; he is, rather, more drawn to nature, in which, he believes, God manifests himself. Indeed, he comes to experience visions that he takes to be signs from God; moreover, he believes himself to be, in some not especially clear way, in communication with God. I’ve read elsewhere that people often find this first section hard-going, and what with all the religious chatter, and brutality and bullying, I can understand that to an extent. I think people tend to find that kind of thing oppressive. I quite enjoy it though; and if you like the aforementioned Hardy or Patrick White or even Knut Hamsun then you’ll probably find much to like here too.

The second section is where it all goes a bit bats. In fact, the tone of the work changes so abruptly that it is jarring to read. For most of the first section Olafur is in bed with an apparently fatal illness. He is miraculously cured of this illness towards the end of that section by what he takes to be some kind of magic elf. Yeah, you read that right: magic elf. From the point at which Olafur can walk again the book becomes a kind of episodic tale reminiscent of Don Quixote or Candide. In true episodic-novel fashion most of the characters are essentially one-dimensional, with one exaggerated personality trait or catchphrase or situation [for example, the man who Olafur sometimes finds dead drunk in the middle of the road], and seem to exist merely in order for the author to make satirical points about, or jabs at, society.

Of course none of that is particularly odd. What distinguishes World Light from other episodic novels, and indeed from its own first section, is just how baffling the behaviour of these characters is. So, while the characters in section one are hardly realistic in a Zola-like manner [they are, in fact, more like the kind of petty, stupid, evil bastards you’d find in a Roald Dahl novel], in section two they are utterly bewildering. Take, for example, the three most prominent female characters: one is the girl who summons or is a conduit for the magic elf; she periodically appears in order to make strange, nonsensical, declarations or demands; another girl falls in love with Olafur, gets pregnant, and yet one day suddenly ups and marries someone else; the third is an older woman, a poetess who burns all her poems, who, as far as I could understand it, is physically young on top but old on the bottom. And that’s only the tip of the, er, iceberg [so to speak].

Now, I like this kind of thing, generally speaking, so nothing I have written so far ought to be construed as major criticism. However, more of a problem is the sense I got that Laxness either wasn’t fully in control of his material or his attitude towards it was, um, lax. What I mean by that is there are numerous points across the two sections where things were mentioned or plot points were developed only for them to be forgotten or discarded without explanation. For example, whatever happened to Olafur’s visions? Not only does he stop communing with God in section two, he appears to almost completely lose his religious feeling. That would would be fine if it were at least justified in some way by the author but it isn’t; it is almost as though the Olafur of section two is a different character altogether from the one we met before. There were points at which I wondered whether I just wasn’t reading closely enough, or whether my concentration was poor, which happens sometimes, but these inconsistencies were too frequent for them all to be put down to that.

Despite being superficially a book about poetry and poets and the search for beauty, and so forth, World Light is, without a doubt, really a political novel. Yet, even in this there is a disconnect between sections one and two. In the beginning the politics are subtle; Olafur is, as mentioned previously, being fostered; the family are farmers and his upkeep is paid for by the parish [something that his family often mention and appear to resent]. So, whatever points Laxness was making about poverty or the working person were made in an organic fashion, as part of a story; Laxness’ message is shown to you, rather than told; and, in this way, you, as the reader, have to work a little bit to get at what he wants you to take away from the book. However, in section two characters often engage in conversation about politics, about corruption, the state of Iceland, and how the working person is maltreated; the message is so heavy-handed during section two that even Dickens would have clucked his tongue. However, it isn’t all bad news; some of the political satire is good fun, like when Petur, the manager [which appears to be like a mayor], rambles on about the importance of the soul while he oversees the displacement and exploitation of the locals. At these times the book reminded me of Platonov’s brilliant The Foundation Pit. Indeed, while I know nothing about the history of Iceland quite a lot of what occurs in World Light is reminiscent of a collectivist communist state.

I was tempted when I used the word episodic earlier in the review to call the novel picaresque instead; indeed, it boasts almost all of the hallmarks of a picaresque novel, except that Olafur is no rascal or picar. In truth, he isn’t, as a character, much of anything, and that is, perhaps, the book’s biggest flaw. Of course, he could be, and I would guess that he is, a satire on a certain kind of Icelandic personality. Yet, for a non-Icelandic reader, who isn’t in on any potential joke, he mostly comes across as dull and insipid. In fact, by part three I was really quite tired of him. On one level Olafur is easy to figure out; he was mistreated early in life and so seeks to avoid confrontation. That is fine, psychologically sound even. However, there came a point in my reading when I realised that he is pretty much entirely about negation: he has no opinions, no personality, no interests [outside of poetry or literature – and yet after section one he doesn’t read a single book]. The more I read the more convinced I became that Laxness didn’t like him very much either, that maybe he intended him to be an example of someone who appears to be selfless but is, in reality, emotionally entirely self-serving; furthermore, that while he is a good poet, on the surface, he could never be a great one because he refuses to fully engage in life or open his eyes to or, rather, be interested in the truth of the world. As the genuinely great John Keats once wrote:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all.

EUGENE ONEGIN BY ALEXANDER PUSHKIN

I told myself: the time has come
To review this novel length poem,
And although it may seem foolish to some
I’ll compose in verse, to show ’em
How great I am, so come have a gander,
At these lines worthy of Alexander.
Yes, it’s easy when you’re so talented
And good-looking, wise, and well-read.

It’s very good, this little book,
I say that without any hesitation.
I’m sure you’ll find it worth a look
[Although I’m less sure about the translation].
There are many versions, which is the best one
At rendering in English the poem in question?
Mitchell, perhaps, although one ought to mention
That Nabokov paid the issue some attention.

Vladimir thought it was too hard
To translate it accurately in verse.
So he wrote a prose version, I regard
As not much better, but so much worse.
Pushkin made his choice, don’t fuck with that;
Novelists begat novels, so what does a poet begat?
A Poem, of course; and it should be read as such
To alter the form is to alter too much.

Eugene, then; who is he?
A pampered Russian nobleman.
He becomes a prey to ennui,
Avoids women and parties when he can.
Who tires of those things? A strange sort, I say!
Perhaps he has gone mad, perhaps he is gay?
I jest! He suffers some kind of malaise,
Like existentialism, before the craze.

Before Sartre, before Camus,
Before Nausea, and The Stranger,
There was Onegin to look to.
Like Byron crossed with Heidegger,
Eugene is handsome, popular, but dour-hearted.
His plans for solitude are quickly thwarted
By a poet called Lensky, a man in love with,
A girl called Olga, who is a bit of a div.

Her sister is Tatiana.
And she is drawn to Eugene,
But Onegin, he doesn’t want her,
So he’s cold, dismissive, and he’s mean.
To put her off he flirts with her sister.
Oh, Onegin, you’re flirting with disaster!
For young Lensky won’t put up with that;
Load my guns, he says, I’ll kill the twat!

I’ll say no more, I don’t want to
Spoil the story for you completely,
But I guess I’d better warn you
That it ends most tragically.
So that’s my poem, it’s done and dusted,
The meter is ropey, but I’m not flustered
As I have now only two lines left to write.
Now only one. I’m finished. Goodnight.

THE ILIAD BY HOMER

Sing, O Muses, of an epic poem,
Homer-written, but Fagles-translated;
Sing of the illustrious Iliad. And, regarding
The content, content competent readers
With a brief but brilliant description,
Of how Achaeans and Trojans
Became embroiled in bloody battle;
Hot-Helen was the cause,
Whom preening-Paris had taken
From her red-haired husband Menelaus.
At first it seemed that war may be averted,
When Paris proposed a pact:
He will fight mighty Menelaus, one-on-one;
The victor’s prize will be hot-Helen,
And no more blood need be shed.
But puny-Paris was pulverized, so fled,
With God-help, and took hot-Helen to bed.
And yet war was still not assured,
Until Menelaus was arrow-injured,
As he stood apart from the Achaean army.
In Pandarus’ mortal ear a God had whispered,
Convincing him to launch a swift shot.
So, war it was to be; the wrenching work of war!
King of the Achaeans, Agamemnon,
Would no longer be placated.

Homer-written, Fagles-translated;
Of the illustrious Iliad, pray sing.
An ancient epic, but is it also ageless?
Many men fight over women to this day,
But most wars do not start this way.
Nor do we believe in a gaggle of garrulous Gods
Who intervene. So, what other theme,
O mellifluent Muses, can you sing of?
The perils of pride-pricked? Or how
Honour beats hard in the hearts of headstrong men?
Or the limitless lust for power, perhaps?
Or supreme bravery in extreme adversity?
All these and many more,
But most of all the horror of war!
[Which is sadly still so relevant].
To say The Iliad is very violent
Is a gross understatement,
For there is blood and gore galore,
And deaths described in grisly detail.
Spear-spiked Trojans and Achaeans
Fatally fall in great and gruesome number;
Sword-swings cleave many men in two;
Tongues are mouth-cut and arms are torn
From their sweat-soaked and swollen-sockets,
As the toiling tribes wage war for Troy.

Hard to remember, in name and number,
The people who populate the poem.
But there are some whose roles
Are bigger than others, and some
Whose names are more well-known.
Which renowned men will we meet with
In the ancient epic Iliad? Achilles
[He of famous fatal weakness] and
Odysseus, long absent from home,
Where suitors surround his spouse.
There’s the already-acknowledged Agamemnon,
Who’s life his wife’s lover takes upon his return,
And Helen of Troy, the celebrated beauty,
Who brings the bloody battle on.
Great Gods and Goddesses, The Iliad’s got plenty.
Apollo and Athena are in attendance, and
Powerful Poseidon, and cruel Zeus, kin of Cronus,
And angry Ares, even amorous Aphrodite.
All these immortals, and more,
Direct, and influence, the course of war,
Like masters of puppets, or players of chess
From Olympian heights or dark-sea depths.

Conclude, O Muses, with a verse dedicated
To eminent editions and treasured translations.
Sing of Fitzgerald’s and Fagles’ Iliads’:
The two most prominent and people-pleasing versions.
The former’s form is more precise,
And his style more elegantly poetic;
While the latte’s lines are looser,
With no set scheme or meter,
And his style more bold and brusque.
On this occasion famous-Fagles
Was the choice of choosy-P, who thought
His rough and rugged rendering well-suited
To serving the sometimes sordid subject matter.
Despite many trite modern phrases,
Picky-[P] was surprisingly impressed,
By famous Fagles’ fine translation
The readability, the almost-rhymes,
The random-rhymes,
And the abundant alliteration.