Friday, August 18, 2006

Another book I'll have to buy

While classical texts and Guardian headlines are the subject, I appear to have missed a good one yesterday, despite enjoying the article it was meant to attract me to: "Honey, I'm Homer", for David McKie on Samuel Butler's The Authoress of the Odyssey. McKie hits off Butler's can-this-be-serious tone excellently, and this bit seems horribly plausible:

Today, to judge from the Notebooks, he would have probably made a fortune, perhaps as a house vituperationist for the Daily Mail, or as a telly pundit. He delighted in snappy inversions of popular tenets - "An honest God's the noblest work of man" - and overheard oddities - "At a funeral, the undertaker came up to a man and said to him: 'If you please, sir, the corpse's brother would be happy to take a glass of sherry with you'."

I'm not sure, though, that his account captures quite how funny, or how cuckoo-bananas, The Authoress of the Odyssey is.

Butler almost certainly did think Gladstone used Homer as as basis for "excessive pontification". After all, he hated Gladstone. He boasts in his notebooks of turning a servant against him. But this didn't stop him drawing largely from Gladstone's already archaic scholarship, in place of later writers who didn't moralise so much.

In Authoress, he accepts serenely many of Gladstone's moralising readings, but blames them on the writer having been young, female, priggish and without real knowledge of the world, the ancient-Sicilian equivalent of a vicar's daughter. (Of course, Butler was a vicar's son.) He makes her speciality jokes -- delightful little feminine ironies at the expense of masculine heroism. He is breathtakingly sexist, even in his praise.

The drive that made Butler's Homer criticism fun to read is the same one that stopped it connecting with the scholarship of his day, even as a provocation. It rests on intuiting a character for the author of each book (the Iliad was by a cynical old Trojan gentleman) and then remaking everything to fit the intentions, secret biases and flaws of the writers he has invented. David McKie credits Butler with pointing towards the "compound" Homer, the by-committee version already fashionable in his day. But that was completely against his way of reading.

One final revelation I'm deeply grateful for: The Authoress of the Odyssey is back in print, and has been for two years, with a university outfit called Bristol Phoenix Press. That's another £20 gone, and when I finally get to reread the bugger doubtless everything I have said above will be wrong. Now can we have The Humour of Homer, please, Bristol Pheonix Press? Please...

(There's no Project Gutenberg version of Authoress, if you were wondering, despite a full set of his not-very-religious religious works.)

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