The Iliad

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The Iliad – Homer

Yesterday I posted about The Iliad‘s sort-of-sequel, The Odyssey, so really, these posts are in the wrong order. I wrote about The Odyssey because I wanted to challenge the notion that it is dull and difficult to read, which made sense because it is generally considered to be the more accessible of the two, however it got me thinking and I decided that The Iliad deserved the same treatment, not least because I actually preferred The Iliad.

In a sense, I’m very mainstream in my literary tastes- I rarely like something that everyone else hates- and so when my lecturer mentioned that students tend to prefer the ‘easier’ Odyssey, I assumed that I would follow the same pattern, but I ended up bucking the trend. The Iliad is more difficult to read than The Odyssey but it’s also much more rewarding; it’s more complex, more ambiguous, more varied in its characters and a much more moving piece of literature.

The Iliad covers an eventful few weeks during the final year of the Trojan War (although it jumps around a lot and much backstory and legend is related, as is the way with epics) and presents the reader with viewpoints from the Greek and Trojan side. It covers disputes within the Greek army, as well as the petty battling among the gods, and, unlike The Odyssey, things are most certainly not in black and white. It’s not so much a case of picking a side as it is of watching helplessly as two characters you find yourself rooting for battle each other to the death. War in The Iliad isn’t right versus wrong but man versus man, and victory and tragedy become one and the same. Although the text was written thousands of years ago and includes much myth and legend, its presentation of war still rings true and is perhaps more pertinent today than ever.

The Iliad is, in short, an astounding piece of literature. The legends are drawn together so seamlessly and the narrative moves so fluidly back and forth in time that one can only speculate that this must have taken months, perhaps even years, to plan. There are many long and tedious battle scenes, but in between that there are stories of love and loyalty and a very touching familial scene between Hector and his family. It can also be difficult to keep track of who’s who if you don’t know much about Greek legend (which I didn’t) but you get the hang of it after a while, and the varied cast of characters and their tangled lives certainly keeps it interesting- sometimes it feels more like a soap opera than an epic Greek poem! The most difficult (and deathly boring) part of The Iliad is definitely the epic lists, such as the Catalogue of Ships in Book II (not gonna lie, I just skipped it). The epithets can also be distracting and a little repetitive (they were a poetic convention but they just seem redundant and often annoying today) but you get used to them.

So to sum it up, The Iliad is more complex and much less familiar in form than The Odyssey, but it is also a much more gratifying piece of literature. You learn more about Greek myth and legend, experience an interesting portrayal of humanity and war and learn more about the disputes and petty jealousies of the gods. It’s not an easy read, but remember that easy doesn’t equate to good, and it’s nowhere near as difficult or boring as I thought it would be. It’s still literature that you can sink your teeth into, and if you take it Book by Book then you’ll have it finished in no time!

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Lo, Lola, Lolita

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Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

Ah, Lolita. One of the most controversial books of the 20th century, perhaps of all time. It’s a novel which approaches the incredibly taboo subject of paedophilia from a very unusual angle- a romantic one. We are drawn into the twisted mind of Humbert Humbert, an attractive European academic, who develops an infatuation with his landlady’s daughter, who reminds him of a lost childhood love. Nabokov does not portray Humbert as a hero, but does allow him the odd moment of sympathy throughout, and he boldly resists characterising Lolita as an angelic, innocent child.

This novel is, in short, mind-blowing. From Nabokov’s lyrical writing style- which often makes the novel seem more like poetry than prose- to his wonderfully complex portrayal of the disturbing relationship between Humbert and Lolita, he takes your expectations of a novel about paedophilia and turns them on their head. At times, novel is erotic- romantic, even- and forces you to empathise with Humbert’s desire for Lolita through wonderful descriptions of her tanned, bony feet and glossy hair. Even though Lolita is Humbert’s victim and her life is effectively ruined by him, she is often portrayed as cruel and manipulative. Meanwhile Humbert, the predator, who does despicable things such as have Lolita perform sexual acts upon him in the car whilst he watches children walk out of school, often seems weak and pathetic- in making Lolita the object of his affections, he gives her the upper hand. In the end, it is Lolita who breaks Humbert’s heart, not the other way around. Lolita is undoubtedly a victim and suffers some terrible things, but she is strong whilst Humbert is weak, and Nabokov challenges convention- and flirts outrageously with controversy- in playing with this unusual balance.

However, I disagree with those who call the novel ‘immoral’, or even ‘amoral’. Although he is a desperate, pitiful man at times, we are never permitted to forget that he is a lecherous paedophile and any brief flashes of sympathy are soon replaced by enduring disgust. Humbert wishes to view himself as a lover, and in a sense, he is- the problem is, his ardent passion is directed towards a child. He tries to delude himself, and the reader, that his relationship with Lolita is a great love affair, but he has moments of clarity when he is overcome with self-loathing and begs her forgiveness- much to her disgust. Nabokov delights in playing with conventions of romance and his style is poetic, but at the centre of Humbert’s magniloquent narrative lies a rotting core of disturbing obsession; Nabokov leaves no doubt as to who the villain of the piece truly is. However, Lolita is not a morality tale, and nor should it try to be; do we really need a work of fiction to tell us that rape, exploitation and murder are wrong?

Have YOU read Lolita? What did you think? I’d love to know your thoughts, so please leave a comment!