There’s an Argentinian cartoon from the late 1960s-early 70s, about a little girl called Mafalda, whose exclamation, ¡Paren el mundo, que me quiero bajar! (Stop the world, I want to get off!) became an internationally known phrase. As we all have moments in which we want to get off (I did, yesterday afternoon), perhaps it might be a good idea if you keep The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at hand?
As the title suggests, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the only – electronic – book you’ll ever need if you should actually succeed in getting off by hitching a ride on a passing UFO. It will also provide you with light relief while you’re waiting by the roadside, as it were, with your thumb stuck in empty air as those heartless aliens are driving by without stopping.
My teenage daughter borrowed my copy of The Old Man and the Sea and read it one afternoon. I had been about the same age when I first read it, thirty years ago. “You’ll either love it or it will bore you to tears,” I warned. “It’s that kind of book.”
“I’ve finished it,” she said later at dinner, looking a bit sheepish.
“You didn’t like it.” It wasn’t hard to divine. She knows that it’s one of my favourite books. “You didn’t click.”
“No,” she said. “It’s just about an old man who went fishing. It’s boring.”
One of the bloggers I read writes a Twitter round-up for a proper website. I usually ignore it – I mean it’s a Twitter round-up, for god’s sake! – but the other day I decided to take a look. This had three immediate effects on me:
I had a fit of hysterical laughter – are these tweets for real?!
I congratulated myself for never having signed up for a Twitter account – I always knew no-one possibly can have anything worthwhile to say in 160 characters, especially on a daily basis.
There are authors who captivate you. With their choice of words, their temperament, their ideas, their life story, their way of looking at the world, their… spirit. It’s been a long time since I last had been so captivated as I’ve been this winter; and it’s a good thing that my husband doesn’t read this blog for I’m positively in love. (With a man who’s been dead for some thirty years. Ouch!)
There’s a song by the English comedian stroke musician Mitch Benn titled The Hardest Song In The World To Find. Of the song in question there is only one copy left, and that’s stuffed in the wrong sleeve in a second hand record shop on Camden High Street. Although my interest in obscure music records is nil, I can fully sympathise with Mitch Benn’s sentiments because there’s a book that I couldn’t track down, not in thirty years.
Today I read a beautiful book – Ransom by David Malouf. I was on a quest to find an Australian book to read as last week I signed up for a simple reading challenge that requires reading six books from six continents in the course of this year. Not a difficult feat in itself but the fact that the year is almost finished added the necessary spice. That and the realisation that I was too much focused on European literature! So I googled Australian literature for inspiration and I stumbled upon this one – and boy, did it deliver.
When I was ten, I read Swallows and Amazons and in the course of that, Arthur Ransome introduced me to English poetry. One of the characters, Titty (I still wonder what sort of a name is that for a girl), was much given to recalling random lines of poetry that they had taught her at school.
The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.
These lines spoke about adventure and unknown worlds in pulsating rhyme. I’m not surprised that they stuck in Titty’s head; they certainly stuck in mine. Ransome – and not my literature teachers – made me read Keats; and Keats made me pick up Homer again, many years after I left school.
Searching for Homer
Homer is difficult to get into nowadays; he was difficult to get into two hundred years ago too. Keats wrote:
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
One October night in 1816, when he was twenty-one years old, Keats had read the translation of the Odyssey by George Chapman at a friend’s house – and that very same night, he wrote the sonnet On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. The power of his images haunts me still.
I always enjoyed Greek mythology and especially the story of the Trojan War, but when I read excerpts of the Iliad and the Odyssey in school, they bored me. Homer wrote nearly three thousand years ago and reading him is not easy, especially in a verse form: I gave up on the Iliad at the seemingly endless description of Achilles’s shield. Yet with Keats I could stand on a peak on Darien and see the uncharted sea through the eyes of Cortez (in point of fact, it was Vasco Núñez de Balboa but I suppose that wouldn’t have scanned); with Keats I could be Galilei discovering the moons of Jupiter. Keats had seen what I failed to: he had stood on the walls of Troy and had seen the black ships appear on the horizon, he had seen Achilles fight under the walls, he had seen Odysseus tossed in the stormy seas. Keats made me believe in Homer. I went and read Pope’s translation of the Iliad but if the Hungarian verse had been boring, Pope was contrived; and they both lacked punch.
Figuratively – and literally – speaking, I was still to come across Chapman’s Homer.
In the end, for me, a 19th century prose translation from the Gutenberg Project did it. Since then, I consider the Iliad (as opposed to the Greek myths relating to the Trojan War) as one of my favourite books; I’m still reading versions of it. Someday I’ll learn Ancient Greek, and take the poetry in the original (it seems Ransome has much to answer for).
All this, by the way, occasioned by the line of Chapman’s Homer that had – supposedly – inspired Keats to write his sonnet:
I read an article in El País about Jane Austen. The author used some 500 words to say what could have been tweeted: viz. that Jane Austen was a good writer and Pride and Prejudice is a good book. Much writing about books and literature is like that: too many words to describe something that would be better read. And it’s difficult to say something new about a book; usually whatever you want to say has been said before – and better. So where does that leave anyone who wants to blog about books? Don’t bother.
Pride and Prejudice was my favourite book in my twenties. It manages to be witty about something utterly mundane. Jane Austen is all about character observation and style. The plot is not important.