The best book I read last year was The Odyssey

2010 was often a rotten year, both in books and out of books. Not that I am blaming the books you understand. If anything, there was comfort to be taken from the fact the pages did not misunderstand me by being full of sweetness and light.

Instead the books I read were often frustrating, full of let downs and wrong turns, the promises made on the first page escaping, slipping away, as if through the holes in the letters. There were books written by people failing to get their great ideas onto the page — or read by a reader who failed to get them off the page, the ink too dry and brittle to make a mark. The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris certainly falls into this category, as does Tyler Cowen’s The Age of the Infovore. Both are intelligent, curious books which I just didn’t connect with.

There were books that just didn’t pan out in the way I wanted. It’s too easy for new novels to get to a certain status on little more than fumes. Have a link between author and topic that’s easy to summarise, strengthen with topicality and a certain obviousness and you’re away. That’s certainly how I felt about The Reluctant Fundamentalist, an easily blurbable book thanks to its concept and direct opening, which sees the fundamentalist of the title beginning an unctuous monologue with an impassive listener in a cafe in Lahore. Said listener is an American capitalist pigdog, easy in his skin, silent with his Amex and keys to the world. The narrator quickly becomes deeply irritating, the plot is full of soft contrivances. The result is a book which lacks the confidence to indict either the American or the Fundamentalist, never getting up the guts to really howl, or to get as dark and difficult as the subject demands.

Laura Cumming’s book on self-portraits, on the other hand – A Face To The World – absolutely has the courage of its convictions, and it’s impossible not to connect to them. It’s a series of luminous essays giving a close-reading to a wide range of images, its thematic chapters sweeping with an easy grace through over five hundred years of art history, but never forgetting to bring you up close to the pictures. You finish the book feeling as though you’ve not only seen the self-portraits, but are so convinced by the psychological insight of the writing, you’ve become the blank canvas sat before the painter, looking at him while he paints.

The Lost City of Z was terrific too, a book about a dangerous journey into the Amazon by the last of the lunatic Victorian gentleman explorers – the kind of gent who considered a well-waxed mustache and a sense of God-given grace was sufficient protection against one of the world’s most hostile environments. I bought myself a copy, and then one for a friend, and then one for my brother and I’ll keep on buying it.

I enjoyed The Leopard, particularly after watching a BBC 4 documentary about it. It’s one book where I think a good Google before, and during, reading, really helps. David Mitchell continued to be the contemporary author I find most in tune with what I want from literature; The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was great. Colonialism. Capitalism. Japan. Lost love. Ninjas.

But the best thing I read this year was The Odyssey. Not much of a recommendation, really, because not a single person will likely read it as a result. I mean, it’s The Odyssey. No-one actually reads The Odyssey any more. There’s no link between the author and the text, no link between the story and the world now, no momentum at all. It’s like the giant stone fragments of the Pharoahs in the British Museum: it’s amazing that they’ve survived, but they’re not the kind of thing you want in your lounge. They’re just not relevant.

The problem with relevancy (in this context, and in some others) is that it’s predicated on judging what you have no experience of based on what you do. It can work well; you can go deeper and deeper into genres, find comfort in mapping the world in detail, make sound judgements in your area of expertise.

But it can also mean that you end up describing your world in ever smaller circles, that you define your world, fortify it and build high walls, and it becomes a Church for a congregation of one, singing the same hymns and praying the same prayers.

Of course, the great books – plays, pictures, pieces of music – don’t need you to confer relevancy on them. They reach out to you, making you believe they have lived your life already. Sometimes in the way their colours and choruses seem to give voice to your situations; sometimes with the strange joy of reading the words of an author a thousand years gone putting a character through a life which pushes up against yours so clearly it’s like a reflection, hand-to-hand on a mirror.

And so it was with The Odyssey.

There is an intensely moving part of the story where Odysseus, exiled from home, with his ships, his crew, his friends increasingly scattered, mad, torn to shreds by the journey – realises he must go down into the underworld to continue homeward bound. There, he meets his mother and they talk. What makes it so sad – one of the most moving scenes I’ve read – is that in the moment Odysseus learns the forces of his world will inexorably grant his wish to return to the home and the people that he loves, the things that his journey has torn him from – he also realises how much the place he has come from will have changed, and perhaps, most bitter of all, it no longer exists. How can he be talking to his mother in the underworld, when he left her at home? His mother has died: he has been away for so many years.

The encounter raises the tragic possibility that he will get what he wants – a return – but that because time stops for no man, what he is returning to is in part no longer there. Yet as close as the story takes him to this, the Odyssey isn’t a tragedy: Odysseus returns home, reclaims his house, his wife and his role as a King.

In reading the Odyssey, there was a small sense of peace for me, rooted strongly in the underworld scene. My father died when I was 21; absurdly young for us both, and when you have witnessed the death of your father, a strangeness overtakes you. Or it did me. I was incredibly aware that I had crossed a boundary, and a line now divided me from other people. For a time I was an exile, something slightly vampiric, deathly, inhuman: as if my skin was now a few degrees paler than other people. At its heart was a strange sense of pride, of toughness, as if I was steel, hardened in a fire, because really what I felt was this: my sadnesses are more than yours. I am alone because of this.

The things I really love – the people and the music, the books and the places and the jokes – are those that have the in them the power to pull me back, to return me. The Odyssey very much did that. Those pages did understand me, and I understood them. In that scene, I had the feeling of coming back across my dividing line, the sense that my life, different though it is from most, is not so different that I am irretrievably alone.

Previously:

2006 – 25 books, 28% non-fiction, and my book of the year was Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated.
2007 – 24 books, 33% non-fiction, far fewer contemporary novels, and my pick of the year was Crime and Punishment.
2008 – 22 books, 54% non-fiction, all but one of the novels were contemporary. Best book I read that year was Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
2009 – 25 books, 24% non-fiction, most of the novels were contemporary, and my favourite reads were Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.

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2 thoughts on “The best book I read last year was The Odyssey

  1. If you haven’t already read them, The Illiad and the The Aeneid are also worth a look! I loved every minute of all three when I was doing A-level Classics. Also made me realise how dire ‘Troy’ was as a film…

    • I read the Iliad a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it – The Aenied is another one I need to do. Despite the fact I have not one but two English degrees, I really missed the Greek and Roman classics.

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