It is annoying, repeating tales that have been told before.
—Odysseus to Alcinous, The Odyssey (Book XII, lines 452-3)
The first stanza of Emily Wilson’s electrifying translation of Homer’s The Odyssey opens and closes with the poet’s directive: “Tell me about a complicated man… [T]ell the old story for our modern times. Find the beginning.” This is not the epic I slogged through in high school, nor the one I failed to warm to in college. This is not The Odyssey of Roberts Fitzgerald and Fagles, with their florid wish to hear the Muse sing. As Wilson points out in her excellent introduction, memory is the mother of the Muses, the end for which their means are meant, and her Odyssey achieves that end with page-turning force.
The declarative ardor of that first stanza not only casts my mind back to the blowsy translations I’ve long disliked, but it also allows me to “remember” that The Odyssey, as we read of Odysseus and Penelope exchanging stories near the poem’s conclusion, was “another pleasure” on par with lovemaking. Far from annoying or repetitive, Wilson’s translation draws the text through the ages even as it pulls us back; it tells the old story for our modern times, registering as a work of art all its own.
In this simpler, firmer language—so solid you feel as though you might knock knuckles on it—The Odyssey becomes a new poem altogether, with layers I missed in earlier translations’ dense overgrowth of language. This isn’t to say that Wilson’s rendering is “plain,” though. Consider her description of Penelope’s suitors after Odysseus massacres the lot, spread across the hall at Ithaca “like fish hauled up out of the dark-gray sea in fine-mesh nets; tipped out upon the curving beach’s sand, they gasp for water from the salty sea.” No, Wilson’s Odyssey is best described as sleek, not without its fillips of invention, but more circumspect in their deployment. “Tell me about a complicated man” is but the first of many arresting phrases for our hero’s character, humanizing a larger-than-life figure until he assumes the shape of a man:
“Wily Odysseus, the lord of lies.”
“You love fiction,” Athena praises (accuses?) him at one point, as if Odysseus himself were the bard or the listener. In Wilson’s hands, he’s both and much more besides—a man of multitudes, one we follow through the epic poem not because he awes us, but because he is us. He’s forever torn between the old and the new, the familiar and the strange, the journey and the destination.
Its central figure made manageable, The Odyssey appears to change as much as he does; it certainly reads as more ruminative to me now, suffused with pain and sorrow, than it did at ages 14 or 18. The famous passages—such as that of the Cyclopes or Scylla and Charybdis—are not the central action of the poem; rather, they are recounted as triumphs of yore, almost as distant as the sacking of Troy. In Fitzgerald and Fagles’ harder-to-parse translations, I realize now, I’d clung to these sequences as a castaway does to debris in the ocean; with Wilson, no longer lost at sea, I’ve come to appreciate Telemachus and Penelope as central characters, and the poem’s profusion of stories, overlapping in time and space, as echoes of its central themes. On the need to remember and the desire to forget, for instance: Nestor recounting the dead; Helen and Circe composing draughts of forgetfulness; the Lotus-Eaters losing the will to go home. Or on the consequences of war: Alcinous describing the devastation as “a song for those in times to come”; Odysseus lamenting his life since he followed Agamemnon into battle; even the poem’s last lines, in which Athena secures oaths of peace, “still in her guise as Mentor.”
As it happens, then, the old story always was a story for our modern times. It was simply in search of a modern language to match. In Wilson’s hands, The Odyssey remains the grand adventure I remember from high school and college, yes, but it’s also a painfully familiar parable, a portrait of a society that follies into a fruitless war and becomes lost in it, drifting far from home on a raft of nostalgia. It’s the only treatment of Odysseus I’ve yet encountered to merit comparison to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s rueful, elegiac description of the man — “become a name,” reflecting with an exquisite mixture of satisfaction and sorrow on a long life, lived fully, that still feels too small and too short.
Of course, this may say more about how much I have changed since I last read The Odyssey than it does about the text itself, but Wilson, who argues that Odysseus is a figure not of permanence but of profound transformation, understands this evolution precisely. For her, readers change as heroes change, as poems and poets change, and this slipperiness is essential to the Homeric tradition. In this vein, I feel comfortable calling Wilson’s Odyssey the best book of 2018* because it is most assuredly not The Odyssey of the Greeks, of Alexander Pope, of Fitzgerald or Fagles. It is The Odyssey of us, here, now.
There is no such thing as repeating tales that have been told before, Wilson’s translation suggests, for each telling is a new tale, a new odyssey, a new command, a new memory. Find the beginning.
*Wilson’s translation was published in November 2017, but due to its late date, many outlets (Paste included) have chosen to include it in their “best of 2018” content.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.