Thursday 17 November 2016

The Bright Wake: Adam Nicolson's Homer

Reading in bed is one of the great simple pleasures of life, but bedtime reading has to be chosen with care. Topping my bedside pile recently was Adam Nicolson's The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, and this was not a good choice. Not because it's not good - it's brilliant - but because it was almost too good, certainly too intellectually stimulating, and it was too big; short books, or ones that divide themselves easily into smaller units, are better for bedtime. As a result, I took far too long to read it - but I have finally done so, and must report that I found it the most illuminating, exciting study of Homer I've ever read.
 Nicolson sets out to answer two linked questions: Where does Homer come from, and Why does Homer matter? He immediately declares his own conviction that the accepted dating of 'Homer' is wrong, that the Iliad had its origins in a period 1,000 years before the standard eighth-century BC date, at a time when the semi-nomadic, hero-based culture of the Eurasian steppe first came into contact with the sophisticated, authoritarian city-and-palace culture of the eastern Mediterranean. It's a case that he argues convincingly in the course of the book, and it certainly seems to explain a lot about that strange and bloody epic.
 Nicolson's great strength, though, is in conveying the sheer thrill of discovering Homer - which is not necessarily the same thing as reading him: Nicolson had 'done' Homer at school, but it was many years later, after the decidedly Homeric experience of sailing a 40ft ketch through a violent storm, that Homer first came home to him, in a blaze of revelation. 'I knew that this was the human spirit on fire, rapidity itself, running, going and endlessly able to throw off little sidelights like the sparks thrown off by the wheels of an engine hammering through the night. Speed, scale, violence, threat; but every spark with humanity in it.'
 What follows is a journey through Homer that is at once literary, historical, topographic, archaeological, ethnographic and intensely personal. It's a dazzling performance,  in the course of which Nicolson covers a lot of ground, in every sense - and a lot of sea, so essential to understanding Homer's world. His conclusion? 'Homer is not Greek; he is the light shining in the world. He provides no answers. Do we surrender to authority? Do we abase ourselves? Do we indulge the self? Do we nurture civility? Do we nourish violence? Do we love? Homer says nothing in reply to these questions; he merely dramatised their reality. The air he breathes is the complexity of life, the bubbling vitality of a boat at sea, the resurgent energy, as he repeatedly says, of the bright wake starting to gleam behind you.' As I closed this extraordinary book, I could only agree, and marvel.

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