Two New Novels Based On Homer's Work

Two new novels this month are based on motifs from Homer's great poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Alan Cheuse reviews Ransom by David Malouf and The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachery Mason.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Now, a literary question. Why mess with the classics? There's no shortage of books, good and bad, that were inspired by great books. Homer's epic poems, "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," have already been repurposed countless times. You can add to that list two new books now.

Alan Cheuse reviews the results.

ALAN CHEUSE: These two new works of fiction should be catnip to anyone who loves great literature and all of its spin-offs and variations and byplays and descendants.

In "Ransom," the Australian novelist David Malouf focuses on one of the great sequences in Homer and a lot of people would say in all Western literature one of the so-called embassy episodes of "The Iliad."

Priam, king of Troy, crosses the battle line in disguise to plead with Achilles for the body of his slain son Hector. Priam and his mule driver haul a cartload of Troy's gold, treasures he wants to exchange for the corpse of Hector.

In his own intense and slightly formal fashion, David Malouf delivers his own cartload of treasure from this ancient material, and in exchange, we get a deep and stately rendering of a magnificent poetic sequence.

First-time novelist Zachery Mason employs a lighter touch in "The Lost Books of The Odyssey" with its multiple variations on the adventures of Odysseus and his fabled homecoming. Out our hero goes from Mediterranean island to island, and again and again, he arrives home in Ithaca, sometimes finding chaos, sometimes finding all is lost.

In one of these chapters, he finds himself alone on an island in the middle of winter, in a cabin where sits a book, which happens to be the story of Odysseus, as Mason tells it, soldier and diplomat, a man of versatile intelligence who connived to destroy a sacred city in the east and made the long trip home over many trying years.

This encounter, as is all of this inventive novel, is Homer filtered through Borges and many other modernists. It's an absolute tribute and an absolute delight.

NORRIS: The novels are "Ransom" by David Malouf and "The Lost Books of the Odyssey" by Zachery Mason. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University.

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