How 'Leopold Bloom' Shaped One Author's Odyssey
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is "Bloomsday." In his famous novel "Ulysses," James Joyce described the adventures of Leopold Bloom through Dublin on June 16th, 1904, and the anniversary is celebrated around the world with parties and marathon readings. A day writer, Scott Huler remarked a few years ago with a public vow that he would never read "Ulysses."
"No, I said. No, I won't, no," he wrote, words he had to swallow within a month as his reading group took up the novel. But then as he read it he became intrigued, not so much by Bloom but by the character whose adventures inspired Joyce. Scott Huler joins us today from the studios of member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Scott, nice to have you on the program again.
Mr. HULER: Neal, it's great to be here.
CONAN: And what took you from Ulysses to Odysseus?
Mr. HULER: Well, what took me from Ulysses to Odysseus was that "The Odyssey" made sense to me. I was reading "Ulysses" and sort of struggling my way through it. And my wife saw it and she knew that I was getting interested in the Homer behind it and just wondering what that was all about. So she bought me a copy of the book. And I started reading "The Odyssey" again. I thought I was going to read it again, and I found out, of course, I had never read it at all in ninth grade, like everyone else. I read a couple of CliffsNotes, I cheated on a quiz, I was done.
CONAN: That's OK, not many have read "Ulysses," and a lot of people have said they read that, too.
Mr. HULER: Right, I think so. These are like two of the world's champions, talked about but not read books. And reading "The Odyssey," I was stunned to realize that it's not meant for the ninth-graders whose throats we try to stuff it down. It's like a guide to being a middle-aged person. Where Odysseus, who's at the time of the action of "The Odyssey" in his mid-40s, he's had this junky job with this bad boss, Agamemnon. He's been fighting in this war that's based on a lie. He just wants to get home to his family. He misses his family and he's kind of sick of it.
And I thought, that sounds like middle age. That sounds like my world. I recognize that place. And so I just found in "The Odyssey" this sort of guidebook for how to face the world in the middle of your life. And I think in many ways that's what Homer had in mind.
CONAN: And what did the switch from Joyce to Homer - how did that lead to a decision to follow the route of Odysseus from Troy to Ithaca?
Mr. HULER: Well, one of the things that I laughed at when I snidely made fun of Ulysses on Bloomsday is that people all over the world sort of troop to Dublin to retrace the steps of the characters of "Ulysses" or to have readings all over the country of "Ulysses." And I called it St. Patrick's Day for Mensa members. I mean, I was very snide, really not really nice.
But I was like, now that I think about it, you know, you hear about these people going to Dublin to retrace the steps of Bloom and Douglas. But you don't hear about anybody flying to Troy and then retracing the steps of Odysseus back to Ithaca. Why don't you hear about that? That's - I thought, well, all right, I'll go do that, that's what I'll do.
CONAN: Well, you could have done this in upstate New York in a couple of days.
Mr. HULER: Yes, I think that's true. I many times wished that I had chosen to do that.
CONAN: Scott Huler describes his adventures along Odysseus' long road home in a book called "No-Man's Lands: One Man's Odyssey Through the Odyssey." If you'd like to talk with him about why and about how he found the Cyclops Cave, the Land of the Lotus-eaters and, well, Hades, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
And Scott Huler, like Odysseus, your journey actually began at Troy. But that's not the way you write the book.
Mr. HULER: No, that's right. I chose - I had two models here. In one sense I had Odysseus as my model. As a traveler, I followed Odysseus. I started at Troy and I made my way home to Ithaca, decidedly by the long route, the scenic route, but I just took it step by step. As a writer trying to tell the story, I eventually followed as my model Homer, which I think was a wise - he's good.
CONAN: He's good. He's got talent.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HULER: If you're going to cheat, steal from the best, right? And so Homer, first of all, I was stunned when reading "The Odyssey" to note that these books, these adventures that we associate with Odysseus, the Cyclops, as you said, Scylla and Charybdus, the visit to the Land of the Dead, constitute a very small portion of "The Odyssey." They constitute about one sixth of it. Four books out of 24 total.
I was stunned to see that the first four books of "The Odyssey," Odysseus isn't even in. They are all about what's going on at home in Ithaca. They are all about where Odysseus isn't in. And his wife's in trouble, his son's in trouble. It's all this sort of cliffhanger, "Perils of Pauline" stuff, perils of Penelope, maybe. And we finally meet Odysseus on the isle of Ogygia, where he is being held in sexual captivity by the nymph Calypso, and he's sitting sadly on the beach staring off towards home and weeping.
And this is already in Book Five, and I thought, wow, this is an amazing, sort of - talk about (unintelligible), starting in the middle of things. This is - Homer has it all. We have learned nothing about how to tell a story in the past 3000 years. And so I thought, when I try to tell this story, probably that's where I should start, too. So I started on the island of Malta, which styles itself as the home of Calypso long ago.
CONAN: Well, that makes a degree of sense. It's in the middle of things, you can make an argument. And a lot of people - you're hardly the first scholar to go back and try to figure out what was Odysseus' actually route. But there are places, you point out, the first stop he makes from Troy, a place everybody knew at the time, a very real place, and then the next place - well, not so real.
Mr. HULER: Right. Exactly. One of the best parts about undertaking this project was doing the research to try to figure out where to go because it's like - I tell people, it's like walking into a cocktail party at 11 and they started arguing politics at 8, and just no way are you going to get the bottom. You just start yelling along with everybody else because it's just ridiculous argument.
On the one hand, you have these true believers who are like, well, you have to take into consideration the Matlene winds which blow at a certain time in the Mediterranean, pushing Odysseus clearly toward the south and the west and with underwater currents. Well, then Odysseus would have had to land just exactly here, and if you look at this rock from a certain angle it's obviously... And you know, these are true believers, who just know this is where Odysseus went.
And then on the other side you have people who are like, it's a poem! It's a made-up story. It's a myth. There was no Odysseus, you people are nuts. What's wrong with you? And then sort of in the middle, generally, there's an agreement that the descriptions bare traces of the Western Mediterranean, the islands to the west of Italy and that whether the - you know, the Greeks, when "The Odyssey" was being committed to language, being written down, the Greeks were exploring and settling those areas. So whether sailor stories came back and they made their way into the oral presentations of "The Odyssey" or whether they brought those Odyssey stories with them and got to the Strait of the Zenith(ph) and said, oh, obviously, the narrow strait, a cliff on one side, Scylla and Charybdus, I'm here, isn't important. It just means - we just know that for 2,500 years or more these places have been connected with "The Odyssey."
CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. Our guest, again, Scott Huler. His new book is "No Man's Lands: One Man's Odyssey Through the Odyssey." And 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us. Email is email@example.com. Michael is on the line calling from Portland, Oregon.
MICHAEL (Caller): Hello. Thank you for - what a great topic. I am completely enthralled. I like your idea that "The Odyssey" is kind of a guy in his mid-life time, but maybe if it just might work here, maybe in his kind of a mid-life crisis, he's lived the kind of jagged and cool life where he got to be with his men but he's sort of still lacking purpose, and so he has to go home, try to reestablish things with his son, kind of help him become a man.
But then the interesting thing about the book or the first true novel, if you will, is that he ends up going off with a paddle out into the desert to, you know, to take this paddle where has to find someone and then the excuse is, he'll leave home again. So he does get to get his life back, in a way, and gets his taste of home but then he leaves again for yet another adventure. So is it, you know, I mean, the myth of Greek men is, you know, they are just out there having fun. Maybe this is a momentary lapse of homewardness in the life of a pretty much...
CONAN: Well, they did call him the sacker of cities. Yeah, a man of some adventure.
Mr. HULER: You're making a great point, that Odysseus does get to have it both ways. Don't forget, here's a guy who of his 10 years of wandering, eight of them are spent sleeping with goddesses, and he's complaining about it the whole time. For a lot of that time he's not working all that hard on getting home. He says, oh, darn, another night I have to sleep with a goddess. Poor me.
MICHAEL: Yeah, I agree with you. Depending on the translation you read because I've read two or three of these, I'm on my third, although I can't remember the author of the most recent translation, but it's the best I've read so far.
CONAN: Is that Donald(ph) Fagles?
MICHAEL: I think so, yes. Yes, I think it is. The one of those guys, (unintelligible) or whatever, who was probably the one most of us have had to suffer through, it doesn't look like he's really suffering, but as the translations get more recent it gets to be a little more tongue-in-check, or maybe I was maturing and realizing it was more tongue-in-check. I don't know which one, but I'm really...
CONAN: Well, one of the things - I did reread it several years ago, Michael, and yeah, I had read it in ninth grade, too, and seen a lot of animated movies with - well, guys with one eye in the middle of their forehead. But the thing that amazed me was the great majority of the story is told in flashback. Again, you're absolutely right, Scott. There is no new technique.
Mr. HULER: Right. Well, and that's one of the great things. A classics professor who helped me out a great deal on this pointed out to me, it is, as you say, Odysseus tells these wonderful adventure stories in flashback, which if you think of the oral tradition of this poem means that as the banquet is going on and the poet comes to sing the poem, that means he's singing to you in the first person saying, here's what I did, here's what I experience. So the listener, it's almost like the listener is in the room with Odysseus telling you these stories. It's a wonderful, immediate story traveling from mouth to ear, from mouth to ear in this just unbelievably beautiful way.
CONAN: Michael, thanks very much for the phone call.
MICHAEL: Thank you so much for having this topic. Have a great day, gentleman.
CONAN: You, too. Our guest again is Scott Huler. His book, "No Mans Lands: One Man's Odyssey Through the Odyssey." This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's see if we can get Mike on the line, Mike with us from Brockport in New York.
Hello, Mike. Are you there? Mike has apparently found something better to do. Maybe he's off with Circes somewhere.
Mr. HULER: Mike is sleeping with a goddess.
CONAN: Yes, Joseph calling from San Antonio.
JOSEPH (Caller): Hi, I just wanted to thank you also for bringing up this subject. I'm in the U.S. Navy and I was a member of the Sixth Fleet for some years and we traveled through these places many times. We actually dry docked in Malta, and I was always really conscious on the story of Odysseus and went to see Calypso's Cave and went to the site of Messina several, several times and also take in a lot of other mythology including like the Strait of Gibraltar, which was suppose to be gate that Hercules made to get to the outside sea. And I experienced all of these things.
I also wanted to say, I think the island was actually Camino, which was part of the Maltese nation where Calypso's Cave is reputed to be. But this is a wonderful subject, and I feel validated because I always made my shipmates go to all these places with me and some of them didn't really know what I was talking about.
Mr. HULER: The island in the Maltese archipelago is actually the Island of Gozo, and the amazing about that, as you say, you went to Calypso's Cave. There is a cave and not only is there a cave but it shows up on the tourist maps, Calypso's Cave. It was so satisfying as somebody who was going place after place and saying, OK, I'm here following Odysseus and having people look at me like I was from Venus. To go someplace where I said, oh, I'm looking for Calypso's Cave and they were just like, OK, second cave on the left over there.
JOSEPH: Pretty much my experience with my shipmates.
Mr. HULER: Did you rent a bike to go up there, Joseph? That's what I did. I rented one of these tiny, not tall American-size bicycle and I was riding around like one of the clowns in the circus riding a tiny bicycle to get up there.
JOSEPH: I don't remember. I think we just walked everywhere. We met some priests there who had a house and took us for the afternoon for lunch and kind of showed us where we needed to go. And you're right. It was Gozo. Camino's(ph) the other island, the smaller island.
Mr. HULER: Right. The tiny one.
CONAN: Joseph, thanks very much for the call.
JOSEPH: You're welcome.
Mr. HULER: So long.
CONAN: Here's an email from Tim in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Maritimo in the Agatti islands, I'm not sure I'm pronouncing that right, is said to be Ithaca. I've been there and it is certainly easy to imagine. It's hugely mountainous and mostly wild with only one little village in its harbor. Did you go there?
Mr. HULER: Well, I didn't. That's just off the west coast of Sicily and that falls right into this wonderfully insane idea that the wonderful British writer Samuel Butler had, which was that "The Odyssey" was written by a young woman who never in her life left her hometown of Tropiny(ph) on the tip of western Sicily and that Homer was this young woman who told this story and based all of the episodes on things she had seen hanging around Sicily.
So it's pretty nutty but it's wonderful, and Butler is just hilarious in that. I strongly recommend to anybody that you pick up and read "The Authoress of the Odyssey" by Samuel Butler. But yes, the island Maritimo was called - Butler claims that the Island of Ithaca is based on that. I didn't go there because I didn't want to muddy the water. I decided, and it's not necessarily to everyone's taste that since I was looking for the island of Ithaca and there in western Greece there was an island called Ithaca, I was just going to ahead and say, that was good enough for me.
CONAN: Oh, you literalist, you didn't read enough Joyce.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Let me ask you, finally. One of the stops that Odysseus makes on his journey, he goes to Hades to speak with the shade of Achilles. It's sort of the book of Job of "The Odyssey," where that famous thing, I would rather be a slave in life than rule over the dead. But where do you go to find Hades?
Mr. HULER: Well, I wanted to go to the church of the Capuchin monks in Rome. There are these crypts, these underground, these beautiful underground crypts that are filled with artwork made by the bones of dead monks and it doesn't sound so beautiful but it actually is astonishingly beautiful. And so that is where I decided to go. Because I thought, you know, you're trying to justify all these places you want to go, but if you're going to go to the Land of the Dead and then you come back, your friends are going to say, you are just not telling me the truth.
So I thought, all right, I get to choose any place in this world, and I had been there once before, and it was one of the most stirring places - stirring experiences of my entire life, to be standing with all these bones. And these skeletons, they are actually full skeletons wearing Capuchin robes and holding up signs saying, as we are now you soon will be. As you are now we once were. Which is really quite straightforwardly advice from the dead, which is on how to live life and how to take your life seriously and how to think about the values that you want to uphold, which is exactly what Odysseus gets from Achilles and from his mom, who he also meets down there.
And so that's where I was going and I was so thrilled to go back there. And then when I got there it was closed for renovations and so I had this whole long, awful experience trying to get the Vatican involved getting me in and I didn't get in. I actually eventually went to the catacombs and found the dead there.
CONAN: Well, Scott Huler, thanks very much for being with us. Appreciate your time.
Mr. HULER: It was my pleasure. Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: Scott Huler's book, "No Man's Lands: One Man's Odyssey Through the Odyssey." He joined us today from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. If you'd like to read about his adventures on the island of the nymph Calypso, you can find an excerpt on our web site at npr.org/talk. I'll be in Buffalo tomorrow to visit with the folks at WBFO. Lynn Neary will be here. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
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