Monday, November 28, 2011

Re-read: The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood

It comes back to Penelope a whole lot for me. When my only other serious long-term relationship ended (thirteen years ago), I wrote a poem about being Penelope, because that boy was a classics major who read the Odyssey in Greek, and also he had graduated a year ahead of me and so there was the element of waiting.

And then my husband went and had an affair, far from home, because he wanted to be the kind of person who has adventures and is renowned for his wiles and so on. If you believe your home to be a trap, you make your own Poseidon to keep you from it, and every new girl's a goddess. And meanwhile there were two faithful dogs, waiting for him, long after his wife had given this up as a waste of time. After he moved out they sat at the window every night, looking down the street for his car, and when I called them to bed they would look at me plaintively, Argos-like, willing to be forever patient.

So I wrote a poem about that. It's, well, better than the other one.

I grew up with Greek myths; my mother's a classicist and she read the Iliad and the Odyssey to us when we were very young. And my brothers and I read our copy of D'Aulaires' Greek Myths until it literally fell apart.

Perhaps for this reason, I have a certain reverence for the myths and the poems, and at first Atwood's version seemed far too modern and irreverent for me. I had to read it a second time before falling for the humor and the spite and the realism. This was at least my third reading of it, maybe my fourth, and as you can imagine it was easy to take personally this time around. It made me feel better: there's just something about a wonderful writer putting my emotions into the perfect words that gives me enormous satisfaction, even when they are the most rancid emotions around. (In Atwood's The Robber Bride, which I read last month, there is a long paragraph about jealousy that should be after the word in the dictionary: it encapsulates the feeling so precisely.)

It's a great little book. I also then had to re-read "The Age of Lead", which is one of the best short stories ever written. Oh, Atwood, when you just stay away from futuristic dystopias, I like you so much...

And, oh! A.S. Byatt's contribution to the "Myths" series is finally coming out, in January: and it's about Ragnarok. Despite how hit-or-miss Byatt is for me, I'm deeply excited.

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