Friday, 21 September 2007

The Penelopiad

In the Bookgroup I belong to we're trying to vary the genre we read: fiction, poetry, plays, biography etc. The choice for September was John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius, printed in 2000, in which – in a more modern idiom - he develops the background to Shakespeare's Hamlet from a woman's point of view.

However, as the publisher, Canongate, has recently brought out a new series in which various authors refashion well known myths in a contemporary way it was suggested that as the Updike book was difficult to track down we might also, or alternatively, look at The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood.

In Human beings have always been mythmakers, the religious historian, Karen Armstrong, explains the background to the series and explores our continuing interest in our ancestors and the myths attached to our past.

In one of the first in the Canongate series, Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles, Jeanette Winterson takes a fresh look at the story about Atlas, doomed to hold up the world for ever, when Heracles agrees to exchange the weight of the earth and the heavens in exchange for one of the golden apples of youth: she refashions the myth choosing to explore the journey to self-knowledge.

Margaret Atwood chose an alternative approach when she agreed to retell Homer's Odyssey: she deconstructs the myth and not only tells it like Updike did from a female perspective – that of Odysseus' wife, Penelope – but she also probes the unjust and uncertain reasons for the death of Penelope's handmaidens who also have a collective voice. Both they and Penelope speak from the Greek Underworld.

Psychoanalysts certainly have a field day with the psychological patterns in The Odyssey and you get the feeling that Atwood enjoyed writing The Penelopiad for much the same reasons. In the acknowledgements, she says it was from Robert Graves's, The Greek Myths, that she owes the theory of Penelope as a possible female-goddess cult leader and the convention of burlesquing the main action from satyr plays. The theory I'm not sure about but she certainly carries off the second very successfully.

The whole tone of this short and easily readable book is one of wit, sarcasm and, yes, burlesque, quite unlike the original tone of The Odyssey. I don't know if Canongate's concept was to make famous myths appeal to a modern readership or just to use the myths as inspiration, either way I guess it doesn't matter. But if readers enjoy this I'm not sure they'll ever trudge through the original.

Atwood adds her own interesting variations to the story filling in the gaps in the original: her Penelope could be the very embodiment of some modern army wife, left for long periods of time while her husband is away waging war or on manoeuvres. She is lonely, sad and sometimes embittered as she carries out her domestic duties: not quite a female-goddess cult leader.

But Penelope is also brave and resourceful having to juggle the many roles she is forced to play – in this case warding off suitors, running the palace and kingdom, keeping the expenses and her servants in check. Atwood shows us too a Penelope that is swayed by the same emotions as any modern wife: jealous of her husband's possessive old nurse and her heartless but beautiful cousin, Helen; loving her spoilt son but fed up with his bolshie teenage ways.

Atwood offers the reader several reasons for the death of the handmaidens – they slander Odysseus within his hearing, they are his property but have allowed themselves to be raped (!), they are dispensable, their death will punish Penelope, they knew too much and could implicate Penelope, Penelope herself suggests it by retelling her dream.

According to her handmaidens Penelope was a wily and adulterous wife but Penelope maintains that she was an anxious, faithful wife doing her best in difficult circumstances and so in this way Atwood allows Penelope to remain somewhat of an enigma. Read it and see what you think: the general bookgroup view of The Penelopiad was that it was an easy and enjoyable read, although one they would be unlikely to read again. Everyone liked the character Penelope but some were disappointed in the conclusion.

One of us had seen the play called, not surprisingly, The Penelopiad, based on the book: it's a Royal Shakespeare Company production in collaboration with Canada's National Arts Centre. She thoroughly recommended it: all the characters are played by women - a lovely take on Greek tragedy plays where every character was played by a man.


Book Note: Try The World's Wife, by Carol Ann Duffy, for a gentle and amusing take on myths and classic works or any of those mentioned in the text above.

I can take no credit for finding the following poem by Dorothy Parker:
In the pathway of the sun,
In the footsteps of the breeze,
Where the world and sky are one,
He shall ride the silver seas,
He shall cut the glittering wave.
I shall sit at home, and rock;
Rise, to heed a neighbor's knock;
Brew my tea, and snip my thread;
Bleach the linen for my bed.
They will call him brave.

Clever Carla Nayland mentioned this poem which sums up Homer's Odyssey quite wonderfully: as a precursor to The Penelopiad it could seem to be inspirational.

For other essays about myths scroll through my blog archive: there's 'Moon, meteors and myths' (August 12) or 'Sculpture – Hare today' (June 3)


Carla said...

I've been meaning to give Atwood's take on Penelope a try - thanks for the review. Always found Penelope fascinating. I like Dorothy Parker's poem on the subject with its poignant last line, "They will call him brave". Are you familiar with it?

Lucy said...

Thanks Carla, much as I like Dorothy Parker I'm not that familiar with all her poems so looked this one up. Thank you, excellent adjunct to my blog about The Penelopiad!

Carla said...

Glad you liked it! I can't claim to know every line of her verse, but that poem stuck in my mind from the first time I read it.