Reader's Choice


ROBERT GRAVES, a prolific and admirably uninhibited translator of Greek and Latin works, has at last got around to the Iliad, under the name of THE ANGER OF ACHILLES (Doubleday, $4.95), with illustrations by Ronald Searle. Mr. Graves’s purpose in any translation is laudably simple; he means to make something that a contemporary reader can enjoy. This is as good an approach as any to the problem of transmuting Greek hexameters, unfamiliar manners, and exotic supernatural trimmings into readable modern English.
Directness, clarity, and speed are the great merits of Mr. Graves’s method. To be sure, nothing but ruthless deletion could hurry old Nestor’s reminiscences or straighten the notorious catalogue of ships, and this Mr. Graves has not attempted, but he has taken a firm stand on epithets. White-armed Hera and the wine-dark sea have been virtually rooted out, and I doubt that a single well-greaved Achaean survives in all the book’s three-hundred-odd pages. With the epithets have gone the various little tricks, repetitions, circumlocutions, and meaningless words with which Homer habitually regularized the meter of an awkward line. They were the poetical equivalent of shimming, and Mr. Graves, translating into prose, is better off without them.
Battle tactics and the intricate squabbles among recalcitrant Greek commanders below and fcatherwitted deities aloft fare very well at Mr. Graves’s hands. There is never any question about who is killing whom, while the complaints of the injured Achilles and the threats of Zeus fairly crackle with exasperation. Mr. Graves discovers much deadpan comedy and oblique satire in Homer as well, and points them up deftly.
And how about the poetry, since Homer is remembered as a poet? It is not there. It has vanished, leaving not a rack behind. Hector’s farewell to Andromache is spoken in the same sharp style as his battle orders. When Helen, watching from the walls of Troy, wonders why her brothers are not with the besieging army, the Greek original adds merely that her brothers were dead long ago and buried in their own country, and lets the wistful irony speak for itself. Mr. Graves puts it this way: “The truth was that both her brothers were long since dead and buried in their native country, after they had ambushed a pair of rival twins from Messene: Idas and Lynceus. None of the four survived that fight.” As one who once wept over that line, I resent the intrusion of scholarship and these chaps Idas and Lynceus.
This is not to say that there is no verse in The Anger of Achilles. The opening invocation to the goddess, most of the elaborate similes, and a few set-piece speeches are in rhyme. There is considerable variety in these rhymed sections, and some of them are strikingly effective, notably the hunting similes and Achilles’ prayer at the ford.
Long life I seek not,
Of death I reck not,
And therefore speak not,
Unless to blame
THETIS, my mother,
Who swore no other
Power could me conquer
But PHOEBUS’ aim.
If noble Hector
Might be my victor,
Of that poor honour
I should be fain;
For THETIS taught me
That death must take me
In gallant tourney
Upon Troy’s plain.
This has a fine barbarian ring to it, but it is not typical. A good many of the verse bits have the cramped quality of minor eighteenth-century work, while “Greeks be eager, Greeks be bold!” raises in my ear a terrible echo of “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick.”
The way of the translator is hard, and it would be black ingratitude to deny that the work of Mr. Graves brings the Iliad closer to the modern reader than any other version. But his gallant sortie has not lifted the siege. If you want to read Homer, unhappily, you still have to learn Greek.


SONIA, JE T’ADOKE (Knopf, $4.00) is a collection of urbanely venomous reflections on the bliss of domesticity and the pleasures of travel by PIERRE DANINOS, the inventor of that improbable Francophile, Major Thompson. Having retired the major, Mr. Daninos now speaks for himself, as amusingly as ever.
The troubles which weigh upon Mr. Daninos are not unusual in themselves. He and Sonia can never avoid each other in the bathroom, the box marked Summer Things disgorges Christmas tree ornaments, directions in a strange town get him hopelessly lost, currency exchange baffles him, he discovers the name of the only chic medical specialist after hiring a mere competent nobody, and so on. Is it the old myth that they order these things better in France that makes his dismay so comic? Or the sober innocence with which he describes each catastrophe, as though he were the first tourist in history to start for the Klagenschnee and end up on the Klagenspitze? This occurred in the neighborhood of a polyglot Swiss hotel where only the menu spoke French, and Mr. Daninos was ultimately set upon the right path by a peasant “because, by great good luck, he did not understand a single word of what I had said to him in live languages.” The experience is undoubtedly related to the author’s definition of “locals.” “In France these consist of French citizens who regard their compatriots as foreigners from July 1 to September 30, after which time, having no further occasion to irritate the invader by talking dialect, they resume the use of their normal tongue.”
Like all such books, Sonia, Je T’ adore should not be gulped at one sitting. In well-spaced doses, however, it is a pleasant tonic.


KHUSHWANT SINGH is unusual among the Indian novelists published in this country in that his novels deal directly with violence. His first book, Mano Majra, centered on the riots and massacres growing out of the separation of India and Pakistan. His second, I SHALL NOT HEAR THE NIGHTINGALE (Grove, $3.95 and $1.95), is set in 1942 and is the story of a Sikh family divided over loyalty to the British raj.
Buta Singh is a senior magistrate, very proud of his position in the British hierarchy, intensely flattered by the interest of the deputy district commissioner, and only recently beginning to suspect that loyalty to India as a nation may have something to recommend it. His wife, Sabhrai, is a devout, kindly lady who hardly knows one party from another but can recite Sikh prayers all night if necessary. His son, Sher Singh, is a university student, a spoiled and foolish young man whose dabblings in extremist politics have gradually led to the accumulation of rifles, ammunition, and hand grenades and the organization of the most useless group of terrorists that ever disturbed a country’s peace.
The action of the novel is set in motion by Sher Singh and his swaggering Hindu friend, Madan, who, with their tyro terrorists, are at target practice in a rural swamp. The shooting attracts the headman of the nearest village, and the lies they tell this dishonest old fellow lead everyone to disaster.
The novel takes no sides politically. The English deputy commissioner is represented as a decent man trying to enforce reasonable laws, while Sher Singh’s triggerhappy idiocy is all his own invention and no fault of the Indian party officially seeking independence. What the author sets out to portray is the confusion of mind among people who have given up, or are about to give up, their loyalty to one regime but have not yet found a substitute for it. Sher Singh and company, for all their chatter about a free India, haven’t the dimmest notion of what free India should be. They are rebels without principles or program, while Buta Singh is a conformist in the same condition. Expediency and excitement are the only motives of these people, and they bumble about in a labyrinth of deceit, blackmail, double cross, seduction, and finally murder. When Sher Singh is carted off to jail, only his mother, still firmly rooted in the Sikh tradition, considers the ethical aspect of the situation. Her decision is unexpectedly grim. The author himself offers no solution.
Mr. Singh is a businesslike writer, not given to frills or subtlety. Even so, the novel is not entirely sober. There are mischievous caricatures of minor officials and fawning tradesmen and a scandalously funny episode in which the family’s mistreated boy-of-all-work takes a Rabelaisian revenge. Mr. Singh gives the impression of being an artless and sometimes clumsy writer, but his major characters come to life, and their mistakes have the power to make the reader’s conscience itch.


ANTHONY C. WEST, author of a well-received collection called River’s End and Other Stories, has written a novel, THE NATIVE MOMENT (McDowell, Obolensky, $4.50), which has the distinction of being the most tedious book since O’Hara’s From the Terrace, It may be that I misjudge the work, for I fear it is an allegorical, or, if the reader prefers, symbolic diatribe against life in present-day Ireland, and allegory is a device that has never appealed to me. It seems shifty of an author not to say what he means if he actually knows.
Mr. West’s hero is named Simon Green — for dear old Ireland, no doubt — and he goes up to Dublin with a friend’s load of potatoes, which may represent bucolic virtue if they don’t represent agriculture enslaved by the economic system, and with an eel in a paint can. Very primeval fish, the eel; goes back to the beginning of time. Simon is all upset because a girl he chastely admired some seven years previously is illegally pregnant and refuses to name the child’s father. Local opinion is that her mind is confused by a plethora of candidates. The boys can’t collect for the spuds and nobody will buy the eel, and with these ancient values rejected, Simon spends twenty-four hours wandering around Dublin. He meets everybody he ever knew, several old girl friends and a lot of unsavory oddities, including a ramshackle street harridan who turns into Cathleen Ni Houlihan. Granted Simon is outside six or eight whiskys at the time, this is still a bit of a strain. Everybody’s miserable sex life — there is no other kind — is described with clinical thoroughness. If I fail to care about the idealistic significance of all this realistic anatomy, it may be because an activity as individual as lovemaking — fornication would be a more accurate word in this instance — is not really suitable material for the illustration of any general intellectual proposition.


Two books about desert travel have turned up, each good of its kind. ARABIAN SANDS (Dutton, $5.95) is WILFRED THESIGER’S account of his travels through the southern Arabian district known as the Empty Quarter. THE SEARCH FOR THE TASSILI FRESCOES (Dutton, $6.95) is HENRI LHOTE’S story of the expedition which he led into the Sahara to find and copy prehistoric rock paintings.
There really is something to popular notions of national character, it seems. Mr. Lhote is French. Mr. Thesiger is English. The circumstances of their respective adventures differ enormously, but the basis of the expedition, in each case, is individual attitude. As romantic lone-wolf Englishman and practical Frenchman, they run almost laughably true to type.
Mr. Thesiger is a follower of Kipling’s everlasting whisper, “Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!” He went poking about the Empty Quarter out of curiosity, a love of strange country, and something of T. E. Lawrence’s obsession with the heroic simplicity of Bedouin life, though he had a wisp of official backing from an international commission on locust control. He describes the miseries of desert travel with a certain satisfaction and is frankly proud of his ability to eat the dreadful food provided by the Arabs, who detested it themselves but could do no better in the middle of nowhere. He admires camels.
Mr. Lhote tells nothing of his background, but internal evidence in his text establishes him pretty certainly as a veteran traveler in the Sahara and a man with access to official ears. His sizable expedition was well financed and transported, up to a point, by the French military. He hardly mentions his own discomfort but is wryly sympathetic when his companions get sunstroke, lose themselves, or nearly die of thirst. He deplores his commissary, which would have seemed grossly luxurious to Thesiger, protesting guiltily that it was the best he could manage. He views camels as a cross that must be borne.
Arabian Sands is orthodox adventure and exploration. Mr. Thesiger’s primary motive was his own pleasure in primitive life, a taste he came by naturally, having grown up in Abyssinia in a time of gaudy tribal warfare. He mapped the country he traveled over, which had never been done before, and he is unhappily aware that his mapping will help the oil companies that he hates to see enter the place. His difficulties, aside from the main problem of staying alive in a region where the next well might be two hundred miles away, and dry, to boot, were the usual ones of finding reliable guides, getting safe conduct from one touchy tribe to the next, avoiding the indigenous authorities, and keeping his temper. He is sometimes a bit too aware of his own success, as a Christian and an inexperienced desert man, in adapting to the Bedouin way of life, but it is a forgivable weakness. His accomplishment was truly remarkable.
The Search for the Tassili Frescoes is a quite different affair. Mr. Lhote’s main object is to describe the paintings themselves and the means by which his team of painters and photographers copied them. By his own standards, the expedition was hardly out of sight of the police station, but since none of his colleagues had ever set foot in the Sahara before, and the Tassili is a particularly nasty plateau to reach, all the passes being equally devilish, and the climate is capable of ranging through fire, flood, whirlwind, and snow within twenty-four hours, Mr. Lhote had his troubles.
The paintings copied by the expedition are wonderful things, to judge by the reproductions lavishly scattered through the book. They are all prehistoric, of various types which run into or are superimposed on each other. Some appear to be Negro work, others completely mysterious in origin.
One group of prehistoric painters produced colossal, pale, ghostlike figures whose faces are reduced to a pair of lopsided eyes. These images, which Mr. Lhote has nicknamed Martians, are alarming in the pages of a book. Spread across twenty feet of rock, they must be unspeakable. Another school of painters—Mr. Lhote calls them the Bovidians — specialized in cattle as handsome as the bulls of Altamira. There are dancing human figures reduced to wire-thin silhouettes, wizards constructed out of circles and triangles, and naturalistic dancers of almost classical proportions. There are suggestions of Cretan influence and one unmistakable importation from Egypt.
The story of Mr. Lhote’s party, dragging camels, drawing boards, and rolls of paper up impossible grades, and painting like mad through wind and heat glare, is fascinating, while the paintings themselves are irresistible.


Author, editor, and part-time archaeologist, Louis A. BRENNAN has written NO STONE UNTURNED (Random House, $5.00). The book, subtitled An Almanac of North American Prehistory, undertakes to demolish the once standard belief that man was a very late comer to the Americas, a Mongolian offshoot who traveled via the Aleutians and arrived here in much the same condition in which the first European visitors found him.
With the revelations of the new carbon-dating technique on his side, Mr. Brennan maintains that man arrived here (via the Aleutians) very early indeed, in time to hunt mammoth and avoid the short-faced bear, and that his accomplishments in weapons, pottery, and weaving were of local invention and occurred on this continent as early as anywhere else. The case is complicated for a reader not really at home in the ice ages, but Mr. Brennan writes well, with an energy and spirit that are rare in this field.
The question is, given Mr. Brennan’s assumption, how it happened that the North American Indian, after discovering pottery and weaving and learning to hammer pure copper into jewelry, stopped right there. A bit of farming, yes — the list of plants raised and used by the Indians is staggering and full of things that one cannot imagine doing without. But no cities, no proper metalwork, no domestic animals, and, in the North, no extensive governments. Mr. Brennan, another admirer of the simple life, suggests that they got on very well without any of these things. With plenty of space and game around him, the American Indian was never obliged to degenerate into civilization. Mr. Brennan may be right. At any rate, his book is persuasive and amusing.