A Paean to Women Everywhere, The Uncounted and Unconsidered Survivors of War

No-one knows who Homer was and it is most unlikely that the epic poems called The Iliad and The Odyssey are the result of a single author.   There is one line of thought that these epic poems were written by a single author and another that they are the result of many contributions and that “Homer” is in fact a tradition rather than the name of an individual.

Does it matter? Well yes it does matter – in fact I believe it matters a lot. Perhaps not the authorship but the ideology, the assumptions.   Because we are our stories.  We are what we believe.  If Homeric is a tradition, then Natalie Haynes has just added a new voice which doesn’t exactly blow great holes in the original.  Rather it fills an existing void.

Haynes book 1000 Ships is a feminist retelling of the epic poems of Homer, of the Trojan Wars.  No longer voiceless or invisible,  the story is told through the women, the daughters, brides, wives, sisters – by Haynes’ pen given shape and substance, flesh and blood, personalities, anger, suffering and courage of their own.

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The Greeks and Trojans fought for over a decade – principally according to the myth so that Helen of Troy – the world’s most beautiful woman and wife of Menelaus of Sparta, can be retrieved from Paris himself the son of King Priam of Troy,  who has stolen her away.

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Despite the book’s title 1000 Ships, these stories are not about Helen of Troy.  In fact, she has a minor part.   Although the lines from which the title comes are famous ( I assumed they were Shakespeare. No.  They are from The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr. Faustus written by the 16th century playwright Christopher Marlowe and published in 1604).

Was this the face that launch’d 1000 ships

And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

It is amply worth noticing that Haynes in giving her book its title has removed references to Helen, leaving only the ships.     If men go to war, she is saying, it is not just because of a woman however beautiful she may be.  And don’t let yourself off the hook for all the killing and bloodshed by blaming her.

This conversation between Hecabe (mother of Paris) and Helen is key.

“The Trojan whore, is that what they’re calling you now? Hecabe asked.

“I would think so” Helen replied.  They’ve never been a very imaginative group of people my husband’s soldiers.

The Greeks finally win the Trojan wars as most schoolchildren know – or used to –   by trickery.  They appear to sail away with their fleet but leave behind a giant wooden horse apparently as an offering.  The wooden horse conceals Greek soldiers inside.

I found myself willing the Trojans not to take the wooden horse inside the city gates.  I mean why would you even do that?  But of course they do, and that is pretty much that. End of.  It is at this point that Haynes starts her story.

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At the opening of the book Troy is in flames.  We watch the destruction of the city through the eyes of Creusa who is searching through the dense smoke and dark night for her husband and son.  She will never find either.   Soon after the sacking of the city.   The surviving women of Troy – of whatever status – are lined up and parcelled out amongst their Greek conquerors to rape and enslaved futures.   This is the bit that the bards don’t sing about.

 

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“If he truly wants to understand the nature of the epic story I am letting him compose, he needs to accept the casualties of war are not just the ones who die.” So speaks Calliope (the poet’s muse).

But it is Penelope who is the star of this show.  At least for me.  Poor patient Penelope who sits at Ithaca and waits and waits for her husband Odysseus to return from the Trojan wars.  Meanwhile ten years pass!   On the way back he gets very busy having to outwit the cyclops and the nymph Calypso who wants Odysseus for herself.  Then there is as well a witch called Circe.  Penelope hears of all this through bardic tales, there being no email.  We in our turn only hear about this from Penelope’s increasingly ironic and irritated letters as she is exasperated by what sounds like the most ridiculous series of excuses ever invented by an adulterer.

“Because really, how many cannibalistic giants can one Greek plausibly meet as he sails the open seas.  Even I, expert in your ability to create trouble, think one set is probably sufficient for your story.”

I cannot say I loved this book unreservedly – there is a great cast of characters and I sometimes felt detached from them.  But I did love its sometime irony and wit.  Its humanity.   The writing is  clever, insightful and based on a mountain of classical knowledge.   Like all the best ideas, it is obvious once someone else has thought of it.  1000 Ships is not only a feat of imagination which creates living personalities out of mere mythic stereotypes, but it is a paean to women everywhere who have been the uncounted survivors of war.

Penelope writes:

“The bards all sing of the bravery of heroes and the greatness of your deeds: it is one of the few elements of your story on which they all agree.  But no one sings of the courage required by those of us who were left behind.”

Well now someone has.  And it is a song which is much overdue.

 

The Double Edged Sword of the Literary Prize – and The Legend of The Tiger’s Wife

Prizes can be a double edged sword.  Yes it’s great to win them, the publicity, the fuss, the champagne, what’s not to die for?  But maybe this draws attention away from equally worthy writing.  But then we have to live in the real world, which costs money, etc.  So I go round in circles.

I’m currently reading my way through the shortlist of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020.  What a talented lot of writers are out there.   It occurred to me that I knew nothing about the ethos of the prize so looked it up.

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The Women’s Prize for Fiction came about after a group of people – journalists, novelists, agents, publishers, came together in 1992 in a flat in London.   The Booker Prize of 1991 had included no women at all, and the group got together to discuss whether this mattered and what should be done about it.

The novelist Kate Mosse, one of the founder members of the prize, writes on the website:

“After some hours and several bottles of wine, the idea of setting up a new kind of literary prize – one which would celebrate women’s creativity, one that would be truly international (nationality or country of residence being no bar to eligibility), one that would have a programme of educational, literacy and research initiatives as integral to the Prize – was born. A prize that would be fun!”

Originally sponsored by Orange, the prize is currently sponsored by Deloitte, Nat West and Bailey’s.

I have a  natural aversion to commercial sponsorship of literary prizes.  But I am overcoming that on the grounds that we have to live in the real world and to do this costs money, plus I understand authors badly need the publicity and book sales which a win brings in its wake.   I am also struggling to overcome my even more natural aversion to having Orange or Deloitte tell me what to read.  Yet I have come to the conclusion I must at least to some extent get off my high horse about commercial sponsorship of literary prizes and the arts in general – with the exception of fossil fuel companies or bad pharma naturally.

 

Also I worry what are the criteria against which these things are judged?  It is gobsmacking that even in the final decade of the 20th century books by women were not thought worthy of even longlisting for a major prize.  Yes this is true according to Wiki.  Unbelievable but true!  We’re not talking 19th century here, we talking 1990s.

Since the inception of The Booker Prize (in 1969) 31 men have won, 16 women.    But when in 2019 Margaret Atwood won for The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other (the latter being incidentally the first black woman ever to win)  there was reason to hope that things were changing.  I would like to think that this change is in part due to the influence and the success of the Women’s Prize.

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Still I digress, back to the shortlist.  Téa Obreht’s book  The Tiger’s Wife  is set against the background of war in The Balkans fought in the region formerly known as Yugoslavia – therefore in the last decade of the 20th century.

If this book was  a cake recipe it would contain a splash of realism, a large handful of magic realism and (like Jenny Offill’s book Weather) a dollop of insight into the losses we incur faced with our failing relationship with the natural world that sustains us.  As a story, it is quite hard to sum up.  It is a storyteller’s book which juggles a seemingly realist narrative against a world of spirit and superstition.   In short it is rather wonderful.

“The tree stands near the fence where the braided cornfields begin, and Marko Parovic tells me the people of Galina avoid it all costs; its branches he says cast a net in which souls are caught as they rise to heaven and the ravens that roost there pick the souls out of the bark like worms.”

The tiger’s wife is not real – or she is real in the minds of some of the locals – which leads to tragedy and then legend.  There is a deathless man and two Doctors, one the granddaughter of the other who form the backbone of the narrative.  There is of course, a tiger, and some of the writing about him form the most lyrical passages in the book.

“I’m told that the tiger was first sighted on the Galina ridge, above town, during a snowstorm at the end of December.  Who knows how long he had already been there, hiding in the hollows of fallen trees; but on that day, the herdsman Vladiša lost a calf in the blizzard and went up the mountain to retrieve it.  In a thicket of saplings, he came across the tiger yellow eyed and bright as a blood moon, with the calf already dead, hanging in its jaws.”

Someone from The Guardian describes  the story as a ‘matryoshka-style narrative’ referring to the Russian dolls that nest one inside the other, which seems to me an ideal description.   The Tiger’s Wife is a story on many levels, some of them real, some mythological.

The question is whether it works overall.  I found it very readable and readily entertaining, thought provoking and humane.  Will it win?  Who knows.  Obreht is obviously massively talented, but there is strong competition.  I’d love to know what others think about literary prizes.

Next up is A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes.