(sorry that the formatting has played up on this post – I don’t seem able to change it!)
When my book group chose the category books-inspired-by-other-books, I thought it was a fantastic idea. As a group, we’d already read and loved (and watched and loved) The Hours by Michael Cunningham, and I was hoping we’d have something like Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones, or Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, something along those lines. When The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood (from Canongate’s The Myths series) was chosen, my heart did sink a little. And not just because my only previous experience with Ms. Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale, which so many people rave about – left me not only unenthusiastic, but downright irritated. My main problem was that my knowledge of The Odyssey is sketchy at best. I don’t know where The Odyssey, The Iliad (which I presumed had a hand in Atwood’s title) and The Aenied differ, and to be honest all I knew about Penelope was garnered from a Year 7 History video, where myths were retold by a man and his hyperactive dog puppet. And any scraps I could glean in James Joyce’s Ulysses. So, basically, I knew about the weaving-and-unweaving thing. But I was happy to learn, and hoped that I could enjoy The Penelopiad with very little knowledge of the original…
Which I did. There are probably lots of nuances I missed, but I thought Atwood’s re-telling was done well most of the time. Certainly the style was less annoying than in The Handmaid’s Tale (perhaps because she wasn’t trying so hard?) Penelope tells her life story from Hades, wandering through fields of asphodel, as you do. It is a very modern take on the whole story – Penelope’s relationship with her sister Mary was not unlike something from an American sitcom; Penelope all plain and clever, Mary all beautiful and wily.
No man will ever kill himself for love of me. And no man ever did. Not that I would have wanted to inspire those kinds of suicides. I was not a man-eater, I was not a Siren, I was not like cousin Helen who loved to make conquests just to show she could. As soon as the man was grovelling, and it never took long, she’d stroll away without a backwards glance, giving that careless laugh of hers, as if she’d just been watching the palace midget standing ridiculously on his head.
I was a kind girl – kinder than Helen, or so I thought. I knew I would have to have something to offer instead of beauty. I was clever, everyone said so – in fact they said it so much that I found it discouraging – but cleverness is a quality a man likes to have in his wife as long as she is some distance away from him. Up close, he’ll take kindness any day of the week, if there’s nothing more alluring to be had.
We’re on familiar Jane-Eyre territory here, aren’t we? But – and thanks must go to Bob, who alone at my book group table was familiar with the original, even teaching classics – in turns out that in Homer’s original Penelope isn’t plain. She’s not in Helen territory, but the sisterly resentment which drives much of the narrative isn’t actually in the original.
In fact, at first I thought Atwood had picked rather an easy target. Yes, The Odyssey-given-a-feminist-twist. It seemed a little obvious, even heavy-handed (which is not to say that I’m anti-feminist – in fact, I’d call myself a feminist, although of course people have different definitions of the word.) But (thanks again, Bob, who is in fact a woman) the Penelope of The Odyssey was apparently more feminist than Penelope of The Penelopiad. More together, more powerful, more respected, etc. etc. But since I haven’t read it, I’ll have to take Bob’s word for it – just adds another interesting perspective on Atwood’s retelling.
The ‘hook’ of Atwood’s narrative, though – a more original feminist viewpoint – is the death of Penelope’s twelve maids. Odysseus apparently had them hanged upon his return from his voyage. I suspect this is a footnote in Homer’s original, but Atwood plays it to its full potential, and it really is an ingenious angle: why were they killed, when they had aided Penelope? They figure as a ‘chorus’ throughout the novella, sometimes mature and sometimes very vulgar (which feels, in Atwood’s hands, a bit like hearing an elderly aunt make a rude joke) and still huddle together in their afterlife. Yet they are never given individual names, and remain simply ‘the maids.’
Although I haven’t read the original, I did enjoy some places where Atwood was clearly adapting aspects from Homer. Who knows how many I missed through ignorance, but a fair few were sign-posted for those not in-the-know, such as the following:
You’ve probably heard that my father ran after our departing chariot, begging me to stay with him, and that Odysseus asked me if I was going to Ithaca with him of my own free will or did I prefer to remain with my father? It’s said that in answer I pulled down my veil, being too modest to proclaim in words my desire for my husband, and that a statue was later erected of me in tribute to the virtue of Modesty. There’s some truth to this story. But I pulled down my veil to hide the fact that I was laughing. You have to admit there was something humorous about a father who’d once tossed his own child into the sea capering down the road after that very child and calling “Stay with me!”
The Penelopiad was one of those books I liked quite a lot when I read it, and liked less after a book group discussion on it. But I still admire many aspects of the narrative, especially subtle like bits like that quoted above – and would be keen to seek out more from the series The Myths. I didn’t even realise that I already had one on my shelves – Sally Vickers’ Where Three Roads Meet. The (ongoing?) series’ titles can be viewed here – have you read any of them?