Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.05.46 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.05.46

Corinne Jouanno, Ulysse: odyssée d'un personnage d'Homère à Joyce.   Paris:  Éditions Ellipses, 2013.  Pp. 576; 8 p. of plates.  ISBN 9782729875916.  €25.00 (pb).  


Reviewed by Yves Laberge, Groupe de recherche EA 1796, ACE en Études américaines, Université de Rennes 2; University of Ottawa (ylaberge@uottawa.ca)

Table of Contents

As we know, the iconic character of Ulysses was fundamental not only in Homer’s Odyssey but also for the conception of the hero in Western civilisation. Indeed, the universal character of Ulysses has been appropriated by countless authors from all epochs. In this substantial book, Corinne Jouanno (Université de Caen in France) investigates how Ulysses as a character was defined, perceived, studied and reproduced through the millennia as a personage in a variety of situations. Her methodological approach is qualitative and comparative. Chapters are mostly structured chronologically, but the analysis of themes such as exile, memory and war present in Kundera’s “L’Ignorance” (from 2000) precedes the study of James Joyce’s Ulysses (p. 414).

The opening chapters concentrate on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in order to understand the construction of the hero. The analysis is insightful and detailed. For example, in her analysis of the Odyssey, Jouanno notes how the final scene of the massacre of Penelope’s suitors is similar to ambushes in various narrative genres (p. 41). Ulysses as a character reappeared in many works, including Cyclops, a satyr play by Euripides (p. 115). The central section highlights the presence of and allusions to Ulysses during the Renaissance, for example in Dante’s Inferno (p. 363) and Du Bellay’s Les Regrets (pp. 373 and 429). Later, the French dramatist Marivaux parodied Homer in comic versions such as Homère travesti (p. 284). Although Ulysses is not the name of a character in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Jouanno sees him as a clue for understanding the novel, which is set in Dublin during a single day in 1904 (p. 483). In the final chapter, dedicated to this novel, we see a series of modern characters (Bloom, Molly), themes (ruse), objects (the conjugal bed), and situations (separation) that can be thought of as subtle echoes of Homer’s universe transposed into a very different context.

This hefty book, which somewhat resembles a thesis (in its rigorous and systematic style) is obviously not meant to serve as an introduction to Homer’s Odyssey. It is, rather, an interesting exercise in comparative literature, discussing an impressive number of rereadings, cultural references, and variations related to Homer’s hero, plus some subtle allusions present in, for example, the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (p. 302), Fernando Pessoa’s Message (p. 476), Proust (p. 446), and “L’Immortel” by Jorge Luis Borges (pp. 416 and 479). It would take too long to list all the authors treated here, but some of the most rewarding pages will allow readers to discover lesser-known authors inspired by the legendary character and epic adventures of Ulysses, like the Moldavian poet Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944) who wrote extensively about travelling and exile in his poems (p. 427).

Perhaps the most interesting passages in Ulysse: odyssée d'un personnage d'Homère à Joyce concern the temporal dimension brought out by Jouanno, for example in her reflections about how time has not changed the relationship between Ulysses and his wife Penelope. After twenty years of forced separation these two can live again in harmony, as if they were unchanged, in other words as if they were not two different persons after two decades of being apart (p. 415).

Undoubtedly, Jouanno has produced a strong work of scholarship for academics in Classics and literary studies. However, undergraduates might feel lost or discouraged by the abundance of topics. As one might expect, the theoretical framework is quite different from the approaches usually found in Anglo-Saxon research. For instance, although she never uses this term as such, her study could be linked with current research in cross-cultural theory. Similarly, she studies the storytelling processes used in various cases (when Ulysses is reconstructing situations into a narrative) without ever mentioning recent work on narrative (exclusively in English ) by scholars such as Michael Bamberg and Molly Andrews (p. 453). These omissions are not shortcomings, but rather evidence of fundamental differences between traditions and ways-of-doing arising from the divergent cultural (and linguistic) backgrounds of academics who do not share the same language. My only quibble would be the lack of a real conclusion that would have recapitulated this rich journey into the metamorphosis of Ulysses in Western civilisation and beyond.

Is anyone missing from this group portrait? One could obviously add an infinite number of literary references and evocations related to Ulysses. Among many film adaptations of Odyssey, I would have mentioned L'Odissea (or L'Odyssée), the cult movie made for television in 1968. It was directed by Franco Rossi with Bekim Fehmiu playing Ulysses and Irene Pappas in the role of Penelope. This Italian-French-German coproduction remains the most fascinating televised adaptation I have ever seen, with some fantastic scenes being co-directed by Mario Bava. Perhaps Corinne Jouanno did not have the opportunity to watch this multipart television series as it remains hard to find, but I presume she did not want to enter into the world of moving images for this already considerable book of more than 560 pages. The author does not pretend to be comprehensive, and most readers will agree that it is not the number of examples that matters, but the quality of the analysis.

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