BMCR 2022.04.19

Modern Odysseys: Cavafy, Woolf, Césaire, and a poetics of indirection

, Modern Odysseys: Cavafy, Woolf, Césaire, and a poetics of indirection. Classical memories/modern identities. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2021. Pp. 250. ISBN 9780814214640 $99.95.

In Modern Odysseys: Cavafy, Woolf, Césaire, and a Poetics of Indirection, Michelle Zerba has written an engaging work that invites readers to consider how Homer’s Odyssey finds resonances in the writings of C.P. Cavafy, Virginia Woolf, and Aimé Césaire. The book’s primary aim is to explore how these authors engage with ideas and themes from Homeric poetry without situating their works as direct responses to or retellings of Homeric tales. The idea that the Odyssey itself is full of narrative misdirection and alternate versions of its own story shapes Zerba’s approach. Just as Odysseus lies, deceives, and tells different versions of his return journey in the Odyssey, the poem also invites a consideration of various possible readings of its poetic text. Zerba writes, “By calling attention to how the skew in a return voyage is linked with skews in storytelling, Homer presses us to reexamine common assumptions embedded in studies of literary influence and reception, which depend upon notions of how we receive, assimilate and adapt texts” (3).  This presence of many different Odysseys within the Odyssey allows later authors and their readers to connect to the ancient epic through a series of weak links and thematic resonances without directly quoting or imitating the original work.

In Zerba’s framework, ancient epic’s oral and performative nature invites and authorizes this approach. Because rhapsodes re-created epic poems in every oral performance, the Odyssey exists as part of a living storytelling tradition. Literary influence does not spring from a canonical version of Odysseus’ story that provides the source for all subsequent versions. Instead, authors and readers are participants in networks and patterns of storytelling that interact as part of a continuous and evolving narrative practice. With her readings, Zerba aims to show how the works of Cavafy, Woolf, and Césaire participate in this ongoing tradition. The constantly evolving nature of epic allows these authors “to develop stories and create lyric sensibilities that drift in Homeric waters without coming into his wake” (17).

Zerba structures her readings of Cavafy, Woolf, and Césaire around four ‘Odyssean tropes’ drawn from these ‘Homeric waters’: diffusion and mixture, islands and isolation, passage and detour, and returns and split endings. The trope of diffusion and mixture invokes characters’ travel away from home, the people they encounter on their journeys, how these interactions change people, and the often-wandering paths they take as they return. This trope also draws in ideas of kleos and the circulation of information; as people travel and encounter others, varying reports of the deeds of those travelers spread across social groups. The theme of diffusion and mixture leads to the second trope of separation and distance. As characters wander and mingle, they move into isolated spaces such as the islands in Odysseus’s journey or the small towns in Cavafy’s poetry. Isolation leads to the third trope of passage and detour in which characters take winding paths as they return from distant liminal spaces and reconnect with their original community. Narrative drives this process as the stories that people tell about themselves mediate their reintegration into the worlds from which they have been estranged. Finally, the trope of return and split endings engages with the comfort of a return home and the difficulties that inevitably follow as travelers wrestle with the things they experienced on their journeys. Zerba lays out this framework in her introductory chapter and provides brief and helpful biographical introductions to Cavafy, Woolf, and Césaire. These four tropes then structure the rest of the book with one chapter devoted to each thematic cluster, followed by a concluding chapter. Each chapter begins with a passage from the Odyssey that illustrates the trope and then discusses how it resonates in works by each of the three authors in turn.

Zerba constructs her arguments with a combination of carefully constructed close readings and discussions of each work’s broader contexts. For example, the chapter “Diffusion and Mixture” opens with a reading of book 19 of the Odyssey, where a disguised Odysseus introduces himself as a Cretan wanderer to Penelope. In her description of this scene, Zerba notes the tension between Odysseus’ disguise and the expectation that his appearance in the hall will end in recognition and reunification. She notes that Penelope must surely recognize Odysseus because Eurycleia will recognize him shortly after. Odysseus’ false narrative about himself and his journey from Crete illustrates the process of diffusion and mixture. His story broadens the conversation’s geographic and cultural scope at precisely the moment when the audience would expect it to close in around the reunited couple. Zerba deftly moves the discussion from this one passage to a broader discussion of how the poem represents Crete and the island’s role as a central location where diverse cultures come together and interact. She follows this discussion with readings of Cavafy’s poems “Poseidonians,” “The Glory of the Ptolemies,” and “In a Town of Osroini,” selected sections from Césaire’s Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal and the beginnings of Woolf’s Orlando. These discussions consider each text closely and then advance to considerations of their broader cultural contexts and publication histories to connect them to the chapter’s central theme. For example, Zerba introduces her reading of “Poseidonians” with a discussion of its opening epigraph, a quotation from Athenaeus. She explores the ways in which the epigraph’s description of a people who have given up some of their Greek identity illustrates the theme of diffusion and mixture. She supplements this discussion with a consideration of the ways that the poet and historian John Addington Symonds’ use of the same quotation and the broader context that might have brought it to Cavafy’s attention.

Zerba continues this interpretative pattern in the remaining three chapters of the book. The arguments throughout are carefully constructed and I enjoyed reading her discussions of each of the texts. I particularly appreciated the integration of her sources’ publication and production histories into her readings. Some of her proposed links are particularly distant. However, in a work that provides its reader with, “rough and ready ways to approach texts whose odyssean qualities reside in roundabout and nonfrontal ways of representing experience and the relations to literary tradition” (13), these faint echoes were most often welcome additions to the discussion.

Zerba positions the book as an extension of other recent works that have explored the Odyssey’s “remarkable resilience and currency across very different places and times” (2), such as Edith Hall’s The Return of Ulysses: A Cultural History of Homer’s Odyssey, Piero Boitano’s The Shadow of Ulysses:  Figures of a Myth, and W.B. Stanford’s The Ulysses Theme: A Study in the Adaptability of a Traditional Hero. The framework of four Odyssean tropes is a valuable companion to studies such as these. These thematic clusters could provide a productive framework for exploring other texts that allude to the Odyssey. At the same time, the broader approach can also provide the foundations for exploring different thematic resonances with the Odyssey.

In the introduction, Zerba describes the book’s origins in her curiosity about journey-related motifs. In her explorations, the Odyssey became “a companion” (3) that allowed her to “find bearings in works I read alongside it” (3). In this configuration, Zerba’s book evokes the abundance of recent works that find their bearings in the Odyssey. Some of these works are direct engagements with the story, such as the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Madeline Miller’s Circe, Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopeiad, or Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey (to name only a few). This passage more directly evokes other recent works that draw upon the Odyssey as a companion for their journeys, such as Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey:  A Father, A Son, and an Epic, Amor Towles’ The Lincoln Highway, and Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land. As a work of academic prose, Zerba’s book operates in a distinctly different register. Still, its carefully constructed approach that honors weak links and listens for thematic echoes offers a way for readers to frame their participation in the ongoing practice of storytelling that interacts with the Odyssey’s always-evolving narrative tradition.