BMCR 2022.11.34

Imagining Ithaca: nostos and nostalgia since the Great War

, Imagining Ithaca: nostos and nostalgia since the Great War. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 352. ISBN 9780198852971. $40.00.



In her solid, well-balanced Introduction to Imagining Ithaca, “Home from Homer”, Kathleen Riley initiates a necessary and illuminating reflection on the contemporary significance of the two central concerns of this volume: nostos and nostalgia—two concepts into which she probes deeply. These can be both “pleasurable and pernicious”, as shown by Doris Lessing’s novels, or Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, a theme also “detected in the hardline Brexiteer subconscious” yearning for the “‘privations of Britain’s past’”, which met well-deserved “accusations of nostalgic nativism and solipsism” (15-16), including those of Mary Beard and Simon Goldhill (18). Ironically, nostos also has a place in both the “grieving Remain camp”, who yearn for their eventual return to Europe, in Trump and his “‘Make America Great Again’” motto, and in the “darkly nostalgic trajectories of Putin’s Russia” (18), demonstrating that both nostos and nostalgia are culturally charged issues of topical relevance and interest.

Imagining Ithaca: Nostos and Nostalgia since the Great War is indeed a book “whose overarching theme is the contemplation of home from a distance” as “summoned and reimagined by writers and filmmakers” (21), creating, in turn, their own foundational texts, as Joyce did in Ulysses. Ithaca, “an evocative and versatile abstraction”, both spatially and temporally projected onto the past or the present, is about “seeking what is absent” (22). The words home and nostos, Riley observes, have “a commensurate power and mystique” (9), whereas nostos is also “haunted by …the memory of that archetypal nostalgic, Homer’s Odysseus” (10), who is subject to constant and nuanced reinterpretations.

But this book also takes as its starting point the literary and filmic representations of the consequences of the Great War, “often consciously construed through imagery plundered from classical mythology” (4). For Kant, who seems to underlie some of Riley’s central propositions, returning home did not guarantee bringing home a lost youth, which is one of the aspects of the “inherent impossibility of nostos” (12-13) by which “homesickness cannot necessarily be assuaged by returning home” (22). However, whilst being more Ithacan than permanently Odyssean, this volume is not “concerned merely with modern receptions of the Odyssean paradigm of nostos and nostalgia” but actively explores both factual return and its unfeasibility from the alternative perspectives of characters other than Odysseus, such as Penelope, Telemachus, Laertes, or Aeneas (23).

Impossible nostos, a recurring theme, is central to Part I, which concludes with David Malouf’s novella Fly Away Peter (1982), in which Malouf engages this impossibility through the symbolic migration of Australian avifauna against the backdrop of his ill-fated protagonist, who is never to return to his Edenic Ithaca/Queensland to contemplate the shocking and enticing “otherness of being” of the birds that inhabit this “primeval underworld” (67). Doubly estranged couples take centre stage in Rebecca West’s narrative The Return of the Soldier (1918) and William Wyler’s critically acclaimed film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), an eminent representative of Hollywood’s recurrent return to “the problem of nostos” (63). In the aftermath of the Great War, the iterations of Penelope, Odysseus, and even Calypso—Riley points out—present in these works are no longer the same, their shared worlds and previous identities having sustained irretrievable damage. Not only does Riley give readers an insight into how feminist and Fabian socialist West—less explicitly than Joyce—rearranges or inverts the main elements of nostos, but also into how she highlights “her society’s destabilized notions of home and homecoming” (40). This “problematized or impossible nostos that would absorb so many modernist writers in the ensuing decade” (34) is instantiated by Erich Maria Remarque’s fictionalised first-hand experience as a young returning soldier, nostalgically embracing the despair of those who lack an Odyssean “grown-up identity” (44) in All Quiet On the Western Front (1926).

In Part 2, Riley places a judicious emphasis on the authorial premises and anxiety surrounding any conscious rewriting of Homer. In order to fathom its creative implications, she considers Njabulo Ndebele’s highly introspective novel The Cry of Winnie Mandela (2003) and Tamar Yellin’s short novel “Return to Zion” (2006). She also explores the perhaps less self-aware (82) attempt at reinterpreting Homer represented by John Ford’s film The Long Voyage Home (1940), into which the so-called “America’s Homer” poured his “fascination with the sea” (80), as well as Eugene O’Neill’s paradoxical sense of simultaneous “homelessness and […] rootedness in the sea” (81). Ndebele’s “story of departure, waiting, and return” revolves around five South African women who transgress a male-centric “Penelopean paradigm of constancy” (89-90), instead of succumbing to its disempowering effects. For Riley, as regards Tamar Yellin’s imagination, “the cadences of the Hebrew language” could not rival the “English literary canon” in formative terms (99). This, apart from her abiding “consciousness of being an outsider” (100), is clearly present in “Return to Zion”, part of the collection titled Kafka in Brontëland (2006), where she imbricates the Odyssey, her literary sensibilities and her Jewish experience through a fresh, different perspective, and a stance not dissimilar from Joyce’s use of bathos and the bathetic (101). Given this volume’s eclectic focus on a wide range of authors, texts and refigurings of its pivotal themes, and despite the critical attention that is indeed paid to women writers and how they appropriate, subvert and recontextualise the centrality of an eminently male-centred epic poem, there is no apparent intent here of analysing and establishing potentially different responses between male and female authors in their engagement with—and return to—the Homeric source. This is in contrast to the gender-oriented approaches consistently adopted, for example, by Fiona Cox in Sibylline Sisters: Virgil’s Presence in Contemporary Women’s Writing (2011), Ovid’s Presence in Contemporary Women’s Writing: Strange Monsters (2018), and Homer’s Daughters: Women’s Responses to Homer in the Twentieth Century and Beyond (2020, co-edited with Elena Theodorakopoulos), or, interestingly enough, Susan Watkins’s exploration of a gradually concomitant discursive genre in Contemporary Women’s Post-Apocalyptic Fiction (2020).

By way of contrast, Part III investigates how nostalgia and the predicaments of exile—internal and external—become indelibly stamped on and intertwined in Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Speak, Memory (1956) and Doris Lessing’s Going Home (1957) and Under My Skin (1994), as well as the complexities of the specific nostalgia articulated in British spy fiction such as Arnold Bennett’s The Old Country (1978)—with Sir Alec Guinness starring in the original 1977 London stage production—and An Englishman Abroad (1983).

The last three parts are more Telemachan than Odyssean. In Part IV, Riley discusses several Ithacas which could be considered as “spiritual homes” (26). In Chapter 11, Riley analyses Carson McCullers’s essay “Look Homeward, Americans”, focusing on the “divine nostalgia”, which turns those who suffer from it into wanderers, eternal pilgrims, as exemplified in Somerset Maugham’s novel The Moon and Sixpence (1919). McCullers linked this nostalgia to her own country, as “the nostalgia of a young nation” (146), which is closely related to the idea of loneliness. After analysing several authors, such as Robert Sherwood, Henry James, Hart Crane, Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Mark Twain, Riley concludes that this kind of nostalgia in McCullers “somehow revives hope” (147) and becomes, as in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1953), “an imaginative sympathy for the Other” (153). Chapter 12 covers the Stolen Generations of Australian Aborigines, who were separated from their homes. Riley discusses in depth Doris Pilington Garimara’s story Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (1996), which tells the personal odyssey of three girls who undertake a 9-week, 1600-kilometre journey to return home, “a powerful narrative of defiance, survival and agency” (164). Chapter 13 discusses the nostalgia for a fantasy, a very common theme in Woody Allen’s work. Riley goes from Annie Hall to Midnight in Paris, defining this type of nostalgia as “a blend of restorative and reflective nostalgia” (167). For Riley, Midnight in Paris “is Allen’s most overt and sustained meditation on nostalgia, and the most wooing” (168), a clear example of “propulsive nostalgia” (174) despite initial impressions.

Part V approaches childhood as a home, a place of peace and a place to know oneself. In Chapter 14, Riley discusses George Orwell’s work, his vicissitudes during the Spanish Civil War and his homecoming journey as a “failed” nostos, which she links to the nostalgia for the lost childhood addressed in Orwell’s novel Coming Up in Air. In Chapter 15, she discusses the expansion of cities (London) and the destruction of the countryside (West Hampstead) as triggers of a nostalgia for a pastoral Edenic past by commenting on the work and memoirs of John Van Druten. Van Druten’s never-ending nostos “is a process of regaining his identity”, the “search for the source of his creative and essential selves” (203). In Chapter 16, she discusses John Logan’s play Peter and Alice (2013) and, subsequently, Barrie’s Peter Pan and Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (the epitomes of childhood) as “a particular kind of nostos” that “explores the proleptic nostalgia” (207).

Lastly, in Part VI, the main theme is the search for the father. We find many references to Telemachus but also to Aeneas searching for his father in the underworld. Chapter 17 is the longest one, in part because it covers a very current matter: the displaced, the refugees and their yearning for their lost homes. The chapter focuses on the documentaries of British politician Michael Portillo’s journeys, especially his pilgrimage to Spain, and then from Granada to Salamanca, in search of the roots of his late father, a Spanish Republican poet exiled in London after the Spanish Civil War. Through the emotions sparked by de Falla’s music, the soundtrack to Michael Portillo’s documentary, Riley equates Federico García Lorca’s complex concept of “duende” to nostalgia in terms of their creative force. Similarly, Chapter 18 connects the idea of nostos and “nostalgic inspiration” to the idea of “poetry as excavation, as imaginative katabasis” (252-253). Here Riley discusses Seamus Heaney’s poetry in relation to Book VI of the Aeneid, a descent back to the father. Chapter 19 is based on the idea that the Homeric poem is, in Daniel Mendelsohn’s words, a biography. The work under discussion, Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: A Father, A Son and an Epic (2017), is divided into three parts: a seminar led by Mendelsohn on the Odyssey, in which his father participated; a cruise trip they took together through the Homeric sites (an incomplete nostos, since they were unable to visit Ithaca because of the Greek crisis); and a Telemachan quest “to Queens and Long Island (his equivalents of Pylos and Sparta)” (276) to find out who his father was.

The book closes with an Afterword that takes up the theme of World War I and the subsequent Spanish flu pandemic to relate it to the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences, which have provoked “the necessary inversion of our Ithacan creed of personal and civil liberty” (280)—an idea that deserves further development and analysis. However, for Riley, this crisis has also turned nostalgia from something toxic, as exemplified by Brexit, into a “remedy or, at any rate, a palliative” (280). Riley ends by evoking the Jewish survivors of Nazism and Primo Levi’s nostos from Auschwitz to Turin, and concludes by saying that the core of her study is a tribute to “redemptive imagination” and to “Ithaca, the most redolent expression of hopeful nostalgia as bequeathed to us by Homer” (285).

In short, Imagining Ithaca is a multifaceted book, dealing with very diverse literary and filmic manifestations through the lens of nostos and nostalgia, a proven fertile field. Homer’s poem resonates in all its pages, and it convincingly demonstrates that nostalgia, dangerous though it may be, has always been a powerful creative theme.


Table of Contents

Introduction: Home from Homer

Part I: ‘Like strangers in those landscapes of our youth’: War and impossible nostos
1. Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier (1918)
2. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)
3. William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1945)
4. David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter (1982)

Part II: ‘A deep yearning for a return to the source’: Rewriting Homer
5. John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home (1940)
6. Njabulo Ndebele’s The Cry of Winnie Mandela (2003)
7. Tamar Yellin’s ‘Return to Zion’ (2006)

Part III: ‘One is always at home in one’s past’: The nostalgia of exile
8. Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (1951)
9. Doris Lessing’s Going Home (1957) and Under My Skin (1994)
10. Alan Bennett’s The Old Country (1977) and An Englishman Abroad (1983)

Part IV: ‘Across a strange country to their homeland’: Nostos and the displaced spirit
11. Carson McCullers’s, ‘Look Homeward, Americans’ (1940)
12. Doris Pilkington Garimara’s Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (1996)
13. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011)

Part V: ‘In the place called Adulthood there’s precious few golden afternoons’: Returning to the place called Childhood
14. George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air (1939)
15. John Van Druten’s The Widening Circle (1957)
16. John Logan’s Peter and Alice (2013)

Part VI: ‘All sons are Telemachus figures’: Voyages round the father
17. Michael Portillo’s Great Railway Journeys: Granada to Salamanca (1999)
18. Seamus Heaney’s Seeing Things (1991), District and Circle (2006), and Human Chain (2010)
19. Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic (2017)