August Reviews

Seamus Heaney – The Aeneid Book VI

‘Death and his brother sleep’. There can be writers who can claim to have matched book VI of the Aeneid when it comes to confronting death. The sights and sounds which great Aeneas on the Styx, as he journeys to meet his father, now resident in Elysium, have echoed through Western literature and continue to resonate still. Perhaps this is because at the centre of this book lies a possibility about which we both dread and dream: re-uniting with those we’ve lost.

There is something both morbid and miraculous about Heaney’s posthumous translation. It is now, three years after his death, that this translation is being published. A note at the end of the text remarks that the typescript, marked ‘final’, was still in his possession a month after death. And so Virgil’s thoughts and meditations on death must have been the same as those thoughts which occupied Heaney before his own.

But this belies the success of the translation itself which manages to breathe life into this ancient text through its elegant and simple language. When read alongside other translations, they become rather academic and removed in contrast; what stands out about Heaney’s is its approachability, its tangibility, which is achieved his elegant use of plain-spoken English:

Take the discovery of the golden bough, which stands ‘Like mistletoe shining in cold winter wood’. If these images are not quite the everyday, they bring it all into the realm of comprehensibility. They are solid, durable, and by turns highly affecting. In the most highly charged moments of the text, Heaney leaves the action unfettered, making Dido’s silence all the worse, or Aeneas’s embrace of his father all the more wrenching when it ‘escaped/ Like a breeze between his hands, a dream on wings.”  Heaney’s translation bears all the hallmarks of a classic. 

Published by Faber (2016): Available here

Enduring Love – Ian McEwan

Enduring Love starts with a tragedy, and everything that follows is fall-out. It is, in effect, an extended denouement, a novel that examines the aftermath of events and ponders what makes them significant.

It starts on a beautiful day in the Chilterns. Joe Rose has a corkscrew poised, ready to open the wine he brought along to this picnic with Clarissa, his long-term partner, when he hears a man’s shout. Before he knows what he is doing, he is running up with four other men to save a boy trapped in a hot-air balloon – ‘a huge grey balloon, the size of a house, the shape of a tear drop’ – which is rising perilously into the sky. One man dies in the attempt, but that is not the only event that will haunt Joe from that day. Another of the rescue party, Jed Parry, has, on first sight, fallen deeply and enduringly in love with Joe.

At the heart of Enduring Love is a mediation on that most human of traits: unreliability. It may be a chance event which sparks Parry’s obsessive stalking and deranged love, but what about what follows? Joe, a science writer, seeks desperately to rationalise and to overpower Jed by burrowing down and finding some stable, rational explanation for his behaviour. In the process he forgets that the mysteriousness of our behaviour, even to ourselves, is simply human, and that what is irrational is often more powerful for its ability to withstand reason.

Being right is not enough (you need only look at modern politics to understand that). ‘I can’t quite get rid of the idea that there might have been a less frightening outcome if you had behaved differently’, writes Clarissa at the end of the novel. In the quest to prove he is right all reason seems to abandon Joe, and even Clarissa and the reader come to doubt his sanity. The reasonable ‘enduring’ love that Joe thought he shared with Clarissa falters in the face of his rational pursuit of Perry, whereas Perry’s only grows.

I used to be quite sceptical of Ian McEwan. The plots of his novels sounded too self-consciously post-modern and high-concept for me, and Enduring Love seemed to epitomise that. But in the wake of past ventures into Atonement and On Chesil Beach, I have had a change of opinion. In large part this is related to the beauty of McEwan’s prose. His ability to craft even the slightest, most absurd events into compelling narratives saves his novel from falling into the level of gimmick.

Published by Jonathan Cape (1997): Available here

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things – Paula Byrne

Jane Austen is always a problematic subject for a biographer. This is not due to any lack of interest in her, but a simple lack of matter. She left no diary, no memoir, and all of her earliest biographers (nearly all family members) had their image that they wanted to project. Even her letters, which provide the most tantalising insights into her life and character, are a frustrated record as only a small percentage were saved from permanent oblivion in the fire.

For these reasons, Paula Byrne wisely avoid the fact-regaling sort of biography, and chooses to do something completely different: she discusses the life of Austen through the small objects that surround her. What this does is allow us to fill in the blanks: an object speaks to a wider context, and through this social context The Real Jane Austen establishes the author as someone quite the contrary to her staid image. She comes across as someone metropolitan, with connections to slavery and the bloody streets of revolutionary France; a coquette who could boast a list which is admirable for both the quality and quantity of its lovers. Well-travelled, business-like, a far cry from the forgotten relative, and above all else, someone determined to be a published author.

Byrne, like her subject, is a lively, nosey and engaging writer, and if at times the text does appear to steer far from its subject, it is always entertaining and apparently well-researched. We will never know the real Jane Austen, but this novel seems to capture the essence of its subject better than those before.

Published by William Collins (2013): Available here

Originally published 18th August 2016


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