Thursday, November 17, 2011

2011.11.36

Vincenzo Di Benedetto (ed.), Omero: Odissea. Testo greco a fronte. Milano: BUR Rizzoli, 2010. Pp. 1255. ISBN 9788817020718. € 12.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Barbara Graziosi, Durham University (barbara.graziosi@durham.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site

Vincenzo Di Benedetto offers a new introduction to translation of, and commentary on the entire Odyssey, based on the edition by von der Mühll (Basel, 1962). The volume is modestly presented and priced, but is actually a monumental achievement. Before I outline its very considerable merits, I must start by sounding a note of caution. With the exception of his own direct pupils in Pisa, Di Benedetto hardly engages with Homeric scholarship published in the last twenty years, and previous coverage is patchy. This is regrettable for two reasons: first of all, readers of his bibliographical essay and references (pp. 138-51) will not find up-to-date guidance on the current state of play in the field of Homeric studies; secondly, they may find it hard to relate Di Benedetto's work to that of other scholars. On many issues, Di Benedetto may have discovered some kindred spirits; occasionally, he may have engaged with positions that are rather different from his own. He assumes that the Odyssey was composed by a poet working after an earlier bard had composed the Iliad, that the Odyssey's allusions to the Iliad are essentially literary, and work against traditional, oral formulations. 'Lo sviluppo della letteratura (in quanto si nutre di altra letteratura) era in conflitto con la formula' (p. 137). This is the final sentence of his Introduction and seems to me rather problematic: of course, much depends on what we mean by 'literature', but surely oral literature also feeds from literature, and formula from formula. One emerging direction in recent Homeric scholarship, is precisely the development of nuanced approaches to reading which do not rest on a stark dichotomy between traditional formularity and literary innovation, and which remain open to different possibilities concerning dates and modes of composition. Albio Cesare Cassio (not in the bibliography) offers a sensible assessment of how little we know about the composition and textual fixation of both the Iliad and the Odyssey in Omero tremila anni dopo, ed. F. Montanari, Rome, 2002. It is possible that the two poems developed in parallel and that the Iliad alluded to the Odyssey, as well as vice versa (as, indeed, many have argued). To be sure, the Odyssey refers much more insistently to the Iliad than the other way round; but that may be an issue of internal chronology rather than date of composition. Events in the Odyssey crucially take place after those described in the Iliad, but the correspondences Di Benedetto perceptively notes on pp. 133-7, and repeatedly in the commentary, may be the result of a two-way traffic or gradual convergence, rather than simple allusion by a later poet to an earlier one. Readers will need to place Di Benedetto's observations within the context of recent approaches to Homeric poetry. If they do so, the rewards will be enormous.

The extensive introduction (pp. 7-137) offers guidance on literary interpretation, historical context and the reception of the Odyssey and Ulysses in Italian literature (especially in Dante and Leopardi). Di Benedetto starts with a comparison between the Odyssey and the story of the Argonauts: he points out that the Odyssey actively engages with that story, in order to offer a far more brutal and disenchanted representation of power. While Jason relies on accomplished tasks and a bit of magic, Odysseus uses different methods: I quote Di Benedetto's Italian, in order to give a flavour of its vigour – 'La conquista del potere non è fatta di incantesimi, o di prove difficili da superare ricercando ignoti percorsi. Il potere si conquista prima dissimulando, e poi combattendo e ammazzando.' (p. 8). Delayed gratification is fundamental both to Odysseus as a character, and to the Odyssey as a literary achievement. Phemius sings of the returns of the Achaeans, and Penelope breaks down in a flood of tears: that, according to Di Benedetto, is precisely how we are not supposed to react to the Odyssey (p. 14). Odysseus' return is delayed and, when it happens, is too brutal for comfort (or sentimentality). Indeed, Di Benedetto argues that, even before returning, Odysseus' behaviour raises difficult moral questions: it is reprehensible even by the standards of piracy (pp. 15-29). Beyond these larger interpretative claims, Di Benedetto offers a huge range of detailed and perceptive observations: I cannot do justice to them in a review, but I particularly enjoyed his reading of the Sirens through Cicero (pp. 50-1); his discussion of the formulas that introduce day-break (pp. 52-7); his outstanding exposition of the epithets that define Odysseus (pp. 57-68 deserve to become a standard point of reference on that topic, see below); his reading of Amphinomos, the 'good' suitor who saved Telemachos from an ambush, pleased Penelope, and was eventually stabbed in the back by Telemachos himself (71-2); his perceptive discussion of Athena's appearance (92-106); his excellent reading of Aeneid 2.613 and 91 (pp. 111-13); and his comments on Pasquali's reception of Milman Parry (138-41).

The commentary is printed at the bottom of the pages which present the text and facing translation, and is therefore readily accessible also to the casual reader. It is surprisingly full, given the format, and aims to offer guidance on the structure of the poem (both in terms of overall architecture and detailed verbal correspondences), on the relationship between the Odyssey a range of other Greek, Latin and Italian texts (especially the Iliad), and on the social and historical background to the poem. It delivers on all those aims, and offers an idiomatic and coherent overall interpretation of the poem. Its most direct ancestor is, perhaps, K. F. Ameis, C. Hentze and P. Cauer, Homers Odyssee (Leipzig and Berlin, 1908-20): that commentary too was modest in conception (it was intended as a school commentary) but delivered an important and consistent reading. The commentary by J. B. Hainsworth, A. Heubeck, A. Hoekstra, J. Russo and S. West, for Lorenzo Valla and Oxford University Press, feels rather uneven by comparison. Of course, that commentary will remain a standard point of reference on many issues, but Di Benedetto has the advantage of offering a coherent overall understanding of the poem: detailed observations build up to an interpretation that seems to me both original and convincing. In short, Di Benedetto steers a steady course between the Scylla of triviality and the Charybdis of wrong-headed innovation.

The translation, written in collaboration with Pierangelo Fabrini (who gets an unobtrusive, small-print mention) is vigorous and nuanced. Its main competitor remains the landmark translation by Rosa Calzecchi Onesti published by Einaudi in 1962 – and I, for one, continue to prefer Calzecchi Onesti. One reason is the cultural significance of her translation: Rosa Calzecchi Onesti collaborated with the writer Cesare Pavese in order to shape a new rhythm and language that captured Homeric diction. There is a rich epistolary exchange between the two concerning that translation, and it deserves further study – not least because they worked together across ideological lines (she was a devout Catholic, he a committed communist). One important aspect of their work was an interest in the archaic language of Homer, and that is the second reason why I like her translation: she delivers, in Italian, that mixture of archaic expression and clarity of thought which is indeed typical of Homer. Di Benedetto is plainer, less ambitious, and even more readable. His debt to Calzecchi Onesti is, in any case, obvious – not so much in his lexical choices, but in his overall rhythm and approach.

The greatest value of Di Benedetto's work is in the detail, but there are at least three general traits that characterise him as a reader of Homer. First of all, he has a gift for interpreting repetitions: there are so many brilliant examples of this that I can highlight only a few. Telemachos delivers his first speech in the relative safety of his own home, but then repeats the same words in the assembly: the boy is growing up (pp. 12, 196-7, 204-8). At the beginning of book 5, Athena recycles many lines taken from the previous books: she forges a new beginning after the Telemacheia, while emphasising the connections with the previous enterprises (pp. 12 and 243-4). Odysseus is called polytlas throughout the poem, but the epithet shifts in meaning as the story develops: first, Odysseus has to suffer whatever comes; but later he chooses to bear up and suffer (i.e. dissimulate) in order to exact his revenge; in the second half of the poem, therefore, polytlas veers towards polymētis. Beyond the different uses of repetition, Di Benedetto summarizes its overall effect, ending with an elegant allusion to an epic formula: 'Si può capire, volta per volta, la funzione a cui assolve la singola ripetizione, ma c'è una componente che in linea di tendenza contrassegna il fenomeno nel suo complesso, e cioè l'intento di dare agli ascoltatori il piacere del ricordare e del non aver dimenticato' (p. 13). This ability to arrive at generalisations based on perceptive and precise close readings is, of course, the gift of a great commentator.

A second trait that characterises Di Benedetto's reading of the Odyssey is his willingness to explore the connections between literature and lived experience. He writes like an ancient historian with a fine ear for the nuances of language and, conversely, as an interpreter of literature willing to investigate the formalisation of experience into epic diction. This is an increasingly rare trait among Homeric scholars, but yields excellent results: Di Benedetto's discussions of piracy, colonisation, travel and hospitality are illuminating, as is his reading of Homer through Thucydides. I was slightly less persuaded by his claims about Sparta, partly because they presuppose a specific date and context of composition for the Odyssey (pp. 75-6).

A third, very obvious source of strength is Di Benedetto's dexterity in reading the Odyssey through its subsequent reception. Virgil, Dante, Vico, Macchiavelli, Leopardi and Foscolo all contribute to his reading. They do not simply feature in order to shed light on Homer, however: Di Benedetto offers a balanced and respectful treatment of these authors in their own right. In the case of Dante and Leopardi, in particular, he includes two full essays in the introduction, which might have featured as free-standing articles on Italian literature. Ulysses's famous terzina in the Divine Comedy (Inferno 26.118-20: 'Considerate la vostra semenza: / fatti non foste per viver come bruti / ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza') is read primarily through Boethius, though Di Benedetto goes on to show how Dante, by engaging closely with Virgil, actually captures some details of the Odyssey without ever having read it. Di Benedetto never uses later literature simply in order to shed light on the ancient text; he keeps his sense of proportion and respect for the multiform influences on later literature even in the commentary: see, e.g., p. 382-4 on Manzoni, or p. 530 on Leopardi and Tasso.

The commentary is well presented and edited: I found only few and rather trivial typos, though I regretted that on p. 127 Leopardi's 'A Silvia' was set out without line breaks, because that rather hampers appreciation of the text. The real drawback of this volume is the lack of a general index. Readers interested in particular Homeric words or passages will find their way with the help of concordances, lexica and other commentaries; but for those who would like to read Di Benedetto's comments on later authors there is no short-cut: they will have to read all 1253 pages. Still, that may be no bad thing. Di Benedetto offers an introduction and commentary of the highest quality and density of interest: there are insights to gain from virtually every page.

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