Rash talk of worlds long vanished

The Great Books from the Iliad and the Odyssey to Goethe's Faust

December 14, 2007

One picks up this portly volume a little gingerly. Its author was a zealous ideologue at the court of the Baroness and a prominent advocate of Kenneth Baker's national curriculum, which did so much to destroy the art of teaching over whose ruins this book speaks a mournful threnody. It is, moreover, dedicated (not without ostentation) to the former chief inspector of schools and popular English teacher, Chris Woodhead, whose diminutive polemic Class War: The State of British Education bears its own peculiar witness to the end of civilisation as we know it.

But nobody could withhold admiration from O'Hear's terrific ambition. He sets out to retell the mighty tales of the great classics from Homer to Virgil to Dante to Chaucer to Shakespeare to Cervantes to Milton to Goethe, and thereby do his bit to repair the gaping hiatus that has opened in the tapestry of our cultural continuity. His jagged tear is as wide as the Reformation's, and in its dark spaces there wallow and slaver all kinds of short-lived narrative monsters.

For such a task you need courage, effrontery also, but above all you need the spellbinding powers of Scheherazade, a Pentecostal gift of tongues, the judgment of Dr Johnson. It is hardly surprising that O'Hear can't quite come up to scratch.

He tries earnestly. But he is overcome by the sheer multitudinousness of his great originals. His pages are just too full of the throngs that people the walls of Troy, the circles of Hell, the road to Canterbury. Wherever his imaginary audience really sits (and it's hard to fix an answer to this crucial question), they couldn't sort out such a colossal jumble, especially when O'Hear gives readers no guide to the radical strangeness of the beliefs of these vanished but still living worlds.

What can a teacher of literature do but show the children why and how much he or she loves the books and so urgently wants the class to love them likewise? But to do so, that same teacher must be able to speak in poetry. O'Hear rarely brings this off. He has so much to do, he loses his eye for bathos ("Euthyphro storms off in a huff"), his ear for a chunking sentence ("ten devils ... farting, quarrelling, egging each other on", "there is no disguising, and Virgil doesn't disguise"), his sense of propriety ("Ophelia is a sweet girl"), and his guard against cliche ("the eternal feminine which draws us on").

These faults begin to assume looming proportions when, as he must, he punctuates his own prose with translations. Poetry is not always what is lost in translation, but the translator must not only be a poet but in this case also a pedagogue. To use Pope's Homer (not Logue's) and Dryden's Virgil (not Charles Sisson's) in a guide to great books is to darken counsel and affront modernity. The heroic couplet is almost as unintelligible in our corner of history as the original tongues. As someone must have said to him in the afterthought to one chapter, why not use Ted Hughes's wonderful versions of Ovid instead of O'Hear's unknown Elizabethan? But he doesn't do so.

This lapse of judgment is compounded when, instead of turning to Robert Lowell's translations of Racine, O'Hear prefers his own, about which, I fear, the best is silence.

In the end, it is a mystery to know for whom the thing is intended: 465 pages, £20, some beautiful reproductions, and an unevenly potted version of 30-odd giant works of European literature, not one of them a novel, the victorious form of the past two centuries. One should, in a puzzled way, salute the endeavour but turn down one's thumb on the result. It is rash and ill-advised. Too sudden, also.

Fred Inglis is emeritus professor of cultural studies, Sheffield University.

The Great Books from the Iliad and the Odyssey to Goethe's Faust: A Journey through 2,500 Years of the West's Classic Literature

Author - Anthony O'Hear
Publisher - Icon Books
Pages - 465
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 9781840468298

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