No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, February 03, 2008

#16: Where Three Roads Meet -- Salley Vickers

It is clear to me now that he had forged his identity from the sound of his name: oida, to know, quite ignoring the obvious meaning oidi, which is to say swollen. An alpha for an iota makes for more than a jot of change. There's a world of difference between swollen and knowing, unless you intend to imply a swollen head, which was partly, I fear, the problem.

Another in the Canongate Myths series, Where Three Roads Meet examines the Oedipus myth by retelling it. The teller of the tale is Tiresias, the blind seer. He is recounting events as he recalls them to Doctor Sigmund Freud, dying slowly and agonisingly of cancer in Hampstead on the eve of the Second World War.

Tiresias, to whom Freud can speak -- in Greek, it seems to him -- without moving his mouth, is clearly visible to the man he has visited. He is an old, blind man, walking with a stick, lame: his identity isn't initially stated, but Freud seems to know him, and does not question his presence or the long strange journey he must have made from ancient Greece to Hampstead Heath.

I heard the author talk about this novel back in December, and was obscurely disappointed to find that Tiresias explains away one major aspect of his own story (that he lived seven years as a woman, possibly after striking a pair of fornicating serpents) rather glibly. Freud would surely have had a field day with that! But this is not Tiresias's story: it's a different angle on the story of Oedipus, 'the one person you could safely say didn't have the complex you dreamed up for him'. Tiresias suggests the involvement of Dionysus (Oedipus conceived after Jocasta made Laius drunk; news imparted by a drunken dinner guest ...) and concludes that Oedipus's flaw was not letting well enough alone.

There is some glorious writing in this short novel, in particular when Tiresias recalls the land of his youth:
Nothing on earth is more real to me than Delphi. In all weathers, in all lights, in all minds it is a place of peculiar power, of natural grace. Of astonishing brilliance and darkness. A fearsome yet remediate place, of measureless quiet and fathomless awe. Delphi's impress never leaves me: the deep-shadowed dells, the steep gorges which refract far-shooting Apollo's light and the ravines where his ravens nest and cry and a body might fall and perish and the bones never be found: the fierce springs which run ice-cold under the earth and emerge as fountains: the pale mornings, misty as narcissus under snow, for the snow can lie heavy on the heights well into spring. The remorseless summer noons, when the sun carves shadows stern as stone and marble and the only balm is the smell of wild thyme perfusing the still air; the indigo twilight, hymned by the high-voiced bats ...

I'm not a reader or speaker of Greek, ancient or modern, but some of Vickers' prose -- especially in that passage -- remind me of the rhythm, the images, the stacked adjectives of Homer-in-translation.

Vickers writes of Oedipus, and of Jocasta, sensitively and humanely: these are not just mythic emblems but real people, even when seen through centuries of hindsight by blind Tiresias. And her Freud, too, is a sympathetic character. An introduction provides the biographical context in clear and succinct prose, while the tale itself consists solely of the conversation between the two men. Vickers' interpretation, that Oedipus's fatal flaw was 'the need to know what he needed not to know' -- a flaw encoded in a misreading of his own name, as in the passage I quote at the beginning of this review -- seems convincing, emotionally as well as logically. A thoughtful and thought-provoking book.

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