Harold Bloom, author of "Shadow of a Great Rock". (Yale University Press )
When Hera, wife of Zeus, lays into Artemis, the sister of Apollo, in Stephen Mitchell's new translation of the "Iliad," it sounds more likeMTV's"Jersey Shore"than Mt. Olympus. "How dare you oppose me, you sniveling little …" Hera roars.
You can fill in that blank, can't you?
Mitchell's updating has resulted in a livelier, more contemporary feel for this epic of world literature — something Mitchell has done before in popularizing other classics including the Book of Job, Tao Te Ching and Gilgamesh. "I have tried to sound natural, to write in a language that felt genuine to me," he explains in a prefatory note in this book. "My intention throughout has been to recreate the ancient epic as a contemporary poem in the parallel universe of the English language."
Not only does the poem have a more contemporary feel, this version is about 1,000 lines shorter. Mitchell has cut away lines believed to have been inserted by later hands, and he's guided in this revision by the research of Homer scholar M.L. West. In one case, he removes an entire section of the story — all of Book 10, in which the Greeks stage a night raid on Trojan forces — because, he says, that section "has been recognized as an interpolation since ancient times, and by modern scholars almost unanimously."
The result is a faster-moving story, and if these changes upset fans of classic tales of ancient war — whether we're talking about the "Iliad" or Frank Miller's "300" — there's just one thing to tell them: Relax. Mitchell's certainly shouldn't replace another translation, but you can certainly make room for this one on the shelf as an intriguing variation on a familiar story. For all the revising and updating, there's still much poignancy here, as when Andromache mourns over the corpse of her husband, the Trojan warrior Hector:
I, more than all the rest, will be left with unending
misery, that you didn't die in your bed
reaching your arms out to me or in your last moments
speaking some word full of meaning, which I can remember
both day and night in my heart as I weep for you always.
If you've read Harold Bloom, you may know what to expect in "The Shadow of a Great Rock." One of our greatest living literary critics, Bloom is an expansive tour guide, frequently taking his readers on sudden turns and rising to unexpected heights.
In this study of the King James version of the Bible, which was produced during that 17th century monarch's reign, Bloom shifts gears frequently, leading to surprising comparisons. At one moment, he alludes to Shakespeare, and at the next he's musing about Cormac McCarthy's novel "Blood Meridian," which he thinks "may be a last stand of the KJB's literary influence." Then Bloom shifts focus again, telling us he distrusts Yahweh as depicted in the Old Testament: "All too often he is bad news."
This style is nothing new in Bloom's work. He's a subversive writer — it was true in his early career (his breakthrough early 1970s study "The Anxiety of Influence" challenged traditional notions of literary genius), and it's also true in this exhilarating, provocative new book. Bloom treats biblical texts not as the infallible words of a deity but as the works of very human hands. He finds it hard, for instance, to appreciate the Psalms' joyous praise of the creator in "a world after Hitler and the Holocaust." Elsewhere he writes that the Gospel of Mark is "weird" and that its author "reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe, a bad stylist who yet fascinates."
Is "The Shadow of a Great Rock" just a collection of very learned one-liners? Hardly. Bloom does far more, enriching his remarks with lively associations and frequent references to his beloved Shakespeare (did you know that Hamlet's divided personality has much in common with King David's?). Bloom has reportedly been ill in recent years, but that seems hard to believe next to the energy and vitality exhibited in "Great Rock." When he praises the English translators of John's Gospel, he calls their interpretation "dazzling in its audacity." The same, of course, can be said of this book.