The OF Blog: A nagging question keeps hounding me

Monday, May 19, 2008

A nagging question keeps hounding me

Since I'm a bit too weary from work to write a sustained post (much less the review I wanted to do) tonight, just a quick little bit about a book I'll be reviewing elsewhere in the next few weeks:

When reviewing a book that depends upon a much more famous work, how much weight ought be placed on the poetic timbre of the original and the more low-key, "earthy' qualities of the latter book? It's an interesting and sometimes frustrating question that keeps popping up as I continue to read bits and pieces of Jo Graham's Black Ships. I love Vergil's Aeneid; I had to translate Book I and parts of Books IV and VI for my intermediate Latin class at UTK 14 years ago. I had a professor that made that poem feel as though it were a paean and not just words written to kiss the boss's ass. To this day, I still on occasion will re-read passages from it in the original Latin because of its inherent beauty.

But Graham's book, like Ursula Le Guin's Lavinia (both of which were released a month or so ago in the US; I shall review both together late next month) depends heavily upon familiarity with Vergil's magnum opus. I'm only about 150 pages into Graham's novel (already read Le Guin's last month) and it's the old issue of prosery or "language" that is troubling me here. I want to finish the book before making any declarative statements, but I suspect part of the issue for me is how does the tenor of Graham's work mesh with that of Vergil's. Don't know if that is a road I want to travel though. Shall be interesting to see what a few weeks off and 250 more pages will do for my interpretation of it.


Elena said...

It seems to me there is some question of intent with the language chosen for a work that is based on/parallel to/an expansion of a prior work, beyond the general sense of what you want your book to sound like. The more obvious intents are either to keep tenor with the source text, or to diverge from it entirely and consiously. Floundering somewhere in between, by which I suppose I mean not making a clear choice and just sort of writing it like any other novel, seems lazy to me. Almost thumbing the nose at the artistic value of the original.

Not sure if that is the sort of thing you're speaking of...your comments were delightfully cryptic...but I at least would love to see you go down that road. Not necessarily in context of a review, though. It's probably a topic that could stand alone.

Lsrry said...

You're pretty close to nailing what it is that is troubling me here in regards to the question of how should a dependent work (or a modern retelling/expansion, perhaps) should be in relation to the primary work. Should Vergil's gods make appearances? One approach says "no," the other "yes, maybe, possibly." Shall be interesting to see if this second approach (Graham's) will lead to a satisfactory resolution.

But as for discussing this in context of a formal review, I might reference it in part, but as you note, it wouldn't stand too well alone.

Chris, The Book Swede said...

Interesting post. I've had this for a while and not started reading it yet. Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with the original text (though I've decided I'll start learning Latin soon), so I'll be interested to see what I make of the book not having any previous knowledge.

Looking forward to your review!


RobB said...

Hi Larry,

I'm going through a similar thought process as I type up my review of Peter David's Tigerheart, an admitted Peter Pan pastiche.

Then again, I have never read the original Barrie works and only know of the Peter Pan story from other associated works (the Disney stuff and the Hook film) and the story being part of the collected popular culture unconsciousness.

Nonetheless, it is a valid point to juggle around in your head, considering much of SpecFec does rely or mold itself on earlier stories.

Lsrry said...


I'll probably reference a few lines from Vergil's poem here and there, but so far, Graham's book doesn't do more than take a similar approach to this legenda that Jack Whyte's Camulod Chronicles did with the Arthurian tales.


If I read a book and it didn't cause me to pause at least a couple of times somewhere to think about how it was constructed, I think I'd start to worry! :P

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