Homer vs P. G. Wodehouse
I must be a glutton for punishment. I have suffered a series of emphatic defeats in a variety of literary debates (I lost when I was representing the Parthenon against the Alhambra, when I was standing up for the Romans versus the Greeks and when I was saying no thank-you to an imaginary invitation to dinner with Socrates). So why accept the invitation to represent a famous author of my choice in a balloon debate at the Ways with Words festival at Dartington?
Answer? Partly because Sam Leith, of the Telegraph which sponsors the festival, was wickedly persuasive. Partly because I’d never been to Dartington, which everyone says is tremendously beautiful (and well worth the five hour train journey each way – which indeed it was). Partly because hope springs eternal – and I assume that one day I’ll get lucky.
You know the score of a balloon debate. You have to imagine a group of people – in this case writers – in a sinking hot air balloon. Each contestant argues for why his or her chosen author should be survive the disaster, when the others don’t. The audience weighs the arguments up and votes who to chuck out and who to keep in.
Fellow contestants were Andrew Davies (famous TV and movie adaptor of famous novels) who chose Jane Austen; the novelist Philip Hensher representing P. G. Wodehouse; and Carmen Callil, founder of Virago, with Voltaire. I opted for Homer (the Odyssey Homer, rather than the Iliad Homer). The whole thing was chaired by Alexander Waugh.
Things were looking good for Homer after the first presentations, at which we were allowed eight minutes to make the case for the survival of our chosen author.
Andrew Davies enthused well enough about Austen, but I suspect had banked on a bigger ‘natural’ following than she in fact had. Philip was very funny indeed about Wodehouse, throwing around some Wodehouse metaphors, which seemed brilliantly funny at the time, but which I confess I cant now remember. Carmen, I think, was pretty feisty about Voltaire, but I remember even less of that as I was putting the finishing touches to my spiel while she talked.
I played the Odyssey as the single work of literature that underlies almost every other work of literature you know. It’s not just ‘boy gets girl’, but – much better – ‘boy comes back home to girl’. And, as I argued, it frames every homecoming we ever make ever. I was also armed with a few facts culled from Edith Hall’s excellent book on the reception of the Odyssey that I have just read. The Penguin translation by E. V. Rieu, for example, was the best selling paperback ever until it was overtaken by Lady Chatterley’s Lover. (I suspect that Homer might now be in the lead again with yearly sales)
I also took a quick look at the audience (largely female) and decided to take the Samuel Butler line and suggest the Odyssey was composed by a woman . . . making it the greatest piece of female fiction ever.
The question and answer session came and went. Andrew had been asked why, if Austen was so good, he had to add so many scenes to his adaptations. Carmen had thrown some well deserved mud at Wodehouse’s politically suspicious affection for Hitler (plus some dartk hints about goings on in the Hotel Bristol in the 1940s). I was challenged about Odysseus’ violence on his return home (a problematization of violence I said, not a celebration…and lived to fight another day).
At this point the first vote threw Austen and Wodehouse (some of the Hitler mud stuck) out of the balloon and Carmen and I got a couple of final minutes for our authors. By this time I’d shot most of my bolts, so reiterated the ‘vote for Homer the feminist’ line (slightly undermined by Alexander from the chair who warned the audience against voting under false pretences). Carmen went a brilliant last, oozing sincerity, speaking about Voltaire’s fearless honesty and modernity, and quoting a nice political passage that could have been written yesterday. Cheers all round – and mutterings of ‘Listen to that Mr Brown’
She was the deserving victor. Though I thought, as we drunk the liquid reward afterwards, how interesting it was that the least read author had scored the most votes – while the most read (Jane Austen, I think) had scored the least.
Is there a moral here? The less we know about a candidate, the easier it is to vote for them.