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Rewriting Homer, With Some Lurid Twists

Annalisa Quinn graduated from Georgetown University in May with degrees in classical languages and English.
/ Emily Schurr
Emily Schurr
Annalisa Quinn graduated from Georgetown University in May with degrees in classical languages and English.

Annalisa Quinn is the Books intern at NPR.

During my senior year of college, I plowed through all 27,803 lines of the Iliad and the Odyssey in Greek, with a lot of coffee and a reasonable amount of crying in library cubicles.

I loved Homer. But the spare, plot-driven lines of dactylic hexameter left certain essential questions unanswered — was Patroclus cute? Was Helen good in bed? I had read Adele Geras' young adult novel Troy when I was 12 or 13, years before I touched Homer, and it had given me the lasting impression that ancient Greece was a smoldering pit of lust filled with golden-haired virgins. Disappointingly, in Homer, heroes tend to be simply "good," "noble" and, occasionally, "large." This meant that even as I translated the Greek, my head would supply snatches of Troy.I'd read about Zeus and pictured him with eyes "like liquid gold," per Geras' rapturous descriptions.

The Iliad is probably a better poem for never describing the size of Helen's breasts or the exact shade of Paris' hair (a "spun gold," if you believe Geras). But there is something immensely satisfying about the unabashed sentimentalism and lush prose of Geras's Troy after the cryptic sparsity of the original, in which the city falls only by implication, when its hero, Hector, dies. We never see it go down, which is both masterful and frustrating. But Troy provides us with flames, destruction and trysts among the ruins.

The novel follows various Trojan women during the siege and destruction of the city and features several love triangles, an unwanted pregnancy, and sometimes shockingly bad prose ("There's a fire burning in my body, and only you can put it out"). Xanthe and Marpessa are a pair of sisters in love with the same boy, the unsubtly named Alastor (Greek for "vengeful spirit"), and together they survive the deaths of Hector, Achilles, Priam and, eventually, the destruction of the city.

Troy is unrelated to the 2004 film of the same name starring Brad Pitt and his glistening abdominals, but in some ways the two Troys are kindred spirits, both far more focused on Eros than Ares and not above a certain amount of melodrama. That being said, Troy-the-novel has considerably more taste than Troy-the-film, although I feel confident that Geras could have captured the sinister pre-battle gleam of Achilles' hairless chest in prose better than anyone, had she so chosen. Instead, everything in Troyhas a sort of vague erotic wash — never pornographic but always suggestive.

Homeric epic has spawned countless literary retellings, some magnificent (Vergil's Aeneid), some odd (Thomas Bridges' A Burlesque Translation of Homer), and some magnificently odd (Statius' Achilleid, a first century Latin mini-epic featuring Achilles in drag). But this soap opera of a novel will always be my favorite example of trashy Homeric fan fiction.

My Guilty Pleasureis produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.