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!! This is BookElf! AR has very kindly allowed me in on her Canongate Challenge, as Salley Vickers is one of my favourite writers, so I’m barging in here and reviewing her interpretation of the Oedipus myth.
Background to the Myth – Oedipus
Laius, King of Thebes, visits the oracle at Delphi who tells him that any son born to him shall kill him. When his wife Jocasta bears him a son, he pins his ankle together so he cannot crawl and they abandon him on a mountain side. However, the servant sent to leave the baby instead gives him to a shepherd to look after. Eventually the baby is adopted by the King and Queen of Corinth, who have no children of their own, and is named Oedipus. When he is grown, Oedipus hears rumours that he adopted and goes to ask the oracle, who tells his he is destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus flees Corinth and the people he presumes are his real parents, and travels to Thebes. On the way he meets Laius, with whom he argues and kills in self defence, not knowing this is his natural father.
When he arrives in Thebes Oedipus defeats the Sphinx, a beast part woman, part lion, who asks all travellers the riddle ‘what travels on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night’, eating anyone who gets it wrong. Oedipus solves the riddle, and the Sphinx throws herself over a cliff. The grateful people of Thebes, who have no idea who Oedipus is, appoint him their king, and marry him to the widowed Jocasta. Many years later, when Jocasta and Oedipus have had many children and a happy life together, a plague comes to Thebes. Creon, Jocasta’s brother, is sent to the oracle, who says that Laius’ killer must be banished before the pestilence can leave the people. The blind prophet Tiresias is sent for, and reluctantly reveals that Oedipus is the killer. Then a messenger appears to tell of the death of the King of Corinth. Oedipus is momentarily relieved that the prophecy he will kill his father has not come true, when the messenger reveals that Oedipus is adopted. Jocasta, realising that Oedipus is her son, hangs herself.
After consulting with the shepherd who was charged to abandon him as a baby, Oedipus realises he has killed his father and marries his mother. He blinds himself with a pin from Jocasta’s dress and spends the rest of his days wandering Greece, guided by his faithful daughter Antigone.
Now me with my classical background know Oedipus through the play Antigone, which I was forced to do at school (awful thing), but of course the name is more familiar to modern audiences as a complex, named by Freud for the ‘unnatural’ longings of a man for his mother and subsequent hatred of his father. Whether or not you think this is bollocks is up to you, but it makes a good story, and this is what Vickers has used; bringing the myth back to being just that. It is 1939 and Freud is lying on his death bed, suffering from the cancer of the mouth that has plagued him for nearly twenty years. He is visited by a strange shadowy figure, sometimes speaking Greek, sometimes English, who tells him, over the last months of his life, the story of Oedipus. This figure is revealed to be Tiresias, the prophet, who reveals his own life story alongside that of his master.
The language is stripped bear, and plods along, much like a Greek tragedy (can you tell how much I loved doing Greek at school?) and the myth that Tiresias tells isn’t so very different from the original; this isn’t a re-telling, just a telling. That, though,is what Vickers does so well; by reclaiming the myth as a story from Freud the usurper who is so successful in skimming the plot that the metaphor becomes more famous than myth.
I really really wish I hadn’t read the introduction to this novella that explains the history of Freud’s exile from Europe and his subsequent illness as this is the book’s main flaw; it utterly fails to show, not tell. By being a dialogue between Freud and Tiresias all subtlety in introducing Freud’s deathbed status is lost-what could have been a evoking tale of a man nearing death and learning from his mistakes becomes instead an almost homage to the myth and it’s history, with nothing really changed or brought forward into modern time. This again fits with the Greek, but isn’t very exciting to the reader. It also feels a little like Vickers is trying to show that the myth is ancient in origin and that should be respected, but it wasn’t at all a fun way of bringing new readers to old tales.
I was, to be honest, bitterly disappointed by this book. Vickers usually takes her inspiration from great pieces of art, the inside front covers of her earlier novels show their inspiration so I thought the idea of re-telling a myth would suit her. But this instance the idea is better than the execution and whilst I still love her writing, I wouldn’t be recommending this one.