Thursday 28 November 2019

Scylla & Charybdis

Solomon Islands commemorative silver coin of Strait of Scylla and Charybdis, 2018
Odysseus navigates through the Strait of Messina
Solomon Islands commemorative coin, 2018

Sometimes, Dear Reader, I feel as though an unseen hand gets in the way of any original thoughts that might otherwise circulate around our civilisation. I don't mean this in the dystopian 1984 sense, where the Thought Police are enforcing Newspeak; rather in the feeling sometimes that a Memo has been sent round that I only intuit by chance. Take the expression, "Between Scylla and Charybdis" - I think a Memo has gone round that it's the now the preferred idiom as the metaphor for a Dilemma.

Italian fresco by Alessandro Allori, "Charybdis and Scylla", 1575
Five men down but Odysseus soldiers on
Allesandro Allori, 1575

For a goodly while now, our as-yet unread copy of Homer's Odyssey has been sitting in one of the book piles about the place, so my rather unlettered self had not yet met within the sea monsters Scylla (the many-headed terror on one side of the narrow Strait of Messina) and Charybdis (the whirlpool-creating malevolence on the other) who gave Odysseus so much grief, nor had I chanced upon them as a variant on the expression "between a rock and a hard place" in my day-to-day life.
I know ... Where have I been?

William Bromley print after Henry Fuseli in Pope's translation of  "Odyssey", entitled "Odysseus between Scylla and Charybdis", 1806
Odysseus has a close shave with Charybdis' whirlpool
William Bromley print in Pope's translation, 1806

However, would three recent encounters in disparate references make you sit up and take notice? It did me, and although I've no idea who sends out these memos and how you receive them, I am tipping my hat in acknowledgement and dutifully entitling this post Scylla & Charybdis, even though I'm not caught between the devil & the deep blue sea about anything, really. So, job done.

Encounter 1:

Photo of book cover of "Unsheltered" by Barbara Kingsolver
Barbara got the memo in 2018

The best thing I can say about the much-anticipated Barbara Kingsolver book Unsheltered is that it features the hounds named Scylla & Charybdis that sent me on a quest to brush up on the literary reference. And to double check the pronunciation while I was at it. (Silla and Ka-ribdis, which of course you already knew). The glory that is The Poisonwood Bible is one of the absolute favourite modern books of both Mum and I, so she thought she'd made an excellent choice in Unsheltered as a birthday present this year, and I put it aside for the Winter reading with much anticipation. But, sadly, it was hard going. While the parallel world of the 19th Century residents of the house the story is set in was the better half for me, the contemporary issues many modern-day Americans are enduring are slathered on too thickly in the balancing and interwoven side and just makes for dismal reading.

I'm all for realism in literature but I like it dished up with sepia tones. Anthony Trollope is a fine Victorian example for me, writing mostly on the issues of the day in minute detail, but read through the lens of time his books are both an accurate window onto the past and still cracking good reads. Would Unsheltered stand up to the same sort of treatment? I can't imagine it, except as some grim litany of the ills of the 21st Century. Sorry, Barbara, but I'll have to reread The Poisonwood Bible in order to put you back on your pedestal and let's just forget your latest one all together.

Encounter 2:

Photo of book cover of "Jeeves and the Wedding Bells" by Sebastian Faulks
So did Sebastian

Now that I can recognise Scylla & Charybdis from one hundred yards as being the mythic monsters who so terrified the Grecian sandals off Odysseus and his sailors, I understand immediately that Bertie Wooster would have been alarmed when he encounters two varieties of Aunt flanking a doorway and has described them thus. But I was not reading this in a book penned by one Pelham Grenville Wodehouse's fair hand, for whom a solid grounding in Classics was a given, but Sebastian Faulks in his 2018 authorised homage to P.G.W., Jeeves and the Wedding Bells.

While I did indeed read a "Blandings" as the fast-acting antidote to the heavy wallowing in the slough of despond that B.K. dragged me through, as a fan of the Wodehouse œuvre I was a little sceptical when I saw this book innocently sitting in the informal book exchange of our condominio. But being curious,  I looked left and then right and saw no-one lurking nearby and so spirited it away to have a read. And I can say that I thought it not half bad! There are a couple of mostly plot quibbles, including the spoiler that Bertie and Jeeves both Pop the Question (not to each other!), when one of the most amusing aspects to Bertie is his close shaves with losing his perpetual bachelorhood. But in terms of catching the tone, S.F. made a good fist of it and while I didn't laugh out loud, I was amused.

Encounter 3:

Surrealist painting by Ithell Colquhoun, "Scylla, 1938"
Scylla, 1938
Ithell Colquhoun

Lo! Look what dropped into my email inbox last month and caught my eye. A short essay on the Surrealist artist Ithell Colquoun was adorned with her painting Scylla, 1938 which now lives in the Tate in London. I.C. seems unlikely to be the type to have taken direction from anyone, so her Classical reference is a mere coincidence to the topic at hand, in my opinion, and anyways predates my other random encounters by eighty years. But that I should read about it now surely suggests that she's become rather more fashionable, now that she's posthumously adhering to the Memo.

Image credits: Google - 1; Wikimedia Commons - 2, 3; Flying With Hands - 4, 5; Tate - 6


  1. You win a prize for the best first line of a blog ever. (And I'm a very discerning judge.)
    I haven't run into any Scylla-and-Charybdis references recently (but I wouldn't be surprised if there were, and if they were written as ScyllaXCharybdis, with this X thing connoting cooperation, co-branding, co-whatever-you-wish. An alternative is +, as in Scylla+Charybdis.).
    My first thought was that BoJo has made mediocre intellects everywhere pull out their Greek mythology books in order to give an expensively educated veneer to whatever drivel they may spout. It works for him.
    However, Barbara Kingsolver! I imagine that she started the book a while before 2018. I also adored The Poisonwood Bible. She did such a good job of depicting good intentions gone awry, cultural misunderstandings and the vagaries of drought and flood. It painted a picture that was very familiar to me after my couple of years in Africa.
    I do see quite a few references to S+C in a quick news search. Scylla and Charybdis seem to pose much higher stakes than the mundane rock and hard place, no? And there's always the snob factor.
    Off to the opera! Midweek Verdi!

  2. Scylla and Charybidis have been on my radar for a rather long time as I was a huge devotee of Greek myths and legends. I knew the names of all the gods and their legitimate and illegitimate offspring and would inform anyone that was interested (not many were, except my poor mum, but I rather think she was just being polite) from where the Aegean sea got its name, why the peacock has so many eyes on its splendid tail and how Theseus didn't get lost in the labyrinth, etc., etc. And that was before I turned 13. Come to think of it, I suddenly understand why my son obsesses with things he reads sometimes - except with him its airplanes not Greek myths. I suppose I've passed on the gene.

  3. TofF: Why, thank you for such high praise! I am blushing over my morning cup of tea. But the sudden concurrence of ideas across so many facets of our society is so obvious sometimes - and when the ScyllaXCharybdis (higher stakes and co-whatevering perfection!!) example popped onto my radar, I couldn't resist to jump on the bandwagon. Proving that there is indeed a limit to originality and expression! So thank goodness the hard sciences exist to save us from us all just recycling one another's ideas endlessly, and keeping Newspeak at bay for now ... Midweek Verdi! Hope it was fabulous!

    Loree: What a fantastic body of knowledge to have been devoted to at such a young age! You could probably rattle of Olympic genealogies today without much effort. Aren't mums great! I'm sure you now know more about 'planes than you thought you needed to know.

  4. I wonder if Wodehouse would have considered Faulks's book a 'homage'?

  5. Interesting literary forays and my knowledge on Homer and Greek mythology is shamefully meager, I am quite at home at the Drones Club, Blandings Castle, daydream about the sublimely delish delicacies by Anatole and on this holiday weekend would certainly benefit from one of Jeeves' restoratives. I take great umbrage when the Classics so near and dear are "reworked". Like Bertie & Jeeves mileau, 221b Baker Street is sacred ground and there is a big push to now make Sherlock Holmes gay since he had no known interest in women with the possible exception of "that woman" Irene Adler who nearly Scandalized Bohemia with a Germanic Prince who was careless with his verbs.
    Every now and then it can be instructive to see a Maestro strike a discordant note. I listened to the 2 most recent le Carre' novels: 'A Legacy of Spies' superbly narrated by Tom Hiddleston and the just out "Agent Running in the Field" narrated by the 88 year old Master himself who has lost nothing on his fastball and his audio narration while pitch perfect for his "Pigeon Tunnel" memoir magnified his 2 main characters written/spoken slightly off key. Setting the time in the present with the protagonist a 47 year old (with a 19yo daughter) and the other main character a 25yo with Trump featuring prominently as a Bond Villain. Like Wodehouse who was oblivious as he helped Germans, holding him under genteel house arrest, with WW2 propaganda; le Carre' apparently awakened one recent day as a Woke Virtue Signaler. Even with that, I still marvel at how well le Carre' writes with characters he understands.

  6. Cro: Good question. Although P.G.W. did seem an amiable sort of fellow and his extensive output of work might suggest a "more stories the better" attitude to someone writing a tribute-piece, you just don't know. In spite of the breeziness of his writing, a very large amount of care did go into each work, and out of curiosity I read a couple of reviews holding strong criticisms about some give-away no-no's, which he'd presumably not sanction. But I guess that so long as the "homage" sticks to being a one-off, he may look upon these faux pas benignly.

    GSL: How is it that I am unsurprised you could be found to be quite at home in any of the P.G.W. Gentlemen's boltholes? But this is news to me that Sherlock Holmes is in the running for a moderne Sex Life! There must be pressure from the tiresome, vogueish insistence on bedroom antics as a substitute for plot in order to bring in the, ahem, skittish and distractible younger market. Asexuality must be the new literary turnoff ... I've not read a le Carré in an age and I'm not sure if I'd find contemporary scenarios as compelling as the Cold War classics. He may have tired of writing on that era gone but I would consider it a shame if he feels he has to stay "relevant" to keep an audience (another tiresome concept). Today's stranger-than-fiction truths are well and truly covered by the rolling news and saturating Interwebs, hence my (not hard and fast reading rule) of preferring to settle in comfortably with times of yore.

  7. YOU have completely LOST ME HERE!

  8. Contessa: Oops, in my effort to shape the paragraphs to fit tidily by pruning words here and there, I seem to have lost some Key Words in the process and made the result rather abstruse! Not what was intended - although the danger of leaving my original thoughts in their natural state is that my going On & On would lead you, Dear Reader, to want to attack it with shears! I do try to prevent you from having to see those original paragraphs that do tend to spill all over the place like a neighbour's untrimmed hedge. Baci! xx

  9. My dear Pippy, I occasionally reference my best friend "The Good Doctor" on my blog who is exactly like Sherlock Holmes only rather than Consulting Detective his Life's Work has been to toil in the unprestigous and underpaid field of medicine for War Veterans which in the USA is under the famously incompetent Veterans Administration traditionally a refuge for mediocrities and much worse. I'm often asked if he is gay since the many beautiful women falling for him are always disappointed by his gallant disinterest. His only passion is improving medical care for the combat veterans that served our country so honorably. After many early setbacks engineered by those corrupt mediocrities that feared exposure, he has made astonishing improvements that are finally recognized. I pleaded with him to allow me to advocate for a sub-Cabinet position (i.e Chief Operating Officer) in either the Veterans Administration or HHS ( Dept of Health & Human Services) in the incoming Trump Administration a few years back but he had to oversee his mother's late stage medical issues.
    For his service on behalf of these Veterans and to me personally, I intend on making his heroic exploits known to a large audience.

  10. likely already knew that Sherlock Holmes was based on Arthur Conan Doyle's medical school professor at the Univ of Edinburgh: Dr Joseph Bell. My Good Doctor has just as many amusing eccentricities as either Holmes or Bell but no Turkish tobacco in Persian Slippers but many 3-pipe problems to sort out.

  11. GSL: The Good Doctor has a Good Friend in you, no doubt at all. Dedication without expecting laudation is a pretty rare phenomenon in the modern world, but I guess if you're going to encounter such a being they're more likely to be found in the medical sphere. And iff you're going to do that job properly, there are some things that really have to give - gallant disinterest as a consequence I get - but at least he makes room for family and friends! I shall look out for him and his amusing eccentricities around your pages now that I know ... As may be expected by a country of our size with its correspondingly small Services, Veterans Affairs is an area I'm quite unfamiliar with so I don't know if our much tinier population of modern-day servicemen is in good hands in this country but I'd like to think that they are.

  12. Ah, yet another person who loves the Poisonwood Bible (or two, if I count your mum). I tried it once and couldn't get along with it, but have always wondered if I just wasn't at the right stage of life or something, so I have intended to have another go. Perhaps your praise has been the grain of sand that tips the scales in favour of trying again.

  13. Jenny Woolf: Hello! And welcome to these pages. You are so right that appreciation of a book has to coincide with more factors than just the reading - the stars really do have to be in alignment - and sometimes even the rereading of a once-beloved book can be surprisingly disappointing. I hope you find a nugget of delight in the PB next time, just as I hope it will still deserve my acclaim when I sit down with it again!


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