The proposition is as simple as the first verse of Genesis, and marginally more believable: in the beginning, Homer invented literature. He did so - if, that is, he was a single person - dualistically, in two poems that look ahead to different literary futures. The Iliad is our primordial epic, celebrating heroic violence and the glory of combat. The Odyssey, which begins when the war in Troy is over and follows its wily, wayward protagonist on his journey home to Ithaca, begets the alternative genre of romance, a form not end-stopped by death like the epic but open to accident and adventure, free to go on exploring indefinitely. Writers ever since have added footnotes to Homer, whether cynically summarising the Trojan War as a lecherous farce, like Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida, or cramming Odysseus's decade-long tour of the Mediterranean into a single day in Dublin, as Joyce did in Ulysses.
Which of Homer's two narratives a writer chooses depends on the temper of the times. Romantic voyagers in the nineteenth century favoured The Odyssey. Goethe, visiting an aromatic garden in Sicily, said that for the first time the poem had become a "living truth" to him. As Robert Louis Stevenson crisscrossed the Pacific, he often remembered the idyllic stopovers of Odysseus on islands where seductive nymphs made him only too welcome. In Tennyson's ‘Ulysses' the hero vows to keep travelling forever, rejecting the anticlimactic banality of a landfall or a homecoming. Nikos Kazantzakis, in the superbly ambitious modern extension of The Odyssey that he began writing in 1924, uproots Odysseus from the domestic peace of Ithaca and sends him off to experience a world that lay beyond Homer's ken. He quits the uterine Mediterranean, tracks the Nile to its source, ventures further into Africa and continues southwards until he dies, in Antarctica. His journey is elasticised because, although his itinerary includes encounters with Christ and Buddha, his quest for revelation can only be completed in the afterlife.
By the time Kazantzakis completed his sequel to The Odyssey, in 1938, The Iliad had shown itself to be better suited to our imperilled, capsizing world. The twentieth century's wars were fought under the sign of Homer's epic. Rupert Brooke recited The Iliad on the troopship to Gallipoli, and ecstatically anticipated a death that would eternalise his name. Others questioned such suicidal valour. In the trenches, Wilfred Owen seemed to be wandering through the Homeric underworld, conversing with soldiers who were already dead. Simone Weil, as prophetic as Cassandra, foresaw the next global convulsion in an essay on The Iliad published in 1939: when the clanking horse trundles into the besieged city, Homer predicts an age of warfare conducted by lumbering machines, industrial monsters whose work would be the transformation of men into corpses.
Now David Malouf's meditation on one small episode from The Iliad in his novel Ransom gives the epic a renewed relevance. As Marlowe's Faustus conjures up Helen, whose abduction by Paris started the war, he marvels at the face that launched an armed fleet and "burned the topless towers of Ilium". Less than a decade ago we all saw a pair of topless towers on fire, and we remember them - as fantastical as the Trojan skyscrapers that were raised aloft, as Malouf recalls in Ransom, by the effortless sorcery of music - collapsing into ashen pits, tangled with spars of metal and studded with shards of bone. It is tempting to see Malouf's Troy, "a city of four square towers topped by untidy storks' nests", as the World Trade Center arrogantly multiplied. The twin tumuli in lower Manhattan lacked those rickety nests, but sprouted an equally untidy coiffure of communications masts.
Wolfgang Petersen's film Troy, made a couple of years after September 11, was the first re-examination of Homer in the light of that foul day. In Petersen's account, the Trojan War is the result of Agamemnon's imperial swaggering; the cuckoldry of Helen's husband, Menelaus, is a pretext, like the phoney vial of anthrax that Colin Powell showed off at the United Nations. Troy is shocked, awed and incinerated according to plan, but Petersen's Greeks win little worth boasting of. Even Homer declined to be their loyal apologist: he allowed the home team no monopoly of virtue, and compassionately honoured the enemy's casualties. Malouf, too, is sagely impartial. He tells his chosen segment of the story from the viewpoint of the doomed Trojan king Priam, while taking care to explain the motives of the belligerent Greeks. Achilles kills the Trojan prince Hector to avenge the killing of his lover, Patroclus. He then mutilates Hector's body by dragging it around the walls of the besieged city; the ransom in the novel's title is the hoard of treasure Priam presents to Achilles in the hope of buying back his son's mistreated corpse. Although Priam is the tragic hero, Malouf, in a deft play on words, vindicates or validates the grief of Achilles, who is "waiting for the rage to fill him that would be equal at last to the outrage he was committing". Behind every outrage, whether it's the degradation of a single body or the destruction of two populous towers, lies a rage that needs to be acted out. We do well to remember the grievances of those with homemade bombs in their backpacks.
Homer, like Shakespeare, will always be our contemporary, but is he also our compatriot? Peter Porter provisionally attached Australia to classical Greece in a poem about reading a copy of Hesiod's Works and Days - both a manual of husbandry and a primer of poetic craft - that he picked up at a village fete in England. The ancient book, translated by George Chapman, whose version of Homer introduced Keats to "realms of gold", made Porter realise that "Australians are Boeotians", a humdrum, hard-bitten rural people. The analogy is actually a colonialist insult: metropolitan Athens, scorning the provinces, regarded Boeotia as the homeland of stupidity, so Porter's phrase hints at the way that the British might once have hoity-toitily sniffed at Australians. Norman Lindsay may have wanted to see Australians as Greeks, happily licentious pagans, but it would be truer and timelier to say that we are Trojans, the levelled victims of a conquest that is cultural, not military. The casting of Petersen's film proves the point. Achilles is American, and Hector is Australian. On one side, Brad Pitt, with his febrile war dances, his psychotic tantrums and his fanatically sculpted buttocks, represents power at its most rabid and self-righteous; on the other, unequally matched, is the soft-voiced, doe-eyed Eric Bana, wistfully resigned to defeat. To imagine the two actors swapping roles is like concocting a scenario in which Canberra issues orders to Washington, DC, and John Howard, his battle chariot in overdrive, utters war whoops while trampling George W Bush.
Ransom is too subtle to belabour such correspondences. Earlier narratives by Malouf stretch between southern and northern hemispheres, straining to connect polar opposites. Fly Away Peter and The Great World deal with the disorientation of Australians compelled to fight in a European war; one of the stories in Antipodes describes a journey in the opposite direction, as a soprano triumphantly subjugates Europe before returning to retire in the unoperatic Australian suburbs. The new novel has no need to make defensive claims about Australia's membership of the great, distant world, and my pricked ears could find only one possible allusion to national origins. Surveying his camp, Achilles feels a sense of fraternity with the soldiers he leads, farmers who speak, as he does, a harsh dialect "full of insults that are also backhanded terms of affection". Has Brad Pitt been dubbed with the matily mocking native accent of Eric Bana?
If so, the local joke is incidental. Ransom is a philosophical meditation on Homer's fatalistic universe, not a political allegory. Priam's decision to humble himself by appealing to Achilles interests Malouf as a moral novelty, a thought that no man has ever previously allowed himself to think. In Petersen's film, when Peter O'Toole, as Priam, slips into Brad Pitt's tent to make his lachrymose, quavery-toned plea, the transaction is a simpler matter. Enemies, O'Toole says, must have "respect" for each other: this is a buzzword of our politically correct age, noisily spelt out by the stomping anthem popularised by Aretha Franklin. Pitt does some scowling to semaphore indecision, and then automatically relents. Malouf's reading of the case is more pondered and profound. He sees Priam's initiative - which alarms his wife, Hecuba, and scandalises his courtiers - as a gratuitous action, a thrillingly reckless attempt to locate "a kind of opening" in the closed and foredoomed society of the epic. That opening is an aperture that leads from the ancient world to the modern, from an earth on which human beings live and die at the whim of ill-tempered Olympian deities to our freer but chancier moral territory, where everything is contingent and fates are unpredictably accidental.
Priam objects in principle to the notion that our stories are written in advance by the gods. He might be objecting on Malouf's behalf to the predestining power of myth, which makes our lives mere recapitulations of some previous event and turns every mother-dominated son into Oedipus or every father-fixated daughter into Electra. Malouf himself breaks that transfixing spell when he reinterprets the Homeric story; in the same way, he made Ovid, whom he calls "the poet of ‘the changes'", undergo a wrenching moral metamorphosis in An Imaginary Life. Hecuba warns Priam against the metaphysical offence involved in this revisionism: "Imagine what it would lead to, what would be permitted. The randomness, the violence. Imagine the panic it would spread." She is prematurely paraphrasing Dostoevsky, who pointed out in TheBrothers Karamazov that if God does not exist - or if, as in Ransom, the gods are denied judicial rights - then everything is permitted. Walter Benjamin seconded this admonition in an essay that obliquely reflects on the appropriation of Greek culture by the Nazis, who had their own spurious reasons for adopting its worship of human autonomy and of the trained, athletic, combat-ready body. Benjamin noticed a difference that was elided by Leni Riefenstahl's film of the 1936 Berlin Olympiad. In Homer's poems, he argued, man remained under the control of the gods, who disciplined human beings by playing capricious tricks on them; by the 1930s, man had become his own god, refusing to recognise any higher power. Glancing ahead, that implies a way of understanding September 11. When the towers fell, as Jean Baudrillard portentously announced, God executed himself in public.
Malouf's Priam ignores these auguries. The risk he takes pays off, and it does so because the vacuum of relativity and contagious terror predicted by Hecuba and Ivan Karamazov turns out to be filled with a new moral authority, which grounds men, binds them to one another and even restrains the homicidal fury of Achilles. This covenant is human nature, and the sense of our interchangeability that comes with it. Petersen's Achilles, in the film's most touching moment, sobs over the corpse of Hector and addresses him as "my brother", but only because they will soon be united in death. Malouf's Achilles is disarmed for a different reason. He mistakes the frail Priam for his own father, Peleus, and falls to his knees weeping. "Overcome with tenderness", he cannot go on behaving inhumanely.
Before long the implacable myth resumes its dictation: after the brief armistice for Hector's funeral games, we are given a visionary preview of an end that even Malouf cannot alter - the death of Achilles; the arrival of his son, Neoptolemus, to avenge him; the messy slaughter of Priam; the long-delayed toppling of the four topless towers. But the opening Malouf makes in the story suffices to question the values of the epic, which enabled poets to glorify violence by extolling "arms and the man", and to propose an alternative function for literature. Dispensing with the privileges of royalty and riding to the Greek camp in a rude cart drawn by mules, Priam refuses to be the self-deifying man condemned by Walter Benjamin. In his plea to Achilles, he goes on to discredit Homer's supercilious gods, who belittle mankind when they look down from above. Immortals, he tells Achilles, cannot understand what humans feel. Men alone know they are certain to die, and that knowledge should predispose them to sympathise with one another, to make common cause in their grief. Priam has devised a new rationale for tragedy, which is no longer - as the Greeks thought - a lament for the demise of a great man; instead, it commiserates with the sorrows of all men. He has also guessed at the empathetic purpose of literature, which allows us to inhabit the minds and bodies of people unlike ourselves, experiencing their joys and sharing their woes. As a youth, Priam himself was ransomed from slavery. Though he escaped the drudgery and misery of bondage, he can imagine how it would feel. "That life, too, I have lived," he says. Novelists specialise in such self-multiplication, which is their humanising gift to us all.
In An Imaginary Life Malouf's Ovid surmises that man, endlessly metamorphosing, will one day turn into god. This is not the outcome envisaged in Ransom, although the novel does make a startling leap ahead from classical humanism to Christian miracle when Hector's butchered body is given back to Priam with all its wounds inexplicably healed, pristine in a linen shroud - a glimpse of the forthcoming Resurrection, or simply the novelist's exercise of his rights as a magic realist? The ransom Priam lays before Achilles is also a kind of redemption, the cancelling of a debt; although Malouf has no patience with Homer's cynical gods, he might approve of a God who, like a novelist, loves the world. Even so, Ransom is not a born-again book (or at least I hope not). Its religion is literature, and the only immortality it accredits is that of stories like Homer's, which are revived whenever they are retold.
Malouf may, however, be acknowledging the literary consequences of Christianity, which put an end to the classical cult of heroism, equalised all men, and insisted on the beauty of the humble, the ordinary, the scruffily real. Priam's conversion is completed with the help of the hired carter who drives him to the encounter with Achilles: as in Shakespeare, a king absorbs the wisdom of a fool, or of a lowly servant. When they pause to rest, eat and cool their feet in a stream, the carter tells Priam that they're both "children of nature ... Of the earth, as well as of the gods". A gravedigger reveals the same truth to Hamlet - and in doing so dispenses him from having to mourn for Priam, whose killing is acted out in the speech the prince earlier asks the player to recite. Now Hamlet perceives that "the fall of a sparrow" matters as much or as little as that of a king. Ransom extends this democratic reverence for all live, dying things to the stables. Achilles has a pair of prize horses, noble beasts whose "satiny hide" and "almost transparent skin" is described with lyrical finesse. But Malouf is even fonder of the carter's two mules, one of which is a sleek, flirtatious creature aptly named Beauty, and he chooses to end his retelling of the story with her.
During the interlude at the stream, fish tickle Priam's toes, midges swarm on his sweat-puddled skin, cicadas shrill and falling leaves spiral through the air. Priam half-hears the carter prattling and reflects that ours is "a prattling world", a buzzing sensorium of diffuse, distracting incidents. It is a revolutionary perception, comparable to Virginia Woolf's account of experience as a blitz of atoms in her essay ‘Modern Fiction'. Epics want to tell the greatest story of all: the fall of Troy, the fall of man. But in Malouf's Troy, as in any modern city, neighbours go to war "over the most trivial affronts". Novels are content with trivia, and know how to find meaning in circumstantial minutiae or stray reminiscences. Hecuba recalls that the infant Troilus was slow to walk, and reminds Priam that she was in labour with Hector for 18 hours. An epic would discount these details, which predate the heroic adulthood of her sons; for a novelist, such anecdotal prattle tells the most confidential and emotionally endearing tales.
Priam bravely chooses to do "something impossible. Something new", and emphasises that his overture to the enemy is "novel, unthinkable". There is a literary manifesto in Malouf's varying of the repeated adjective. In the eighteenth century the novel counted as a new form because it had the courage to secede from classical rules. More was at stake than technical innovation: the novel brought about a moral renovation when it looked away from the rampages of ruffians like Achilles and instead investigated the quiet lives of those who, like Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch, rest in "unvisited tombs". The Iliad concludes with Hector's grandiose funeral ceremonies, which last for ten days. But near the end of Ransom, Achilles is taken aback to find himself thinking "unheroic thoughts" about the sanitary preparations for those rites, taken care of by laundresses and washerwomen who compel him to leave before they go to work on Hector's body. Only a novel can penetrate this private, secret world, from which a hero who performs his brutish deeds of valour in the public arena is debarred.
Although Homer invented literature, that was only a beginning. He left later writers with the obligation to reinvent it, adjusting it to new realities. In Ransom, the all-seeing and modestly all-knowing Malouf has done exactly that.
Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.
The proposition is as simple as the first verse of Genesis, and marginally more believable: in the beginning, Homer invented literature. He did so - if, that is, he was a single person - dualistically, in two poems that look ahead to different literary futures. The Iliad is our primordial epic, celebrating heroic violence and the glory of combat. The Odyssey, which begins when the war in Troy is over and follows its wily, wayward protagonist on his journey home to Ithaca, begets the alternative genre of romance, a form not end-stopped by death like the epic but open to accident and adventure, free to go on exploring indefinitely. Writers ever since have added footnotes to Homer, whether cynically summarising the Trojan War as a lecherous farce, like Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida, or cramming Odysseus's decade-long tour of the Mediterranean into a...